The Hidden History of Estonian Impressionism Under Stalin

, installation view (photo courtesy of Kumu Art Museum of Estonia)
‘Romantic and Progressive: Stalinist Impressionism in Painting of the Baltic States in the 1940s–1950s,’ installation view (photo courtesy of Kumu Art Museum of Estonia)

TALLINN, Estonia — The history of modern art in Russia and the former Soviet Union has a fraught, ambiguous relationship with European art, with which it was inextricably entwined until the 1917 Russian revolution. Since then, different periods have yielded different responses to this relationship, which are always mediated by the politics of the day. The case of Impressionism is remarkable due to its quintessential position at the time of the revolution in the genesis of modern art, as well as its subsequent far-reaching influence. In Russian Art and the West (2007), American scholar Alison Hilton discusses the particulars of the dialogue between socialist realism and Impressionism: because Russian modernists such as Kandinsky, Chagall, and Malevich had ventured so far into abstraction, the new revolutionary institutions didn’t see Impressionism as a threat. This was partly due to the fact that an earlier generation of Russian painters had already integrated the structure of French Impressionism into the particularly Russian style of en plein air painting, or painting directly from nature. This became one of the traits of the new socialist realism, opposed to the decadent bourgeois European art.

The story, however, becomes much more complicated when the presence and practice of Impressionism under the cover of social realism is extended to other geographical areas in the Soviet sphere, far from Moscow and St Petersburg. This is the tale told by Romantic and Progressive: Stalinist Impressionism in Painting of the Baltic States in the 1940s–1950s at the Kumu Art Museum of Estonia, which focuses on the region that is adjacent to Russia but was under German influence for centuries, then occupied by Soviet forces until 1990. After maintaining a complicated relationship to the Impressionist movement, painting in impressionistic style was banned in the Soviet Union academies since 1948 as a consequence of the war, but many of the pre-war traditions remained: Impressionism had taught Soviet painters much about landscape painting, particularly its uses of light, immediacy, excitement. With the reorganization of cultural institutions in Estonia, local artists and intellectuals were brought into this new cultural sphere, but social realism in Estonia remained a loose ideology controlled by lazy bureaucrats and subject to many preexisting European influences such as abstract art and Expressionism.

‘Romantic and Progressive,’ installation view (photo courtesy of Kumu Art Museum of Estonia)

As one can see in other exhibition halls at Kumu, Estonians were taught classical painting by the Germans, and by the beginning of the 20th century they were familiar with all the modern styles, developing an art history parallel to Europe’s up until the Soviet occupation. While in some places social realism endured throughout Soviet rule, it was only during the 1940s and 1950s that it captivated Estonian painters, and even then, due to the mandates of official art organizations, painters turned to the strategies and techniques of Impressionism — abstract or inconclusive sensations, satire, reflections of light, strong brushstrokes — to tell the story of the Soviet revolution and the proletariat. The staged theatricality of Russian social realists is present in works such as “Interior” (1957) by Linda Kits-Mägi that portrayed ideal life under future communism (nowhere to be found in the present) or in more iconic Soviet-era Latvian and Estonian painters such as Arvids Egle and Aleksander Vardi, who portrayed the life of laborers in the workplace against the aestheticism of European painting, yet managed to produce subjects slightly more diffuse than those of their Russian counterparts.

In some respects, however, the artistic transfer went both ways: Baltic painters made innovations that were later integrated into official Russian art, such as the introduction of the sea as a part of the canon of social realism (this can be seen particularly in the work of Estonian painter Richard Uutmaa, perhaps the most auctioned Estonian artist of all times), and with it the transition in Soviet painting from everyday life to epic. In many of the works in this exhibition, it is difficult to distinguish between art and propaganda, especially in those done in the 1940s, such as the still lifes of Latvian Nikolajs Breikšs or Estonian Elmar Kits. Yet these pieces are not without the internal contradictions of an inconsistent movement: It is an early work by Kits, “May 1st Assembly in the Tartu State University Auditorium” (1945), that constitutes one of the most impressionistic and antagonistic works made during these two decades, showing as it does the face of Stalin blurred to the point that his presence becomes ghastly. But moving into the middle of the 1950s, you can see official art losing ground to a new kind of subjectivism that at the same time is nowhere close what would later become nonconformist art in Russia. In short, in the Estonia of the time, official and unofficial art began to inextricably merge.

Elmar Kits, "May 1st Assembly in the Tartu Statu University Auditorium" (1945), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Elmar Kits, “May 1st Assembly in the Tartu Statu University Auditorium” (1945), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Richard Uutmaa, "On a Nocturnal Sea" (1956), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Richard Uutmaa, “On a Nocturnal Sea” (1956), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This exhibition’s method of display could be seen as rather problematic. It is organized as a chronological and thematic catalog in which works have been paired almost solely based on color and subject matter, and much curatorial creativity seems to be missing in this historical arrangement. Yet it is important to remember that we are dealing with a state museum tasked with telling the history of Estonia through its art in ways that will be suitable to the new political direction of the country, overwriting its Soviet past and looking toward Northern Europe for its future. Romantic and Progressive does not claim to be a full monographic survey of the relationship between socialist realism and Impressionism in the Baltics, yet still the show is plagued by certain imbalances: the very minimal presence of artists from other Baltic countries, the overwhelming focus on Estonian masters like Uutmaa and Kits, and the all-too-fragmentary content of certain sections, such as portraits or still lifes, that could have been either completely eliminated or integrated within broader themes.

Producing a historical exhibition with such ambitious scope is a monumental task, fraught with many limitations. Curator Eha Komisarov told Hyperallergic that it was very difficult to track down pieces for this show, since no archives exist for this work and its history is rather unofficial. The absence of works from private and public collections in Russia (not only Russian socialist realist/Impressionistic works but also works from the Baltics owned by Russian collections) is also very revealing about the reality of Russian-Estonian relations and the countries’ mutually unacknowledged history. Speaking with Komisarov clarified a lot about the context of the exhibition, such as the role of Pop Art in official Estonian art after the end of the Stalinist period, and the birth of Soviet hyperrealist painting in Estonia, which was later established in Russia. It is fascinating to see the works of Stalinist impressionists in other rooms of the museum that are devoted to early modern, modern, and contemporary art, demonstrating the porous nature of the ideological framework of official art.

Mihails Korneckis, "Let's Go Girls" (1959), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Mihails Korneckis, “Let’s Go Girls” (1959), oil on canvas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

A piece by Latvian artist Mihalis Korneckis, “Let’s Go Girls” (1959), made toward the end of the period the exhibition covers, contains a curious mistake that might not have been a coincidence. Painted in social realist style with slight Impressionistic color value, it portrays women construction workers in the classical Soviet format. However the building they are cementing is no other than the cathedral of Riga, a Lutheran church originally built in the 11th century by Livonian bishop Albert of Riga, where religious services were prohibited between 1959 (the year of the painting) and 1989. This is just one example of how official propaganda art could also be nonconformist, a mechanism widely utilized by Russian artists but that in the Baltics retained its painterly format. As Komisarov noted, the difficulty with this period is that, because of Estonia’s particular rewriting of history after 1990, a lot of the work has been discarded and forgotten and is only being recovered now, when there is enough distance to understand its historical value. The ghost of an ambiguous identity continues to threaten the preservation of Soviet-era art.

The influence of Impressionistic-style art in Russia and the Soviet sphere is overwhelming. One cannot miss, while visiting Tretyakov State Galleries in Moscow, the fact that the most important socialist-realist artists of all times, such as Sergei Gerasimov or Yuri Pimenov, engaged in a productive dialogue with Impressionism while remaining committed to social realism. The grandiose, almost mythical character of the works that resulted is very different from the dim palettes of the Baltics. In the period between the Russian revolution and World War II, Russian art critics and theorists embraced Impressionism, then embraced only parts of it, then rejected it altogether. But their relationship to it animated much of what happened in painting during that time. The crucial issue with looking at this relationship in both Russia and the Baltics is that, as Komisarov told us, there is a profound contradiction between archives and art history. The longer view remains inconclusive and subject to the anxieties of the present.

Romantic and Progressive: Stalinist Impressionism in Painting of the Baltic States in the 1940s–1950s continues at the Kumu Art Museum of Estonia (Valge 1, 10127 Tallinn, Estonia) through May 1.

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