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The Formation Of The Tartu Circle Narrative

Tiiu Talvistu (1/2015)

Tiiu Talvistu takes us on a thorough guided tour of the exhibition "The Tartu Circle and Ülo Sooster".


5. XII 2014–29. III 2015
Kumu Art Museum
Artists: Valve Janov, Silvia Jõgever, Kaja Kärner, Lembit Saarts, Ülo Sooster, Lüüdia Vallimäe-Mark, Heldur Viires
Curator: Liisa Kaljula


This exhibition focuses on the generation who entered the art scene at the end of the 1940s. Some of them – Lembit Saarts, Ülo Sooster, Heldur Viires – were arrested and sent to prison camps somewhere in the depths of the Soviet Union. The young female artists who stayed in Tartu – Kaja Kärner, Valve Janov, Silvia Jõgever, Lüüdia Vallimäe-Mark – developed conflicts with the local authorities, most of them fell ill with tuberculosis and retired from the art scene. They were given another chance in 1956, when the crimes of Stalinism were condemned, some of the political prisoners were pardoned and people started increasingly talking about renewing art and following more contemporary developments. These events led to the Tartu circle becoming united again, which created a strong atmosphere of synergetic ideas and thoughts, often inspired by visits from Ülo Sooster, who had relocated to Moscow.

The meetings in Tartu were a time of intense discussion – time was limited and it had to be used as effectively as possible. This period was followed by an equally intense phase of work that, however, took place in the quiet atmosphere of the artists' studios. The works created there did not propose merely slight cosmetic changes to social realism, the artists actually turned their backs on what was officially acceptable and created works with clear links to new directions in 20th century art, in which abstractionism and surrealist art had gained prominent positions. Works that many of the artists created in the small rooms of the cosy wooden houses of the Karlova neighbourhood in Tartu seem almost revolutionary when compared to the official art of the same period, even though the formats were small and materials scarce.


A time of intense discussions

A few years ago the curator of the show at Kumu, Liisa Kaljula wrote in an article: "Exhibition as a medium is explosive already in its essence, in fact it is oriented towards explosiveness, since the field of meanings around the objects is created through juxtapositions and the task of the curator is to make sure these new meanings really do erupt."1 Therefore, this article will be the basis for analysing the exhibition "The Tartu Circle and Ülo Sooster" at the Kumu Art Museum that Kaljula has curated, while taking a closer look at how the show creates new meanings and contributes to expanding the narratives in Estonian art history, as this is the first time material of this scope has been displayed together in a single show. The title of the show hints that this exhibition aims to shift meaning from the traditional way this topic is usually approached; this, however, will be analysed in more depth later on.

As the visitors enter the exhibition, they immediately see that it has been divided into smaller cosy almost room-like spaces. The curator's idea of a "delicious local avant-garde" is supported by Flo Kasearu's exhibition design – the upper parts of the wall are lined with bordure, wooden pedestals placed near the walls are visually likened to the dressers on top of which photographs, books and other items are displayed. The works on the walls are grouped together so that there are both conglomerations of smaller pictures as well as emphasis on larger works. Another remarkable aspect is the way the works are framed – the framing is not unified, a tactic often used in current exhibition design, but rather there is a clear desire to preserve the authenticity of the artists' own preference in presenting the works, which amplifies the particular Karlova atmosphere even more. The small rooms of Valve Janov and Kaja Kärner come to mind – walls covered with works by different artists, dresser tops displaying carefully chosen objects, telling poetic stories about the owner of the flat, large stacks of pictures against the walls withholding hidden treasures. All of that created a safe atmosphere within its own time and structure.

These rooms open up several themes and the stories they tell form a narrative that makes clear the significance of the Tartu circle in Estonian art history. We are looking at a specific period of time; the focus is on the changes the artists' work went through between 1956 and 1970. That is, from the time "boys" (Sooster, Saarts, Viires) returned from the prison camps until Sooster's death in 1970 in Moscow; however, the most intense period of exchange between the artists was the beginning of the 1960s. This show marks the start of a series of exhibitions at Kumu titled "Addenda to Soviet-era art history" and it should also function as a platform from which to view upcoming shows. The Tartu circle is the first breath of fresh air, which nevertheless, could not be fully absorbed into the art scene of the time dominated as it was by Soviet ideology. Most of the works on display at Kumu were shown to the public gradually, many of them only in the 1990s, and there are some, like those by Heldur Viires and Lembit Saarts, that are on show for the very first time.

The exhibition is introduced by a gallery of portraits of the Tartu circle and the paintings of Kaja Kärner that document their gatherings at Valve Janov's flat in Karlova. It is Kärner's documentations that give the exhibition a palpable atmosphere of Karlova and the environment the artists worked in. This generation, tormented by the troubles of the Stalin era, was imbued with the obligation to keep traditions alive, but also with the need to bring about change, even despite all of the complications they faced. They needed to make up for the years they lost to Stalin, and this required them to work with intensity, draw on a lot of impulses and take advantage of all available possibilities.




Kaja Kärner
Courtesy of Tartu Art Museum



An equal partnership

For the first time ever the circle of friends is seen as a group of equal partners, Liisa Kaljula wants to present Sooster as one friend among others, not as a leader of the group. She gives others the same amount of visibility next to Sooster, and so it is the very first time that so many drawings by Heldur Viires, created in 1960–1961 during his stay with Sooster in Moscow, have been exhibited; this however, makes apparent many interesting intersections, convergences and uses of similar motifs. The most intriguing part of the works by Saarts and Sooster are the Picasso-like surrealist-influenced compositions of a couple on the beach, strongly laced with the young men's erotic imagination and desires, waiting to be released already in the closed environment of the prison camps.

The exhibition of the Tartu circle could also be viewed as an instruction manual of surrealist technique. They are the first artists to experiment with chafing, scratching, pasting pieces of paper together and adding found materials to compositions. The silent ruler of the collage room is Valve Janov who, with the relentlessness of a lace weaver, searches for fascinating combinations and builds them up into intriguing compositions. In addition to importing the surrealist approach to Estonia, they also pay a lot of attention to abstract art, especially to the various possibilities of post-war abstract expressionism and automatic drawing. All these themes are analysed in different rooms of the exhibitions, parallels are drawn between authors, common traits and strengths of each artist are displayed. The last section of the exhibition focuses on the way the artists created shifts and used automatism in their work and with this the clear trajectory the show had been following so far seems to become somewhat obscure.

Sure, Sooster probably did study modernist art most thoroughly out of the circle and applied it to his own practice as well. By juxtaposing similar motifs, the curator tries to solve the question of the initial authorship, which seems like a rather marginal issue, since the ideas were in the air and all the artists used them. Each room at the exhibition is like a small explosion which, when combined, create an overview of the transformations that make the Tartu circle so important in Estonian art that one can definitely not ignore it. This is the first step towards a better understanding of the post-war avant-garde.


A missing historiography

Historical exhibitions focus on rewriting art history and they are mostly associated with art museums that, as proprietors of collections, have the opportunity but also the responsibility to do so. An extensive rewriting of Estonian art history began already in the 1990s. These ideas have been compiled in the comprehensive series "History of Estonian Art" – the first part of its sixth volume2 also studies the era the Kumu exhibition is focusing on. Unfortunately, the exhibition catalogue does not provide a historiography of the subject, which, in fact, should be included in a publication that aims to contribute to Kumu's exhibition series "Addenda to Soviet-era art history". It is the material previously published we now face and enter into dialogue with and that gives us an introduction to the topic.

So now would be a good time to discuss the background story of how and when the Tartu circle became introduced into Estonian art history and how it has been previously predominantly tied to Ülo Sooster's person. The lead-in to this topic manifested as an exhibition titled "Collage as an Alternative" in 1994 at the Art Museum of Estonia, curated by Eha Komissarov. The first part of this exhibition is made up of the Tartu circle that was closely linked to Sooster.3 This was followed by another exhibition titled "Tallinn–Moscow 1956–1985" in the catalogue of which Reet Varblane and Leonhard Lapin also mention the Tartu–Moscow connection. At the end of 1997 an exhibition curated by Reet Mark and titled "Ülo Sooster and Friends" was opened at the Tartu Art Museum. The road to articulating the topic as it stood was explained by Mark as follows: "At first the museum wanted to organise an exhibition on Sooster's work only. [---] The last show of his work was over 10 years ago. But then Enriko Talvistu had the idea of showcasing the work of his contemporaries as well."4 The show was centred on Sooster and the works of his friends (this time Valdur Ohakas and Henn Roode were included as well) and some interesting comparisons were drawn. For this exhibition the artist Silvia Jõgever gave the museum materials on the 1960 exhibition held at the No 8 Secondary School in Tartu, which made it possible to claim the Tartu circle as the first Estonian post-war artist group.5

When it comes to research on the Tartu artists and their relationship to Sooster, the first one to approach this topic in a new way was Reet Mark in the article "An art group of the 1960s" published in the catalogue "Ülo Sooster" (2001) by the Art Museum of Estonia, but also Sirje Helme in her presentation "Why do we call it avant-garde? Abstract art and Pop in Estonia at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s" at the "Different modernisms, different avant-gardes: problems in Central and Eastern European art after World War II" conference (2009) at Kumu Art Museum.6 Helme is also the author of the sub-chapter titled "Tartu circle" in the sixth volume of "History of Estonian Art".

Eda Sepp has also analysed this topic from the perspective of the feminist art discourse and written about the women artists of the Tartu circle in the magazine Ariadne lõng (1/2, 2000 and 1/2, 2001), but later also gave an overview of the work of all of the members of the circle.7 In her articles, Eda Sepp emphasises the importance of the female members of the circle and the significance of their work, which serves as a useful platform for Liisa Kaljula as she decides to prioritise the Tartu circle as a whole over Sooster and draw attention to their equal partnership.


Art explosion in Tartu

In the very beginning of her analysis of the Kumu exhibition, Reet Varblane states: "Already in the title of her curatorial project, "The Tartu Circle and Ülo Sooster" Liisa Kaljula has turned the conventional notion of the relationship between Sooster who lived in Moscow and his friends in Tartu upside down. She follows the same logic throughout the exposition. It is structured according to motifs in the art works, it lacks a hierarchy and Sooster, usually seen as the innovator, has become equal among others."8 One would have expected that the catalogue would offer an explanation of why the curator decided to shift the balance, unfortunately no such clarification can be found. This becomes evident when looking at the exhibition, yet is the written word that future researchers will be working with.

In his contribution to the catalogue titled "Ülo Sooster's communitas: liminality in the post-Stalinist art practice" Francisco Martinez focuses on Sooster; however, the concept of liminality could be extended to the whole circle, all of whom renewed the art of the time. Even though the term "liminality" is abundantly used in the article and above all in connection to Sooster, it is not exactly clear what the author means by that. Many characterisations of Sooster given by Martinez would also apply to the way other members of the circle lived. They, too, created an alternative space which was used to insulate themselves from their surroundings and so the artists could feel they operated "above" it all. There is also a strange statement in the text: "These artworks were always crumpled and burnt when found by the camp officers."9 These works were burnt and crumpled up precisely because Sooster threw his drawings in the stove to prevent the guards from finding them, which is the reason the drawings are in such bad shape.

Constantly working and documenting people around them by drawing was very characteristic to the artists of the Pallas school; for example, Saarts did this while in prison as well. The multifaceted Sooster is likened by Martinez to Vladimir Vysotsky and Sergey Kuryokhin; I would draw a few parallels to local artists such as Tõnis Vint and Kaljo Põllu, whose talent as leaders has left a mark on several generations of artists and who also built their own universe around them.

Unfortunately, the exhibition focusing on Ülo Sooster and his circle in Moscow that the Tartu Art Museum had planned based on materials available in Estonia was never realised. This project will have to wait for a better opportunity. The significance of Sooster extends further than within Estonian culture alone and this provides opportunities for different approaches. Still, the exhibition "The Tartu Circle and Ülo Sooster" is the first to give such an extensive overview of the art explosion in Tartu.


Tiiu Talvistu is an art historian, working at the Tartu Art Museum as the curator of collections.


1 Liisa Kaljula, Näitus kui plahvatus. ‒ Sirp 26. I 2012.

2 See: Eesti kunsti ajalugu. 6, part I, 1940–1991. Ed. Jaak Kangilaski. Tallinn: Eesti Kunstiakadeemia, Kultuurileht, 2013.

3 Reeli Kõiv, Tartu kunstnike kollaažinäituse taustal. – Sirp 4. III 1994.

4 Anti Einpalu, Tartus avati Ülo Soosteri näitus. – Postimees 29. XI 1997.

5 See: Enn Lillemets, Hermeetiliselt suletud ruumi mõistatus. ‒ Sirp 9. I 1998; Tiiu Hagel, Ülo Sooster ja sõbrad. ‒ Sirp 9. I 1998.

6 See: Sirje Helme, Why do we call it avant-garde? : Abstract art and pop art in Estonia in the late 1950s and in the 1960s. – Different modernisms, different avant-gardes: Problems in Central and Eastern European Art after World War II. Ed. Sirje Helme. Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2007, pp 123–137.

7 See: Eda Sepp, Estonian Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Occupation in 1944 to Perestroika. – Art of the Baltics. The Struggle for Freedom of Artistic Expression under the Soviets, 1945–1991. Eds. Alla Rosenfeld, Norton T. Dodge. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press and The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, 2002, pp 45–52.

8 Reet Varblane, Kirglik kunst enesetsensuuri kiuste. – Sirp 19. XII 2014.

9 Francisco Martinez, Ülo Sooster's communitas: liminality in the post-Stalin art practise. – Tartu circle and Ülo Sooster. Ed. Liisa Kaljula. Tallinn: Kumu Art Museum, 2014, p 49.

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