Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Art of the Baltic States
From 21 November 2020 to 4 May 2021, the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga (Jaņa Rozentāla laukums 1) will present the exhibition “Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Art of the Baltic States” – an ambitious joint project marking the centenary of all three Baltic States wich has already enjoyed a very successful showing at the prestigious Musée d’Orsay in Paris.


The Baltic States – Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia – became independent republics shortly after the end of the First World War. Marking the centenary of these countries, the Wild Souls exhibition presents Symbolism in Baltic art, from the 1890s to the 1930s. The project aim and main idea is to demonstrate the high professional level of the art that emerged in the Baltic States and to discover its distinctive characteristics within the general European context of art. Symbolism, born in France in the second half of the 19th century, affected all of European culture, including the Baltic art scene.


European Symbolism and the emancipation of consciousness that it manifests are closely linked in the Baltic States with the attainment of their freedom. The exhibition examines the play of influence and resistance through which artists developed a language of expression consistent with their perception of the world. Drawing on folk culture, folklore and local fairy tales, as well as unique natural scenery, truly original works of art were created. The thematic range of this movement, encompassing the world of mythology, folklore, fantasy, dreams and visions, along with decadent moods, comes across clearly in the work of outstanding Latvian artists Janis Rozentāls, Vilhelms Purvītis, Johann Walter, Rihards Zariņš, Gustavs Šķilters, Teodors Zaļkalns, Pēteris Krastiņš, Rūdolfs Pērle, Teodors Ūders, Aleksandrs Romans, and Sigismunds Vidbergs. Lithuania is represented by such vivid Symbolist classics as Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, Ferdinandas Ruščicas (Ferdynand Ruszczyc), Petras Kalpokas, Stanisław Jarocki, and Estonia by Kristjan Raud, Oskar Kallis, Konrad Vilhelm Mägi and others.


General curator and concept author of the exhibition Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Art of the Baltic States is Rodolphe Rapetti (France) – a well-known researcher of European Symbolism with a long-standing interest in Baltic art. The exhibition offers a broad panorama of motifs and individual styles, presenting more than 160 works from the Latvian National Museum of Art (LNMA, Riga), the Art Museum of Estonia (Tallinn), Tartu Art Museum (Tartu), the Lithuanian National Museum of Art (Vilnius), the M. K. Čiurlionis National Museum of Art (Kaunas) as well as private collections. In Riga, as in Paris, we have chosen as the project’s visual identity the painting Peasant Girl (ca. 1904) by the outstanding Latvian classic Johann Walter (1869–1932). The sublime image of the girl symbolizes the rise of national consciousness and creative spirit that occurred a hundred years ago in the three independent states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.


In 2018, when the exhibition was being shown in Paris, the team of museum specialists from the Baltic concluded that the project must also be shown at home and agreed that it would continue in the three national capitals. After the Musée d’Orsay, the exhibition was shown with great success at Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn (11.10.2018–03.02.2019). The next venue was the National Art Gallery of the Lithuanian National Museum of Art in Vilnius (25.07.–11.10.2020). And the route concludes at the Latvian National Museum of Art in Riga (21.11.2020–21.02.2021). The museums in each of the neighbouring countries have offered their own perspective and have enhanced it with their own research capacity.


The general curator, Rodolphe Rapetti, currently Director of the National Domains and Museums of Compiègne and Blérancourt, continues his involvement in the project from a distance, staying abreast of the exhibition’s development and approving changes as necessary. Each museum has created a locally adapted exhibition design and visual image of the Baltic Symbolism saga, proceeding from the core concept of the Paris exhibition, and so the Latvian National Museum of Art is adding its own “Riga accent” to the Musée d’Orsay version. The essence will be retained, supplementing it with a specific atmosphere and approach. A re-interpretation of the exhibition is being created for the Riga showing, designed by Ineta Sipunova in co-operation with Flavio Bonuccelli, project consultant and scenographer of the Baltic Symbolism exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay.


The publishers Neputns are preparing a catalogue in Latvian and English, and a major programme of events is planned in parallel with the exhibition, one of the most significant being an international academic conference Symbolism in Europe and the Identity of the Baltic States. Speakers from France and the Baltic States are invited, people who have been involved in creating the exhibition concept and the catalogue, and who took part in the professional discussion during the preparation of the project’s scientific basis. The art history discourse, in the form of lectures, events and meetings, will be enhanced by a wider context, incorporating music, literature, cultural expressions, and a social perspective.


“As we bring the presentation of the project to a conclusion back here in Riga, we may consider that this, too, is a privileged opportunity, because our united team has succeeded in drawing attention to the Baltic States not only at the cultural but also at the political and diplomatic level, attracting the interest of visitors to the exhibition in Paris, Tallinn, Vilnius and Riga. We have helped France and Europe discover the Baltic, at the same time demonstrating to ourselves a capacity for jointly realising such ambitious ideas. Laurence des Cars has emphasised repeatedly that Europe is united not only politically but also in the creation of common cultural values. Because of this conviction, one of the cornerstones of the Musée d’Orsay’s exhibition policy, it was possible to demonstrate that, alongside the work of well-known masters, the contribution of artists from the little-known Baltic forms part of Europe’s common cultural heritage. I may add that, by presenting the sentiment of our “wild souls”, we have demonstrated our distinctive contribution to this common European legacy. This cultural dialogue reveals the distinctiveness of the Baltic States, which, as a united geopolitical whole, are just now beginning to regain an awareness of the benefits offered by their unity and the force of their creative spirit,” says Dr. art. Ginta Gerharde-Upeniece, the project leader and Head of the Latvian Visual Arts Department of the LNMA.


Text by Ginta Gerharde-Upeniece




Rodolphe Rapetti,

Director of the National Domains and Museums of Compiègne and Blérancourt / Paris, France



Dr. art. Ginta Gerharde-Upeniece,

Head of the Latvian Visual Arts Department / Latvian National Museum of Art / Riga, Latvia



Ineta Sipunova, artist / Riga, Latvia



Flavio Bonuccelli, scenography author for the exhibition Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Baltic States at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris



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