What we don’t have

Occasionally, Estonian art can best be characterised by what we don’t have. It is practically impossible to find paintings of heroic historical scenes, like the French, Russian, English, American and other nations have in plenty. Since the country lacks historical (i.e. military) victories, there is simply nothing to record. The only successful war was the War of Independence (1918–1920) that resulted in the free Estonian republic. Many young artists also took part in that war, such as Eduard Viiralt (1898–1954), Karl Pärsimägi (1902–1942), Jaan Grünberg (1889–1969), etc. None of them, however, depicted war in their later works.

Still, in the 1920s–1930s, the War of Independence and the heroes of the national state were portrayed in the manner of heroic pictorial tradition by the German Maximilian Maksolly (1884–1968) and Russian Nikolai Kalmakov (1873–1955). Neither artist associated with Estonian art circles, but fulfilled the commissions of the business and political elite in the spirit of realistic and symbolist art tradition. The attitude of Estonian artists towards both ‘outsiders’ was more than derogatory. They felt an acute mentality split with the new elites who, in buying art, did not appreciate an independent spirit and European strivings, but the ‘right’ ideology and old-fashioned aesthetics.

There is nevertheless one peculiar chapter in Estonian historical painting — the artists who emigrated behind the front lines to Moscow during the Second World War, were ordered to produce paintings and sculptures about the historic struggle of the Estonian people against German crusaders. An exhibition was organised commemorating the St George’s Day rebellion (1343-1345) where heroic peasants depicted in the style of social realism march into battle, armed with cudgels and sticks.

Monumental art lacks heroic pictorial language as well; the one central topic here is death. Even monuments to the War of Independence mostly express tragedy. During the 1920s and 1930s such small monuments were erected all over Estonia, commissioned by people and financed through public donations. The invading Soviets destroyed them all. Ironically, these monuments later acquired an aura of martyrdom, and after re-establishing the Republic of Estonia in 1991, the country was again filled with inexact and occasional replicas of the same monuments. Estonia has never managed to erect such a powerful monument to freedom as Karlis Zale’s stone anthem reaching towards the sky (1930) in the centre of Riga in neighbouring Latvia. Endless disputes about the designs for a freedom monument have been conducted here in Estonia, but have never actually led anywhere. The disputes are still in progress.

Victory and winning as a topic are not widely reflected in Estonian art either. A paradoxical example is Hille Palm’s monumental sculpture erected on the occasion of the 1980 Olympic Games near the Tallinn Yachting Centre. The commissioned work is called ‘The Winner’, but there is no escaping the fact that the general air and body language of the young man sporting a wreath of laurels seems to say, loud and clear: ‘I surrender!’

During the Soviet regime, the central square of Tallinn was called Victory Square and military parades were held there. Every major city in the Soviet Union had to have a square of that name. Estonians found it difficult to identify with this kind of ‘victory’. From their point of view the square should have been called the Square of Defeat. In the 1990s the former, pre-Second World War name was restored — Freedom Square. So maybe ‘freedom’ could be considered the magical word that denotes ‘victory’ in Estonian mentality.

‘Victory’, however, can also be coded into art by means of various metaphors, such as a flag, crown and Kalevipoeg (the main character of the national epic). State freedom is associated with the waving of one’s own flag. In the Soviet era, in the works of Leonhard Lapin (1947), Vilen Künnapu (1948) and other avant-garde artists we often discover the symbol of the flag; Raul Meel (1948) used the blue-black-white colour combination when it was officially prohibited.

A crown symbolises a king that in the Estonian mind has an abstract meaning of something positive and optimistic. (There is a well-known folk song, ‘Shepherd Boy is King’.) In the early 1980s, artist Siim-Tanel Annus (1960) arranged nocturnal fire performances in his own garden where he wore a crown.

Kalevipoeg is a hero, depicted by artists as a positive man of muscle although the epic makes it clear that he had a negative side to his nature as well. The historical meaning of the word ‘kalevi’ is ‘strong’ and ‘mighty’ and it has become one of the most popular Estonian male names. An example among artists is Kalev Mark Kostabi (1960) whose parents emigrated to the USA in the 1940s and who became world famous in New York in the 1980s. Numerous factories, sport societies, stadiums and bars also carry the name Kalev.

In 1902, baron Nicolai von Glehn (1841–1923) erected a huge statue of Kalevipoeg on a hill in Nõmme outside Tallinn, slightly resembling Michelangelo’s Moses. Prophet-Kalevipoeg was blown up during the First World War and restored in 1990 by Mati Karmin (1959). Another statue of Kalevipoeg was made by Amandus Adamson (1855–1929) in 1933 in Tartu; his Victor-Kalevipoeg was destroyed by Soviet activists because the statue propagated the ‘wrong’ ideology. It was decided in 2002 to restore Adamson’s Kalevipoeg, and Ekke Väli (1952) was asked to produce the replica. The third Kalevipoeg, planned to stand as a colossus in the mouth of the Bay of Tallinn, was designed by Tauno Kangro (1966) who modelled the enormous hero after his friend, a businessman with a shady background, as if wishing to erect a personal monument to him.

In painting and graphic art, Kalevipoeg has been depicted very often. The early 20th century national romantics saw him in the light of the awakening spirit of independence; in his drawings, Erik Haamer (1908-1994) who emigrated to Sweden in 1944 gave the devil, the enemy of Kalevipoeg, the face of Stalin.

Illustrations to the national epic by Kristjan Raud (1865–1943) produced between the two world wars are still considered an unsurpassable achievement in visualising Kalevipoeg. Raud’s charcoal drawings display mythological and religious mysticism, influences of national wood handicraft (the ‘rough’ contours of the figures) and the life experience of an old man.

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