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Collection of the Art Museum of Estonia – colours of the past on the canvas of the future

Erle Loonurm (4/2019)

Erle Loonurm talks about the formation of the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia, which celebrated its 100th anniversary on 17 November 2019.




"This is how one pictures the angel of history.
His face is turned toward the past. [---]
But a storm is blowing in from Paradise;
it [---] irresistibly propels him into the future
to which his back is turned [---]."
Walter Benjamin


Estonian art and cultural history cannot be understood without the art collection, treasury and memories stored at the Art Museum of Estonia (AME). The century-old collection is like the conscience of Estonian art. It is a mosaic picture which, in its logical column of time, provides an insight into the twists and turns of history, while also sketching a panorama of the artistic life of tomorrow in its aesthetic richness. And everyone can only perceive it in their own way, according to their own measure.


From fragments to a mosaic

The valuable collection of the AME consists of more than 65,000 works. The largest is the collection of printmaking with over 25,000 works. However, it is not so easy to identify the very first piece of art that could be considered the foundation stone of the museum. The first work has been only agreed to be the first.

"Our archive register was destroyed in a fire during the bombing of Tallinn on 9 March 1944, when Linden House at the beginning of Narva Road, where the museum premises were then located, caught fire after the building next door was hit by a bomb," says Sirje Helme, Chief Executive Officer of the AME. "The first works meant for the museum were actually those by August Weizenberg, donated on the premise that the museum will be established," Helme explains.1

However, history has a way of leading its own paths. So, officially, the honourable title of the first work of art in the collection is held by a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, "Bridal Procession" located in Kadriorg Art Museum, one of the five branches of the AME. This forms a pair with another work in the museum, "Bringing Gifts to the Bride and Groom". "The paintings were made in the 1630s in the atelier of Pieter Brueghel the Younger and came to the museum during its early days from Nõva Manor, when artworks were rescued from manor houses abandoned during the war," says Aleksandra Murre, Director of the Kadriorg Art Museum and Mikkel Museum.

 

 

 

"Bridal Procession"
Ca 1630
oil on wood, 26 x 36 cm
Workshop of Pieter Brueghel the
Younger (1564–1638)
This painting bears number 1 in
the painting collection of the Art
Museum of Estonia
Photo by Stanislav Stepashko

 

 

 

According to Murre, during the first years of the museum, at the beginning of the Republic of Estonia, the heritage of Estonian art was rather scarce: "Many artists had gone to Paris; the Pallas Art School was located in Tartu, while the museum was in Tallinn. The museum had no systematic means for purchasing art." Explosive growth really gained momentum much later, after the Second World War, not before the 1960s.

It was indeed during the Soviet period, from the 1960s to the 1980s, that saw the most rapid growth in the art collections: "Back then, art was purchased and handed over centrally. There was a nationwide committee of experts consisting of artists, officials of the Ministry of Culture and representatives of the museum who purchased works of art from national survey exhibitions and artists' studios or commissioned directly from the artists. During these years, hundreds of works found their way to the museums," says Kersti Kuldna, Head of Collection Management at the Art Museum of Estonia.

After the restoration of Estonian independence, the museum received the right from the state to purchase art for its collection independently. The national committee of experts ceased to exist; today, the committee for the replenishment of the museum collection has taken its place. It is made up of approximately 10 experts – curators, collection managers and conservators.

While the Soviet period was a fruitful time in terms of buying art, the 1990s were ground breaking in another sense: a separate collection was formed at the museum: "As a result of changes in the art world, new techniques and media were born, and this led to the creation of the contemporary art collection. Stored in there were works that did not fit into the former genre definitions of painting, printmaking or sculpture," Kuldna says.

It was in the 1990s that the commission started to focus more on contemporary art, and a lot of it has been acquired since then. According to Kersti Kuldna, contemporary art plays an important role next to artistic heritage even now, and the museum receives support from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia to buy modern art. Special support is also sought from various foundations. In fact, there are two amounts designated for purchasing art in the museum's annual budget: one received from the state and the other from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia. "At the time when the Cultural Endowment of Estonia was reinstated, this amount was a million Estonian kroons. We can only imagine what that amount would mean in the current context," Sirje Helme says (a million Estonian kroons would only be about 64,000 euros today).

Another source of funds for purchasing works of art is the museum's own revenue. Helme recalls that last year the museum earned very well with the successful exhibitions of Michel Sittow, Ivan Aivazovsky and Konrad Mägi: "Local attendance last year was about 430,000 visitors. This year the number of visitors will certainly be smaller, but I hope we will still reach 400,000," Helme is hopeful.

There is no fixed number of works or quota for purchasing works of art: "We buy large paintings, prints as well as series of printmaking, which may consist of dozens of works. A contemporary work of art may also consist of a number of photographs, a photo collection or an entire archive may consist of hundreds of works," Kuldna points out.

One of the most recent acquisitions included in the dignified collection of the AME is a rare silver jug made by a 17th century Tallinn silversmith, which, according to Kuldna, will be displayed in Niguliste Museum. "We have also purchased a number of works from the recent exhibition of 1990s art at Kumu, as well as earlier works by Leonhard Lapin, printmaking by Urmas Viik and works by Vello Vinn. From among the classics we have acquired a work by Silvia Jõgever," explains Kuldna listing recent purchases by the museum.

She also adds that in collecting art the AME clearly places emphasis on Estonian art: "When purchasing foreign art we follow the principle that it has to be somehow connected to Estonia – either in terms of historical background, having once belonged to an art collection here – in some manor house, for instance – or by a foreign artist who once worked in Estonia."


To go down a well-worn path or pave a road to the future?

Conservatism is encoded in the museum's collection. While organising exhibitions can direct artistic life and look to the future, by collecting art the museum creates meaning in the arts for future generations. But how do you appreciate art and articulate its potential value for future generations from our current position?

According to Kersti Kuldna, this is a great responsibility: "After all, we acquire works for the museum to preserve them. We always hope that the collection will be the basis for writing the art history of this period in the future." Writing a future art history today is a long and time-consuming process. Sirje Helme confirms that the members of the committee meet regularly: "It takes an average of one year to make a selection, and the hardest thing is to select works by younger artists. There is a big dilemma, because you never know whether or not the next exhibition will produce better works."

Indeed, the ability to perceive context and the wisdom to recognise value cannot be learned from books alone. According to Helme, the formula involves sensitivity and experience: "15 years ago we had one of our many discussions about artworks. The debate became quite complicated and our good friend, Russian art theorist and curator Viktor Misiano finally said, "Why are we pushing so hard? We are able to just recognise a good work of art, aren't we?"" Therefore, there is always subjectivity encoded in the process of discussing an artist's work and the question of how it fits into the context of our time, and whether it is exceptional or remarkable in its own time.

At the same time, subjectivity is also embedded in the understanding of history. Tiina-Mall Kreem, the curator and collection manager at the Kadriorg Art Museum and the Mikkel Museum, writes in the voluminous publication "Art Museum of Estonia 100" completed for the anniversary year of the AME: "The museum has constantly changed its understanding of art and how to approach it. Nowadays, it has come to the conclusion that neither art nor art history can tell one single truth: just as we no longer talk about history, but histories, we also no longer talk about art history, but art histories."2

Therefore, by taking a look into the collection of the AME, we can begin to descend the stairs of history one step at a time. Yet, rather than getting tangled in the twists and turns, the most important thing is to focus on the creator. The multifaceted spectrum of historical truth gives us the freedom to interpret art, but it cannot dim the central gem – the creative soul.

But how does such a creative soul view the fact that their work finds its place in a museum collection – forever? Merike Estna, for example, whose installation "Blue Lagoon" (Sinine laguun, 2014) has found its way into the collection at AME, said in a recent interview to Aleksander Tsapov: "As an artist, I have conflicting feelings about such a work being included in a collection. On the one hand, I am very pleased that my work will be preserved. On the other, for a work of art inclusion in a museum collection is always something similar to death. It ceases to live its own live, no longer going along with the changes in time."3

Isn't it just a matter of honour and mission for the artist to preserve their work for future generations and for art history? According to Aleksandra Murre, there is nothing new about this attitude. She tells the following story: "Ilya Repin once came to the Tretyakov Gallery to improve his work. He wanted to change the facial expression of his well-known work which depicts Ivan the Terrible killing his son. And he did, but luckily the conservers were able to remove the fresh paint." After the incident Repin was no longer allowed to enter the gallery with his paints.

"The artist clearly appreciates the work from their own position, representing their own truth," Murre says. "However, just as a writer cannot write a new ending to a completed novel, an artist cannot change their work. It would become a new work then."


How can we conserve a happening?

Finding a dignified and well-kept place for a work of art in the collection also requires the best conservation skills. "Our school of conservation follows the Russian tradition. The Russian school is very strong because Russian art is largely based on drawing and precision, not so much on free painting," Sirje Helme says.

However, despite excellent conservation skills, the development of contemporary art sets its own limits and conditions. "Modern art is made of more and more sophisticated materials or realised in large dimensions, and also from materials that are not designed to last long. Where should we place such work, and wouldn't it make more sense to collect information about that work instead of the specific work itself – to one day recreate the exhibit?" Kersti Kuldna asks a series of questions over which debates among her colleagues never seem to end. A thorough interview is always conducted with the artist before storing their work in the museum. According to Kuldna, each case is complicated because, for example, digital material too is aging very quickly.

"Every piece of contemporary art is documented – filmed and photographed, the artist is interviewed; there are even floor plans, in case the museum wishes to recreate the piece," Sirje Helme explains. The same goes for collecting video installations. "For instance, if we were to re-enact Ene-Liis Semper's "Licked Space" (Lakutud ruum, 2000), we would not require anyone to actually lick the space again with their tongue, but the question for us is: what are we acquiring? Is it a video of a performance, or a work of art? The difference seems to be virtually non-existent, but it is important in legal terms."

A similar story unfolds with digital art. "Once, years ago, we were considering buying one of Raivo Kelomees' works of net art. There are many problems with contemporary art on the internet. Besides, they are made from materials that may not last," Helme says. For this reason, many of the AME contracts contain a clause that the museum will not guarantee the survival of the work for more than 50 or 70 years: "These materials erode each other or decompose by themselves. Not to mention organic materials; we do not really know how this preservation will work out," Helme lists the problems faced by the museum every day.


A forward-looking treasury

The purpose of the AME collection is to store and preserve Estonian art. The main part of the collection that is developing and growing relates to art that is being created. The museum also tries to fill gaps in artistic heritage, mainly from the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, the archive is constantly being updated.

In addition to works by artists, there are many personal items and documents that belonged to Estonian artists that have been preserved. According to Aleksandra Murre, the acquisition of preparatory material is a new and important direction in collecting: "Sketches and drawings – these may not matter for the display, but in terms of art history they do indeed." This is necessary to see behind the scenes of art: the development of the artist and their signature style. According to Murre, an excellent example in history is the 20th century art collector Alfred Rõude. "He purchased all of Eduard Wiiralt's artworks, from fragments sketched on the edge of a restaurant menu to finished artworks. From the formation of an idea to the various variations of the composition, to see how art is born and how the artist is thinking."

If we compare Estonia with larger nations, the logic behind collecting art has been somewhat different here: "For example in Russia, museum collections are more fragmented. They focus on buying works from more well-known artists, forecasting their development," explains Murre. According to her, a similar pattern of behaviour can be witnessed in the United States, for example: "The New York Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, still systematically and consciously collects and also sells modern art. Of course, we do not sell the works from our collection."

But the rails of history do not always run in one direction. So, should we fear that the constant winds of change in contemporary art – with all these new materials and digital developments – are not blowing in a favourable direction when considering the future perspectives of the AME collection?

"Let these intricate contemporary works of art be. History has a tendency to repeat itself," says Sirje Helme to alleviate the fear that one-off events, performances that are not allowed to be photographed or filmed, or temporary site-specific installations will not be able to find a place in the AME collection. According to Helme, the classics are back in fashion, but of course, no one knows what people will relate to in the future: "If I look at what has been taking place in the major museums of the world during the last few years, we can see that classical painting is starting to come back. Especially painting from the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. The heritage of the generation of Conceptualists has been very clearly directed at one generation and from there also to the following one, that of the 1980s. But currently, we can see the arrival of a generation that does not relate to it at all. And this is exactly how it goes – in waves."


1 Here and below I quote from interviews with employees of the AME who kindly agreed to speak with me in November 2019 (recordings in the possession of the author).

2 Tiina-Mall Kreem, Kunstiajaloo kirjutamine Eesti Kunstimuuseumis. – Ed. Sirje Helme, Eesti Kunstimuuseum 100. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum, 2019, p 290.

3 Aleksander Tsapov, Kosmilise ookeani psühhedeelia. Intervjuu Merike Estnaga. – Müürileht No 90, 2019.



Erle Loonurm is a cultural journalist and news editor at Estonian Public Broadcasting. She has received a master’s degree in theatre studies from the University of Sorbonne.

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