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KĀRLIS ZĀLE

Among the monuments and memorials that sprung up all over Europe after World War I, the Brethren Cemetery Memorial (1936) and the Freedom Monument (1935) in Riga deserve the highest accolades.

The author of both, Kārlis Zāle (1888–1942) grew up in the western Latvian city of Liepāja where from an early age he worked with his mason father in construction sites. After a spell at the Kazan Art School where he got his first recognition, he went for further studies with sculptor Stepan Erzya and then, in 1915, to St Petersburg.  After the Bolshevik revolution, his bust of Garibaldi as part of the Monumental Propaganda Plan became one of the most acclaimed works.  After Latvia gained its independent statehood, Zāle returned to Riga but, unable to find work that would match his skills, left for Berlin, that cauldron of creative ideas, in the fall of 1921. Italian futurists, Russian constructivists, German functionalists and various supporters of "active art" (including some Latvians): together they formed a milieu where Zāle could experiment and apply his constructivist skills and where he got to taste his first fame. Together with another Latvian, Aleksandrs Dzirkalis, he founded the only contemporary art magazine publishing in Latvian, "Laikmets", and participated (on the platform of Synthesis Group) in the first avant-garde congress in Dusseldorf. But then, upon hearing about a competition on the Brethren Cemetery ensemble, he returned to Latvia in 1923.

Victory in this competition provided him with work for quite a few years; the sculptural ensemble as a whole was unveiled only in 1936.

Parallel to this, Zāle won the contract also for the Freedom Monument in Riga. The construction work was started in 1931 and the monument was unveiled in 1935.       

Brethren Cemetery (architects Pēteris Feders, Aleksandrs Birzenieks and garden architect Andrejs Zeidaks) in its planning and emotional impact of the sculptures forms a monolithic whole where the state-of-the-art sculptural solutions harmoniously support the system of national symbols. Mother Latvia with her fallen sons hewn out of the Allaži travertine, the dying horsemen, the grim figures of ancestors, as well as a series of precise decorative elements (oak leaves, wreaths, swords, shields, etc.) – all these symbols would continue to play an active role in the nation’s self awareness and patriotism.  The work that lasted a dozen years, sequentially assembling groups of sculptures, reflects Zāle’s development from constructivist sharp-angled forms in the first groups of horsemen (1927, 1928) to more plastic solutions with just a touch of Art Deco sensibility.

The Freedom Monument (arch. Ernests Štālbergs) is an impressive accent in the center of the city, excellently proportioned and perfectly located in space, which allows it to be admired from various points in the city from a variety of distances and to perceive its spatial and conceptual centrality.

The three-tiered base of the monument with the travertine covered obelisk with the copper image of Latvia with three stars symbolizing the three historic districts of Latvia, is formed of steps, thirteen thematic sculptural groups hewn of red and gray Finnish granite and relief supporting travertine planes. The reliefs and figural groups consist of both symbols and memorials to important historical events. The sculptural narrative is topped with the laconic dedication "Tēvzemei un brīvībai" (To Fatherland and Freedom), suggested by poet Kārlis Skalbe.

Laima Slava

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