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Why POPart Forever!?

Anu Liivak (1-2/2010)

The director of Kumu Art Museum, Anu Liivak, gives a comprehensive overview of the arrival of pop art in Estonia within the limits of the Iron Curtain
 
Estonian Pop Art is one of the most interesting phenomena in the history of Estonian art during the second half of the 20th century and, along with its relations to British and American Pop Art, it is the subject of an exhibition curated by Sirje Helme in Kumu Art Museum’s large hall. Pop Art became a significant interest among young Estonian artists during the mid-1960s, while it still continued to thrive internationally. Throughout the Soviet period, the progressive community of artists in Estonia looked to the international avant-garde and followed its ideals (although on a very modest and mediated scale); this was also considered symbolic of their spiritual resistance to Soviet ideology and practice. The distance between the ideals being highlighted in Estonian art and those that were current internationally was at its smallest during the second half of the 1960s and at the beginning of the 1970s, and in terms of the actual phenomena of art this related directly to Pop Art, conceptual art and hyperrealism.
 
The exhibition bearing the title POPart Forever! is, on the one hand, bordered with the end of the 1960s and, on the other hand, with the beginning of the 1970s – i.e. it covers that period which saw the heyday of the so-called first wave of Estonian Pop. The felt-pen series Avant-Pop, which was commissioned from Kiwa especially for the exhibition, creates a bridge to the present age and serves as an exception. At the same time, the exhibition does not deal with manifestations of neo-Pop in the spirit of Marko Mäetamm’s and Mall Nukke’s work during the 1980s and 1990s. Hence, in the current context, the title of the exhibition refers to the significance of the phenomenon with regard to the art processes that would follow, but without discussing the latter.
 

An approach like this is justified by the fact that the first wave of Estonian Pop, however short-lived and idiosyncratic it may have been, was part of a bigger phenomenon – the rebellious counterculture of the young generation which, in artistic terms, was directed against the official ideology of socialist realism that had been rejuvenated and transformed at the beginning of the 1960s, as well as against the post-impressionist aesthetics of the Pallas school that had for a long time played an important role in the Estonian art tradition. On a wider scale, the pop era marked a paradigmatic change in the general culture, embracing the attitudes of the young and radical intelligentsia – among the most powerful manifestations of this mindset were the Tartu Student Days in 1968. Rock music played a very important part in this process – the activities of the legendary bands Peoleo and Optimistid helped make rock music an integral part of youth culture. Much like the rest of the world and despite the difference in circumstances, Estonia also saw an irreversible transformation of the relationship between high and popular culture during this process.

 
Reproducing instead of collecting
 
The exhibition displays works from private collections and museum collections. Following the original completion of the works, only members of a small circle of young creative talents, mainly comprising artists, scientists and musicians, knew of their existence. These works were not displayed in official exhibitions, nor were they acquired for national collections that continued to obey a collection policy driven by Soviet ideology. Nonetheless, – surprise, surprise – fragments of information and reproductions were published in the magazine Noorus and the Tartu State University paper TRÜ. Moreover, the illustrations were provided with descriptions using correct terms such as ‘Pop Art’, ‘Pop artists’ etc. The man behind the information and articles published at TRÜ was the head of the art department at the time, Kaljo Põllu, who, driven by his passionate interest towards the developments in international Modernism, encouraged and advised students to translate articles of art theory into Estonian and to write about exhibitions organised by the art department and displayed in the university cafeteria. While TRÜ operated in a relatively liberal atmosphere, the other progressive magazine, Noorus, was significantly more censored. For example, an article about the exhibition of the collective SOUP 69 was cut from the magazine and in 1973 its editorial board was dismantled because of their views. The magazine Kunst ja kodu played a very important role in spreading new ideas, especially after 1973, when Andres Tolts became the magazine’s editor and designer. The actual art criticism, including such leading art critics as Evi Pihlak and Ene Lamp, also wrote about changes in young art, but without directly mentioning the term ‘Pop Art’. Tõnis Vint’s article Motif in the New Painting, which was published in 1971 in the almanac Kunst and illustrated with reproductions of works by leading American and British Pop artists, is also worth mentioning.
 
Only afterwards did museums acquire works created in the spirit of the avant-garde during the Soviet period. Only at the end of the 1980s did opportunities begin to arise for collecting works from the period and associated with the most radical artistic explorations. During this period, such works reached the wider public at exhibitions such as In the Trails of the Idea of Avant-Garde – a personal exhibition of Leonhard Lapin and Jüri Okas at the Estonian Museum of Art – and the SOUP 69 remembrance exhibition at Tallinn Art Hall in 1990. Since these works reflected the self-explorations of very young artists who almost certainly failed to grasp their importance, many of the works were destroyed or have been lost; the photographic documentation and descriptions are often variously incomplete or missing.
 
In the end, we owe the change to Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw’
 
The aforementioned paradigm change in Estonian art and in the broader culture was made possible by Khrushchev’s ‘Thaw’, however contingent and controversial that notion may be. Through various channels, information about developments in contemporary art and lifestyle in the Western world began to filter through the Iron Curtain from the end of the 1950s. The first epoch-making events were the Moscow International Youth Festival in 1957 and the American National Exhibition two years later. These not only displayed fragments of internationally topical art developments, but they also reflected the wider Western culture. People made new contacts and magazines and books began to be disseminated – at first, publications issued in Socialist countries, and there soon followed real Western publications. For example, Leonhard Lapin brought a German translation of Lucy Lippard’s book Pop Art, the first edition of which had been published only three years earlier, during a students’ exchange trip to Hungary. At the same time, thanks to his scientist father, Tõnis Vint already had access to the publication A Studio International in the mid-1960s (it was subscribed to by the Library of the Estonian Academy of Sciences). From the mid-1960s, reproductions and references to Pop Art were published in the art magazines of Socialist countries, where the illustrative material tended to be more important than the texts. At the Tartu State University art department, Kaljo Põllu had subscribed to every possible art magazine in the Socialist countries already in 1962. He also regularly studied the international book catalogues that were received by the university’s library. In this way, he saw cover images and gained information about Western publications that even the library was forbidden to acquire.
 

Whereas international Pop Art was a counter reaction to abstract expressionism, which emphasised the independent value of a work of art and was in accordance with the ideology of Clement Greenberg, Estonian Pop Art opposed itself both to the official art scene as well as to the aesthetic ideals of the Pallas school that had itself also conveyed ideas in conflict with the Soviet ideology. Much like the international art scene, Estonian artists also arrived at Pop Art through the rediscovery of Surrealism and Dada.

 
Three collectives
 
It is an interesting fact that three out of the four Estonian art collectives of the Soviet Estonian period are connected with the current exhibition: ANK ’64, Visarid and SOUP 69. The fourth, Rühm T, was formed during the next ‘thaw’ in the 1980s.
 
The ANK ’64 generation (whose art Sirje Helme treats as a manifestation of pre-Pop in the exhibition, under the subdivision Happy Pop) had already become actively interested in Surrealism and Dadaism even before information about Pop Art arrived on the Estonian art scene during the mid-1960s through the spiritual leader of the group, Tõnis Vint. Surrealism and Dadaism also appealed to the representatives of the previous generation’s progressive circle of artists, such as Olav Maran, Raivo Korstnik, Ilmar Malin, Peeter Ulas etc. To a large degree, this interest – as well as experiments in the field of assemblage and collage – was encouraged by interaction with Ülo Sooster (who resided in Moscow) and his adherents in Tartu. For Estonian artists, it was assemblage that especially symbolized a step closer to reality – much as Western artists following the model of Marcel Duchamp and other Dadaists considered the use of banal everyday objects in works of art. Of the ANK ’64 artists, Jüri Arrak and Malle Leis employed the methods of assemblage more systematically than others. Two works represent Arrak’s working methods in this field: Items With Number Seven (1967) and By the Sea (1969) are exhibited within the permanent exhibition on the fourth floor of the museum, serving as an important addition to the exhibition on the lower floor, because the permanent exposition was not altered for the latter. Arrak’s works from the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s, in which he often depicted the seemingly absurd activities of peculiar two-dimensional anthropomorphic creatures, feature elements from both Tom Wesselmann and Jean Arp.
 
The exhibition set in the large hall is also supplemented by a new exposition of the so-called graphic art department on the fourth floor, put together from the serigraphs of Malle Leis and Illimar Paul, which draws out an important connection between Malle Leis’s work and Pop Art. Malle Leis’s frontal compositions and paintings with enamel-like two-dimensional coloured surfaces also exhibit clear references to Pop Art. She employed the billboard motif – a signature method of Pop Art – and the geometric structuring of the painting’s surface. However, her turn to the serigraphy technique, in which Leis carried out a series of flower-themed works, is an even clearer indication of a similarity in interest. Malle Leis’s husband Villu Jõgeva developed a unique serigraphy method based on handicraft; it was technologically complex, yet highly impressive in terms of results. The method’s connection with the technology of silk printing works by leading American Pop artists is as contingent as it is regarding the contents of the works. The most Pop-like of the works displayed on the fourth floor is Flowers I (1971).
 
The captivating and sensual abstract works of Aili Vint, based on colour transitions, are not directly connected with the imagery of Pop Art, coinciding more with the ideology and psychedelic visions of hippy flower-children. Toomas Vint’s early gouache paintings from the period 1968–1970 also flow into the sensual psychedelia. This refers to the fact that specific Pop manifestations in art were in a broader sense connected with youth counterculture through rock music ventures and yearning for the psychedelic world. On the other hand, the objects in poster colours featured in Toomas Vint’s oil paintings add a Pop dimension to the Surrealist/Symbolist paintings, creating a bridge between the ANK artists’ earlier explorations and their mature art production, the majority of which shifted into an emphasized aesthetics interpretable in the Symbolist key.
 
Pop Art was important to the members of the group Visarid in the same way it was to the artists of ANK, but it did not serve as their only source of inspiration. Visarid was formed in 1967 by Kaljo Põllu, Enn Tegova and Peeter Lukats. Rein Tammik, Peeter Urbla et al. also took part in the group’s activities. However, Kaljo Põllu made the most significant contribution to the development of Estonian Pop Art. Pop and Op art (which Põllu was also actively interested in) are united in his three-dimensional objects and, as unbelievable as it may seem, he was in correspondence with Victor Vasarely himself during the mid-1960s. In some of his paintings Põllu imitated the silk printing technique.
 
Põllu employed ready-made images, which he partly crafted himself, in his aquatints Fear and Bells of Soul in 1967, hence turning the whole world of Pop Art meanings upside down. It is significant that the national-romantic motif was introduced as a ready-made image in 1969 into cardboard printing. After all, these elements may all be interpreted as applying the ideology of Pop Art with regard to the local milieu, on which the group SOUP 69 largely based their ideology. For this reason, Sirje Helme deals with the activities of these two collectives in the exhibition under the subdivision Union Pop.  
 
The core of SOUP 69 was formed by Ando Keskküla, Leonhard Lapin, Gunnar Meier and Andres Tolts. Others have been mentioned as having shared their views: Rein Mets, Ülevi Eljand, Vilen Künnapu, Ludmilla Siim, Rein Siim, and Sirje Runge. Thus, SOUP 69 was a collective that mainly united designers and architects and was not as closely associated with the fields of figurative art as were the two groups mentioned above. Keskküla and Tolts began their studies in 1968 at a new industrial art department created a year earlier at the Estonian State Art Institute. Lapin had already entered the department of architecture two years before that. The leading figures’ interest in the environment was partly a consequence of their choice of speciality, but not only that. In Tolts’s case, for example, his appeal to the surrounding artificial milieu was already reflected in collages he created during high school.
 
The first central Pop Art event was the so-called Pop evening that took place in Keskküla’s Nõmme home on December 30, 1968, in the form of an apartment exhibition. Less than two weeks later this event was also mentioned in the Tartu State University newspaper, and during spring 1969 Kaljo Põllu designed an exhibition based on this event at the university cafeteria. Although it received a critical response from the university’s management, this did not result in the removal of the exhibition.
 
The exhibition SOUP 69 – from which the group took its name – took place during that same year in Pegasus, the semi-public café of the Writers’ Union. At the time, it was a popular location among young people. The exhibition poster depicted a soup tin inspired by Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can (1962) series and featuring the names of the participants. Several intriguing works were displayed, such as Ando Keskküla’s erotic paintings series, in which he had used both enamel paints and ready-made images. The work which created the most excitement was a head, in a bowl, with empty eye-sockets and the artist’s own hair. The exhibition also included Tolts’s paintings and assemblages, such as Where Lotto Begins (currently displayed in the permanent exhibition of the museum’s fourth floor); Lapin’s famous enlargement of his kitsch postcard, Kiss of a Bunny, and other similar works; Ülevi Eljand’s pictures, in which he united erotic female nudes with military symbols; Gunnar Meier’s painting with a breast suspended from the sky and a brutal hand squeezing blood from it into a casket on the ground.
 
In August 1970, another exhibition was organised at Pegasus – Estonian Progressive Art, which tried to unite the efforts of all three groups. The Tartu artists were represented by Peeter Urbla, Enn Tegova and Rein Tammik, and the ANK ‘64 artists included Vello Tamm and work in collaboration with Sirje Runge (at that time, Sirje Lapin). The exhibition remained open for just one week.
 
Estonian Pop Art may be linked mainly with art production made at the turn of the 1960s and 1970s by the leading figures of SOUP 69 because the similarities between their works and Pop Art internationally are the most evident, not only in terms of ideology, but also especially regarding the means of expression. However, more importantly, the members of SOUP created a version of Pop Art from their specific environment – the reality of Soviet Estonia – and which they themselves called ‘Union Pop’ or ‘Soviet Pop’. While international Pop Art opposed itself to the Modernist era’s detachment of high culture from reality by introducing into artworks means of expression that were characteristic of commercial posters and primarily related to the American dream of consumer society, the SOUP artists emerged from everyday Soviet reality – the absurdity and banality of everyday life – which had so far been ignored in the dominant artistic practice. The official art created romantic visions of the future in a loose style, and the trend that derived from the national tradition followed the Pallas school’s poeticised aesthetics, ignoring unacceptable realities.  
 
Of the works that have survived, the most significant examples of Soviet Pop are Andres Tolts’s numerous assemblages and collages, in which he wittily employs ready-made images and newspaper cut-outs, makes references to the Kafkaesque relations between the promoted official ideals and reality, and plays with the cheap chintz and Bemberg fabrics that were a ubiquitous element of everyday life at the time. Tolts’s flat painting style was greatly influenced by the British artist David Hockney.
 
Lapin has the honour of being the author of Estonia’s first ever comic book. It was Joie de Vivre, the Views and Pointless Death of Benno Bladrikorn at Café Pelagria, which, while using the format of the comic book, was not really a comic book per se. Lapin is also the author of the first printed comic strip, The Idea of Paul Pudding, an absurd vision of the future progress of technology, which was published in Nut Cracker (the crossword section of the 1970/1971 issue of Noorus magazine).
 
Of the three leaders of the group, the least number of surviving works are those by Ando Keskküla who in his paintings often employed frontal figures and united enamelled surfaces with ready-made images and Surrealist details. At the same time he also worked as the director of two animated films, Story about a Bunny (1975) and Rabbit (1976); Rein Tammik produced the artwork for both films. Together with the films Flight (directed by Rein Raamat, design by Avo Paistik; 1973) and Colour Bird (director Rein Raamat, artist Leonhard Lapin, backdrop artist Sirje Lapin; 1974) these are among the most mature and wholesome manifestations of Pop Art imagery in Estonian art.
 
While the surviving works may give an adequate idea of the artists’ interests and explorations, a smaller quantity of documents have survived concerning their ventures in the field of action art. This was a significant aspect of the activities of the circle of young artists during this period. In fact, happenings and other playful activities had already taken place since the mid-1960s; the first of these were initiated by musicians and inspired by the 1964 festival Warsaw Autumn, where young Estonian musicians were dumbfounded by a performance by John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Already in the middle of the decade, numerous ‘happening-like’ performances (also known as absurd theatre) took place, mainly on the initiative of musicians. Interest in the real material environment – an interest shared by Estonian Pop Art – coincided primarily with those happenings or games that took place shortly after the turn of the decade; and these were mainly initiated by the same circle of artists whose works the exhibition at Kumu Art Museum covers under the subdivision Union Pop. Some of these events were pre-planned, while others emerged spontaneously – for example, driven by an unexpected impulse, a walk into a slum environment could evolve into a playful activity. As a result of a happening in Pirita Beach in 1969 with the newspaper Pravda, Ando Keskküla, Andres Tolts, Vilen Künnapu and Ain Pakri ended up held in the detention cells of Patarei Prison. The only fully documented venture is Painting of the Elephant, caught on 35mm film by Jüri Okas, in which young artists gather in a children’s playground to paint a wooden elephant pink. This event was probably among the last of its kind.  
 
And so we see that the first wave of Pop Art was a rather multifarious occurrence, consisting of young artists’ digressive and rather brittle innovative explorations. However, these works of art, naïve and often artistically immature, played an important role for the cultural processes that followed. Although the artists’ own work shifted to new paths, it was a priceless experience in terms of cultural process; and without it numerous subsequent developments in the Estonian art scene would have been different.
 
Anu Liivak works as director of the Kumu Art Museum.
 
FOCUS / POP / HISTORY
At Kumu Art Museum
November 27, 2009 – April 11, 2010.
 
POPart Forever!
Curated by Sirje Helme; exhibition design by Andres Tolts.
Artists: Jüri Arrak (1936), Ülevi Eljand (1947), Villu Jõgeva (1940), Mai Järmut (1950), Jüri Kask (1949), Ando Keskküla (1950–2008), Kiwa (1975), Kaarel Kurismaa (1939), Leonhard Lapin (1947), Malle Leis (1940), Kaljo Põllu (1934–2010), Sirje Runge (1950), Rein Tammik (1947), Enn Tegova (1946), Andres Tolts (1949), Aili Vint (1941), Toomas Vint (1944), Tõnis Vint (1942).
 

 

* Material from the POPart Forever! exhibition catalogue has also been used in this article.

 

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