This exhibition is dedicated to the inhabitants of Ruhnu Island and to the passing of 70 years from the day when, in August 1944, all the people except for two families were evacuated from their farms to Sweden. This forced interruption divided the history of Ruhnu into two distinct periods: the time before and after the historical inhabitants left. The Swedish-language community had existed on the island for more than 700 years, with their traditional way of life but, after fleeing, their hope of returning in a few years was crushed due to the post-war political reorganisation of Europe. By now, most of the ethnic Swedes who were born on the island before 4 August 1944 have passed away, and the duty of succeeding generations is to keep alive the memory of those past events and people, and to highlight both the charm and the painful history of the small island.
In order to create the appropriate atmosphere, the organisers of the exhibition “Ruhnu Elegies” have chosen authentic items, as well as films and works of art, which characterise the times past and present on Ruhnu and the lives of its people. Ruhnu seems to have been inhabited already in ancient times, as archaeologists have found traces of Viking-era settlements on the island. The first written source on the fact that locals were of Swedish origin is a letter from the bishop of Courland, sent on 28 June 1341. The letter confirms that the island’s population was subject to the laws of Sweden (svensk rätt), and lays down the peasants’ tax obligations to the bishopric. In effect, the islanders were free farmers who had certain obligations to pay church taxes, but over centuries of their existence they were not bound to the land like the Estonian population on the mainland.
The surrounding sea has limited the islanders’ freedom of movement to a certain extent, but on the other hand, the sea has always been a route for cultural contacts with various European countries. Ruhnu enjoys a unique location – lapped by the waves of the Gulf of Riga tens of kilometres away from any other land – and this has resulted in some rather unique layers in the traditional way of life. Some of this uniqueness is on display at the exhibition “Ruhnu Elegies” via works of art, ethnological material collected on the island, and films on the topic of Ruhnu.
The traditional lifestyle, the peculiarities of the local nature, and its famous pair of churches have been recorded by a number of artists connected to Estonia. Thus, the focus of the exhibition is primarily on visual art. The earliest works in the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia are two figural compositions from the mid-19th century by Ernst Hermann Schlichting, depicting Ruhnu families in traditional costumes. In the first half of the 20th century, Ruhnu played a significant role in the oeuvre of the renowned artists Andrei Jegorov, Ernö Koch, Agathe Veeber and others.
The display also includes a number of artistic generalisations by Eerik Haamer, the sketches for which were completed in 1936–1940 on Ruhnu as a result of conversations with locals and being inspired by the sea and the village life. Motifs from Ruhnu could still be found in Haamer’s oeuvre even during his refugee years in Sweden. Some of his paintings depict epic stories about Ruhnu, an island populated by seal hunters, fishermen and industrious women.
Besides the inhabitants, artists of the 20th century have drawn inspiration from the island’s scenic and varied coastline, mighty forest and fascinating history. The items in the exposition span more than a century and mostly come from the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia. Some Ruhnu-related works have been loaned by artists from their private collections.
The painters and printmakers who have occasionally visited Ruhnu Island since the late 1950s include Helgi Hirv, Ann Jõers, Külliki Järvila, Kristiina Kaasik, Gita Teearu, Olga Terri, Vive Tolli, Uno Roosvalt and Lüüdia Vallimäe-Mark. In the 1970s and 80s, students from the State Art Institute of the Estonian SSR, under the guidance of Leila Pärtelpoeg and others, spent time on Ruhnu collecting material on local buildings, interior design elements, and everyday objects. Hundreds of pages of gathered information have fortunately been stored in the Estonian National Museum, and a small part of the material is also on display at the exhibition.
The island of Ruhnu and its inhabitants have been recorded on film by several cameramen, cultural historians and ethnologists. Hopefully, the originality and authenticity of Ruhnu will be made clearer to viewers with the help of a selection of films from the 20th and 21st centuries, which includes old archived material and data gathered on expeditions to Ruhnu by the Estonian National Museum.
Our thanks go to the following cooperation partners: the Estonian National Museum, Aiboland Museum, Ruhnu Museum and Viinistu Museum.
The visual material for the exhibition can be found on the digital database of the Art Museum of Estonia:
The exhibition Ruhnu Elegies will remain open at the Adamson-Eric Museum until 19 October 2014.
Exhibition curator and author of the text: Ülle Kruus
Co-curator: Piret Õunapuu (Eesti Rahva Muuseum / Estonian National Museum)
Thank you for the help with the exhibition: Kersti Koll
Exhibition design and graphic design: Inga Heamägi
Curator of the public and educational programmes: Liis Kibuspuu
Exhibition technicians: Uve Untera, Mati Schönberg