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Ludmilla Siim’s 21 glimmers of spring

Tõnis Tatar (2/2022)

Tõnis Tatar sets out his theses in connection with a Ludmilla Siim retrospective at the Tartu Art Museum.

 


1. While never ranking among the brightest stars of Estonian art, Ludmilla Siim (b 1938) has secured a place at the next level, just below the very elite. The need for a Siim retrospective has long been recognised by critics – by Ants Juske1 in 2009 and Jaan Elken2 in 2019. Indeed, as opposed to some widely exhibited classics, an exhibition of a "second echelon" artist can offer an experience of the unknown or forgotten. Moreover, artists below the status of a classic do not yet have a fixed status – they still have something to play for.

 

2. What makes the Ludmilla Siim retrospective "The Glimmer of Being" (23. II–29. V 2022, curated by Kristlyn Liier) special is the fact that much of her work was created abroad. Siim was born in Almaty, grew up in Tartu, became an artist in Tallinn and has lived in Finland since 1977. The tragic romantic story of her moving to Finland would deserve a novel by the late Mati Unt or a feature film by Veiko Õunpuu, both Estonian classics.

 

3. For historical reasons, Estonian art life in the second half of the 20th century was encapsulated and inward-looking. The artistic broth was boiling away in a pot with the lid pressed on tightly, mainly performing a function that was important and understandable locally – preserving the cultural self-awareness of Estonians.

 

4. The fact that Ludmilla Siim of all Estonian artists would be the one that emigrated to Finland is surprising and at the same time not so surprising. It is surprising because by temperament Siim seems more vibrant, full-blooded, restless – in other words, less Finnish – than your average Estonian artist. Not so surprising because to this day it is often beautiful women that seem the least scrupulous about leaving the homeland behind. Admittedly, some other artists of Siim's generation have also emigrated: Jaak Adamson went to Slovakia in 1980 and Rein Tammik left for France in 1990. Siim herself has said she values mobility in life, making it tempting to think that this has something to do with the artist's early childhood in the steppes of Central Asia.

 

5. Although Ludmilla Siim has lived half her life in Finland, the rich body of work she produced in the seven years before her departure also makes her part of Estonian art history. In Finland, Siim adopted the prevailing abstract style of painting but remained marginal in the local art life. Siim's work from her Finnish period is much less known to our viewers.

 

6. Siimu, who graduated from the Estonian SSR State Institute of Art (ERKI) in 1965, entered the art world between two important waves: about five years earlier, Enn Põldroos, Olav Maran, Henn Roode and Peeter Ulas had graduated from the Art Institute, and a few years later, the generation of the group ANK '64 would graduate. However, her later life brought her together with SOUP '69 artists Andres Tolts and Ando Keskküla, whom Siim taught at the then 46th Tallinn Secondary School in the sixties. The intellectual level of Siim's inner circle is shown by the fact that it also included the acclaimed poet Juhan Viiding and art historian Jaak Kangilaski.

 

7. Stylistically, Ludmilla Siim in the 1970s falls between pop art and hyperrealism (certainly not a grey area). At the same time, Siim appears disinterested in the dogma of either movement. She does not depict advertising labels or consumer goods, nor is she interested in the ontology of the photographic medium. So what is she interested in? In my opinion, two things: in formal and conceptual terms, the representation of three-dimensional space through the two-dimensional medium of painting, and thematically, the contemporary markers of youth, modernity and optimism.

 

8. Olav Maran, five years her senior, has said he was unable to make pop art because he belonged to a generation defined by a sense of attachment to the land. Siim, on the other hand, seems like a completely urban artist. Rural life does not appear as a force of nature with Siim; even when she does depict people in a natural setting, they are modern tourists. An urban type, Siim as an artist is volatile, a risk taker, actively reflecting life, but perhaps somewhat superficial.

 

9. While the Pallas School was a big presence in Estonian art of the first half of the 20th century, from the 1960s to the 1980s, we can talk about the Tallinn School. This stylistically diverse group was united by their background in ERKI, being part of the system of the then Estonian SSR Artists' Union, personal and professional contacts, and a shared understanding of aesthetic autonomy, which was established by the late 1960s. Inevitably, themes and motifs were often transferred between the artists.

 

10. I mentioned modernity as Siim's main theme. In fact, a number of the ideas and approaches of the Tallinn School are touched upon in the artist's works of the 1970s. There is the dialectic of the natural versus the artificial, which was highly relevant in Estonian art of this period; there are references to the modern city and the modern person; there is exploration of newly-found beauty in industrial views; there are beautiful women (both dressed and nudes), reflections of the fashion of the era (miniskirts, boot-cut trousers, platform shoes) and references to major issues (construction, the future, motherhood), etc. With Siim, it is impossible to tell if she was particularly interested in any one subject.

 

11. As many of the approaches in Siim's arsenal have been thoroughly explored by some of her contemporaries, her works again and again make you think: "like Tolts", "like Keskküla", "like Tiit Pääsuke", "like Jüri Palm", "like Tammik", "like Olev Subbi ", "like Põldroos ", "like Urmas Pedanik", "like Jüri Okas", "like Vello Vinn", etc. It is not easy to find Siim's own artistic quintessence. Her eclecticism and seizing ideas that were in the air should not necessarily be seen as a weakness. But it is difficult to argue with the suggestion that Siim was not the most original creator even in her own time.

 

12. In the universal scheme of cultural regimes, Ludmilla Siim's work of the 1970s falls in the area between modernism and postmodernism. In terms of her sensibility, she falls on the side of postmodernism. Siim's work is contemporary, designer-like and without metaphysical pretensions. Her break from modernism is exemplified by the fact that she abandons the main attribute of a picassoesque painterly genius – the clearly visible expressive brushstroke.

 

13. Eclecticism acquires a bad reputation in the romantic-modernist paradigm, where the artist's work reflects a unique and consistent search for an original artistic personality. The ironic postmodern sensitivity, on the other hand, relates to eclecticism in a complex and positive way. Of course, the romantic-modernist paradigm does not necessarily preclude changes in the artist's work, but the explorations must be consistent, principled, programmatic. It is difficult to identify such a unified development in Ludmilla Siim's work. Drawing on a risky gender stereotype, we could suggest that, in contrast to the masculine consistency of modernism, Siim's work is feminine and temperamental: she treats different techniques, ideas and themes like a lady does her wardrobe.

 

14. Compared to her closest colleagues Andres Tolts and Ando Keskküla, Ludmilla Siim's art is less pretentious and easier to understand. At the turn of the 1970s, Siim consciously opposed Leonhard Lapin's radical avant-garde artistic programme. Siim is not a problematising or brooding type, which makes her art easy and pleasant to look at. Neither do Siim's paintings represent a telescope aimed at the artist's inner space. She is also not a refined gardener of the soul, like many ANK artists. Siim does not exhibit herself as a mysterious and exciting personality; instead, her art is completely outward-directed.

 

15. Some characteristic features of Siim's paintings: pop-art-like synthetic colours, a youthful and optimistic mood, joyful movement from one theme to the next, strong contact with the contemporary world, and a style of painting that is no longer traditional and painterly but not yet perfectly mechanical either. Siim's art is not overwhelmingly intellectual but instead bubbles with life, curiosity, the joy of seeing and doing. I suspect that this is also alluded to by the title chosen for the exhibition – "The Glimmer of Being". This glimmer has not faded a bit over the course of her long career.

 

16. Siim has never shied away from large canvases or strong colours. This emerges as a particularly positive characteristic against the background of the gender stereotype of modesty, self-criticism, charm and gentleness attached to women in our culture. Neither does Siim limit herself to trauma, introspection, passive resistance and flower paintings, like so many other female artists (especially in Tartu). In this way, Siim establishes herself as a thoroughly Tallinn artist and a very contemporary one as well. As an artist, Siim refuses to be bound by rules other than those that also apply to her male colleagues. Yet, the world of her paintings is unmistakably feminine (but not a cliché).

 

 

 

 

Ludmilla Siim
Artificial Landscape with a Cat
1970
Oil on canvas, 85 x 102 cm
Photographer Stanislav Stepashko
Private collection

 

 

 

 

17. Interestingly, Siim's most representative museum exhibition on Estonian soil to date was a double exhibition with Jüri Palm at Kumu in 2011. These two artists shared an urbanism and a set of contemporary themes, but in terms of sensibility, it would be difficult to find characters as different as the optimistic Siim and the gloomy Palm. High culture sometimes tends to place greater value on desolation and complexes than it does on brightness, serenity and the joy of life. Historically, we owe the lessons of the intrinsic value of happiness in art to Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard.

 

18. An art critic I know wrote to me that Ludmilla Siim's paintings were technically weak. I disagree. Yes, Siim's work is uneven; her art boasts neither the painterly bravado of Põldroos or Pääsuke nor the designerly smoothness of Keskküla or Tolts. But there are values in her paintings that are not present in the work of others. At the risk of sounding overblown, I would say it is the joy from what she paints. The way Siim paints can sometimes look clumsy, but her visual taste is infallible and her skills carry.

 

19. This retrospective begins with her later work. The mostly abstract paintings show a less familiar aspect of Siim's work. Let me correct myself: aspects. Siim's abstract works are even more volatile and eclectic than her previous work. However, I dare say that the best parts of it belong to our finest abstract painting. Siim's abstract work has temperament, intense colour, bold risk-taking, sharp contrasts and pulsating rhythms. The best abstract works of Siim's late period – for example, "Vibration of the Universe" (2009) – are full of life, and it is gratifying to see that a mature artist still has the energy and ability to do so.

 

20. A retrospective exhibition at a national museum is a great honour for an artist, but it is also a ruthless format. All chips are in. Unless the artist is a well-established star of the highest order, such exhibitions always involve a measure of risk. As an example of an exhibition of a life's work that clearly fell short of the myth surrounding the artist, I would mention the 2018 retrospective of Lola Liivat at the Tartu Art Museum. Ludmilla Siim's 2022 retrospective "The Glimmer of Being", on the other hand, is a glowing success.

 

21. Kristi Kongi's superb exhibition design contributed to the overall experience. From the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, the essay by Finnish artist Teemu Mäki, "Dark Beauty", which represents a peculiar point of view (diametrically different from the one presented here), is worth highlighting.

 

 

1 Ants Juske, Ludmilla Siimu kirglik elu. – Eesti Päevaleht, 28. III 2009.

2 Jaan Elken, Ludmillast Millaks ja tagasi. – Sirp 20. IX 2019.


 

Tõnis Tatar is an art historian and critic working at the University of Tartu.

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