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Cats and dogs in Estonian art


Mai Levin.


26. IX 2020–28. II 2021
Kadriorg Art Museum
"Always by Our Side. Cats and Dogs in 16th–19th-Century Art"
Curators: Anu Allikvee, Tiina-Mall Kreem, Anu Mänd

In a little over thirty years, there have been several exhibitions of animalist art in Estonia: "Animals in Art" at the A. H. Tammsaare House Museum in 1989 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Tallinn Zoo; "Animals and People" at the Estonian Knighthood House between 2003 and 2004, "From a Lion to a Bullfinch" at the Mikkel Museum in 2013. At the heart of these exhibitions was the Alexander Stern Art Collection, which includes a wealth of Western European and Russian animalist art alongside Estonian art. Also worth mentioning are the five Baltic Sea region animal sculpture festivals organised by the Haabersti district administration, the Estonian Sculptors' Association and Tallinn Zoo from 1998 to 2006, which enriched the permanent display of the sculptures in the zoo.

Kadriorg Art Museum's exhibition "Always by Our Side. Cats and Dogs in Art" (26. IX 2020–28. II 2021) focused on the depiction of these animals, including works from different eras (since 1500) and schools, and museums in Estonia, Finland and Latvia and local private collections. In addition to Western European art classics, it included some works by Baltic German artists and Edith Karlson's contemporary sculpture installation inspired by the general character of exhibition, more specifically the display of porcelain figurines.

The human relationship with animals, including the cat, domesticated 12,000 years ago, and the dog, domesticated 15,000 years ago, has been different at different times, among different social strata, for different people. Kadriorg Art Museum's exhibition on cats and dogs was complemented by a simultaneous exhibition based on the collections of The Egyptian Museum of Turin, "Egypt of Glory. Art from the Nile Valley" in the Great Hall of Kumu (10. X 2020–21. III 2021), which exhibited statues of the cat goddess Bastet and many images of the jackal god Anubis (the jackal belongs to the dog family). The modern-day pet cult compensates for the shortcomings in interhuman relationships and the human relationship with nature. Recently, there has been more and more talk in the media not only about pets, but also about other animals in connection with climate change and human activities that destroy nature.




Pets have mostly been bred animals. Selective animal breeding already began in antiquity, primarily based on necessity: guards, protectors, hunters, rescuers, etc. Over time, a rare breed companion also became a symbol of social prestige. Pets are sometimes cherished more than close friends or family; they often replace a child. They are depicted a lot, all too often commercially. The proportion of ordinary mongrels and house cats seems to have decreased both in art and in life, because the former need for the herding dog has disappeared – cows are kept in the barn all year round, electric fences are used – as has the same need for the mouser, as our way of life has become more hygienic.

Anu Allikvee, Kersti Kuldna-Türkson and Anu Mänd have contributed to the catalogue of the Kadriorg Art Museum's abovementioned exhibition. Anu Mänd's article "Cats and Dogs in Cultural History and Art" also touches upon the oldest known images of cats and dogs in visual art related to Estonia. Among other things, it deals with the dog as the Dominican Order's symbol of the fight against paganism (Latin: Domini canes, hounds of the Lord), which is visible on the central portal of St Catherine's Church in Tallinn, which dates back to the end of the 14th century.

Animals had an allegorical meaning in the Middle Ages, which even carried over from the Renaissance to the Baroque, transforming and losing its importance for some time during the 19th century. An allegorical meaning can be seen behind the chandelier-licking cat in the view of Paide "Weissenstein in Livonia" (Weissenstein in Liefland), an etching by Johann Eckard Löffler in "Thesaurus Philo-Politicus", a book of vedute (city views) published by Eberhard Kieser in Frankfurt am Main between 1623 and 1631. A part of the Latin sentence natura nihil frustra facit or "nature does nothing in vain" is written above the bird's-eye view of Paide. The German verses below the image interpret the beautiful environmentalist saying of the ancient Romans in the profit-oriented spirit of modernity: nothing is done without self-interest; even the cat would not lick the chandelier if there were no tallow on it.




Based on Estonian materials, it appears that the dog has been a more popular object for depiction. We have very little on the subject from the 18th century in general, except for the "Cat and Dog Quarrelling", a painting in the spirit of animalism by the St Petersburg artist Johann Friedrich Grooth (late 18th century, oil, Sagadi Forest Museum). Within a single household, dogs and cats actually integrate better than humans. The reasons for the traditional view of an insurmountable hatred between them were explained in the book "Our Domestic Animals and Their Descent" (Meie koduloomad ja nende põlvnemine, 1935) by Karl August Hindrey, whose comic-like picture books "Animal Rebellion" (1920) and "Jaunart Jauram" (1921) taught young people, but also the adults of the time, to have a more empathetic attitude towards animals.

This attitude had actually been set in motion as early as the 19th century: following the example of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals founded in London in 1824, similar animal protection societies were also founded in Riga (1861) and Tallinn (1869). Rather than cruelty to cats and dogs, the main reason was cruelty to horses, the primary means of transport at the time, and also the painful killing of all sorts of living beings used for food. It seems that dogs roamed 19th-century cities quite freely, as evidenced by the engravings of views of the time. There are no cats on those because cats love to be alone and have an indoor lifestyle.

After a long search, I found a couple of cats in Theodor Gehlhaar's series of lithographs "Characteristic Scenes from the Life of Estonian and Livonian Peasants" (approx. 1850) on the folios titled "Coiffing" and "Apron Patching". In "The Old Man with a Cat" (1820–1830, Art Museum of Estonia (AME)), a humorous watercolour by the lord of Rutikvere manor Otto Friedrich von Pistohlkors the Younger – who was recently examined by Anne Untera as an artist – a bristling cat demonstrates its unwillingness for dialogue. In contrast, the cat in Eduard Wiiralt's earlier graphics often comically duplicates the depicted person's attitudes and moods and is a fitting equivalent to him ("The Old Man with the Cat", 1930, monotype, AME).




Folklore was characterised by an anthropomorphic approach to animals, but peasants treated the animal as an animal. It was kept and fed as well as possible, but it did have its specific role in the household. Dogs and cats kept children company, but more so the elderly. In addition to the chrestomathic "Until the Potatoes Ripen" (1897, charcoal, AME), we know from Kristjan Raud at least five drawings of shepherds, which naturally also feature a dog. Children sometimes herded sheep even in the 1950s; Valerian Loik depicts them by the sea with a dog in a scene from life titled "Shepherds" ("Night on Kihnu Island"), 1956, oil, Tartu Art Museum (TAM)). In contrast, Alex Kütt's "Shepherds" (1958, soft-ground etching and aquatint) which also features a dog, seems like an image from the past.

Kristjan Raud's interior "Farmhouse" (1886, AME) with a low stool and a ball of yarn on the floor gives an impression that the artist has just finished playing with a kitten in order to draw it. In his drawing "In the Farmhouse" ("Alone") (1896–1897, charcoal, Indian ink, gouache, AME), a cat examines a thoughtful old lady sitting in a large, almost empty space from afar, as if considering whether to jump onto her lap. A dog plays an important role in Paul Raud's well-known painting "An Old Man from Muhu Island" (1898, oil, AME). Despite the mellowness of Ado Schmuul's figure, the painting would lose half of its emotional warmth if there was no dog sleeping at the old man's feet – a typical dark-brown wreath, which the artist has also captured in a sketch.

Eduard Wiiralt praised animals for their naturalness and sincerity, the lack of which in humans disturbed him. Especially in old age, he approached animals like persons, portraying them. He liked felines, their appearance, movement and nature. In his youth, he drew the cats at his parents' home in Varangu and Liigvalla, and later depicted those who found shelter with him. In the late 1930s, he immortalised both his cat Turvas and the "shopkeeper's cat" in art history.




We can also find portraits of animals by other artists. Nikolai Triik has painted a similarly evocative psychological portrait of a small white popeyed dog as he would of his human models (1905, oil, private collection). In its gaze and posture, the artist has captured the moving joy it draws from the attention given to it and a will to submit to the human. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hando Mugasto and Andrus Johani have repeatedly and in various techniques depicted Helene Johan's papillon Luti, named after the butterfly-like fluttering ears and tail.

Ott Kangilaski's "Käämi" (1962, drypoint) is of the same breed. One cannot fail to point out Felix Kotta's children's book "What Happened" (1951) about Miis and Laika, with illustrations by Ott Kangilaski. Lively watercolour illustrations for Samuil Marshak's book of verses "Whiskers and Stripes" (1946) were made by Evald Okas. Rudolf Sirge's children's story about the dachshund Toomas, "Small but Spirited", is known from the 1954 edition illustrated by Romulus Tiitus, but it was published as early as 1949 with Aleksander Mildeberg's amusing lithography illustrations. Apparently, the first edition of this, like "Whiskers and Stripes", has been thoroughly "read to pieces". Evald Okas, Ott Kangilaski and Aleksander Mildeberg also depicted animal children in fine prints for children. This would be an enjoyable topic to study.




In the late 19th century, with the decline of realism and the rise of symbolism, a dog or cat was often given symbolic meaning. The first Estonian animalist, Paul Burman, has depicted animals mostly without underlying motives; he just liked their shape, posture and movement. He has often portrayed them in truth and spirit, even adding their names. But the dogs that are featured in the scenes he painted in the 1920s, with nude riders racing in open terrain or watering horses, have another meaning. In these works, dogs belong to a strange, subconsciously longed-for world of freedom.

Thomas Theodor Heine's lithographic bulldog poster for the satirical magazine "Simplicissimus" (1896) featuring a dog with broken teeth and a torn chain symbolises the general desire for spiritual freedom at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, which has been conveyed – without a dog but with a chained man – by Kristjan Raud in "When?" (1905, pencil, Indian ink, gouache, AME), an image carried by the revolutionary moods of 1905. Raud was a symbolist from the beginning. Some of his early drawings based on the effect of silhouette would already fit into the context of Art Nouveau symbolism, such as "Man with a Dog" and "Dog and a Butterfly" (1887, Indian ink, AME), in which the dog symbolises youth, jumping frivolously and pursuing ephemeral goals.

In 1919, the members of the literary group Siuru, their nerves taut from the World War and the revolutions, accused Raud of sentimentality, but the so-called Kalevipoeg-style of Raud would not have existed without it. That criticism from 1919 also stung Nikolai Triik and has been considered the motive for his "Howling Dog" (1921, Indian ink, gouache, TAM) – a sinister image that more likely derives from the Weltschmerz of the period. Grim reflections on the finality of humankind and on the infinity of the universe have left their mark on the symbolism of the second half of the 20th century; dogs bare their teeth at this prospect in Jüri Palm's painting "Dogs and Eternity" (1981).




The love for pets, which characterised the European aristocracy and bourgeoisie and was abundantly reflected in art since the late Middle Ages, most likely arrived later in the provinces. It must, of course, be borne in mind that a lot of art has been lost in this region, not least because works depicting animals were not taken seriously in the 20th century, a period particularly dominated by humans as the "pinnacle of nature".

However, some depictions of pets from the 19th century can be found. The exhibition in Kadriorg Palace featured the painting "Dog and Butterfly" (1861, oil, AME), depicting a Black Russian Terrier chasing a butterfly, by Johann Alexander Gottlieb Schwabe, a St Petersburg academician and professor who was born in Riga and died in Tallinn, and who portrayed the many horses and dogs of the imperial family. Of course, Schwabe's dog is not a symbol like the aforementioned dog painted by Raud; instead, the artist is committed to nuancing the curly black fur of the animal.

Johann Köler, another metropolitan, Mr Academicus, as Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald called him behind his back, has portrayed at least one pet: a giant dog of the Leonberger breed (named after the city of Leonberg in Baden-Württemberg, where it was bred) in the painting "The Faithful Guardian" (1878, oil, AME) depicting Emma, the daughter of Vladimir Borisovich Frederiks (Adolf Andreas Woldemar Freedericksz), a Finnish-Swedish baron and Russian count who served as the commander of the Russian Imperial Guards' Horse Regiment and the Imperial Household Minister.




Johann Köler
The Faithful Guardian
Art Museum of Estonia




The bright and colourful natural background of this painting was created in Siverskoye, a governorate of St Petersburg, one of the beloved resting places of high society. There, Count Frederiks had sizeable dog kennels and later a zoo with exotic animals. The motif – Der treue Wächter in German, Le gardien dévoué in French – was very popular in the 19th century, often presented in a sentimental way, which Köler has avoided. The contrast between the nine-year-old girl and the purebred dog in his painting probably corresponded to reality; neither of them shows any particular feelings towards their companion.




In 20th-century Estonian art, one comes across pets somewhat more often. The Viljandi Museum houses Peet Aren's characteristic drawing "The Pekingese" (1931, sanguine, charcoal, chalk). The lapdog probably belonged to an actress, female artist or other female socialite portrayed by the artist during that period. The nouveau riche ladies in Gori's (Vello Agori) caricatures are accompanied by greyhounds or pugs, and German spinsters by dachshunds.

The classics, such as Aleksander Vardi, Agaate Veeber, Karin Luts, Johannes Võerahansu, Luulik Kokamägi, Evald Okas, Tiit Pääsuke and others, used to depict women with cats. Marju Mutsu and Silvi Liiva have made etchings on this more or less at the same time. Mutsu's etching is called "Homemaker" (1978), as both women and cats are considered homemakers. The dreamy "Woman with a Cat" (1978–1979) shows a woman haunted by the devil disguised as a cat.

Dogs have been considered appropriate for the dignity of men. We don't have Anthonis Van Dyck-style portraits of gentlemen with purebred dogs and have to be satisfied with a small Biedermeier-style portrait by Johann Heinrich Linde, a portraitist and lithographer who worked in Riga during the first quarter of the 19th century. The picture shows a man with a Landseer (oil, AME), a breed that takes its name from Sir Edwin Landseer, the creator of the lions in Trafalgar Square, who loved to paint large black-and-white dogs.

One of the best of Ado Vabbe's paintings from the 1940s and 1950s is "Man with a Dog" (1952, oil, AME) thanks to the simplicity of its motif, expressive poses and the blue gamma that unites the figure and the background into a whole, the fineness of which is emphasised by the red tone of the shirt. In it, a man holds a terrier next to him on a leash. In Olev Subbi's painting "Man from Kolga Coast" (1965, oil, AME), a worker wearing a parka is walking on a seaside road, accompanied by a black village dog. You could probably come across such an image somewhere in rural Estonia even today. Like art created on any subject, the works depicting cats and dogs tell the broader story of their time.


Mai Levin is an art historian and critic. Working at the Art Museum of Estonia since 1961, she has focused mainly on Estonian and Western European painting and printmaking in her research and exhibition activities. 

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