Enchanted by the North. Estonian Artists in Nordic Countries
The Nordic countries – Norway, Sweden and Finland, including Åland – have captivated Estonian artists at different times and for different reasons and have provided them with creative impulses. The exhibition Enchanted by the North examines the creative contacts of Estonian artists with the Nordic countries and the meaning of these contacts for the history of Estonian art and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries. The exhibition continues the examination of the artistic ties between Estonia and the Nordic countries, which is one of the orientations of the Adamson-Eric Museum.
Konrad Mägi. Norwegian Landscape
In the course of a general wave of interest in the Nordic countries in the 19th century, many Baltic-German artists from Estonia were charmed by Scandinavia, and primarily by Norway and its spectacular nature. From this same period, we find many works with Finnish themes. Among the most significant examples are the ten views of various sites in Finland painted by Karl Ferdinand von Kügelgen in 1818 at the behest of Alexander I of Russia. Lithographs based on these works were published as a three-part album entitled Vues pittoresques de la Finlande [Picturesque views of Finland] in St. Petersburg in 1823−1824. These works also occupy an exceptionally important place in Finnish art history.
In the first decades of the 20th century, when Estonia’s national art and cultural life were being intensively established and modernised, direct contacts with the cultural centres of Western Europe became increasingly important for young Estonian artists and intellectuals. The primary destination was Paris but, en route, stops were often made in Finland. At the start of the century, Helsinki became an important gathering place for Estonians to study and work. After the Revolution of 1905, it also became a place of exile. A more profound interest in the Nordic countries, along with an enthusiastic attitude toward its breathtaking nature, characterised an entire generation of Estonian artists, so that one can even speak of a Nordic period in Estonian art history during the first decades of the 20th century. From this period, two important phenomena emerge as fascinating chapters in the history of Estonian art and culture: the trips of Estonian artists and writers to Åland between 1906 and 1913, and the trips of Estonian artists from Paris to Norway during the summers of 1907 to 1910. In 1906, Nikolai Triik, Konrad Mägi and Aleksander Tassa, who were just starting out on their creative paths, spent their summer in Åland. The latter also spent the summer of 1913 there, together with the writer Friedebert Tuglas and sculptor Anton Starkopf. Inspired by the affection for Åland demonstrated by the artists, Friedebert Tuglas spend a total of four summers there. In his works, he created a legend of cultural history associated with the time spent in Åland by the young Estonian artists, and poetically christened Åland the Happiness Island. Åland was undoubtedly also the Happiness Island for the young Estonian artists who arrived from St. Petersburg, which had been devastated by revolutionary turmoil. Having been expelled from the Stieglitz School of Industrial Art for their dissension, they were able to spend an idyllic and creatively inspiring summer there, immersed in the forms and colourful resonance of nature, before travelling on to Paris.
Aleksander Tassa, for whom the Åland experience played the greatest role in his subsequent creative path, wrote the following in 1912: “/…/ There is a wonderful atmosphere in the Nordic countries /…/; once you get there you cannot escape.” Indeed, starting in 1907, Norway became the destination for creative summer activities for artists studying in Paris. They were captivated by the local art: primarily Edvard Munch’s expressionism and his great personal aura, as well as Gerhard Munthe’s national romanticism. Undoubtedly, the attention of the young artists was also attracted to Christian Krohg, the most remarkable representative of Norwegian art life, with whom the Estonians also had personal contacts. The young Estonian artists were captivated by Norwegian literature and music, and the romantic vision of Norwegian history, although it was Norwegian nature that charmed them most. The pining for Norway among the Estonian artists fused with the fervour that generally pervaded the cultural circles of Europe at that time. The works by the writers Knut Hamsun and Henrik Ibsen, the composer Edvard Grieg and the artists Erik Werenskiold, Gerhard Munthe, Edvard Munch and many other sparkling personalities ensured Norway a noteworthy place in Europe’s cultural consciousness. The growth of interest in Norway was also apparent in the Estonian press at the time, which was intensified by the fact that the Nordic countries, which had recently become independent, had achieved general recognition for their high culture. The conscious determination of Norwegian and Finnish identity through art and culture was seen as an example worth following.
Jaan Koort and Nikolai Triik were the first to arrive in Norway in 1907. The earliest paintings by Koort, who was known mainly as a sculptor, date back to the time he spent as a farm worker in Norway. When he returned to Paris, he completed a portrait sculpture of Henrik Ibsen, who had greatly inspired him. Even a few years later, he spoke about the positive experience of his time in Norway in a letter to Karl Eduard Sööt: “I plan to move to Norway – because Norway is closest to my true being /…/”. However, Koort was not able to carry out this plan. Nikolai Triik, whose later work was most affected by national romanticism, also worked in Norway during the next summer, in 1908. Unfortunately, of the paintings he completed in Norway, only A Decorative Norwegian Landscape has survived. With its monumental stylisation, this work, which is one of the most remarkable in Estonian art history, is almost an ode to the powerful majesty of Nordic nature. In 1908, Triik was accompanied by Roman Nyman, who had exchanged the traditional Stieglitz School of Industrial Arts stipend for study in Paris or Italy for a trip to Norway. The stipend enabled him to travel around Norway much more extensively than the other Estonian artists, while making his lyrical-romantic and ethnographic drawings. Collecting material for a stage production of Peer Gynt, he also visited Lillehammer, Lom and Gudbrandsdalen, with its beautiful nature. In 1908 Aleksander Tassa and Konrad Mägi also visited Norway. The young Estonian artists synthesised the powerful experience of Norwegian nature, which provided inexhaustible subject matter for painting, with what they had seen and learned in Paris. Based on their particular approaches, they created their first significant works. Of the works created by Tassa in Norway, a few impasto landscape studies have survived. However, interpretations refined by the Norwegian experience can also be seen in his illustrations and vignette sketches in the third Noor-Eesti Album, which was published in 1909. When his friends returned to Paris in the autumn, Konrad Mägi was forced by circumstances to remain in Norway until the end of 1910. These sometimes lonely years, interspersed with hardship and subsistence worries, were a time for serious self-searching. Working through what he had learned in Paris, searching for his creative method and style, the years in Norway became Mägi’s first significant and very intensive period of creation. It could be said that one of the most outstanding colourists in Estonian art history developed into a painter in Norway. His intensive work was crowned by success: in 1910 he exhibited his work at one of the most important galleries in Kristiana (Oslo) at that time, the Blomqvist Gallery. The works he sent home from Norway for the Third Estonian Art Exhibition also introduced him to the Estonian public.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Estonia conducted its art relations with the Nordic countries as an independent state. Exhibitions were exchanged, and artists made study and work trips to Finland, Sweden and Norway, trips recalled by the many works that capture these mood-filled moments. The Nordic countries also played an important role in Adamson-Eric’s creative development: in 1928, he exhibited his work along with Kristjan Teder and Eduard Wiiralt at the Blomqvist Gallery in Oslo, under the name “the Parisian Estonian Artists Group”. In the second half of the 1930s, Adamson-Eric planned a series of solo exhibitions in Scandinavia, which were exceptionally large in scale for the time: in 1936, a solo exhibition at the Strindberg Gallery in Helsinki, and in 1939 at the Konstnärshuset in Stockholm. Some of the preparations were made for an exhibition in Oslo, which should have taken place in 1940, but it was cancelled by the outbreak of war. These exhibitions were also significant because Adamson-Eric and Eduard Wiiralt were the only ones who were able to organise full-scale solo exhibitions in foreign countries during the inter-war period. Nordic nature also enticed Adamson-Eric to paint in Finland during several summers. At this exhibition, an overview of his Finland-themed works that exist in Estonia is on exhibit.
The largest influx of Estonian artists to Scandinavia occurred in 1944. They primarily fled to Sweden, along with thousands of Estonians escaping the Soviet occupation at the end of World War II. The exodus included many recognised artists who had to adapt to new surroundings and cultural contexts. Karin Luts, Herman Talvik, Eerik Haamer, Jaan Grünberg, Juhan Nõmmik, Eduard Ole and many others settled in Sweden. An interesting aspect related to their work and process of adapting to their new environment was how they established a relationship with the local nature, insofar as it suited the artists’ established means of expression, and how this altered over time.
The works of the artists that were active during the same period in Estonia, behind the “Iron Curtain”, also reveal quixotic glances toward the Nordic countries and quests to experience the monumental nature of Scandinavia by making trips to Karelia. These quests are marked in this exhibition by individual symbolic works.
Exhibition curator and author of the text: Kersti Koll
Exhibition designer: Tiit Jürna
Graphic designer: Külli Kaats
Curator of the public and educational programmes: Liis Kibuspuu
Exhibition team: Renita Raudsepp, Ester Kangur, Uve Untera and Aleksander Josing
We thank: the Cultural Endowment of Estonia, Tallinn City Centre Administration, Tartu Art Museum, Under and Tuglas Literature Centre, Art Collection of the University of Tartu Library and Viljandi Museum