est eng 2024/1 international special pages! See: Nils Ohlsen "Konrad Mägi and Die Brücke at the Baltic Sea – just a coincidence or a phenomenon?"


Unframed Baltic trilogies

Kädi Talvoja (1/2024)

Kädi Talvoja



The exhibition "Unframed. Leis, Tabaka, Rožanskaitė" explored two significant areas of focus for the Kumu Art Museum: women artists and Baltic art dialogues. Malle Leis (1940–2017), Maija Tabaka (b. 1939) and Marija Teresė Rožanskaitė (1933–2007) played different roles in the art scenes of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania during the 1970s–1980s. Yet, despite their differences, all three stood out prominently in the context of late Soviet Baltic art.

The curators' choice for "Unframed" was not to unite the "Baltic sisters" in mutual support, quite the opposite, the aim was to assemble the strongest ones. However, the outcome, displayed in the confined space of the 3rd-floor gallery, wasn't entirely seamless. Next to Leis and Tabaka's intense images, Rožanskaitė's work, with its distinctive register, left a somewhat subdued impression.

And yet, it was Rožanskaitė's work that most subtly engaged with the concept of "unframed". Firstly, of course, through shifting the pictorial format to assemblages. But secondly, of the trio, it was Rožanskaitė who clashed the most with the values of the 1970s–1980s art world – her paintings not conforming to the frame of Lithuanian painting, which esteemed tradition and expressive qualities.

In this regard, at Kumu, Rožanskaitė proudly disrupted the distinct qualities and mutual dynamics that linked the painting schools of the three nations based on the joint exhibitions of that era – the Vilnius painting triennials. In the context of the Kumu exhibition, the Latvian artist most often played the role of the mediator or the "average" between the emotional-spontaneous Lithuanian and the modern-rational Estonian artist. According to the curators, it was Estonian Malle Leis who harmonised the dynamics between Baltic traditions, with her early works akin to Rožanskaitė's and later works aligning more with Tabaka's.

It would be wrong to assert that the artist's gender was irrelevant during the Soviet era. In Estonia, for instance, there was a period when the great emergence of women graphic artists gave rise to concerns that art was becoming too feminine. However, in the context of the painting triennials, gender received relatively little attention. Though Leis, Tabaka and Rožanskaitė's works were included in the triennials of 1978 and 1987, they were never compared in reviews.

However, at that time, the focus was principally on evaluating how well the artists fitted into the tapestry of the schools they represented. Malle Leis' popish, smooth-surfaced visions not only suited the image of the Estonian school of painting but, in retrospect, were significant contributions to that school. For example, when examining the selection presented at the Estonian exposition for the first triennial in 1969, it is apparent that only Leis' work corresponds to the keywords of Estonian art that recur year after year – modern, emotionally restrained, combining unexpected objects and exploring unusual colour contrasts.

Maija Tabaka had a comparable impact on the image of the Latvian school of painting. While, as a whole, Latvian art acted as the "average" of Estonian and Lithuanian art, its distinctive vagueness allowed brilliant artistic personalities to emerge, with Tabaka undoubtedly among the brightest. She became the star of the triennials, with extensive sections of the exhibition reviews devoted to her works, and her absence from the 1981 triennial causing much disappointment.

While Latvian critics tried to legitimise Tabaka's wild compositions by layering them with dimensions of social criticism, Estonians were primarily captivated by the irrationality of her paintings. Although the reviews of Estonian art scholars suggest that Tabaka's dramatic flare and vibrancy, theatrical compositions, and strange characters crossed the line of good taste, her pictures were irresistibly magnetic. Interestingly enough, the Lithuanian reviewers were the most resistant to Tabaka's charms, recognising the artist's fantasy and professionalism, yet seeing emptiness behind the external glitz and glory of her paintings.

As mentioned, Rožanskaitė lacked a support system from the Lithuanian school of painting. It is true that her husband, Igoris Piekuras, worked in a similar style, which in Lithuania was associated with an all-too-Estonian pursuit of "new objectivity". And yet, Estonians did not recognise Rožanskaitė's paintings as their own either. Ene Lamp found Rožanskaitė's large-scale heart surgery-themed paintings intriguing and disturbing, but – accustomed to the finesse and precision appreciated in Estonian painting culture – she did not appreciate the artist's helplessness when painting folds of fabric.

Rožanskaitė's paintings at the exhibition also left me feeling the most disturbed. Not because of the folds, but due to a factor often overlooked in the formalistic art analyses of the Soviet era – the palpable proximity of death and overwhelming sense of loneliness that these paintings evoke. While Rožanskaitė's paintings clearly did not align with the narrow frames of late Soviet art reception, time has finally caught up with her art, and there are rumours that the exposition of the Lithuanian pavilion at the 2024 international Venice Art Biennale will centre around her work.

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