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The incredible day-to-day

Andri Ksenofontov (2/2021)

Andri Ksenofontov on the art of René Kari.



23. X–11. XI 2020
Vabaduse Gallery



In his recent solo exhibition "7x10" at Vabaduse Gallery, René Kari featured an oil painting of the Estonian tricolour in square format. This was not some tired cliché but the original meme of the Estonian flag in the local art scene. Signed "RK 88", alongside the painting Kari wrote: "I was the first who dared to display the triple stripes of blue, black and white – openly (not secretly, avoiding accountability, but under my own name, outspokenly, as a clear demonstration, an intentional political provocation) and explicitly as a flag – presenting three paintings of the tricolour in my solo exhibition at Draakoni Gallery, which was right across the street from KGB headquarters… this was on 2 March 1988, a month and a half before the Tartu Heritage Days, where 'the flag was flown in the form of three separate pieces of fabric'." This means the painting was not presented as new work, but as a museological reminder: "I was the first one in Estonia to dare and publicly, before the eyes of a thousand people, to call for the restoration of the Republic of Estonia (at the First Independent Youth Forum on 4 June 1988). This was more than three months before Heinz Valk uttered the famous words, 'One day, no matter what, we will win!'"

 

 

 

Draakon Gallery 2. III 1988 (photographed through the window)
Photographer René Kari

 

 

 

This article does not attempt to challenge the history of Estonia and is written with the full acknowledgement of the long and faceted history of exhibiting the Estonian flag and its colours in the one-party system of the Soviet Union, the details of which can be found on the website of the Estonian Flag Association.1 However, René Kari's paintings, which the online encyclopaedia Estonica refers to as censored work "that was prohibited from being exhibited in 1988 due to the use of the colours of the Estonian flag"2, have yet to be mentioned in the overview provided by the Estonian Flag Association. True, René Kari was preceded by Endel Jõgi, who on 24 February 1987 took the flag to Toompea Castle Square on horseback, as well as those flying the tricolour on October 21 of the same year at the memorial meeting held in Võru to honour the men fallen in the War of Independence. However, René Kari differed from them in that he did not just flash the paintings but left them hanging on a gallery wall – if only security officials had not intervened the next day. It was not until 2018 that the President of the Republic awarded him the Order of the White Star, 4th Class – for bringing "the blue, black and white stripes before the public in the early stages of the Singing Revolution in his 1988 exhibition at Draakoni Gallery, where the paintings were removed from display."3

The Estonian Flag Association presents the story of the tricolour as a narrative of political opposition to prevailing norms. Yet René Kari exhibited his flags in the belief that this was the new, fast approaching normality. In 1988, few people believed that Estonians would succeed in reclaiming their independence, and dissident efforts were expected to be met with punitive action. During this time, René Kari placed numerous bets on the restoration of the Republic of Estonia. Senior dissidents may have thought him naive, but above all René Kari was an artist: former sceptics who still remembered these bets gave him bottles even after 30 years!


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Artists and poets recognise that which is in the air before other people. And when they make this vague "something" that has remained hidden in plain sight for some time visible in words or images, the audience will experience a kind of recognition – "of course it is so", "we have always known this" and so on. Cognitive anthropologist Merlin Donald used the term "distributed cognition" to define this intangible environment, which encompasses non-material culture and the cognitive processes of human consciousness and interpersonal communication. Genius and visionary works can be traced in distributed cognition, but no cognitive scientist has yet found the gland for good new thoughts that seem to exude brilliant ideas in the brains of geniuses.

Then, René Kari did not invent the Estonian flag but recognised that its time had come. Just as the poet does not invent love but recognises that it is the time for loving. This explains why poets speak up about politics in times of radical change. And politicians are later revered like poets. It is only in retrospect that the trail of events is adjusted by politicians who have risen to power for this purpose.

René Kari's square tricolour can be compared to another masterpiece of Estonian independence, the "Manifesto to the Peoples of Estonia" (1918). Although in his book "Estonian History" (2009), historian Seppo Zetterberg admits that during World War I no one in the press took the idea of an independent Republic of Estonia seriously, social democrats such as Juhan Kukk, who authored the manifesto, and Jüri Vilms, who declared the Republic of Estonia, had been working on the idea of a new and just state for years. National statehood was fiercely debated by Russian and Austro-Hungarian social democrats who had taken the goal of dismantling these empires. Estonian communities in towns and villages had established the national economy and culture. This was recognised by Kukk and Vilms, who did not create the Republic of Estonia biblically overnight, but on 18 February 1918 formalised the already existing Estonian society into the Republic of Estonia. It is often the later office holders, such as Jaan Tõnisson or Edgar Savisaar, who are considered the father figures of Estonian independence. As such, it is not René Kari who is celebrated as the first one to have hoisted the flag but the politicians who came to power later on. But it was no one else than René Kari from whom those politicians ordered the current colour standard of the national flag.


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The three similar paintings titled "Blue, Black and White" on display at Draakoni Gallery in 1988, one of which was also featured in his 2020 exhibition at Vabaduse Gallery, are not considered René Kari's main works but rather a departure from his generally apolitical art. Every art exhibition is in a sense a parade, a captivating spectacle, but it may not reveal what lies behind the works on display. Sometimes it is the exceptions that offer a glimpse into the backroom of the artist's works.

First of all, the paint in the tricolour paintings has not been sprayed or rolled onto the canvas, but the smooth blue, black and white covers have been applied with slow brushwork. Due to this, the colour surface is not completely uniform but has a barely detectable texture to it. This is not a brush fetish but René Kari's lifelong artistic credo. The flag trio is an exception in the artist's work in that it does not model the light and shadow of convex surfaces with colour transitions but depicts a level plane. This technique would not seem the least bit unusual, had the artist included the play of light and shadow on the folds of the fabric.

Secondly, René Kari's work is not limited to paintings, as he has also made an art project of his body – a body that he does not pump full of muscles but refines according to the classical ideals of beauty. His method of applying paint on the canvas of the flag paintings is the only one possible – René Kari lives just for this kind of art, and not any other. Yet neither does René Kari receive the recognition he deserves for cultivating his body – instead, web browsers often mistake his portrait photographs for the results of digital image processing. René Kari, who was born in 1950, shares his tips on staying youthful on his website.4 The US publication Apollo Male Models Magazine published an article about him and even invited him to Miami, where René Kari celebrated his 60th birthday. However, people tend to gravitate towards those "gurus of youthfulness" who are younger than Kari but have visibly aged, while remaining cheerful and maintaining a good appetite, which also translates to their figure – such a role model is more likely easier for the average ageing person to identify with than René Kari's incredible physique.

These two shortcomings – one part of the audience not recognising his political priority and the other part his fitness priority – are irrelevant, since art does not need a practical value or purpose. The losing party here is not the artist who has made the work but the audience who do not "get it". Has the artist then not failed if the audience does not understand him in the way he had wished or planned? Communicativeness is one of the qualities that make a work of art. Fortunately, however, communicativeness does not define art.

Art cannot be defined. The more novel and influential a work of art, the more self-defining it is, in retrospect, after it has been created. Art itself determines what is art, not necessarily some other skill or knowledge existing prior to the work of art being made. Art is not something that should necessarily lean on what is already there; rather, a work of art expands the world, broadening and enriching it through its presence. The artist is not only a creator from the perspective of the art audience, he is also a creator in the purest sense, the creator of a world. And even if a work of art is not recognised later on, it can still be found waiting its time in the distributed cognition, whether in someone's memory, account or dusty attic, until it is seen by a future artist who is inspired to create a new work of art with better audience success.

Some artists and poets pick up on new currents and quickly turn them into works that are welcomed by audiences. But it is also possible to arrive at this perception slowly, as a result of prolonged observation or concentration, tuning one's senses and thoughts to a higher degree of sensitivity. Few can match the level of self-tuning and artistic commitment of René Kari.


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The pursuit of becoming an instrument of subtle artistic perception and expression is not tied to any specific technique or genre. Everything goes, from a piece of charcoal and pencil to 3D graphics. Proof of the fact that such fine-tuning really happens and is not just a product of the critic's imagination can be found in the "micro-artist" Graham Short, who creates miniature works of art under a microscope. The Institute of Cancer Research in the United Kingdom commissioned a pill from him and the poet Simon Armitage. More specifically, an identical copy of a pill, since the pills themselves are radioactive. Simon Armitage wrote the poem "Finishing It" (2019) about the efforts and achievements of medical science in the fight against the malignant disease. Because it had to fit on a pill, the poem is extremely compact, not only in terms of the number of characters but also in terms of meaning. The opposite is also true: the condensed content of the poem is conveyed in its meticulous form, the engraving made on the pill by Graham Short.

The surface of a pill is brittle and tends to crumble upon touch. In order to keep fit for the effort and lower his heart rate, Graham Short swims 10 km every day. He works at night when there is less vibration caused by traffic in the area. He wears a stethoscope while working to monitor his pulse, which must be kept below 20 to 25 beats per minute. He pricks the surface with a needle between heartbeats.


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René Kari's creative method may be unusual, but his subject matter is less so. Having worked on his figure ever since he was young, he manifests the beauty of the male body. By exercising regularly and tanning his skin in natural sunlight, he sculpts himself like an ancient Greek statue in bronze, and can often be seen strolling back and forth along the waterfront at Stroomi Beach in summer. Or standing on a rock against the backdrop of a blue sky, posing for a photographer who documents his body change from year to year. Sometimes the model, and artist, stretches out contentedly in the sun, sometimes he lumbers on the wet stone, shivering – it depends on whether the summer is warm or cold.

In the early days of his career, René Kari painted surreal and cosmic abstract compositions that included both masculine and feminine elements. He has always loved a precise, well-considered line. He cuts curved templates on the convex shapes of his compositions, composing rhythms. In the 1990s, his compositions softened into feminine forms, which he considers the ultimate expression of beauty. He refines his male body because it is what has been given to him by birth. Having become friends with the sun, one of René Kari's themes is sunshine, which he depicts in his usual geometric framework or structure.

Another one of René Kari's fondnesses, one that is less known, is his home. He has been fortunate to live in the same house all his life and tinker with its furnishings and the small garden inch by inch, the same way that he sculpts his muscles. In the living spaces, guests will notice a good deal of streaked pinewood, which is over a hundred years old. Next to the limestone wall in the garden lies a small pool and its layered wall of stacked limestone sheets is reminiscent of a topographic model of a valley, where the gradual transitions of meandering contour lines catch the eye. René Kari is not a gardener who imposes his design on the surroundings but one that lets his masterpiece grow shrouded with vines. The blanket of stems and foliage slowly weaves ever-changing patterns, in which the artist's eye perceives shapes and meanings that the vines themselves do not contemplate.


1 See www.lipuselts.ee/sumboolika/eesti-lipp.

2 See www.estonica.org/et/pildid/Rene_Kari_-_Sinine,_must_ja_valge,_1988.

3 See www.president.ee/et/eesti-tanab/teenetemarkide-kavalerid-2018/13950-rene-kari/-layout-decoration.html.

4 See www.renekari.com/index2.html.


Andri Ksenofontov is a critic, architect and heritage conservationist.

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