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From stains to imagery. Notes on an artistic method from the 1960s

Elnara Taidre (2/2022)

Elnara Taidre writes about a barely noticeable yet ever-present element in the early works of Ülo Sooster, Valve Janov, Jüri Arrak and Tõnis Vint.

It so happened that at the end of 2021 three exhibitions in three different spaces in Tallinn were open more or less at the same time showing works that were close both in their thematic approaches and the artistic methods chosen by the artists. "Young Jüri Arrak. Storms and Forms" (18. IX 2021–24. IV 2022, at the Mikkel Museum, curated by Aleksander Metsamärt and Tõnis Tatar), "Guided Randomness. Early Ink Drawings by Tõnis Vint" (1. X–14. XI 2021, Temnikova and Kasela Gallery, curated by Eva Vint) and "Valve Janov. From the Beginnings to the Avant-Garde 1942–1965" (3. XII 2021–27. III 2022, Adamson-Eric Museum, curated by Ülle Kruus and Enn Lillemets) entered into a three-voice conversation, which was not intentional but created even more joy considering how good a fit it was.1

What attracted attention were not only the more general touch points at the level of grand narrative but also the small common elements – less important at first sight, but nevertheless intriguing in their consistency. One of these elements is paint or ink stains, which grow into an expressive image when used skilfully, and there are multiple ways to manipulate the stain in order to create the images. This text here does not claim to be an exhaustive approach to the use of staining as a creative method by the three artists but rather maps out material that would deserve more thorough research and analysis in the future.

Tartu and Tallinn

Valve Janov (1921–2003), Jüri Arrak (b 1936) and Tõnis Vint (1942–2019) are all significant artists in post-war innovation in Estonian art, which rejected the forced canon of socialist realism. Their most experimental and innovative works in the 1960s were often not exhibited to a wider public due to both censorship and self-censorship and have only been fully included in art history in this century. While Arrak and Vint have found their place in Estonian art historical writing, Janov, who was based in Tartu, has been discussed more as a member of a group, the Tartu Circle, and as a colleague of Ülo Sooster (1924–1970).

Notably, the group ANK '64, which linked Vint and Arrak, managed to generate a myth of individualist artists – central to the group was the idea of developing an individual artistic expression – which reached beyond the myth of ANK as a group of young artists with innovative synergy. At a glance, Janov emerges less as an individual and more as a member of a collective; the individual narratives of the Tartu Circle – "Karlova avant-garde"2 – still seem to be in the process of being created, and there are many fascinating discoveries and revisions of our art history to come. As a very successful example of this process, the exhibition at Adamson-Eric Museum demonstrated that Janov was an original and powerful artist whose work is great to see also because as a woman she has often been overshadowed by male artists.

Although perhaps the analysis of the Tartu Circle as a group of artists orbiting Sooster also needs to be revised, it must be pointed out that in this case, Janov, Arrak and Vint were, in fact, linked to one another through Sooster. Sooster, who lived in Moscow but maintained ties with Estonia, was an important source and catalyst when it comes to both the unofficial art circle in Tartu in 1960 and the first post-Second World War (official) art group, ANK '64, in Tallinn.

At least at the beginning of their artistic path, Sooster played an important role, although through him, other sources were also influential, including limited knowledge (in the Soviet context) of Western art and especially modern art, which Sooster and his colleague Yuri Sobolev (1928–2002) tried to address by compiling all kinds of bits and pieces available to them. This project of the reconstruction of art history and especially that of modern art was an important source for the work of ANK '64 and its leader Tõnis Vint, who, in addition to Sooster, has also mentioned Olav Maran (b 1933) as his role model when it comes to theory.

Theory and practice

Collecting information went hand in hand with its practical implementation. Cubism, surrealism and various forms of abstract art, like tachism and automatism, were almost like compulsory subjects for artists to go through. Among other things, young ANK members were influenced by Sooster's experiments with ink drawing, which allowed him to rapidly conceive and execute ideas.

For Sooster, ink drawing was one of his main mediums and makes up a substantial part of his artistic legacy. Here, the work titled "Spotses" (1960) should be mentioned. The title directly refers to the word "spots" in English and also to the English-language sources that discussed using spots and stains as an artistic method. Although the American artist Jackson Pollock (1912–1956) strongly established working with paint stains as his method, the French informalists and tachists like André Masson (1896–1987), Hans Hofmann (1880–1966), Max Ernst (1891–1976), and others, also used abstract stain compositions or textures created by stains widely in their work in the 1940s and the 1950s. Since Ernst was an important role model for Sooster in creating both his figurative and surreal imagery, the multifaceted influence of Ernst can also be seen in the way Sooster experimented with stains.

Tõnis Vint has said that in his early work, there was a period when he applied Sooster's method extensively – he created random clusters of stains, followed by mapping potential images and compositions and then drawing out the final image, using lines in a purposeful manner.3 This is how Sooster's drawing "Spotses" develops into a dense abstract composition thanks to energetic straight lines. However, the stains could also evoke something specific: Sooster's drawing "Composition" (1957–1962) clearly depicts a still life, and in "Egg with Algae" (1968), a sole tangled stain has inspired the fantastic transformation of one of Sooster's favourite symbols.

In turn, in Tõnis Vint's works, the stains have morphed into a cartographic image ("Map", 1966) or the surface of water ("Sea", 1966) but also grown into a characteristic motif in the artist's mature work – strange human figures in a sketched space. It seems that in many ways Tõnis Vint has directed the shape and rhythm of the stains, balancing between automatic and conscious depiction: as Eva Vint, the widow of the artist, has said, at the heart of the process was, above all, guided randomness. Tõnis Vint's interest in Oriental art and philosophy led to the inclusion of a component of meditation into his "stain method", references to the calligraphic exercises and contemplations of Buddhist monks – his stains are decidedly aesthetic, reminding the viewer of Oriental hieroglyphic letters, or more precisely, the "rapid versions" like the Japanese cursive sōsho.

In his ink drawings, Jüri Arrak has preferred mostly to use controlled lines to create clever compositions in a cubist (above all, picassoesque) or surrealist style, where the absurd and grotesque dominate and as such allow for a subdued critique of Soviet reality. The most Sooster-like stain by Arrak can be found in his drawing "Tension" (1965), which is in sharp contrast to the rest of the linear detailed composition, acting more as an interruption than a source for imagery. At the same time, the elongated ink stain resembles lightning and possibly embodies an electric charge caused by collective or personal tension. In "Composition with an Insect" (1967), the stains are large and almost round, the added straight lines make them appear like some kind of microorganisms. In the colourful piece "Holy Cleanse" (1978), created in Arrak's mature style inspired by religious narratives, the small stains were perfect to amplify the image of the baptismal water.

In Valve Janov's work, ink drawings do not play such a prominent role, but her paintings do reveal parallels with Sooster's works in the same medium, where the addition of a layer of stains did facilitate a very tactile texture. Here, Janov's work with colour stains was not random but systematic, with the aim of creating a dense pattern-like structure. Perhaps Sooster and Janov were both influenced by another artist and shared a starting point – for example, the textured paintings of Max Ernst, or what is more likely, French informalism, as suggested by the curators of Janov's exhibition.

Janov's painting "Winter Fish" (1963) seems like a homage to Sooster's personal mythology, idiosyncratic cosmogonic system of symbols, whereas "Beyond Fish" (1961) manifests a desire to be free of Sooster's influence and find an original artistic language, in which the artist has definitely succeeded. Unlike Sooster, Janov never put emphasis on the clusters of stains as potential (graphic) signs; instead, as a wonderful colourist, she used this structure to find ways to enrich her original colour scheme.




Valve Janov
Winter Fish
Mixed media, 28 x 50 cm
Photographer Malev Toom
Private collection




In the publication accompanying Valve Janov's exhibition, Enn Lillemets has described the use of stains in a more nuanced way, differentiating techniques, such as flowing, spraying and dripping in Janov's painting practice.4 Alongside the purely technical nuances, each technique also has other particularities, in terms of both form and image-making.

In conclusion

Despite the seeming simplicity, the "stain practice" of the four artists I have discussed here – Ülo Sooster, Valve Janov, Jüri Arrak and Tõnis Vint – facilitated a multifaceted expression, functioning as a unique laboratory of artistic experiment, which led each of those artists to their own original mode of representation. The use of stains, originally just a technique, at times grew into an independent art method, incorporating not only the various possibilities of image creation but also a worldview aspect and potential for meditation.


1 I would like to thank Sirje Helme for pointing me towards Valve Janov in this context and encouraging me to write about all three shows.

2 Enn Lillemets, Karlova avangard. Valve Janovi juhtum. – Valve Janov. Algusest avangardi 1942–1965. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum – Adamson-Ericu muuseum, 2021, unnumbered pages.

3 I rely on the information I obtained from conversations with Tõnis Vint in the 2000s and 2010s.

4 Enn Lillemets, unnumbered pages.

Elnara Taidre is an art historian, critic and curator. She works as head of the graphic art collection at the Art Museum of Estonia.

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