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Pictorial metaphors and social space in the art of Vello Vinn*

Raivo Kelomees (3/2020)

Raivo Kelomees writes about the Vello Vinn retrospective at Kumu.


14. II–9. VIII 2020
Kumu Art Museum, 3rd floor, B wing
"Vello Vinn. Interreflections"
Artists: Vello Vinn, Kiwa, Mihkel Kleis, Krista Mölder, Brit Pavelson, Lilli-Krõõt Repnau, Kristina Õllek
Curator: Elnara Taidre

Symmetry and seriality

The famous symmetry in the art of Vello Vinn (b. 1939, referred to below as VV) – how could we explain it?

First, isn't symmetry a logical and practical means for ensuring that a picture maintains the same effect after it is printed in mirror image? Etching, used extensively by VV, like many other printmaking techniques, is based on the artist drawing on a metal surface covered with a waxy ground; the surface is then exposed to acid, creating etched lines, and after these are filled with ink, a print is made of the image. The result is thus a mirror image of the original drawing. With a symmetrical image, changes in composition will be minimal. If the composition is asymmetrical, however, the fact that the mirror image will have a different effect must be taken into account.

Of course, experienced artists know how to do this. But it is important because we perceive the left and the right side differently due to some basic features of our cultural practices. The left side is often associated with the past and the right with the future; in Western culture, we read and write from left to right.

In other words, things move and unfold from left to right. On the left is "the beginning"; on the right is "the end". We can also talk about the different semiotic meanings of the left and right side of the picture plane. This is, of course, an extensive topic that it wouldn't be appropriate to analyse here, but I will give just one example: "Hell" (Põrgu, 1932) by Eduard Wiiralt.

I analysed this work in some detail decades ago, but to put it briefly, we can observe remarkable changes as we move from left to right in the picture. On the left, we see rooted "towers of heads", with an emphasis on organic matter. Moving to the right, the objects are separated from the ground, rising above it. To the right, the materiality of the depicted objects also changes; it is solid, metallic.

Interpretation depends on the viewer and the background information he or she relies on. Traditional art terminology is of little help here. Semiotics and psychoanalysis could perhaps be of assistance.


The technologisation of the living

Although the Soviet Union achieved remarkable technological advances in the military industry and space exploration, these did not reach the average consumer. The work of artists, however, did reflect the technological changes and developments. As we know, the 1960s were a time of active debate between the "physicists" and "lyricists" in Estonian art.

A certain scientific and serial quality, which characterised the work of many printmakers, apparently originated in the work of artist Ülo Sooster (1924–1970) and found its way into the creative practice of Estonian artists more broadly. Obviously, seriality is inherent to printmaking – an etching is done on a metal plate and then dozens of copies are made. Printmaking techniques are essentially the result of industrial and serial production.

A topical issue in recent years has been the direct technologisation, or cyborgisation, of human beings – the fact that technology has come to reside within humans, sometimes literally so. This topic has a long history: everyone who wears spectacles is a cyborg in a way – an amalgamation of technology and flesh. But the "technologicality" of a person can also consist in the dental work they have had done or the medicines they take. It involves intervention by a technological civilisation in the life and activities of a biological organism.

We see these now topical developments in VV's prints from several decades ago – the combination of the technological and biological, sometimes plants and technology, or even animals and technology.


Objects as characters

I would like to draw attention to VV's work "Main Control Panel" (Peapult, 1977). The title involves wordplay relying on the literal meaning of the two parts of the compound noun "peapult", literally "head+panel" in Estonian, and how this relates to the visual image. The image resembles the main panel or control centre of a (nuclear) power plant: we see operators with their backs turned to the viewer, their heads shaped like light bulbs. We see these light bulb shapes everywhere.

Linguistically speaking, the visual connection is as follows: light bulb=>head=>control panel. The light bulbs are also on the screens that these "human heads" are looking at: light bulb-shaped human heads look at light bulbs shown on screens, and control other instruments. The light bulbs seem to be more important than the other, more complex instruments; their positioning makes them appear hierarchically superior. Can we make this connection here? We probably can. The hidden metaphorical message is that the "less complex" control the "more complex" – the fools lead the wise.


Reading the "The Reading Room"

Whether VV actually drew inspiration from wordplay needs to be investigated, but based on a programme that aired on Estonian national television in 1986, "Into the image: Vello Vinn" (Pildi sisse minek: Vello Vinn), where he uses a great deal of linguistic imagery to analyse the characters depicted in his "The Reading Room" (Lugemissaal, 1981/82), we are led to believe that the starting point for some of his pictures may have been wordplay (in Estonian). An additional level of meaning that emerges from his "Main Control Panel" is the downplaying of the importance of this critical centre of operations: the "heads/bulbs" control the operation of other bulbs and more sophisticated measuring instruments.

We are faced with a question: is everything described here actually present in the works of VV? Has he placed it there? To be honest, I don't think we should ask the artist this. The artist has sent the work into the world and does not fully control all the meanings subsequently attached to it. Some meanings inserted and intended by the artist will go unnoticed; they will not be discovered. Instead, new ones will be found or created, as social circumstances change and meet the content depicted in the pictures.

By the way, VV revisits the image of the "head" in his "The Reading Room", in a much more grotesque and extreme way. And this is not the only other work where this happens; the same motif can be seen on a wedding anniversary card for his wife Raili Vinn (1970), a New Year's card (1986) and other postcards designed by him in 1986, which continue this "head on shoulders" and glowing light bulb motif.

Interpreting his "The Reading Room" on the TV show mentioned above, VV talks about a fragment where a figure reading a book is shown as a light bulb; he draws on the different meanings of the Estonian word for light bulb, "pirn", which can also refer to a pear, and related figures of speech.

In other words, this suggests that the use of a visual image – in this case, a head – may be inspired by linguistic connections. But looking more closely at this work, we see that the head is in fact the main character here. Accordingly, the image of a book being read is played out to its full potential and associated with numerous objects in the picture. Although VV's own interpretation stays at a poetic, metaphorical level, we also see here references to social satire, played out through simple contrasts: an object of high culture (a book) is juxtaposed with a "low" object, utensil, plant or animal that has no immediate connection with the cultural object – the book. Examples include a head shaped like a kettlebell, a pot, a cabbage, a turnip, sausages, a boot in the place a head, and so on. These objects juxtaposed with the book become a gallery of social characters, as in a situation where a person "adorns himself with false feathers" or seeks to be better than he really is: the boot sees itself as a reader; the cabbage fancies itself an intellectual; the cooking pot considers itself a genius; and so on.

Who knows – perhaps these are references to the well-known love of books among Estonians during the Soviet period? In every home, large series of books had pride of place; some families even read them. As no other accepted way of accumulating wealth existed in society, collecting knowledge in the form of books was a way to demonstrate your achievements.

The artificiality of this obsession with books was revealed by the collapse of book sales in the 1990s, which is also when this topic lost its relevance. Previously reaching into tens of thousands or at least several thousands of copies, print runs are now two or three thousand at best. Specialist literature (literary and art criticism, poetry collections and so on) are only published in their hundreds, and even then, the copies stay on the shelves for quite some time.

It is quite plausible to read this kind of social critique into "The Reading Room". However, it can also be seen as a surrealistic "orgy of images", where one visual object (the book) is played out as diversely as possible. Such an approach can be considered a test of strength for any master – taking one image and creating a visual playing field of meanings of maximal diversity.


The clock as an instrument of control and order

When it comes to images of technology, the clock – as a measuring instrument – also makes frequent appearances in VV's works. We see it in "Album" (Album, 1976), "Time of Day" (Kellaaeg, 1980), "Poster for an exhibition by Raili and Vello Vinn" (Raili ja Vello Vinna näituse plakat, 1977), "Ex libris. Vello Vinn" (Eksliibris. Vello Vinn, 1981), "Time" (Aeg, 1977) and other works.

The "face" of the clock is combined with objects and body parts. And conversely, the timepiece or watch is separated from the wearer; the watches in "Time of Day" are placed on towers, which look like lighthouses, with a door at the foot of each tower. Regardless of the particular narrative that we attach to the work, we see here the freedom with which the artist treats objects familiar to the viewer.

As well as being a timepiece, the watch also represents technological civilisation. The history of watches, or timepieces that are worn or carried, runs to only a couple of centuries. Men began to carry watches during military campaigns in the late 19th century, and the use of wrist watches boomed especially during the First World War. Portable timepieces were used to synchronise military operations.

Wrist watches are still attributes of prestige and luxury. On the other hand, in the age of mobile devices, we see people giving up wrist watches. Why wear a monofunctional object when a mobile device can do a dozen other things besides showing the time? The development of the transport system in the 19th century necessitated the social control of time and synchronising it across different countries; transport could not function without harmonised rules for time keeping.

Today, we can't imagine having to pay someone to know the time, but that's how it was in the 19th century. For example, the Greenwich Time Lady was an actual person in London for whom showing the right time to people was a business venture. Every day, she "brought" the right time from Greenwich Observatory and for a fee showed it to her customers. Until quite recently, during the time of landlines, there was also a phone service in Estonia which you could call to get the exact time. Now this service is online and you can also download a speaking clock app.

The point of the story is that the clock is a means of organising time. For the artist, then, it holds the position of a regulator, a powerful controller. And this central position is also given to the clock in VV's pictorial composition. Occasionally, the image of the timepiece deviates from its position of power and is subjected to the artist's whims, in games where it is made to show the letter "V" and then in an ex libris dedicated to Vello Vinn himself. The artist's name is also inscribed between the numbers on the clock face (you have to look really hard to find it).


The social life of human nuts and bolts

The routine of social reality is reflected in many of VV's works; they represent an Orwellian world where people's individuality has disappeared and the person has been fused into the masses. We see repeated visual motifs, such as heads, pear-shaped domes, light bulbs, balloons, trees or their leaves that resemble the shape of the human head. Crowds of people move into or out of a factory ("Shift" (Vahetus, 1977)), surrounded by impersonal architecture ("Time II" (Aeg II) from the series "Wings" (Tiivad, 1973)) or residential blocks made of TV sets showing natural scenes that block out the horizon.

I would like to draw special attention to the women's hairstyles in VV's "Shift" and "Shift II" (1978) – they are made of hexagonal nuts. In this way, we have quite literally "human nuts and bolts", and not just a figure of speech describing human pawns in an industrialised society.



Vello Vinn
etching, 48 x 63,4 cm
Collection of the Art Museum of Estonia
Photo by Stanislav Stepashko



"Time II" from the series "Wings" is also a remarkably imposing dystopian landscape. In the background rises a giant car that looks like it's spring operated. The whole landscape is filled with identical buildings reminiscent of Khrushchev-era Soviet mass housing. In the space between them, we see rather luxurious-looking cars with eyes for headlights. Once again, we see the same anthropomorphisation, the animation of the inanimate.



VV is an artist who has managed to hide striking social comments in his pictures. While one might expect them to be aimed at Soviet society, they are more universal, alluding to society as a mechanism of control. Society is a collective body of people, the aim of which is to facilitate the functioning of all elements – the relationships between people, things and space. The fact that all this is accompanied by a fair amount of violence and injustice is irrelevant from the point of view of the mechanism, but it does matter from the point of view of the individual, and VV has succeeded in fleshing out this sharp, dissenting gaze of the individual.


* This article is based on a virtual lecture first delivered on Facebook on 4. V 2020 in connection with the Kumu retrospective exhibition "Vello Vinn. Interreflections".


Raivo Kelomees is an artist, critic and art theorist. He works as a senior researcher in the Faculty of Fine Arts at the Estonian Academy of Arts.

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