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The 1930s–1950s in Estonian art: the aesthetics of totalitarianism

Johannes Saar (4/2022)

Johannes Saar analyses the exhibition "Still Lifes on National Motifs".

22. X 2022–22. I 2023
Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (ETDM)
Historical works by: Adamson-Eric, Mari Adamson, Aino Alamaa, Jaan Jensen, Ede Kurrel, Helmi Käsukond, Paul Luhtein, Boris Lukats, Jutta Matvei, Lydia Mei, Leida Palu, Adele Reindorff, Maks Roosma, Evald Okas, Lydia Jõõts and others
New works by: Edith Karlson, Anna Mari Liivrand, Urmas Lüüs, Jaanus SammaCompiled by: Jaanus Samma
Texts accompanying the historical displays: Andreas Kalkun
Texts accompanying the new works: Rael Artel

The exhibition "Still Lifes on National Motifs", compiled by Jaanus Samma at the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (ETDM), does the same thing as the artist's previous projects – it tears at the Estonian national narrative. This time, however, the artist has "accomplices", including curator Rael Artel, who has a "criminal record" in subverting nationalism that goes back more than a decade. Samma has also brought in fellow artists with a more recently found passion for satirising national pride: Edith Karlson, Anna Maria Liivrand and Urmas Lüüs.

And there is good reason for this rallying of nationally critical forces. We can skip any discussion of nationalist populism in politics, which currently proliferates on Toompea; the threat it poses to both nationalism itself and its opposite, liberalism, is no longer worth writing about. Everything is patently clear anyway. However, cultural nationalism, this melange of heritage culture that stares back at us from the collections of the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (ETDM ), poses a somewhat more complicated problem. We have inherited it like a relative we cannot choose; we're stuck with it like we're stuck with our parents, who seem to have the right to some kind of guardianship over us, a moral superiority over future generations. Ancestors always command more recognition; the mere celebration of their achievements by including them in a museum collection can trigger uneasiness and angst in the younger generations, who have arrived late and had the door slammed in their faces.

Samma shouldn't complain, though. He has represented this nation at the Venice Art Biennale, received recognition, money, respect. But he has done so precisely by tearing the national narrative apart, deconstructing it and revealing a rupture that runs right through the Estonian story – not as an external border pushing back the Soviet narrative but as an inherent instability, hybridity and polyphony within our own cultural and collective self-image. This in turn brings to mind the pro-Kremlin sentiments expressed by the "national conservatives" on Toompea, whether they are doing so consciously or not, whether they get compensated for it or act on their own initiative. But that is not what Samma is talking about. Instead, he is interested in the quiet incorporation of Soviet heritage into the so-called native culture. That is the thorn in his side; and he treats it as a plank in the eye of the crude nationalist.

There are only three works by Samma, which are shown in the front room of the museum. They are nevertheless good – providing a leitmotif and posing a problem for the entire exhibition. They focus the viewer's thinking. All three were made specifically for the project this year. The first, a silkscreen print titled "Kalev's Sons " (2022), has the artist analysing the canonical iconography of this Estonian epic hero (Kalevipoeg – literally Kalev's son – Ed.). He does so using the full spectrum of the colours of the rainbow, so radiant that they come across as rather psychedelic.




Jaanus Samma
Kalev's Sons
Photo by Stanislav Stepashko
Courtesy of the artist




Against the backdrop of this onslaught of colour with pop-art-like brashness, Kristjan Raud's national-romanticist illustrations for the Estonian national epic – showing Kalevipoeg in his well-known epic poses – are reduced to black silhouettes in figural compositions, once the dominant genre in Soviet monumental art but seen here as miniatures, rather like a shadowy Darth Vader with his low voice insistently reminding us all: "I am your father." Samma's reaction, correspondingly, is to turn the whole exhibition into an Oedipal act of patricide. While no one here falls by the sword, the prick of the embroidery needle does prove fatal. Kalevipoeg himself is put to death by embroidery.

The other two works by Samma distance themselves from the national narrative in their own way. One of them, "Carpet No 17" (2022), woven by master carpet makers Merike Lond and Aleksandra Mikson to Samma's instructions, is loosely based on a pattern sheet taken from a 1930s home decoration guide but turns it on its head and distances itself from canonical depiction by using a fauvist palette and a laconic base drawing. It does so to a degree that turns epic heroes into little Lego men and immerses the entire image in the implausibility of a pixelated world. The third work, "Vases with Grain Heads" (2022), is an installation poking a probe right into the heart of our applied art and reporting back on the pathologies it finds.

Yes, elements of the Soviet narrative – the "achievements" of the Soviet economy, more specifically, the motifs of Lysenkoism – have found their way into our national patterns. Let's admit it, the slogan "National in form, socialist in content!" did not merely remain on paper; Estonia's 20th century material culture, specifically ornamentation, contains physical evidence of Stalinist agro-utopias. Similarly, the idea of multi-headed crops did not remain only a figment of the imagination of Trofim Lysenko but also made its way to the grain fields across the Soviet Union and China, and brought about a colossal famine in the second half of the 1930s, as the yield of this multi-headed mutant turned out to be next to zero.

The back room gives us the big picture. It shows the more nationalistic features of the EDTM's applied art collections... and their hushed-up affinity with the ideologies of Stalinism, national socialism, totalitarianism, racism and the ideologies of "might makes right". The thematic grouping of objects serves to point out what has been disregarded – the 1940s and 1950s were simply a flourishing continuation of the 1930s shift towards a leadership cult. There was no dramatic break: instead, the "silent era" of Estonian president Konstantin Päts quite naturally ushered in the larger-scale repressions of Stalinism in the following decades. There was no revolution in 1940; it was the beginning of totalitarian escalation. This introduces a provocative new possibility of looking at the 1930s to 1950s as a distinct period in Estonian art history. The aesthetics of totalitarianism.

And there it is! All this raising of beer mugs, song festivals with gigantic choirs, the rhetoric of blood and soil, collective delusions about ancient Viking history, the iconography of a great leader, the epic hero Kalevipoeg, national sporting heroes Georg Lurich, Aleksander Aberg and Kristjan Palusalu, and Joseph Stalin – all this is celebrated with equal solemnity in the design objects here, as if it were all part of some legacy of the Holy Grail, regardless of whether it bears a red star and banner or the national tricolour, a portrait of Stalin or Päts. It is possible to introduce such a periodisation based purely on aesthetics, leaving aside any political cataclysms. Deep cultural patterns and the aesthetics of totalitarianism, which draws on these patterns, remain relatively unchanged. Both share the narrative of happiness attained.

The younger generation, though, doesn't allow this idea of obligatory happiness to get to them. The works of Anna Maria Liivrand, Edith Karlson and Urmas Lüüs also offer a critical commentary on national cultural heritage, but they do it so discreetly that the less attuned visitor (including myself) will at first walk past the display case shrugging their shoulders. It is only the accompanying text by Rael Artel next to the display case that pokes you in the eye and makes you see. And in fact, the message is also brought home by the architecture of the exhibition (designed by Neeme Külm, prototyped by Kadri Villand, produced by Valge Kuup Studio): the massive boulders and a tacky wooden lock of Kalevipoeg's hair fluttering behind each display case. It lets you know the exhibition should be viewed with tongue in cheek. It says that totalitarianism finds its way into the 21st century only in a jester's robes. Despite the war in Ukraine.

Johannes Saar is an art historian, critic and educator with a PhD in media and communication from the University of Tartu.

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