Changes in mentality

A very strong impact in Estonian art history was exercised by the Tartu art school Pallas, founded in 1919 and closed down in 1940. The intellectual atmosphere reigning at the school is actually difficult to define, since during those 20 years a fairly large number of strong personalities studied and taught there. Pallas focused on individuality and talent, along with spirituality, created by treatments of light and colour. Art metropolis Paris was a constant source of inspiration. Many Pallas people realised their dream of travelling to the 1937 Paris EXPO. Estonia was represented there for the first time. Jewellery artist Ede Kurrel (1909–1991) received a silver medal, and textile artist Mari Adamson (1908) a diploma.

Almost all great names of their time taught at Pallas: painters Konrad Mägi (1878–1925), Ado Vabbe (1892–1961) and Nikolai Triik (1884–1940), sculptor Anton Starkopf (1889–1966), art historian Voldemar Vaga (1899–1999), etc. The very first class of graduates included graphic artist Eduard Wiiralt (1898–1954), the most beloved silent man in Estonian art. In his virtuoso graphic sheets, Wiiralt analysed the human psyche, reaching in his masterpieces ‘Hell’, ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Preacher’ (produced between 1930 and 1932) a premonition of the impending horrors of war. Wiiralt spent his last years as an emigrant in Paris where he also died. His remains were buried at the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery.

There are several outstanding painters as well in the Pallas school. Mention should be made of Erik Haamer (1908–1994) who depicted the humble everyday existence on the Island of Saaremaa as a grand and significant epic; Karl Pärsimägi (1902–1942) who strove to capture the essence of the depicted things by generalising treatment of form. Then there was Andrus Johani (1906–1941) and Kaarel Liimand (1906–1941) whose left-wing political tendencies were expressed in describing the poor slum dwellers. Elmar Kits (1913–1972), one of the youngest painters at the time the Pallas was closed, was left dreaming about his trip to Paris for ever, because the Soviet authorities banned all such undertakings.

After the Second World War, Pallas became a myth. The Soviet power favoured collectivism and hence saw the individualism at the school as subversive activity. Besides, many Pallas people had emigrated abroad. From that time onwards, the school and its former members became surrounded with a halo of martyrdom that gradually settled and petrified. Today, Pallas is first of all associated with high auction prices — the classics of Estonian long-dead artists fetch staggering prices among the Estonian nouveaux riches.

The next rise in Estonian art starts in the 1960s. The artists educated at the Estonian State Art Institute in Tallinn founded a group called ANK’64, including Tõnis Vint, Malle Leis (1940), Jüri Arrak (1936), Kristiina Kaasik (1943), Tiiu Pallo-Vaik (1941), Enno Ootsing (1940), Tõnis Laanemaa (1937), Aili Vint (1941). Their pursuits in art were connected with youth culture, liberal jazz and partly with op art, a small part of which reached Estonia. Looking back now, this work seems extremely romantic, but at the time it must have looked insufferably radical and have been seen as breaking all restrictions — or why else were they so constantly watched by the KGB people.

An even stronger impact than ANK was left by the group SOUP’69 who realised the decisive turn from ‘warm’ and ‘spiritual’ art towards a ‘cold’ and ‘technical’ mentality. SOUP’69 brought along, if somewhat late, the fascination with pop art. Leonhard Lapin (1947), Andres Tolts (1949), Ando Keskküla (1950), Ülevi Eljand, trained as architects-designers, plus architects Vilen Künnapu and Jüri Okas (1950) and painter and graphic artist Sirje Runge who studied glass art — they all felt that it was impossible to realise themselves in their acquired specialities. There were no state commissions, nor was there the necessary technical basis. The powerful creative energy was channelled into paintings, graphic art, happenings, collages, poetry, cartoons, multimedia performances, etc. The most interesting period of pop art in art history has not been properly researched. The biggest outlet can be considered the publishing of the Estonian- and Russian-language magazine ‘Art and Home’ in the 1970s, headed by Andres Tolts (the number of copies was enormous: about 10,000 in Estonian, and 40,000 in Russian). When American pop artists took mass culture to high art, then Estonian pop artists turned the Soviet ‘low’ mass culture into an elitist and witty ‘union pop’ (Soviet pop), trying simultaneously to inject the all-Soviet mass culture with a dose of elitist culture.

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