Kaja Kärner: Friendship and Time
Kaja Kärner (1920–1998) was one of the central figures in the legendary Tartu circle of friends, the first informal group of artists in post-World War II Estonia. She was among the first artists in Estonian art history to create abstract compositions and collages with a good sense of rhythm and colour, and her genre paintings leave a lasting impression on the viewer. The laconic generalised forms in her works capture the overall tonality of the era, and the subtle shades of colour with a touch of fine-tuned irony provide clear insight into the everyday life of her times.
From 1937 to 1948, Kaja Kärner studied at the State Applied Art School, the Higher Art School Pallas, and the Tartu State Art Institute. Immediately upon graduation – as a gifted alumnus and a student of the artist Ado Vabbe – she was offered a drawing teacher’s position at the Tartu State Art Institute and was also granted membership in the Artists’ Association. She belonged to the generation of artists who should have entered the art scene at the end of the 1940s, but as victims of Stalinist repressions many of her peers were sent to Siberian prison camps instead. Kärner was spared and was able to stay in Tartu, but still fell victim to the Soviet authoritarian system: she lost her job as a drawing teacher and was expelled from the Artists’ Association. For the next nine years, she worked officially as the label painter of Tartu Kaubastu (the Tartu branch of the state organisation of trade).
In 1956–1967, when men were returning from Siberia, the former fellow students and like-minded artists, i.e. “the boys” who had survived the prison camps and “the girls” who had survived repression at home, got together as the first post-World War II group of artists in Estonia, known as the Group of 1960, named after their only uncensored exhibition, held in 1960. The group passionately searched for an unofficial artistic language and new modern means of expression, but also devoted themselves to preserving the attitudes and aesthetics of the free pre-war art scene. Although the mainly underground oeuvre of the group members reached the public along half-concealed paths and mostly decades later, the role that these artists played in the development of Estonian post-war art innovation cannot be overstated.
This project is part of the long-term exhibition series Woman Artist and Her Time at the Adamson-Eric Museum, presenting to art connoisseurs in Tallinn the oeuvre of Kaja Kärner, one of the most outstanding “girls” of the legendary Tartu circle of friends, the Group of 1960. It is also a notional sequel to the 2021 exhibition of another significant woman artist of the group, Valve Janov.
Curator: Kersti Koll
Exhibition design and graphic design: Inga Heamägi