THE FORGOTTEN POPULAR CULTURE OF LATVIA: Notes on an Exhibition in Riga

 

Pauls Daija

 (c) Photo by Krists Luhaers, National Library of Latvia

(c) Photo by Krists Luhaers, National Library of Latvia

 

In the fall of 2016, an interdisciplinary conference devoted to the history of Baltic popular culture took place at the National Library of Latvia (NLL) in Riga. Inspired by the 150th anniversary of Latvian poet Edvards Treimanis-Zvārgulis, considered one of the most popular poets during the turn of the 20th century, a group of scholars at the Institute of Literature, Folklore and Art of the University of Latvia (ILFA UL) decided to focus on the phenomenon of popular culture during the fin-de-siècle. While the history of popular culture has customarily been studied in the context of the mid-20th century, it seemed intriguing to uncover the prehistory of popular culture patterns during the late 19th century and early 20th century--the period when modernisation of Baltic society took place.

In this time, socioeconomic changes in the population such as the growing working-class and the appearance of a new urban middle-class, and in technology enabled the mass production of the arts. The Baltic public sphere of this period demonstrates that popular culture is not only the subject of historical research (the history of daily life, literature, or art, which has remained on the periphery, outside of the cultural canon), but also the subject of theoretical interest. We found it productive to question the seminal century for the first occurrences of popular culture; can we use the same vocabulary when discussing the late 19th century popular culture that we use to speak about the 20th century pop culture? What does the word ‘popular’ in ‘popular culture’ actually mean? Is it mass appeal, broad distribution, or perhaps applicability and classification as ‘low brow’?

The two-day conference gathered a wide scope of scholars from Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, featuring a keynote lecture by Max Ryynänen titled ‘Rock Me Amadeus: Reclaiming the History of Art from a Popular Point of View’. The topics covered at the conference included a wide range of research perspectives, including such issues as popular culture and gender, mass media, the problem of defining popular culture (mass culture, kitsch), popular culture and daily life, the anthropology of food and dress, as well as popular culture and changes in social structures. The conference became a starting point for a discussion on popular culture during a time that is not usually associated with term ‘popular culture’ in local historical tradition.

Inspired by new insights gained at the conference, the group of scholars of the ILFA in collaboration with the Mukusala Art Salon, Eva Eglāja-Kristsone, Līga Lindenbauma, and Pauls Daija, carried out further research work focusing on the cultural heritage institutions of Latvia, and this resulted in an exhibition which opened in December of 2017 at the National Library of Latvia. The exhibition, designed by artist Anete Krūmiņa from NLL, focused on exploring various forms of popular culture during the fin-de-siècle by following major trends of changes in everyday life including fashion and mass media. By opening with a time-scale illustrating the gradual transition from folk festivities in mid-19th century to modern popular events such as the Olympics in Riga in 1914, the exhibition further demonstrated ways in which new media and new perception of free time interacted with emerging popular culture patterns.

 (c) Photo by Krists Luhaers, National Library of Latvia

(c) Photo by Krists Luhaers, National Library of Latvia

Among topics covered in exhibition, the following should be highlighted:

First, changes in reading practices were demonstrated by highlighting pulp fiction, largely condemned by contemporary critics as dangerous for mind and soul. Along with popular reading materials, special attention of the exhibition focused on various manuals addressing new forms of interpersonal interaction in the emerging middle-class. Among these were instructions on how to get the attention of opposite sex as well as widely popular manuals on the composition of love-letters. Second, a separate part of exhibition was devoted to changing attitudes in terms of free time, expressed in forms of rapidly emerging societies, new types of social events addressed to all classes of the public (e.g., the circus and vaudeville) and travel. Third, evolutions in fashion were demonstrated in the section of the exhibition devoted to the phenomenon of the ‘New Woman’, exploring the emancipation of women as exemplified in everyday practices. Popular advertisements of women’s bicycles were just one of many vivid examples. Fourth, the emergence of the fin-de-siècle erotica was featured in a selection of forbidden postcards which  circulated in the Baltics at the time. Finally, special attention in the exhibition was given to growing popularity of gaming in the fin-de-siècle, including social games.

The exhibition received wide public interest thanks to a string of accompanying events organised by curators of exhibition during the first months of 2017. One of the most important of these was the thematic tour of February 14t focusing on Valentine’s day and featuring period social games including cartomancy. This allowed the general public to compare perceptions of courting today versus traditions from a century ago.

Organised in the frames of a Latvian Science Council project, ‘Literature as a Medium of Creating the Translated Identity of Self,’ and with a support of the NLL, the exhibition brought forward the possibility to review our assumptions of the fin-de-siècle culture from the viewpoint of ‘low culture’ instead of the more well-known ‘high culture’ narratives. By highlighting the forgotten and often dismissed part of cultural life a century ago, it challenged the prevailing narratives of cultural change in the Baltics as well as emphasising the necessity for including studies of popular culture in the research of cultural history of the 19th century.