In The Frame


Every picture tells a story

This morning I attended a brief press conference at the Latvian Foreign Ministry where Maris Riekstins was entertaining his Hungarian counterpart Peter Balazs.

The ministry which was impressively renovated just before the Latvian economic bubble went ‘pop’ has a swish modern lecture theatre on the ground floor that hosts most press conferences, but some also take place on the third floor in a wide corridor outside the room where diplomats do whatever it is diplomats do behind closed doors.

You’d be hard pressed to find two more contrasting figures than Riekstins and Balazs. The Latvian is tall, lean and dark-haired while the Hungarian is a dapper, slightly chubby little white-haired chap. But both radiate a sort of urbane rectitude – they seem comfortable in their positions and actually inspire a certain confidence even before they start fielding questions as assuredly as only diplomats can.

They didn’t say much of import other than a hint that Eastern Europe’s countries seem to be moving ever closer to a sort of informal bloc-within-a-bloc in the EU with the Visegrad 4 and the Baltic 3 making a sort of Eastern 7.

For want of anything else to do I asked if the new EU foreign policy supremo Baroness Ashton had picked up the phone to either of them so far this year. Turns out she hasn’t – but that will all be sorted out by the end of the month, they said.

But whatever the concerns of the day, I always enjoy the press questions held in the corridor more than the ones in the lecture theatre. Staring down from the wall behind the ministers is a line of 17 portraits, the 17 previous foreign ministers of Latvia.

While waiting for today’s ministers to emerge from their deliberations it’s fascinating to peruse the portraits. There’s the first foreign minister, Meirovics, looking like a proud princeling from a German statelet. There too is Balodis in regal pose, the picture of early-twentieth century statesmanship. A fresh faced Ulmanis seems slightly shy in the years before he became “Vadonis,” Latvia’s very own “benevolent dictator,” and before portraits of him looking suitably square-jawed were churned out by the thousand.

It’s fascinating to compare the styles of portraiture as well as the faces of the individuals. If the early portraits are stiff and still rather Victorian, the later ones of Pabriks and Kalniete have a family photo album informality that is starting to look just as artificial.

Pre-war ForMinsThe two most interesting pictures are right in the middle. The two ministers serving while war clouds gathered in the late 1930s have none of the bravado of their predecessors. Voldemars Salnais looks pensive, his thick-rimmed glasses giving an intellectual edge to his downcast gaze.

His successor, Vilhems Munters looks genuinely worried and tired, his rather handsome features staring at the viewer with watery eyes as if he knew the tribulations ahead but could do nothing to prevent them.

It will be interesting to see what style of portraiture Riekstins chooses when it is his turn to become the eighteenth in the line, quite possibly later this year.


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