From the Word to the Line
Book Illustrations by Romans Suta
Romans Suta (1896–1944) was an outstanding representative of classical Modernism, and his work included painting, set design, interior design, film design, teaching, art theory, criticism, graphic art and also book illustrations.

Suta turned to graphic art in the mid-1910s, when he was taking his first serious approach toward the world of art. He preferred Indian ink and watercolour for sketches that led to other artworks, as well as for finished pieces. Suta’s graphic style reached its apex in the late 1920s and during the 1930s, which is when artist produced his book illustrations.


Romans Suta had an approach toward graphic art that was unique and inimitable, with free and expressive lines that precisely depict an event or an image. He was very much inspired by ancient Chinese and Japanese masters who could use a single brushstroke to express the essence of a process; this, to the Latvian artist, was the height of Indian ink drawings. Neither can the influence of Old Masters from Western Europe be denied in Suta’s work – he very much appreciated the drawings of Frenchman Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780–1867), and the Germans Hans Holbein (1497–1543) and Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). Favourite artists from Suta’s time included Belgian Frans Masereel (1889–1972), whose expressive wood carvings are often known as “novels without words,” as well as the German artist of the grotesque, George Grosz (1893–1959).


A certain amount of liveliness in Suta’s drawings involved no excess detail or fancy elements, instead allowing the composition and the lines to “speak.” The artist contrasted dark and light areas to a level of perfection. Romans Suta himself once said that an artwork is finished when there is nothing to add or take away from it.


All of these principles are clearly seen in Romans Suta’s book illustrations. He had a most excellent relationship with the poet, author and urban bard Aleksandrs Čaks (1901–1950). Čaks’ Poem About a Cabby, with illustrations by Suta (1930), was advertised by the Golden Grain publishing house as a luxury edition. The poem celebrates the romance of the city centre of Riga and the city’s peripheries, with saloons and the everyday lives of people who patronised them. This was an environment that was familiar to Suta, whose paintings and graphic art often present similar scenes and personalities. The original edition of the volume contains three illustrations, but the Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum has 10 versions of the illustrations, some of which are presented in this exhibition.


The master also illustrated several books by Andrejs Kurcijs (1884–1959). For the poetry collection Life (1933), the artist used constructive compositional structures that fit well with Kurcijs’ laconic rhythm of verse. The publicist Līgotņu Jēkabs (1874–1942) wrote that the poet’s verses contained the pain of a lyrical “me” about the rebirth and restlessness, the pessimism and bitterness of humanity. Suta understood this range of emotions, providing illustrations of several of the characters from the poems so as to strengthen the ideas therein (the illustration for the poem Beating Kant, for instance, in which the lyrical “me” detests the great German philosopher, shows Kant and Kurcijs standing alongside one another). For Along the Path of Birds (1930), by Jānis Plaudis (1903–1952), Suta produced a loose and carefully considered line of ink to depict simple scenes (Elements), as well as exotic and existential motifs (Geisha and Destruction). Indian ink was used to illustrate a collection of novellas by Viktors Eglītis, Thirst of the Soul. The exhibition includes the graphic artwork On the Bench, a variation of which Suta would use to illustrate the book.


One of his greatest successes in the world of book illustration was the 1939 volume Poem pa Kulšen, by Ālant Vilis. Written in a local dialect of the Latvian language, the poem celebrates a threshing bee, and Suta adapted his art to a vital depiction of country life – farmers who baked bread, slaughtered pigs, threshed grain, ate, danced and went to sleep. The 60-page book contains no fewer than 70 illustrations and vignettes, making it a truly well-illustrated book. The compositions and the people depicted in the illustrations are all subject to a specific rhythm. Suta himself has said that the rhythm of body parts in his illustrations must be analysed as if it were a poem, perhaps iambic pentameter or a trochee.


The exhibition also offers a look at several other literary volumes which Suta illustrated. These prove the artist’s mastery in the world of graphic art and his innate ability to turn written words into a line.


Artworks and materials in the exhibition come from the Latvian National Museum of Art, the Romans Suta and Aleksandra Beļcova Museum, the Latvian National Library, and the Mūkusala Art Salon collection.



Elvija Pohomova, Museum of Romans Suta and Aleksandra Belcova / Latvian National Museum of Art


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