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How a long-haired hippy-looking youngster became a big artist and more

The many landscapes of Aleksejs Naumovs, a prolific Latvian painter, are distinctive for their bright and bold colours. As Rector of the Art Academy of Latvia, Mr Naumovs drives his students to excellence while revealing the secrets of the realm of art. He kindly agreed to sit down with The Baltic Times for a genuine conversation.

You were born in Latvia and have lived all your life in Riga.  When did you discover you had a talent for art?

After secondary school I passed all my exams and went to the Janis Rozentals Academy of Art.  In those days I had long hair and looked like a hippy! It was recommended that I should join the Army, but instead I went to the Art Academy of Latvia.  That was a beautiful time, with a good atmosphere. I was lucky that I had good teachers there, including Imants Vecozols, Indulis Zarins and Eduards Kalnins My education in Latvian and Russian continued and I started to take part in exhibitions in Riga. We had ‘Art Days’, where I experimented with different types of art.

What about Landscape? Did that eventually come first and take over your life?

Yes, it was my favourite form of art. I liked it very much because you have a different subject to paint wherever you go. I did experiment with abstract art, expression and still life as well as landscapes, which gave me the opportunity to use bright, bold colours such as red, green, rose, blue – a little like Matisse, Dufy and Derain.  So I combined bright colours with landscapes and it worked well.  Colour does exist alone, but you have to have attitude in your paintings.  There are no good colours and no bad colours, it depends on how they are put together.

Your catalogue for your recent exhibition is huge and colourful...

Yes, it is called “A Never Ending Landscape”, and the exhibition represents 35 years of my life’s work. It was certainly my largest exhibition which was visited by over 20,00 people.

My home in the UK was close to John Constable’s birthplace – probably Britain’s most famous landscape painter…

Yes, I know it well. I have painted there.  Dedham church, Willy Lott’s cottage. Beautiful, and it has not changed since Constable painted The Hay Wain. I have relatives in Newcastle and in Scotland, including the Isle of Skye.  Such beautiful landscapes there, and I produced many paintings from those areas.

Many of your paintings appear to have been inspired by visits to Italy. Your favourite place?

I like Italy very much, and I have visited it many times. This painting, for example, from my catalogue, is of Burano Island, which is near to Venice. Houses in many different colours and shades in one view is an artist’s dream. My paintings of the same scene in different years, are not the same because the colours change over the years. Another of my favoured places is the South of France, but I have many paintings of places in Britain – such as Cambridge, Brighton, Newcastle and the Isle of Skye.

Your first exhibition – how did that come about?

Well, there are one-man shows and there are exhibitions at which you can show just one or two of your works. My first solo exhibition was held at the Music Academy.  Recently I have exhibited in New York, Miami Beach, Hong Kong, Delhi, and of course in Latvia.  Very close to my heart is the European programme Erasmus + at the Academy of Art. This is an important educational project, which gives students and staff the opportunity to study and teach abroad for a year. We send around 50 students to Europe each year, and in turn we receive 40 students from other European countries.

How did your connection with the Art Academy begin?

I was teaching art at a secondary school and there was an opportunity to be able to study and to teach at the Academy.  I applied and passed the entrance examination and interviews. The courses now are for 6 years to obtain an Artist’s Diploma – the same level as a University Degree.  These days I teach and lecture in art – not just landscape, but also murals, the techniques of fresco, and other visual arts. I also teach painting and composition in the Fashion department and the Glass department.

How many students were there when you first joined?

Around 500. Now there are 750.   Some are studying for a Bachelors and  Masters degree level, and Doctorate - Ph.D.  

Does the Art Academy have set fees?

No, it is funded by Government - the Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Education.  It means that we can choose the best students should we have more applicants than places available.  It is hard work, long days, 6 days a week from 9am to 6pm.

When a degree is obtained, what types of employment do students choose?

In the Academy we have 3 years monitoring after they have graduated and we have no unemployed artists. They find jobs around their professional fields. We have a good co-operation with the police – our students have designed new colours and visualisation for police cars. This was a very successful co-operation. Students have also designed and painted murals on exterior walls of children’s gardens and various schools, in collaboration with the Riga Municipality.

Part of your teaching experience was gained at the Sorbonne in Paris?

I went there as part of a French Government Scholarship. Whilst I was teaching there, I also studied various forms of art including sculpture and mural and fresco techniques.

And then you started the long road to the top at the Art Academy?

I was a lecturer at first, associate professor and then professor. From 2007 until 2017 I was the rector of the Art Academy.

What were your responsibilities as rector?

I was responsible for everything! On call 24 hours a day, but I had an excellent team of Academy personnel, and they were very good people, but first and foremost, I had talented students.

Did that allow time for you continue painting?

I had to find time, as it was important to me. When I travelled with students, including for the Erasmus+ programme, I was teaching painting and I painted big scale paintings for myself. 

Following 10 successful years as rector, what are your new plans?

I feel it is very important that our students can exhibit their works on an International stage.  New projects include student international exhibitions with French, German, Polish and of course Latvian students. These will be held in Paris, Berlin Wroclaw and Riga.

You have now completed about 20 solo exhibitions. How long does it take to prepare a major exhibition?

Probably more than 20, but some need many paintings, others not so many. For example, my exhibition at the National Museum of Arts, took at least 2 years to prepare, and it is essential to have a good, experienced team around you, which I had.  In addition to the exhibition, I conducted many workshops for children, adults and for children with special needs.

How many paintings would go into a one-man exhibition?

Usually between 80 and 100 if it is a major exhibition, but around 20 to 30 for smaller exhibitions. However, these days, I tend to produce large paintings, like murals.  I had a one-man show with just one painting, but it was about three meters long!

Do you still have a studio here in Riga?

Yes, both at home and at the Art Academy.  But now, of course, as a landscape painter, I work outdoors a lot and also travel abroad to paint. So, the world is my studio.  It needs someone with a logistical brain to help with the transport of my paintings back to Riga. Some are 3 metres, even 4.5 metres long, especially the ones I did in the South of France near Cannes. And, to answer your next question, no I do not paint from memory.  I always paint ‘on site’.

Do you remember the first painting you sold?

It was whilst I was a student and had a painting in a small exhibition. I remember it was a water colour, a tempera painted landscape, which I painted outdoors in the countryside. It was during my first year at the Academy.

You use water colours and oils?

I used to, and went on to Tempera, which is a fast-drying paint, and now I use acrylic.

Many of your paintings are in private collections. Do you know who the various owners are?

No, I don’t.  It is very difficult to keep track of them. They are all over the world. Some in the USA, France, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong, Russia. Some are also in Museums and some have been bought anonymously.

You recently had a big exhibition in Riga which attracted a record number of visitors.

‘Never Ending Landscape’ it was called, and it was held at the wonderful Latvian National Museum of Art.  Newly renovated, it is beautiful, colourful and very spacious.  Yes, it was visited by over 20,000 people and I also did some workshops for children as well as some demonstrations and master classes.

Are you planning other exhibitions in the near future?

Next year. Probably in Norway, Belgium and Latvia.  It is too early to be precise.

Would you say you are the most prolific Latvian artist?

I have no idea! I have never counted. It is my life, so maybe I am.  My wife, Anita Paegle is also an artist. She is an illustrator of children’s books.

And future plans?

A museum in Provence has asked me to paint and exhibit there and in Riga. I also plan another visit to Venice, and Burano.

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