The Janis Rozentāls History and Art Museum in Saldus

Una Sedleniece, Culture Theorist

Published in visual arts magazine Studija issue No. 70 (February/March 2010). 

Translator into English: Filips Birzulis

There are words and events that leave a deep impression on the collective identity and scale of values. Our nation’s museums also offer a dialogue about identity and values too. Day to day they carry out careful, patient work to ensure that important testimonies to our past are stored, preserved, studied and made accessible to all of society. This year, I plan to visit six museums in Latvia’s regions in search of the cultural and historical footprints of our visual art heritage. I will allow the museum experience to shape and reinforce my convictions, stir up emotions and transform my everyday world. Let’s begin with Janis Rozentāls.

Where did Rozentāls come from? What was important to him? How does his legacy influence me and my contemporaries? 116 years after its creation, can the iconic painting Pēc dievkalpojuma (‘After Church’) be of importance not only to experts on Latvia’s cultural canon, but to all museum visitors, and why is this so? The first museum that comes to mind is the Latvian National Art Museum (LNAM), where Rozentāls’ works are exhibited in both the room dedicated to Latvian pastels from the first half of the 20th century and the section ‘Latvian art from the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries’. Internet catalogues provide access to the museum’s works by Rozentāls which are not on display.(1)

The virtual resource ‘Online History of Latvian Art’(2) is also of assistance when planning a visit to the Rozentāls Museum. Information about Rozentāls is available at the digital library of the ideas forum(3) as well as the database of images of persons and places(4). The larger depository of the Latvian Museum of Literature, Theatre and Music collections holds photographs and objects which document and reflect the artist’s life and creative output, while Rozentāls’ apartment on Alberta iela in Riga displays them in commemorative surroundings.

Merely looking at paintings does not bring understanding and knowledge, and patience alone does not help viewing. In order to ensure that, in the consciousness of the observer of art, paintings do not become mere planes of colour with fancy frames and an endless series of dates and names, it is useful to explore the context also.

Sometimes even the most geographically remote places where creative people have lived and worked become not just pilgrimage sites for their admirers, but also serious sources of education and social networking. Elsewhere in Europe museums have been successfully installed in the former homes of famous contemporaries of Rozentāls. For example, the reconstructed summer cottage of the German writer Thomas Mann in the village of Nida on the Curonian Spit.(5) Or the museum located in the villa of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg at Trollhaugen, near Bergen(6), or the home of German painter Gabriele Munter in the Bavarian village Murnau(7). Traditions may start and continue irrationally, but their educational, social and even economic effect makes such museums and places vital. Naturally, the professional activities of the staff of the museum and the “competitiveness” and “convertibility”, on a local and global scale, of the figure around which the museum is built also play a role.

The competitiveness and convertibility parameters of our Rozentāls are conducive to successful museum-realisation. The Janis Rozentāls Saldus History and Art Museum houses an impressive collection of the painter’s artworks, photos and other objects. It is one of Latvia’s museums directly tasked with not only preserving the material assets, but also with showing the most subtle nuances of Rozentāls’ personality and creative output. In order to find out what effect it has on the individual visitor, the museum must be experienced in the flesh.

According to the section on the Saldus museum on the website of the Latvian Museums Association(8), the artist was born near Saldus and for a while lived in the building in Saldus where the museum was opened in 1947. The link for the museum on the official regional portal(9) is not really a great help in preparing for the museum visit, but isn’t a deterrent either. The bus ride from Riga to Saldus takes just two hours and promises an interesting pastime for bored residents of the capital at any time of the year.

It turns out that out that Svētā Jāņa (St. John’s) Church is located right next to the Saldus bus station, and suddenly seeing it in reality brings to life the images, composition and colours of Rozentals’ famous painting, and thus the work unexpectedly and directly becomes relevant to that moment of life of the current viewer.

There is an information board located at the entrance to the museum grounds. Rozentāls probably would have been dissatisfied with the quality of this visual communication. It is like an indirect continuation of the presentation of the museum website, reminiscent of times when the ensemble of buildings was not so well looked after.

In one of the four museum buildings, which as it turns out houses the Saldus history exposition and the regional Lutheran churches exhibition, the museum staff are kind and businesslike. First it is possible to examine the new history exposition, being a little disturbed by the sound of pop melodies on the radio and the hissing of an electric kettle. Fortunately, it is not difficult to become absorbed in the exposition, the visual presentation is as it should be, but the things that remain in the memory are a few arrowheads, a bunch of black-coated city fathers between the wars, a fire fighting axe given as a gift by Kārlis Ulmanis and a late 19th century pair of dividers, in combination with historic photo wallpaper and stagy decorative elements, which contrast with the tile floor, plastic window ledges and other sterile “Euro-renovation” details. The exposition’s narration halts abruptly just before World War II, thus preventing the development of a real dialogue with the visitor. Perhaps this production would become more personal presented by a competent guide.

The exhibition ‘Lutheran churches of the region’ in the room next door is worth an extended look, even if the exhibition’s curators have made this difficult: to the uninitiated, the appreciation of villages with resonant names such as Grīvaiši, Pampāļi and Ķērkliņi is hampered by a lack of geographic pointers. In wall newspaper style at least 15 years out of date the display tables are crammed with genuinely useful information and are supplemented with valuable objects from church interiors, successfully livening up the flat torrent of information.

After learning about the history of Saldus Region and an inspection of an exhibition by up and coming designers in the second building, accompanied by a museum guide we finally head to the third building. This was built by Rozentāls himself, and in 1901 he set up a workshop and settled with his parents there. The Nordic, grey-green wooden details in Jugendstil shapes hint at the time of construction over a century ago. Would this then be the temple for the worshippers of Rozentāls’ talent and personality?

The exhibition of ‘Janis Rozentāls’ paintings and personal items’ as promised on the information board is located on the first floor. The painting Ainava ar ganāmpulku (‘Landscape with a Herd’)(10) and the portraits of the artist’s parents(11) are an excellent introduction to the small exhibition which, as would be fitting for this time and place, should tell the story of Rozentāls’ activities in Saldus. The photograph recreating the scene from the painting Pēc dievkalpojuma (‘After Church’) as staged by local people in 2006 is apt and an affirmation of Rozentāls’ relevance today. The painting Miests Kurzemē (‘A Kurzeme Village’)(12) hanging on these walls also directly reminds the viewer of the landscape visible outside. However, there is not enough information for an individual visitor about the context surrounding these paintings and items displayed. The objects and artworks are interesting in themselves, and well presented, but without additional explanation their link with Rozentāls’ life and work in Saldus is not clear. The exhibition’s message can be summed up in a brief sentence: Rozentāls was born, lived, befriended other Latvian artists of his time, married a Finnish singer (who also did embroidery), lived in Riga and Helsinki, painted prolifically and finally died – but not much else. Isn’t this too little for a place with pilgrimage and educational potential?

Climbing up the wooden stairs to the second floor of the house that Rozentāls built (it is one of the few interior elements which, as with the building’s internal layout, has retained its original form), we can view the painting collection donated to the Saldus Museum by entrepreneur Guntis Priedaiks(13) in an exhibition titled ‘Outstanding painting in Saldus Museum’. Although there are few works by Rozentāls here, and almost nothing can be felt of the atmosphere of the old workshop, it is this part of the museum that forms the best link with the legacy of Rozentāls, invites one to think about the periodization of Latvian art and its great names, and tempts one to linger. The work Āboli (‘Apples’) by Jānis Valters is reminiscent of the retrospective seen at the end of 2009 in the LNAM.

As an accompaniment to aesthetic and intellectual enjoyment, the individual visitor once more is not provided with additional information about the collection, the artists, works and context. However, the museum’s homemade pastel painting game is a clever method for provoking reflection about the subtleties of colour – if the visitor is open to and serious about this task.

The books on sale in the museum indicate that Rozentāls took many photographs in Saldus and its surrounds. These, along with most of the other objects and artworks connected with Rozentāls, are probably to be found in the fourth museum building – the museum repository.

Contemplating the Rozentāls Museum from a distance, it is easy to believe that its special collection, profile and spirit serve to ensure high quality educational activities in art theory and practice. It is possible to imagine that the example of Rozentāls’ personality has enthused or even changed the life of more than one child in the Saldus area. Or that by putting to use the most professional museum working practices it could help, better than other museums, to foster an understanding of the roots of professional Latvian art. Latvia has many regional studies museums, but none have been so fortunate as to have a Rozentāls. It would be most beneficial were the museum to utilise its potential sensibly, sharpen its profile in an accurate and contemporary fashion, and also to collaborate productively with other places dedicated to the study of Rozentāls. May this museum be a mediator between Rozentāls and our ignorance, doubts and curiosity. May it heal indifference, tastelessness and lack of enterprise.

(1) See; museum collection catalogue:

(2) See site Latvian Academy of Art, Art History Institute project “Online history of Latvian art”: (viewed 12.12.2009.).

(3) See site:

(4) See site Latvian Academic Library and Museum of Literature, Theatre and Music Project “Database of images of persons and places”:

(5) See site:

(6) See site:

(7) See site:

(8) See:

(9) See:

(10) See site:

(11) See site:;

(12) See site:

(13) More information at: