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The return of the ‘Sovetski Zapad (‘Soviet West’)

Johannes Saar (3-4/2009)

Johannes Saar writes about the grand anniversary show Collection: Selected Works I, which celebrated 75 years of the Tallinn Art Hall with a retrospective survey of its collection
Any anniversary celebration can be made more festive by the decoration of the rooms, by the guests’ dressing in their Sunday best and by the best bottles being brought down to the table from the top shelf of the pantry. The 75th anniversary of Tallinn Art Hall, an earnest reason for a retrospective, offers a good opportunity to poke fun at the length of the feast table, the number of guests and the pretensions of the jubilarian hosting the event.
Of course, it is fitting that one ought to say only good things with regard to an anniversary celebration. If there is fault to be found then it should start from elsewhere: for instance, from February 1th last year, when I found in my mailbox an invitation to attend a celebration, that same evening, of the Art Hall’s new director beginning in his role. I missed the party, but I did set my stopwatch ticking from that time. So today, a year-and-a-half later, I have two retrospectives available for consideration – Tallinn Art Hall at 75 and Harry Liivrand at 1½ – and I don’t know which makes me happier. I went to see the retrospective exhibition celebrating the anniversary and now I feel twenty-five years younger. Someone has painted the grass greener and the sky bluer! The pictures were mainly from the 1970s and 80s, along with some older examples of course, but there, hanging on the walls, were my high-school and university years – the twilight of the Soviet Union. Isn't it nice to remember the old times, to sing those songs again? “So good to be here, so good to be here…” so the song goes.
Who should we thank in the jubilee speech? Harry Liivrand? Ilmar Torn? The former purchasing committees? The Communist Party and the government? Tough choices. In reality, we have no idea who or what, precisely, is the subject of this celebration. Partly it is us, at least those among the audience who have grown personally attached to the Art Hall: this jubilarian was also present. It has been a long time since the Art Hall saw so many visitors all at once. People were coming and going, having fun, feasting on art hits from the past. 4250 visitors in a month. This is not your solitary avant-gardism, this is the people’s choice.
It seemed the guests knew their manners: no one mentioned politics. Not that that would have been difficult to do, for it is obvious that it was a celebration of the first Estonian Republic’s key cultural event, but with meals taken from Soviet times. What else can you do when today’s adults have been raised in an economy of deficit and the Art Hall’s collection has been assembled mainly from the post-Khrushchev stagnation period? A docile crowd with their docile art preferences. Besides, it is possible to spice up the art culture, which has been circling about at the end of social realism’s leash, to make it more ‘Western’ – by taking a tip from Finnish TV and Western magazines.        
This is the intellectual atmosphere the anniversary exhibition of the Art Hall is luxuriating in: Khrushchev’s sleety thaw bordering on one side and Yeltsin’s boozing presidency on the other. Further from these wobbling borders, tougher choices await the traveler. If you dwell deeper in the past, you reach the Asiatic desert of high-Stalinism, filled with plaster Lenins, gliding pioneers and crawling, footless Matrosovs. You return from the nightmare of obligatory collectivism to the present, and at the beginning of the nineties witness a radically different kind of Anschluss – Estonia’s surrender to market-liberal individualism – and again it is bad: everyone does what they want, and the body of national culture has been ravished once more. The rigid principles of both choices are oppressive, both repel the public for the sake of ideas.
Yet, for better or for worse, there remains that vague, grey zone between these extremes, a twilight zone, a polyphony of all possibilities, a labyrinthine room with stray echoes and adventurous sounds, where ambivalence rules and polyvalence is merely a local authority. And the meanings of works of art are always hidden away deep in a forest, between-the-lines... With astonishing nonchalance, the apogee of this period during the 70s has, in retrospect, been labeled ‘stagnation’. With disturbing irresponsibility, the beginning of this period, in the sixties, has been glorified as ‘golden’. But it is downright contemptible that there has been a general failure to find a label for the end of the period, the eighties. Not to mention the title of Albert Trapeež’s or Leo Lapin’s 1993 poetry collection, which formulates the period as ‘The Sh***y Seventies’. One particular collection of art treatments, still in manuscript form, is titled ‘Lost Eighties’ – a title that suggests a frank admission of the entire period.
The late-summer anniversary exhibition Collection: Selected Works I thus covers a period which various authors have epitomized as stagnation, golden, lost and sh***y – an almost arbitrary selection of epithets which have tended to rise towards the status of epitaphs in our at discourse, inscriptions on the tombstone of the entire period. Nonetheless, with the aid of the mighty hand of curator Harry Liivrand, the dear departed has been dragged out into the daylight and, lo and behold, the people came and bowed before the relics. It would seem that it isn’t all so sh***y and lost, nor as stagnant, as the experts, with their mania for labels, have claimed. There must be something golden reflected in these paintings after all.
Let’s take a look at this distant glow. I will begin with how I view the paintings. I see them via an experience of trauma. It’s a very simple story. In 1991, as a young man, I became treasurer at the Art Hall. One of my first tasks was to take over from the previous managers’ work in processing the inventory of the art collection. The work went ahead, lasting a couple of months, and finally the figures added up perfectly. However, it later became evident that while the works were being inventoried at one end, they were being then sold back to artists at the other, and at a nominal price: a painting that had been acquired in 1971 for 100 rubles would, in 1991, be sold back to the artist for that same price. Why? I do not know. Perhaps the management of the Art Fund at that time needed money for beer; 100 rubles would have bought you altogether four beers in Town Hall Square. In any case, it was an unpleasant affair and I saw to it personally that the affair would become unpleasant for everyone involved: with Ants Juske I wrote an article titled ‘Falling Apart’ for the weekly Sirp. This was all a long time ago, so I may be mistaken about the year and about the price of beer, in which case I apologize.
However, this ‘falling apart’ was damaging to the collection and was a moral blow. The artists, in carrying their works first home and then on to art dealers, manifested an attitude adopted in the face of the new era and showed just how unimportant it seemed to them that their art be collected and exhibited in a public institution. This mentality may also have been exacerbated by the surreptitious dissemination of rumour that the so-called ‘newcomers’ were going to put the collection up for a bargain sale anyway. With such rumour in the air, reflected in conversations with several of the artists involved, the collection was hastily written off in people’s minds like a sinking ship. And the artists ‘rescued’ their works in hope of a better life – for Finnish Marks, which jingling no doubt made a more attractive sound than an art institution with a vague future.
The collection was thus written off. It did not occur to anyone that new submissions might be acquired – on the contrary, they focused on dismantling the collection. At some point, however, it stopped, (my own mighty hand?) and the state of things was preserved for future decades.
New confiscations and privatizations came along. 1500 Russian rubles became 150 Estonian kroons, privatization vouchers (EVPs) could be used to acquire former ESSR property, and so forth. There was a lot of quarreling, aggravation, victims were complaining, dealers were showing off… This not the kind of Estonia anyone had fought for. Still, everyone went on with their lives, grabbed whatever it was possible to grab, and a lot of people were happy with the situation.
In 2009, we look back to the collection from across troubled waters. The early capitalist riot has cooled, there have been touches of turbo-capitalist economic rises, but now our backwards glance is tainted by such keywords as masu, täpe and pupu.[1] We are hurting and we feel as though the “old was definitely better”. The collection qualifies warrants a good tumble with painful clarity precisely for the reason described above: it is touched by the liberalization of collective life only to the point that it fell victim to it. Hence a trauma, and prior to that an age of innocence when “everything was definitely better”.
There was an age of innocence in the sense that at that time the theft of state property, skipping work and a vagrant lifestyle, all fit somehow into the dimension defined by law and were even deemed justifiable by nationalists as dissident subversive activities toward bringing down the Socialist stronghold . A Soviet rope is supposed to trail behind. There was a lot of this kind of indoor studio rebellion in the art of that time. There were a lot of boys and girls who, while misbehaving at home, would stand in line, in formation, and who were all on their best behaviour at the presidium. The cool industrialism of the art group SOUP 69, the metaphysics of ANK’64, the Pop of the art group Visarid, the callous Hyperrealism of Tartu and Tallinn, the bourgeois flamboyance of the Pallas artists and Olev Subbi, the national romantic mythology of Kaljo Põllu, the Kalevipoeg-narratives of Lembit Sarapuu – all these could also be framed as figural realism, as figurative art in the mimetic sense, and they qualified as Trojan horses at the annual survey exhibitions. Things were a little more difficult with Jüri Kask, Tõnis Vint, Raul Meel and Jüri Okas – these had to be stuffed into the back hall – but all in all it was a fine time and we could mind our own business during work – the wolves were fed and the sheep remained intact. The neurotic combination of social commissions and national ideas found its solution in a schizophrenic art practice: artists used domestic means to make ‘Western’ art, which was channeled straight through the Art Hall funds under a regular and quite liberal purchase policy. It is a well-known story. Intellectually the artists identified themselves with something distant, but physically (and heaven forfend they should do otherwise!) they yielded to the local dictates, particularly with regard to the operation of art-life and how art was squashed into the minimal criteria of realism. “The lowest common denominator with realism”: just so long as this umbilical cord was within reach, at least potentially, then everything was fine, all was sovetski. As we know, Estonians being moderate Mensheviks, they themselves saw to it that the tight leash of realism would not snap. After all, one needed that permit for purchasing a car and that free voucher to Crimea. What you don’t need, however, is to piss down your own trouser-leg with some sort of radicalism. That might lose you your studio. And so, sovetski zapad provided a reason for rejoicing even in the Kremlin. See? – People know their own limits (if not the walls).
Reservations of this kind, in conjunction with the present circumstances bore versatile fruit. A long time ago, in an edition of the almanac Kunst, I applied the Freudian dichotomy of subconsciousness and consciousness to culture in the manner of Boris Groys. Official culture and underground culture – consciousness and subconsciousness. The permissible and the forbidden, and also the control mechanisms that sublimate subconscious desires into decent outlets: all this existed in Soviet cultural life. In a psychogeographical dimension, the limitless realization of naturally subconscious pro creative desires was projected into the so-called ‘free world’ – precisely, in the West – where, or so it was thought, every Pegasus roamed freely, ejaculating streams of poetry in the highest possible arc and out over the vault of the sky. In contrast, local cultural life was perceived as a system of commandments and prohibitions of the Jungian super-ego. Without going into details, according to Groys, the Socialist East perceived the Capitalist West as individual subconsciousness.
We know that the official cultural consciousness also went on the attack in Estonia after the Prague Spring. The golden ‘studio rebellions’ in 60s Czechoslovakia had grown into a front against Soviet tanks. This could not be tolerated, it had to be smothered at the point of origin, e.g. in the studio. The grip of exhibition juries and purchasing committees grew tighter still. However, purchasing committees and exhibition policy turned out to be more liberal than those of the museums, where ideological control was stricter. And so it became possible to generate art ‘above ground’ and allowed for art that flirted sinfully with the artistic customs of the West and winked shamefully at forbidden urges from the Modernist arsenal of the time, to be eventually bought into the collections. This was a big deal. The Art Hall acquired a reputation for being a stronghold for insiders, where people could mind their own business under the shield of the Communist party ticket. It was all done via the fragile language of nods and winks, but still... Colouring, motifs, plots – all could be loaded with the agreed meanings and this is what was done, thus giving rise to a compensatory system for overcoming cultural oppression and to the preservation of the narrative of perseverance. We may speculate that such mechanisms of compensation prevented bigger riots from happening in Estonia and assured a cool cultural climate. The fiery artistic nature of Estonians found its expression in a quiet league, in a group of insiders. Kaljo Põllu, the Pallas epigones, Hyperrealists, slide-painters, apolitical female graphic artists / poetesses and semi-Pop artists – all secretly cherished their idols from the West while simultaneously adjusting themselves carefully in line with the norms of the local art-life. A schizophrenic self-image? – Yes, of course. A hysterical adoption of the symptoms of Pop Art without the actual reasons which would warrant it, without the corresponding consumer culture? – That too. Subdued ideology generates monsters.
However, life messed things up. At the beginning of the nineties, artists who had already been included in the collections were forced to revise their worldview yet again. The act of dismantling the collection apart was merely a consequence. Just when it seemed that the collection was nearly ‘ready’, the general artistic mentality was beginning increasingly to value the rebelliousness of the sixties – that aspect which more publicly reflected the art practice of the liberal West. And so it should, because the Eastern block as a whole was shifting into the West. Like a saviour, Georg Soros vigorously set out to finance the liberalization of art-life, and the first to arrive across the newly opened borders were art dealers and collectors who, in return for only a small payment, grabbed anything that looked like the kind of art that was typically produced in the West. After all, imperialists and colonizers will look everywhere to see their own reflection.
After a while, the collection seemed to be disregarded and left apart from this art-market mania: salon radicalism and studio revolution were not sufficiently close to the ‘edge’, and a new market would have to be found for them. And so there were the little shops and galleries, as well as the Finnish and Swedish bourgeois with their bashful vanities in the circles of those ‘crazy’ artists. All that remained was the question of how to organize things. A mandate from the director of the Art Fund opened the doors to artists who had arrived holding the doomed rubles in their hands, and was aimed at rescuing the doomed art.
It is the fate of the collection that it dwell in our subconsciousness. No one really wants to reminiscence over Soviet collaborations or the trafficking that went on with the legacy. It is embarrassing. It would be equally embarrassing to publicly admit to certain sinful fantasies and express regret over the sins of youth. Instead, we hear about God and honour, even from the mouths of those artists who at that time, laden with a heavy burden, had scampered off home. Good riddance indeed. Your days are over. You were the ones who couldn’t write things off quickly enough, and, as far as we’re concerned, we may as well begin counting time from that same moment. We have mused over social realism enough already, and behold, the brotherly West has also invited our legacy for a visit. Perhaps a time will come when the liberal world begins to take an interest in the Soviet salon radicals. Then it will again be your turn to sit on the throne, and your turn to ponder whether we should thank Harry Liivrand or Ilmar Torn.

Johannes Saar works as director of the Centre for Contemporary Arts, Estonia.

[1] Abbreviations from, respectively, ‘majandussurutis’ (‘economic recession’), ‘täitsa perses’ (‘totally screwed’) and ‘puhta putsis’ (‘completely fucked’). – Transl.
Additional information:
At the Tallinn Art Hall
August 26th – September 20th 2009
Collection: Selected Works I.
More than sixty paintings by Estonian artists, thirty jewellery artworks, graphic art and sculptures etc. Exhibition curator – Harry Liivrand; designer – Leonhard Lapin
Four quotes from the curator:
HL (Harry Liivrand): “First off, the exhibition is a reminder of the fact that Tallinn Art Hall as an institution has never served, nor does now, solely as a representational gallery for Estonia, but it has also operated – in the Soviet times as well as again in the recent year – as a museum-like institution collecting works of art. As a result, the Art Hall now possesses a diverse collection put together in the course of decades (mainly based on purchases done in 1960–1990 by the Estonian Art Fund), and it is presentable and abundant to this day, despite the processes of restitution and confiscation which took place at the beginning of the 1990s. The Art Hall has its own collections of painting, graphic art, sculpture, ceramics and jewellery. And so the second reason, a more topical one, is to finally present the collections themselves in connection with the Art Hall’s anniversary – this has never before been done on such a comprehensive scale.”
HL: “Thirdly, I would like to emphasize the high quality of the collection at the Art Hall. For instance, the greatest value from the aspect of art history can be attributed to the collection of Estonian Modernist paintings from the 1970s and 1980s. The art-historic value of several of these works is equal to the works from the same era at the Estonian Museum of Art and Tartu Art Museum. Note also that works from the Art Hall’s collection are on loan to Kumu Art Museum and can be viewed in its exposition.”
HL: “The intentionally selective exposition with an emphasis on painting is complemented by certain key works from other art fields. A story about Soviet Estonian Modernism opens up before us – an aesthetically powerful and narrative course of development starting with rough style through Pop Art, Abstractionism, Hyperrealism, Post-Modernism and on to the new-mythology of Neo-Expressionism.”
HL: “As works of art were no longer purchased for the Art Hall after 1991, the preserved collection in a way acquired a conserved appearance. It was there, but it existed only as something retrospective, as a sign of a one-time art policy. In order to revive the collection, and considering the actual financial state of the Art Hall, I turned to several artists last summer and asked them to donate or deposit works for the anniversary of the Art Hall. I am extremely glad that all of the artists with whom I talked agreed to the idea and by now the Art Hall collection includes fifteen new works by well-known artists.”
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