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'ACTIVE ART' ('AKTIVA MAKSLA') BY ANDREJS KURCIJS (Andreja Kurcija 'Aktiva maksla')

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The book titled 'Active Art' ('Aktiva maksla', 1923) by the Latvian writer and literary critic Andrejs Kurcijs (1894-1959) belongs to the wide spectrum of avant-garde manifestoes current in Europe of the 1920s. It is a kind of theoretical treatise of activism which deals with problems of both European and Latvian art, including visual art. This work has been examined several times; already Kurcijs' contemporaries made some critical comments but during the Soviet period it had been interpreted mostly as a dualistic split between 'formalist' and 'revolutionary' attitudes. The theoretical background of this treatise is surely related to Kurcijs' studies of philosophy and art theory at the Berlin University in 1922 and 1923. But he had read much of Immanuel Kant, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, Karl Marx etc. already during his earlier studies of medicine and first literary endeavours. Activism is closely related to formalism - artistic form is that enduring element that excites the viewer with aesthetic means and depends on intellectual effort, contrary to the passive attitudes of naturalist/impressionist legacy. Direct quotes from Amedee Ozenfant's and Fernand Leger's statements testify that Kurcijs was greatly impressed by their ideas. Speaking about activism and cubism, Kurcijs also stress the widely circulating cubist idea that they depict things 'as they really are', apart from their irrelevant, accidental features. More critical is Kurcijs' approach to suprematism. Although it may be the most consequent in rendering 'things in themselves', at the same time it loses its emotional, spiritual qualities, its 'artistic mathematics'. One is prompted to ask if Kurcijs' theory might be derived from the German literary trend named activism. Some common general traits indeed could be discovered, such as emphasis on the autonomy of spiritual phenomena, like literature and art, opposed to the natural determinism typical of the 19th century. Andrejs Kurcijs continued to promote the activist theory and defend his position concerning the fruitful impact of the 'active French painting' on Latvian art in his later exhibition reviews.
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  • Stella Pelse, Institute of Art History of the Latvian Academy of Art, Akademijas laukums 1-160, Riga LV-1050, Latvia
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