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Rehabilitation of Estonia's Visual Identity

Marek Tamm (2/2018)

Marek Tamm went to see the exhibition "History in images – Image in history" and read the book accompanying the exhibition.


16. III–5. VIII 2018
3rd floor, B wing, Kumu Art Museum
Curators: Linda Kaljundi, Tiina-Mall Kreem

Estonia's visual identity is feeble. We have great difficulties visualising our past; most of it is faceless and featureless. We do not know the faces of our heroes (or villains) and cannot instantly imagine what the Uprising on the Night of Saint George (1343), the Mahtra War (1858) or even the Battle of Võnnu (now C─ôsis, 1919) would have looked like. The symptoms of this frailty are not difficult to spot. We get excited by the erection or removal of each and every historical monument; we debate fiercely about every new historical feature film (which, of course, are rare in Estonia); we flip at every attempt to design a brand for the country; and even the anxious search for the skull of Lembitu, an ancient Estonian leader, points to a desperate hope to restore the features of at least one historical model.

Sure enough, we could just accept this and say that our fragile visual identity is offset by a strong verbal identity. We rely on language to distinguish ourselves from others, our self-image is based on strong core texts, and our cultural memory is supported by a powerful narrative of the "great Estonian struggle for freedom".1 However, cultural semiotics has taught us that the strength and permanence of any culture depends on the diversity of the description languages at its disposal. A culture is the richer the greater the number of description languages available and the greater the diversity of self-interpretations open to it. Verbal and visual languages of description constitute two different types of sign systems: discrete and continual. The former are dominated by individual signs, combined into sequences to form a general meaning; the latter are dominated by the whole, which gives meaning to the individual parts.2 For its development, it is important that a culture have at its disposal both types of sign system, discrete (verbal) and continual (iconic), especially as new meanings are often generated where the two intersect. This is also important for the internal balance of a culture, as verbal languages of culture dominating over visual languages may often lead to explosive situations (according to Juri Lotman, a cultural explosion is precisely the collision of two languages of culture that are alien to one another).3

Looking at European cultures comparatively, we see that verbal description languages, including verbal accounts of history, exist in every culture, while visual representations of the past, and their importance, vary from one culture to the next. Great testimony to this is "Mythen der Nationen. Ein europäisches Panorama" (Myths of Nations: A Panorama of Europe, 1998), a collection edited by Monika Flacke based on a large-scale exhibition of images of national history curated by her in Berlin in 1998.4 The book clearly shows that the role of images in the creation of national identity varies from place to place; there are countries where national identity is largely based on visual culture and images have never had an influence comparable to that of texts. In this connection, Peeter Toropc makes a relevant observation: "There is a great variety of verbal accounts of history in every culture. On the other hand, there are also cultures where historical painting or film is virtually non-existent or, for various reasons, has been very scarce. This means that visual sign systems in such cultures are less advanced than verbal ones in describing history. Where a visual sign system is not part of active cultural production, the visualisation of history may lead to unexpected conflicts. It can be said that what is normal in a verbal sign system may become unacceptable or shocking when visualised."5




The fact that Estonian historical identity is text-centred is by now an axiom. Years ago, I myself have put this succinctly: "Estonian national culture of history has mostly been shaped by writers."6 This makes the work done by Tiina-Mall Kreem, Linda Kaljundi and their colleagues in the archaeology of Estonian visual historical identity over the past few years all the more valuable. In less than a decade, they have gone through all the museums and other memory institutions in Estonia and neighbouring countries in search of historical images, organised conferences and produced important publications. It is not an overstatement to say that this work has helped significantly to rehabilitate and update Estonia's visual sense of the past, bring to light a large number of historical images, which had been consigned to oblivion or hidden away in repositories, and interpret them in new ways. The analysis of visual representations of our past is of particular importance in view of the increasing visualisation of our present-day cultural environment.

The first important milestone of this extensive interdisciplinary research may be said to be the exhibition "When the artist met Clio: Historical scenes from the 19th century" (curated by Anu Allikvee and Tiina-Mall Kreem), which was shown at the Kadriorg Art Museum from September 2013 to March 2014. In retrospect, Tiina-Mall Kreem described the significance of the exhibition convincingly, writing that "going beyond the previously verbal discourse (historiography) of 19th-century historical scenes in the Baltic states, it created a "viscourse", emphasising the interplay of visual images and their being part of a communicative discourse".7 Two important publications grew out of the preparatory work for the exhibition. First, "Friedrich Ludwig von Maydell's Baltic history in images", a collaboration by several researchers that brought to the reader reproductions of the images from Maydell's influential unfinished album "Fünfzig Bilder aus der Geschichte der Deutschen Ostsee-Provinzen Rußlands" (Fifty images from the history of Russia's German Baltic provinces, 1839, 1842), with the accompanying texts as well as translations and interdisciplinary analyses.8 The thorough introduction to the book highlights Maydell's pioneering role in the tradition of historical imagery in the Baltics, showing both the sources of his work and the subsequent recurrences of his motifs in the local visual culture.

The exhibition was also accompanied by a two-day international conference on historical imagery, which served as the basis for the publication in 2015 of a high-quality collection of articles, "Kunstnik ja Kleio. Ajalugu ja kunst 19. sajandil" (The artist and Clio: History and art in the 19th century), edited by Tiina-Mall Kreem. The collection brings together eleven original articles mainly by Estonian and German scholars. Four of them (Anne Untera, Anu Allikvee, Linda Kaljundi and Inna Põltsam-Jürjo) analyse Maydell's work and role in shaping the tradition of historical imagery in the Baltics. The following three articles, however, focus on specific historical paintings: Christian August Lorentzen's "Dannebrog falling from the sky during the Battle of Lindanise on the 15th of June 1219" (1809) is analysed by Poul Grinder-Hansen, Peter Janssen's "Colonisation of the Baltic Sea by the Hanse. 1201" (1872) by Ulrike Plath and Rudolf von zur Mühlen's "Treaty between the city and the vassals of the Bishop in Tartu 1522" (1897) by Juhan Kreem. Hubertus Kohle's good overview of the 19th-century tradition of history painting based on the example of the German artist Adolph Menzel and Udo Arnold's discussion of depictions of the Teutonic Order in 19th-century painting also deserve mention.



The culmination of the research, however, can be said to be the exhibition "History in images – The image in history", curated by Linda Kaljundi and Tiina-Mall Kreem, at Kumu Art Museum from March to August 2018 and the accompanying monograph, subtitled "National and transnational past in Estonian art".9 The book and the exhibition work well hand in hand: being faced with the pictures at the museum may leave the viewer wanting more, as the inevitably limited exhibition space only accommodates a small selection of the most important images and the texts offer little support for a deeper understanding. To truly appreciate the extensive empirical research and theoretical explorations behind the exhibition, one needs to work one's way through the large monograph co-authored by the curators (the exact division of labour is not apparent from the book). The exhibition is thematically structured, with each space representing a different "visual realm of memory": the national epic "Kalevipoeg" and mythology in art, the Finno-Ugric and Baltic German heritage, the War of Independence and so-called Ancient Struggle for Freedom (early 13th century), the Uprising on the Night of Saint George and the Mahtra War, the 1905 revolution and 1940 coup, and World War II and the occupation period.

The book is divided into two parts: the first gives a historical overview of the development and themes of Estonian historical imagery, while the second maps a dozen Estonian "visual realms of memory" (from Vanemuine and Kalevipoeg to the communist coup in June 1940 and World War II). The result is laudable in more than one respect. First, a large amount of visual material has been sifted through, which was previously scattered among various memory institutions and private collections (the latter, though, still await systematic investigation). Second, this extensive material has been placed in an appropriate conceptual framework from the perspective of cultural memory studies. Third, the authors have included a comparative perspective, paying attention to the circulation of pictorial motifs, to transnational exchanges and even to some influences from neighbouring cultures.10

Reading the book raised three questions of a more general nature that are worth further consideration and also gesture at some promising new lines of research. To begin with, the book somewhat inconsistently switches between talking about art more narrowly and visual culture more broadly. While the subtitle of the volume suggests a clear focus on art, the opening sentence of the conclusion talks about visual culture in general: "This book analyses the role of visual culture in the construction of Estonian historical memory."11 Similar vacillation or hesitation is frequent in the book, even where the specific images indicate quite clearly that the focus is limited to the work of professional artists. This narrow focus is perfectly understandable because looking at visual culture could have easily resulted in becoming buried in material; the terminological teetering can also be explained, for the boundaries between art and visual culture are indeed vague and porous. Nevertheless, it is important to study the accounts of history represented in Estonian visual culture more extensively in the future, because historical films and monuments, mass media and applied art (from posters to souvenirs) clearly surpass historical painting and graphic art, at least in terms of influence.

The last observation points to a further line of research: the analysis of the reception of Estonian historical images. As it stands, the book frequently refers to the great influence of historical images and emphasises the important role of artists in shaping our views of the past, but provides scarce empirical evidence for these claims. So, to summarise their overview of the historical imagery of the pre-war Republic of Estonia, the authors write: "We can therefore say that artists have played a remarkable role in the identity creation of the Estonian nation state: through images displayed in art exhibitions, in the public space and as reproductions, and through designs for books, postcards, stamps, banknotes, posters and so on, visual culture contributed to the development of the national historical memory, and identity. Images influenced views on the ethnic, social and cultural affiliations of Estonians and Estonian citizens, as well as on which events, phenomena and characters were part of the history of the new nation state and which were not."12 Although I would be happy to accept this conclusion, it does not follow from the preceding chapter itself, but rather reflects the authors' general belief in the importance of historical images. For one thing, the authors talk little about postcards, stamps or posters up to that point, and mostly discuss paintings and drawings; for another thing, they give no concrete examples of how the influence of the images manifests itself or what evidence can be found for this. It is similarly clear that if the influence of visual culture on the Estonian understanding of history is to be at the centre of attention, then it would be more appropriate to study applied art, monuments, the theatre and the cinema, rather than paintings and drawings.


Johann Köler
Waking from Charmed Sleep
after a heliogravure
Estonian Literary Museum



To conclude this short discussion, however, I would like to come back to the problem raised in the introduction: is the (historical) identity of Estonians text-centred or do images also play an important role? The valuable research by Linda Kaljundi and Tiina-Mall Kreem has allowed this question to be posed in a much more nuanced way, helping to delineate the different meanings of images in different periods and how images have enhanced, extended or transformed the motifs introduced by texts. In some rare cases we can even talk about history pictures themselves introducing new motifs or images, as with Johan Köler's painting "Ärkamine nõidusunest" (Waking from charmed sleep, 1864), which, four years before the first patriotic speech by Carl Robert Jakobson, that laid the foundation for national historical culture, offered a persuasive visual image for the identity creation during the national awakening.13 Unfortunately, the painting was lost towards the end of the 19th century and its contemporary and subsequent influence is difficult to estimate. Although we now know incomparably more about representations of the past in Estonian art than ever before, the diagnosis that our historical culture is primarily verbal still continues to hold. While it has proved much richer and more fertile than previously thought, the Estonian tradition of historical imagery still strikes one as predominantly based on texts, whether it be chronicles, epics or stories. Nevertheless, through being translated into another, continual sign system, verbal information has taken on new meanings in pictorial language, sparked unexpected associations and helped create a much more multifaceted sense of the past. A detailed and delicate analysis of these complex cultural translation mechanisms is undoubtedly one of the most valuable contributions by the authors of "History in images – The image in history".


1 Marek Tamm, History as Cultural Memory. Mnemohistory and the Construction of Estonian Nation, Journal of Baltic Studies, vol 39, no 4, 2008, pp. 499–516.

2 See Juri Lotman, Retoorika. – Juri Lotman, Kultuurisemiootika. Tekst – kirjandus – kultuur. Tallinn: Olion, 2006, pp 186–211.

3 Juri Lotman, Culture and Explosion. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 2009.

4 Ed. Monika Flacke, Mythen der Nationen. Ein europäisches Panorama. Berlin: Koehler & Amelang, 2nd ed., 2001. (Unfortunately, the volume contains no historical images from Estonia. – M. T.)

5 Peeter Torop, Autokommunikatsioon ja identiteet. – Vikerkaar 2013, No 1–2, p 132.

6 Marek Tamm, Monumentaalne ajalugu. Esseid Eesti ajalookultuurist. Tallinn: SA Kultuurileht (Loomingu Raamatukogu No 28–30), 2012, p 65.

7 Tiina-Mall Kreem, 19. sajandi ajaloopildid. Uurimisseis ja -perspektiiv Eestis. – Ed. Tiina-Mall Kreem, Kunstnik ja Kleio. Ajalugu ja kunst 19. sajandil. Eesti Kunstimuuseumi Toimetised, 5 [10], Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum – Kadrioru Kunstimuuseum, 2015, p 13. ("Viscourse" is a portmanteau of "visual" and "discourse" borrowed from Gustav Frank and Barbara Lange, Einführung in die Bildwissenschaft. Bilder in der visuellen Kultur, Darmstadt: WBG, 2010.)

8 Eds. Linda Kaljundi and Tiina-Mall Kreem, Friedrich Ludwig von Maydelli pildid Baltimaade ajaloost. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum – Kadrioru Kunstimuuseum, 2013.

9 Linda Kaljundi and Tiina-Mall Kreem, Ajalugu pildis – pilt ajaloos. Rahvuslik ja rahvusülene minevik eesti kunstis. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum – Kumu, 2018.

10 In this regard, it struck me as surprising that the authors seem to have missed Suzanne Pourchier-Plasseraud's important doctoral thesis on Latvian visual culture in the early 20th century, which has been published in both French and English and would offer valuable comparative material for the Estonian context. See Suzanne Pourchier-Plasseraud, Les arts de la nation. Construction nationale et arts visuels en Lettonie 1905–1934, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2013; Arts and a Nation: The Role of Visual Arts and Artists in the Making of the Latvian Identity, 1905–1940, Leiden: Brill, 2015.

11 Linda Kaljundi, Tiina-Mall Kreem, Ajalugu pildis – pilt ajaloos, p 297.

12 Ibid., p 89.

13 Ibid., pp 53–55.


Marek Tamm is a historian and cultural scholar, who works as professor of cultural history at the School of Humanities, Tallinn University.

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