Under the Southern Cross. Gunnar Neeme: an Estonian Artist in Australia
Gunnar Neeme (1918–2005) was one of the most remarkable Estonian artists and authors in Australia due to his exceptionally diverse artistic legacy, active primeval talent and limitless energy. In 2018, when we celebrate the centennial of the Republic of Estonia, one hundred years will also have passed since the birth of the artist Gunnar Neeme in Tartu. Although Neeme had a noteworthy 60-year-long career in faraway Australia, his name and oeuvre have remained in relative obscurity for Estonian art audiences.
Gunnar Neeme (originally Johannes Näkk) was born on 19 May 1918 in Tartu. He began his art studies at the Pallas Art School, which he intermittently attended between 1937 and 1943 under the guidance of Kaarel Liimand, Aleksander (Bergman) Vardi, Johannes Võerahansu, Villem Ormisson and Anton Starkopf. In the autumn of 1944, during the great escape, Gunnar Neeme and his wife Hilja fled Estonia in fear of the second Soviet occupation and accompanying repression. Via refugee camps in Germany, they ended up in Australia in 1949 and settled in Melbourne. At that time, the young artist took the new name Gunnar Neeme. For decades, it was a well-kept secret in Estonian art history that the successful Australian artist Gunnar Neeme was actually the once-promising Pallas student Johannes Näkk.
Gunnar Neeme also took the job of visual artist very seriously and surprisingly quickly became part of the Australian art scene. A mere two months after having arrived in Australia, he participated in his first local art exhibition and joined the Victorian Artists’ Society, the most renowned art association in Melbourne and the State of Victoria. From that time onward the artist maintained an impressively active schedule of participation in exhibitions. Besides personal shows, his artwork was repeatedly chosen for national art exhibitions and displays of Australian art abroad. In addition to nearly all of the Australian states, Neeme’s works have been on exhibit in the United States of America, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, New Zealand, France, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Peru and Japan, where his art has also been frequently purchased. The artist’s works can be found in private collections in Argentina, Venezuela and Israel.
“Multi-talented and phenomenally industrious, Gunnar Neeme was active in many fields, such as painting, printmaking, monumental drawing, collage, watercolour, book illustrations, sculpture, monumental painting, set design and even poetry and drama,” says the curator Kersti Koll. “His visual art is characterised by a great variety of genres: landscape painting (which has very strong traditions in Australian art), figural and abstract compositions and still lifes. Neeme’s oeuvre consists of suggestive realism, sensitive colour use, forceful abstract intuition, extremely minimalist line drawing and revealing emptiness. His art was shaped by memories of Estonia, a strong foundation from the Pallas Art School, European art experiences, as well as the landscape, mythology, light and colours of Australia,” Koll says.
A more significant episode in Neeme’s oeuvre is the theme of the epic Kalevipoeg, which primarily captivated the artist due to its deep mythological force. Over several decades, he completed powerful series of drawings, some of the most comprehensive interpretations on the topic of Kalevipoeg in Estonian art history.
Besides artistic work, Gunnar Neeme worked as an author. He wrote the plays Sõnajala õis (Fern Blossom), Mosaiigid (Mosaics) and Mustade ristide maa (The Land of Black Crosses) and published two poetry compilations in Estonian and three in English, entitled Kollane vihm (Yellow Rain) and Mist of Time (1976), Maalit uiman and The Notes (1981) and The Waves (1988).
With great energy and a sense of mission, Gunnar Neeme contributed to the activities of the Estonian refugee community. He was an active promoter of the Estonian art scene in Australia thanks to his own work and professionalism, and also was an organiser of exhibitions, an author of art-related articles and a public speaker. With incredible energy, he managed to participate in the operations of several Estonian expatriates’ organisations and create monumental murals for nearly all of the Estonian Houses in Australia.
This exhibition continues a long tradition of the Art Museum of Estonia and one of its branches, the Adamson-Eric Museum, studying Estonian expatriate art and presenting artists from the expatriate community to Estonian audiences. In earlier exhibitions, we focussed on artists mainly working in Sweden, the United States and Canada, but with Gunnar Neeme’s life and oeuvre, the audience can get a close look at the cultural history of the Estonian community in Australia. The collaboration between the Estonian Literary Museum and the Art Museum of Estonia on mapping the artist’s legacy and archive began in 2011. Gunnar Neeme’s extensive art collection and archive was a generous gift from the artist’s children and arrived in Estonia in 2017 with the help of the Compatriots Programme.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a richly illustrated book about Gunnar Neeme. The articles in the book have been written by Kersti Koll and Marin Laak.
The curator of the exhibition is Kersti Koll, and the designer of the exhibition and the catalogue is Tiit Jürna.
Our cooperation partner in the project: the Estonian Literary Museum
With the support of: the Estonian Ministry of Education and Research; the Compatriots Programme
Gunnar Neeme (1918–2005)
Mother and Child. 1978
Oil on fibreboard
Art Museum of Estonia