The legacy of Valdemārs Tone
Dace Lamberga
Before departing from this life, Valdemārs Tone (1892-1958) told his wife to keep only as many paintings as could be hung on the walls, and sell the rest in order to get by. In the apartment of Aina Tone-Baker at Hove, near Brighton, the walls of all three rooms and the corridor were densely covered with portraits and still lifes.

When the noble, self-assured and wonderfully positive 93-year-old lady went to live in a pleasant English old peopleís home, she donated all 42 paintings and the archive to the Latvian National Museum of Art. Not only did she donate them, but she also financed the transport of the works to her homeland. As a mark of respect towards Valdemārs Tone on his 115th birthday and towards the generous donor, the master's works created in exile (1945-1958) will be on display in the museum's Small Exhibition Room from 2 March to 8 April 2007. 

In the autumn of 1944, seeking refuge from the bombardment of Riga, Valdemārs Tone and his young wife Aina lived in the Zemgale region, and by the time they'd made the decision to flee the country, it was no longer possible to take along any of the paintings created during the past thirty years, or his beloved violin. At the end of the Second World War, the professor of the Latvian Academy of Art became one of the thousands of Displaced Persons in the Allied occupation zone of Germany. In this time of despair, the creative fulfilment achieved in Latvia had to be forgotten, and the reality of life forced the artist to concentrate on the everyday problems of survival. However, it was painting in particular that acted as a powerful stimulus for overcoming the gloomy future prospects, and the artist worked even more intensively than in pre-war Riga, where thereíd been no outside impact disturbing his moments of inspiration. 

After stays at Weilburg and Detmold, in 1947 the Tones went to the Meerbeck Camp in north Germany, where they had their own cabin. The artist regarded the time spent there as his most creative time in Germany, regardless of the fact that Aina left for Britain in the spring, to take on the heavy work of tending hospital patients in London. After a long wait, the initial phase of exile ended quite suddenly: one misty morning in 1948, having received permission to join his wife, Valdemārs Tone began another voyage, crossing the Channel by ship. His baggage, weighing 726 kilos, consisted of sixteen boxes and cases, with the 39 oil paintings still in his possession out of the 90 heíd painted during his four years in Germany. Tone did not give up the hope of returning to his own country.

On no account was he willing to leave Europe, and so he chose Britain as the country of refuge. Initially, the Tones lived in a furnished room in the north London suburb of Highgate, later moving to Streatham on the south side of the city, where the artist lived right up to the end of his days. For a time, Aina continued to work at the hospital, where she had the permission of the ward sister to take home the leftover meals. Then, for 80 pounds on credit, she bought a machine for mending modern nylon socks, and in this way she was able to earn quite good money. Most of the income was used to pay for oil paints, frames and canvases, and Voldemārs Tone could paint in his own room. This room (7.5x5 m), where visitors were also usually received, they called the "studio".

Portraits, still lifes and recently begun canvases covered all the walls, but many works were still lying in piles on the floor. The working space was actually only a niche of a few square metres, while the brushes and tubes of paint were kept on a small table by the mirror. Working in these unenviable conditions, Valdemārs Tone said that he was re-living his bohemian days. "I was starting my career completely from scratch. It's as if I had no works or friends or recognition. In exile, values in art do not need to be reassessed - only the significance of these values for the physical existence of the artist needs to be re-priced." Unlike physical labourers, artists were not eagerly awaited in Britain, but Tone, a creative individual, was very fortunate in that his wife took on the burden of responsibility for the practical side of life.

In July 1951, the master held a solo exhibition at the Kensington Art Gallery, which, although in the centre of London, was actually in a small side street. He displayed 55 works, most of them portraits and still lifes painted in England. The exhibition brought him no financial gains, only moral satisfaction, since even the British press wrote about it. The English critic Eric Newton gave a truly professional assessment, concluding that there was a lot to see at the galleries on Old Bond Street, but little to write about. On the other hand, Toneís exhibition was a particular attraction, since his paintings revealed an unforgettable combination of strength and mildness. In Newtonís opinion, Tone was one of the most outstanding figures among the European refugees: a great and serious painter, although certainly not in accord with English tastes. The favourable criticism in England did not lessen his longing for his own country. Tone was overcome by poignant resignation: "In organising this exhibition, I feel more than ever that I miss my contemporaries and friends - Ubāns and Zaļkalns. In Riga, we discussed and appraised everything jointly."

In Stockholm, Miķelis Gopers re-established the Zelta Ābele publishing house, and in 1953 published the album "Valdemārs Tone" in English. From todayís perspective, this volume of black and white illustrations (only four in colour) might appear very humble, but in fact the expenses of the publication caused the publisher considerable financial problems. Logically, art historian Eric Newton, a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, was asked to write the introduction. In describing Toneís work, the critic concludes that England tends to be kind towards refugees, since the English have a highly developed sense of the value of personal freedom, but that England can also be blind towards the qualities of those to whom it offers its hospitality. In his view, Tone may well feel that while London has welcomed him as a storm-tossed wanderer she has also ignored the exceptional quality of his art.

In 1953, the Latvian National Foundation organised a major solo exhibition for Tone at the Academy of Art, an imposing building in the very centre of Stockholm next to the Riksdag, with a view towards Lake Mšlar. Even in this "Cold War" time, the neutral Swedes were bold enough to hang the Latvian flag at the entrance to the building for the opening of the exhibition. A meeting with his old friends Arveds Švābe, Miķelis Gopers, Niklāvs Strunke and Valdemārs Dambergs, who came over from Copenhagen, even suggested to him the idea of moving to Sweden, which he found very pleasant after the hustle and bustle of London. His countrymen bought seventeen paintings, and commissions began to come in even from America.

There was some improvement in the material side of life, but after returning from Sweden Valdemārs Tone went down with a little-known disease called actinomycosis. The doctors were unable to establish the correct diagnosis, and Tone had to stay at home bedridden for 18 months, suffering great pain. Thanks to the queenís physician Sir Russell Brook, the diagnosis was established in 20 minutes, and in the summer of 1954 the new "wonder drug", penicillin, helped to such a degree that the artist was able to get up again.

By 1956, his health had stabilised to such an extent that the Tones could afford to go on a three-month trip to El Rodeo in Spain. There, they passed two months in the bright sun and the green gardens, "as in a fairytale", and spent the remaining time visiting Madrid, Granada, Cordova and Toledo. The easel and paint had been bought along from England, but the illness had taken away so much strength that Tone made only a few sketches ("Hills in Spain", 1956).

Valdemārs Tone was not a landscape painter like his friend Konrāds Ubāns, and the only paintings of life outside the walls of his home were views from the window towards the garden or the surrounding suburbs ("From the window. Highgate", 1949). Already in Germany, Tone had enthusiastically taken to still life painting. The change of genre was objectively influenced by the lack of models. Apart from Aina, few of his acquaintances still had time to pose for days or months on end. The still lifes, characterised by tempestuous brushwork and a free, aleatoric effect, served to free him from everyday cares, allowing him not to think, but instead to create intuitive combinations of colour areas, brushstrokes and chiaroscuro.

Lilac, marigolds, sunflowers, cherry blossom, apples and pears, pottery vases, transparent glass vessels and folds of drapery - such are the things appearing in the still lifes of his period in exile, along with reflections, colour accents and shady depths. Tone considered that still lifes "must be composed using painterly elements, rather than objects or states of objects". In his view, "painting must be brought to the state of a myth. Itís not important whether the colour scheme is lighter or darker, colourful or less colourful. Whatís important is that which one can win back from the invisible world by visible means, applying oneís personal style in order to realise that unnameable inner form which is inaccessible to empirical study." In Latvia, Tone had painted still lifes for a short period in the early 1920s, and had turned to floral painting in the war years. As his grave illness retreated, brighter, stronger colours appeared in his still lifes: bright yellow daffodils, orange nasturtiums, green leaves and red apples. An arrangement of a bowl of apples, a white drapery and his beloved blue vase, with brushes placed in it symbolically, became the very last work of his life (1958).

Without a doubt, the portrait remained his main genre, and he was always painting the model closest to him, his wife - always at his side and ready to pose. Characterising the hopelessness of the days spent in Weilburg is the portrait of Aina entitled "Autumn flowers" (1945). Itís a characteristic composition of the kind he had used since the 1930s, showing a womanís face in shadow and a window in the background, but in contrast to the mood of harmonious contemplation of the paintings of "Anna", the image painted in exile is dominated by resignation and nostalgic reflection. An unusual accent amidst the dark, cool browns of this painting is provided by the light blue flowers, seemingly strewn across the whole of the foreground.

In 1946, Aina is portraited more optimistically - as a feminine figure in a coquettish black hat and a red dress. The painterly, slightly sketchy style, with long, temperamental brushstrokes, continued in England, and Ainaís presence is felt everywhere, for example in a still life with tulips, where a dark silhouette of his wife is painted in the background, holding a newspaper (1952). In 1956, the artist painted his last portrait of Aina, in a black blouse, at a time when, after long months of illness, he once again picked up the brush.

Of course, there were other models as well - Gerda Bokaldere and Edīte Vīdzirkste - who inspired him to create outstanding portraits, but these works have ended up in private collections. As always, the talent of Valdemārs Tone found selfless supporters in exile. In Detmold, Anna, daughter of the writer Jūlijs Pētersons, provided him with painting materials. The young girl has been painted together with Aina in a horizontal double portrait entitled "A.P. and A.T." (1945). In London, Tone often visited the Head of the Latvian Legation Kārlis Zariņš, whom he'd met in Petrograd during the First World War. He made several paintings and drawings of the diplomatís daughter Marianna: she came to pose for the professor at Streatham. First he became acquainted with the girl, and only then did he get to work. Tone is said to have been able to communicate with anybody, even people who knew nothing of art. The portrait of the young woman dressed in a cool green evening dress shows something of the manner of a parade portrait, uncharacteristic of the master, but is full of untrammelled expression. When he was in exile, Tone also went back to charcoal drawings on a light-coloured primed canvas, something heíd begun in the mid-1920s. His exploration of the genre of the nude also continued: as was the case during the war years, the contours of the female figure are indicated very vaguely in dark tones.

For a year the medicine helped, after which his health deteriorated, and on 1 June 1958, Tone was admitted to hospital. Aware of his tragic condition, before going to hospital he cleaned his palette, washed his brushes and placed them in the blue vase. Valdemārs Tone died at Guy's Hospital in London, at 3.30 a.m. on 30 July 1958. The cause of death: chronic renal insufficiency. The artist's body was cremated and buried in Brookwood Cemetery.

The collection donated to the museum by Aina Tone-Baker provides an insight into a phase of the artist's creative life that had so far remained virtually unknown in Latvia. In his time abroad, Valdemārs Tone experienced the loss of much of his earlier-won prominence and recognition. Here we meet a "storm-tossed wanderer" who, through painting, could better endure the yearning for his own country.
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