Kip Smailing!

It came as quite a surprise to discover I lived next door to the greatest Latvian artist of the twentieth century. But there it was, on page 94 of Janis Kalnacs’ monolithic and wonderful Riga’s Dandy And Outsider – the house at number 10, Frica Brivzemnieka iela.

The view of Padegs' house from my own back door

In the bottom right of the frame I could even see the corner of my own wooden fence. One page further on is a photograph of Karlis Padegs aged about two standing next to a bench in Arkadijas Park – a park so familiar that just from the grass and intersection of paths it was possible to place the scene precisely – close to what is now a children’s sand pit.

I had known that Padegs the dandy was closely associated with the Tornakalns district, but this minor discovery of geographical proximity seemed to bring him even closer in temporal terms too – after all, he died (aged just 28) in 1940. It seemed to make my occasional fantasies of catching his tall, lean figure with his trademark fedora and cigarette holder striding along the far side of Maras dikis or disappearing into the shadows of a hidden courtyard all the more tantalising.

The discovery was a surprise because there is nothing on number 10 Brivzemnieka iela to tell you that a genuinely great artist was born here. While a mannered statue of Padegs has been erected outside Vermanes park and a plaque at 24 Elizabetes iela marks the later home from 1919-40 of “Riga’s extravagant artist”, his birthplace is marked only by a row of graffiti across the facade – the same graffiti that I have scrubbed off my fence more than once. Yet though the spidery scrawl of the graffiti tags is absolutely lacking in artistry (unlike some of Tornakalns’ other graffiti) it is almost appropriate. For there is something of the graffito prodigy about Padegs – along with something of the aesthete, something of the symbolist, something of the war poet, something of the decadent and something of the graphic designer.

As to Padegs’ art itself, I will restrict myself on commentary only because I cannot possibly do it justice and because the circumstances of his life, death and legacy make it perilously easy to slip into cliche when talking about him: his early death, love of shocking subject matter, Wildean/Warholian obsession with his own appearance and myth and disrespect for authority all play into a cosy myth of the rebel artist that has more to do with our reification of creativity than anything of real substance.

From Chatterton onwards, an early grave has been a great career move (yes, this is facetious) as far as certain poets and artists have been concerned. As well as the frankly morbid fascination with youthful death it allows what may not be a particularly satisfying body of work or a small selection of masterpieces to anticipate what would ‘undoubtedly’ have been later works of incomparably greater worth.

As Serge Gainsbourg – of whom I am sure Padegs would have approved – put it:

Chatterton suicidé
Marc-Antoine suicidé,
Van Gogh suicidé
Schumann fou à lier,
Quand à moi, quand à moi,
Ca ne va plus très bien.

A case such as Gogol’s second volume of Dead Souls, the burning of which was supposed to have pushed the novelist over the edge and into his own early grave, is instructive. While the myth makes a perfect tragedy, the more one discovers about the second volume (and the first volume remains my favourite book), the more one suspects that it was something of a lucky break that it never appeared to ruin what had gone before.

Monument to Padegs on Merkela iela

But with Padegs I get the definite feeling that his was a genius still being formed, even taking into account the relatively small but strong body of work  he had produced by the time of his death. Having shown himself adept in everything from oils to line drawings to pen and ink in the Chinese style to cartoons, there is the sense that he had yet to settle on the medium in which he would mature and embark upon a deeper exploration of his talents.

To say an artist is “ahead of his time” is another cliche, but nowhere is it truer than in Padegs’ case. The first time I saw his Red Smiles I was convinced some sort of curating error must have taken place. It looked exactly like a frame from a 1980s graphic novel but was in fact produced in 1931.

And as for shock, he could teach the moany-phoney conceptualists a thing or two. His Madonna With A Machine Gun has the sort of title the Chapman Brothers would wet their pants over, while Don’t Forget your Mother At The Final Moment depicts a soldier lying in barbed wire with his brains quite literally blown out.

In these works he is closest to the Weimar contrasts of Otto Dix – equally at home depicting an elegant set in a nightclub, the hookers and deadbeats outside or, preferably, both together. One small black and white ink drawing of a prostitute adjusting her stocking manages to be economical, erotic and sinister all at the same time. In other works the vacancy of hard-drinking men’s faces gives a much more chilling sense of the slow death of alcoholism than any number of reeling drunks.

His works are suffused with a latent sense of rage, impotence, disgust… and elegance, as if Aubrey Beardsley and Francis Bacon had decided to collaborate on a graphic novel. Had he been born in Germany or France Padegs would likely be just as well-known as Dix today. But while Dix now has a nice, neat birthplace museum in the east German town of Gera, Padegs has graffiti sprayed over a “Shop For Rent” sign in a Riga suburb with a questionable reputation. Perhaps he would have enjoyed the contrast.

For despite his pose of the refined aesthete, Padegs is never elitist or cold. And how can you not like someone who in an otherwise restrained nude self-portrait gives himself the sort of schlong that would make Dirk Diggler feel inadequate?

In one very funny little cartoon he lampoons various aspects of the art world including one frame depicting ‘Cubism’ which shows a moustachioed man’s oddly-shaped head half-wrapped in bandages and sticking plasters following what must have been a Tornakalns bar brawl.

The current exhibition of Padegs’ work at the Latvian national art museum still has a few days to run (until February 12th). If you haven’t been yet, I urge you in the strongest manner to go.

After all, you might not get another chance.

Scrawled on a gravestone in one of Padegs’ doodles is the deliciously dark inscription in cod-English: “Kip Smailing!”

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