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Who Was Lepo Mikko Really?

Liisa Kaljula (1/2014)

Liisa Kaljula revisits Lepo Mikko's image in Estonian art history against the background of a major exhibition of the artist's work.

22. XI 2013–19. IV 2014
Great Hall of Kumu Art Museum
Curator: Anu Liivak.


Not so many artists in the history of Estonian art have lived through such different political regimes, while at the same time reflecting each of these so sensitively in their own work. Lepo Mikko's legacy of paintings records the authoritarian 1930s during the Republic of Estonia and the Stalinist years under the Soviet Union that followed, the political thaw that emerged from the latter and the subsequent Brezhnev stagnation. However, the chronological retrospective in the Great Hall at Kumu leaves no doubt that all these reflections in the work of the artist were the result of a rather rarely achieved compromise between the mainstream demands of the era and the artist's creative quest, and that in the rear-view mirror, Mikko's body of work forms a coherent narrative where one development sets the stage for another and that, in turn, for a third. This enviable skill to live and create in relative harmony within one's time is likely to have brought Mikko both success and misfortune, with the extensive creative legacy that survives in museums and private collections arguably reflecting the former, and the long silence in Mikko's reception following the Singing Revolution, the latter.1 The exhibition in the Great Hall at Kumu, which forms the break in the long silence, is however, dominated by still lifes and landscapes, and a legacy of elegiac poetry – brought to the public for the first time here – which shatters the image of Mikko as an apologist for the scientific-technical revolution in Estonian art.

What has probably been regarded as the main contradiction in the curriculum vitae of Mikko the artist is his Pallas background during the period of the Republic – Mikko alongside Elmar Kits was among the most talented graduates in the final class of the Pallas Art School – and his subsequent application of the strong formal training in French modernism that he received there to create large-scale socialist modernist compositions. Moving backwards through the exhibition, one can walk from the small Pallas-style compositions straight to the large socialist modernist compositions and find that the social observer in Mikko was no great commentator or echoer of the slogans of the era, but rather an artist who throughout his life was interested in figurative composition as a genre. During the Soviet era, and later too, figurative composition associated with Soviet thematic composition has been regarded as moonlighting in Estonia, but the mature Lepo Mikko would probably have been happy to devote himself to the genre of monumental painting in particular, for Nikolai Triik, a teacher of his during his time at the Pallas, had already said that the epic style suited Mikko well.2 I am delighted that curator Anu Liivak has not omitted from the show the serene socialist realist fields of crop and harvesting scenes from the 1950s, which organically grow out of his pastoral haymaking scenes of the 1940s, while the latter in turn hark back to a childhood spent in the countryside, for also in the later years he drew inspiration from his days as a herdboy.3 Although, the collectively painted large-scale socialist realist compositions, like "ENSV tõusev tööstus" (The Rising Industry of the ESSR, 1950–1951) co-authored with Priidu Aavik and Alo Hoidre, have this time been left in the vaults. Also left in the vaults, however, are works acquired from Union-wide exhibitions at the time, and the question of Mikko's career across the Soviet Union, which certainly existed4, is left to be taken up by future shows and research.

According to Anu Liivak, the artist really opened up in his creative work only during the Thaw, when he developed a personal artistic style that fitted the boundaries of the official view of art.5 Although Mikko's creative peak coincides with the re-emergence of abstraction in post-war Estonian art, Mikko was apparently never enthralled by abstraction and the works that should possibly be regarded as his most radical experiments are "Must kitarr" (Black Guitar, 1962) and "Kollane madonna" (Yellow Madonna, 1968), which flirt with analytic cubism. Mikko never really abandons depiction based on linear perspective, although a kind of break with temporal and spatial causality is represented by "Ajaratas" (Wheel of Time, 1971), a fragmented collage of modern life in the good old medium of painting which nevertheless betrays the presence of the most influential media of the 20th century: the press, television and cinema.


Lepo Mikko

Lepo Mikko
Wheel of Time
Oil on canvas
Art Museum of Estonia


Despite the fact that Mikko could be presented as a contemporary artist of his time, at the centre of the Kumu exhibition there are timeless still lifes and landscapes that focus on the problems of form. One is left with a unified and optimistic impression of Mikko here, although the figurative surrealism of dreams drawn in a wax crayon, even miserablist self-portraits a la Bernard Buffet that close the exhibition also reveal a different Mikko, and the black notebook with poems, discovered by the family after the artist's death, shows the direction Mikko turned his more nostalgic and elegiac face. During the Soviet era, keeping a hidden diary could be vital as a vent for feelings that had no place in a society of scientific-technical revolution ruled by physicists. Tiina Ann Kirss explains this contradiction between Mikko's paintings and poems in terms of the hand of the painter that "remains powerless when faced with pain and silence", and she tries, but cannot, imagine him painting on canvas the same images that appear in his poems – a freshly buried cadaver, a neglected clock and the smooth surface of the sea after a storm.6 Tiit Pääsuke describes Mikko the teacher as serious, harsh and authoritative, and indeed everyone who has lived during the Soviet era remembers the professionals of the day like this, from officials to midwives. This is how these times were, and the countless different ways of mental survival in the Soviet era have probably been underestimated in Estonia, as has the fact that the gap between the private and the public that tended to emerge in the Soviet modernism-of-the-facade was written into the late socialist system itself.


1 Lepo Mikko's last solo show was held in the Art Museum of Estonia in 1982, after which Mikko's work, alongside that of other artists of his generation, was seen again at a 2009 exhibition in the Tartu Art Museum, "The Future Is Born Today: Progressive art in the ESSR 1958–1968".

2 Anu Liivak, Life. – Lepo Mikko. Ed. by Anu Liivak. Tallinn: Art Museum of Estonia, 2013, p 277.

3 Ibid., p 275.

4 According to artist Leili Muuga, in Moscow at the time Mikko and Muuga had the reputation of being "the most Estonian artists". – Interview with Leili Muuga 25.III 2011 and 11. V 2011. Interviewers: Liisa Kaljula and Kädi Talvoja; camera: Heilika Pikkov. DVD in the Archives of the Art Museum of Estonia, IV DVD 00:08.

5 Anu Liivak, Art. – Leppo Mikko, p 12.

6 Tiina Ann Kirss, The labor of utterance: on Lepo Mikko's poetry. – Leppo Mikko, p 268.

Liisa Kaljula is an art theorist and critic; she works as Acting Curator of the Contemporary Art Collection at the Art Museum of Estonia.

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