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... draws you in and slips away

Vano Allsalu (4/2022)

Vano Allsalu went to see the exhibition "The Burning Man – Peeter Mudist".



1. X 2022–15. I–2023
Estonian National Museum
Curator: Reet Mark



In the midst of all the good and bad that 2022 represents as it nears its close, it also marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of Estonian artist Peeter Mudist (1942–2013). The exhibition of his works that opened at the Postimees gallery in April was followed in October by "The Burning Man", an exhibition of sixty paintings and twenty sculptures at the Estonian National Museum in Tartu. "From a distance, Mudist points to what is important," says Reet Mark, the curator of the Tartu exhibition. "Suffering from Parkinson's for more than half of his life, he dedicated himself to what was most important. Everything he did, he did in his own way, with great zeal and always as kind of a bystander. As if he had felt a burning inside."1

A humanist by nature, Mudist first invites his viewers to simply come along and engage with him. Leaving aside all false shame and pretensions. Like we do when peeking at passers-by outside our front gate – or gazing at other people moving about their yard when we are out for a walk. Here, the juxtaposition of "in" and "out" is not a question of power; the artist does not assert his superiority over the viewer – but neither does he go out of his way to be liked.

Etched into my memory is my first encounter with a painting by Mudist, when as a schoolboy, I saw "Immortal One Prodding a Pile of Ice" (1977) in the then Tartu State Art Museum. I would describe it as a metaphysical experience and a poetic awakening – as if from the blackish-grey reality of a period of stagnation, a door had opened onto a colourful parallel universe, where a pastime as jolly and futile as poking at a thing with your foot can be commended. Where meanings are not fixed, but everyone is free to play their own game. And where there exists an altogether different kind of "immortality" than the one posthumously awarded to war heroes.

To me, Mudist falls into the same category as Estonian author Ernst Enno (1875–1934), whose poems, with their strange imagery and symbolic use of words, sometimes give me goosebumps – while other times, I would describe them more as... simply beautiful poems. The quadruple painting "Around Estonia. Fear. Panic. Reval or Kabala" (1989), now displayed at the Estonian National Museum, touches me deeply in its third part, which shows a family fleeing on horseback, while the other three chapters leave me tepid. Perhaps it is because of the power of the archetypal fear encapsulated in this motif – the fear of being forced to flee, of having to abandon one's home and the animals under one's care.

It is not only large paintings with human figures that have an evocative effect – some plump Mudist peonies can be no less stirring. Of course, I also like the artist's classic works: "Boy on a Stone" (1976), the blaze of "The Burning Man" (1993) and "Goes" (1989), or "Spring in Keila" (1978), with its particularly penetrating greens. But eventually, all these works come alive and obtain meaning when viewed in unison – with the sweet and the bitter, the commonplace and the strange positioned side by side. Not unlike how it is in life.

 

 

 

Peeter Mudist
The Burning Man
1993
oil on canvas, 125 x 120 cm
Photo by Berta Jänes
Private collection

 

 

 

For half a century now, people have praised Mudist and tried to understand him. I cannot recall anyone among my otherwise unflinchingly critical fellow artists who, upon hearing his name, would simply shrug or start complaining about his flawed approach or style. It is hard to imagine that we could discover some form of previously unknown and fundamentally new perspectives in his works today; rather, the artist's charmingly clumsy and whimsical narrative quality itself finds new connections with the changing reality, renewing the space for interpretation as it does.

Leaving aside the stories told by the images and the author's own statements, I am most fascinated by the paintings in which the space uninhabited by figures and objects is filled with sensitive and unpredictable brushstrokes, translucent swathes and layers of colour, with the painting process suggested in between. It is this luminous "somewhere", wrapped in tinted mist, that is perhaps more significant than the tangible bodies. After all, we also appreciate William Turner's (1775–1851) paintings for their characteristic atmosphere, a space that the viewer standing before the painting feels like they can enter, a space that projects outward, enfolding them.

It is no doubt a rare and significant accomplishment when an artist can create tension using tools that look as mellow as this – and this says a lot about the inner, so-called hidden resources of painting. This tension might stem from anxiety. But it might just as well stem from excitement, an anticipation of what lies ahead, of what we may not comprehend in our everyday existence. Was this tension projected into these works – or does it emanate from them? Is the artist more of an expressionist or an impressionist, an externaliser or an investigator?

In any case, the light, the light that exudes from the colours in Mudist's work, is so perceptive, so sensuous. And then there are his sculptures, in granite and bronze, which reveal him as yet another person, and his prints that reveal him as yet another... These comparisons illustrate how the artist's sense of form is also a product of the material being handled, and not only of his inspired spirit.

In the words of the master himself: "Yes, sometimes everything fades into clear focus, and it is in that clarity where my duty lies, indisputable and observable. So I go and inspect, move up close, trace the lines, because it is mine – my duty. There is clarity. And I do what I have to do."2

Art historian Reet Varblane has written: "It is not only the fact that Mudist has touched upon something quintessential, existential in his art, that he has evoked a state that has arrested people and made them feel like life is still worth living. It is the fact that he has done this using such simple and plain tools."3 "Images are where things happen," the artist was quoted as saying in his official obituary, "You must first reconcile yourself to this world and then try to come through for it."4

In his great humanist endeavour, Mudist has often spiced his works with humour, ranging from the absurd to the endearing. Those of us who are not malicious can afford some mischief. You can trust in Mudist with no apprehension; it doesn't feel forced or seem like false courtesy. Even when he rips the clothes off the poetess of our national awakening, he is loved no less – "Poet Lydia Koidula" (1974) recently sold at a Haus Gallery auction for 111,000 euros.5

It is important that we keep the work of our beloved artist in sight. If only because Mudist continues to radiate energy. It would be a sin to analyse or deconstruct a man such as him to the point of tedium – we should simply accept him. And join him in his game.

Peeter Mudist draws you in. And then slips away. As if in a game of hide and seek. But no. He is still with us.


1 Reet Mark, Peeter Mudist rääkis tõsistest asjadest naerdes. – Postimees 15. X 2022.

2 See more: Peeter Mudist. Ed. Liina Kulles. Tallinn: Aasta Raamat, 2004.

3 Reet Varblane, Tagasi vaadates Peeter Mudistile. – kultuur.err 9. XII 2013.

4 https://kultuur.err.ee/295479/im-memoriam-peeter-mudist.

5 http://www.haus.ee/?c=teosed&l=et&id=18888&window=1&oid=533&form=0.



Vano Allsalu is a painter and art educator. He is vice president of the Estonian Artists' Association.

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