Every nation has its heroes, and for Latvians, there is none greater than Lācplēšis. And a new English-language edition of the Bearslayer epic is about to be released, complimented by fantastic artwork from an unexpected quarter.
From Romania with love
A heady mix of love and war, friendship and betrayal, beautiful maidens, back knights and a half-man-half-bear, Latvia’s national epic Lāčplēsis has been a cultural icon since being given literary form by poet Andrejs Pumpurs in the late 19th century. The Bearslayer has inspired films and rock operas, been chiselled onto dozens of monuments, and lent his name to streets, parks and a brand of beer.
Intriguingly, non-Latvians have played a pivotal role in making the tale accessible to a global audience. The only English-language translation is by Australian professor Arthur Cropley. And now, a new edition of the antipodean work is set to be published, with stunning illustrations by young Romanian artist Bogdan Gargarita.
The two men are far from strangers to Latvia. Arthur taught for 12 years at the University of Latvia after supposedly retiring from academia in the early 2000s. Bogdan spent a year as an Erasmus student at Riga’s Art Academy in 2016 and fell in love with the local culture.
They found each other via the internet and have established a close friendship, even though they have never met or communicated in any way except by email. For the Lāčplēsis illustrations, Bogdan has photographed his original oil canvases, which are finished with gold and silver leaf. They bear (no pun intended) a striking kinship with early 20th-century Symbolist paintings, notably those of Latvian master Janis Rozentāls.
This is no coincidence, since Bogdan found Riga’s National Romantic architecture deeply inspirational, and would like to collaborate on a book about this strand of Art Nouveau one day.
“As a foreigner, I’ve tried to document the pagan gods and history of Latvia and to bring these authentic elements to my paintings,” says Bogdan.
“Bearslayer” is ready for printing, which will take place when a crowdfunding target of 6,000 euros is reached. And if you pre-book a copy, there are packages with nice rewards.
Bogdan had planned to travel from Bucharest to Riga this year, but the pandemic put that on ice. Instead, he hopes to come in 2022 for a proper book launch and an exhibition of the original paintings. In the meantime, his next illustration project is for a translation of Australian bush ballads made into German by Arthur.
He has previously done the artwork for “The Impaler’s Escape,” a book about Romania’s notorious national hero Vlad Dracula. Bogdan believes that while the 15th-century Transylvanian nobleman was cruel, “he wasn’t a vampire.” And the mythology surrounding him fills a human need that crosses frontiers.
“Romanians like to moan, “where are you now, Vlad? Bring us justice!” Bogdan explains. “Like Latvians, they are waiting for their hero to return.”