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Tolts the Alchemist

Viivi Luik (1/2018)

Viivi Luik writes about the Kumu retrospective "Andres Tolts. Landscape with Still-Life".


24. XI 2017 –1. IV 2018
B wing of the 4th floor of Kumu
Curator: Anu Allas

We know that Andres Tolts (1949–2014) can casually, with a single elegant gesture, bring together the radical (Radikalismus) and the conservative (Konservatismus) and declare, accompanied by the very same elegant gesture: "I cannot help it, I do not like chaos neither in life nor in art."1

Indeed, Tolts has worked like an alchemist and a magician, creating order in the chaos of elements using formulas known only to himself. The fact that Andres Tolts can playfully, without removing the cigarette from his mouth, using the brush, pencil and oil paint available to everyone, reveal the very same panorama of eternity that Betti Alver and Artur Alliksaar composed poetry about back in their day, is less well known.

Tolts has not often been considered the expert of spaces and depths and the master of painting the sky. However, if Tolts had a coat of arms, the emblems, the peculiar heraldic animals on it would be the Sun, the Moon and Lightning. Tolts himself confirms in 1992: "I have been interested in both alchemy and freemasonry. Spirit and matter must be united without conflict."2


Sophisticated man

Several simultaneous realities can be seen in Tolts' paintings – screens that hide sea views; landscapes reined in by black or red lightning; alchemical suns and moons, with meanings different from what we might expect. Sometimes it is a painting inside a painting.

However, when Tolts paints rusty chunks of iron, barbed wire, wastelands and industrial landscapes, he emphasises in a special way distinctive to him that even the territories of prison camps and large battlefields have always been exposed to the vastness of the celestial sphere. In this sense Tolts can be considered a sacral artist, but also a political artist in the deeper and broader meaning of the word.

Tolts bears a certain similarity with Daniil Kharms (1905–1942) who managed to become a classic of Russian absurdist literature, a famous surrealist, despite the shortness of his lifetime. All of this only after his death, while as long Daniil Kharms was alive, his texts were not published in communist Russia. At first glance, there are no stories further from politics than the texts by Kharms, but those texts precisely portray the Russia of the day in its complete absurdity.

Despite his non-existent opportunities, Kharms was a sophisticated man. As was Andres Tolts, who viewed the era into which he was born and the attributes of which he depicted with an ironic supremacy. Tolts himself rejects this. He tells Christop Kim in an interview in Karlsruhe in 1992: "I am more interested in Mondrian than Malevich. All these Russian anxieties and the excessive emotionality are too regional."3

Everyone can go and take a look at the painting "Night" (Öö, 1987) at Tolts' exhibition. If this is not a political painting, then, well, please show me a painting that is! The aforementioned painting depicts the heavy dark brown tabletop of a Stalinist desk, along with a lamp designed in the late 1950s. As if set for investigation, the lamp illuminates a house surrounded by a small cosy and vulnerable garden. The light is aimed straight in the face of the house.

The whole scene in its kharmsian absurdity is reminiscent of the former KGB, which had all lives and residences symbolically laid out on its table. Outside of the reach of the lamp is the dark night. Darkness has been separated from the light by a barrier. Sputnik, the symbol of the then Soviet Union, governs the scene.



Tolts ÖÖ

Andres Tolts
oil on canvas,
120 x 180.2 cm
Photo by
Stanislav Stepashko
Art Museum of Estonia



Uniting matter and spirit

Here it is appropriate to quote Leonhard Lapin: "Tolts' relationship with the surrounding reality is even arrogant. He sees the Soviet world as something temporary, an acute illness that simply needs to be gone through."4 I myself have written in the catalogue issued in Karlsruhe in 1992: "It would be easy to say that Andres Tolts warns, if it was true. Andres Tolts does not warn anyone. That does not interest him at all."5

When Tolts depicts a closed space, then the space is indeed closed. A peculiar tension reigns in the spaces he paints, as if in addition to the visible objects they also contain something that is invisible to the bare eye. The painting may depict a cactus, a lump of meat, a desk or a lamp, but treated by Tolts these objects have become ultimate versions of the depicted objects, they have become a model of the cactus, the meat, the desk or the lamp, the primal cactus, the primal meat and the primal lamp. In this way Tolts has managed to express "the union of matter and spirit without conflict", express the unity of matter and spirit, their simultaneousness.


"On a quiet afternoon, Tolts arranges a bouquet of flowers"

Tolts the Alchemist might like these two stories that I cannot leave untold, since he is their protagonist.


Once upon a time, in the mid-1970s, on a dark August night a small but impressive procession that consisted of Andres Tolts, Ando Keskküla (1950–2008), Jaak Jõerüüt and Viivi Luik passed through a dark spruce forest. Everyone involved held long burning candles; otherwise it would have been impossible to tread in this pristine darkness. The explanation is prosaic: under the leadership of Tolts we had gone on an expedition to an enchanting glade behind the forest, and had fallen behind in our return. The way to the car led through a few kilometres in the dark forest. We found the candles from the recreation centre of an art complex on the side of the enchanting glade. There was a complete lull. The candles burned with a straight flame and an infinite number of nightshades died in their flames. There was no moon nor stars, the spruce trees were so thick.


Decades flew by, until a dark pre-Christmas evening in 2017 arrived. On that evening a small group of friends of Alchemist Tolts went to see the exhibition "Landscape with Still Life" in Kumu and decided to go light candles on the grave of Tolts in Metsakalmistu (Forest Cemetery). The evening was indeed gloomy. It was almost as dark under the great trees in Metsakalmistu as in that forest long ago. The paths in the cemetery were slippery and convex like logs made of glass. Our little five-member procession was compelled to use the "flashlight" app on a smartphone. We discussed how we are going to find the grave of Tolts in the darkness. However, suddenly the beam of light from the smartphone fell exactly on Tolts' gravestone – and there we were.


After a while, in the New Year, I was asked by KUNST.EE to write a story about Andres Tolts. I agreed, but did not start immediately. One early morning some days later I saw the following dream. I met Eda Sepp, an art critic living in Toronto, who told me: "Come, I will show you the new painting by Tolts!" We went to a high-class café in a park, to a circular room that was in a pink pavilion which had arched windows from floor to ceiling. The pavilion was surrounded by lindens planted in a circle and trimmed in the French round topiaric style, alternating with trees of sweet cherries full of fruit. The trees had been planted so behind each window were two trees, a linden and a sweet cherry. So the view was charming.

The café was empty and exquisite. One wall was covered by a huge painting, a self-portrait by Andres Tolts, named "On a quiet afternoon, Tolts arranges a bouquet of flowers". The painting was in green, white and yellow tones. A young and very elegant Tolts was standing in the foreground. He was wearing a yellow tweed coat with a knitted vest underneath it with a green and yellow Missoni-esque pattern. On his feet he had expensive cognac shoes and in front of him was a low round table clothed in green, with a vase into which a focused Tolts was arranging an exquisite bouquet of the flowers and leaves of the white calla lily. In a distant corner of the painted room sat Ando Keskküla with his legs crossed. Suddenly, the painted Tolts noticed me, turned into a live Tolts, reached his hand outside of the painting and waved. We started having fun and we talked with him for a while, laughing like dogs.


A moment before waking up I realized: see, Tolts does care after all, what I write about him for KUNST.EE.



Viivi Luik is a poet and writer. Andres Tolts, their family friend, has designed several books by her and Jaak Jõerüüt.



1 See Andres Tolts, Ülevaatenäitus Eesti Kunstimuuseumis. Tallinn: Andres Tolts, 1999, p 23.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Leonhard Lapin, Ääremärkusi Boris Groysi staliniaanale. – Akadeemia 1998, No 5, p 1113.

5 Andres Tolts, Ülevaatenäitus Eesti Kunstimuuseumis. 1999, p 14.

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