Mystics and Moderns: Painting in Estonia Before Glasnost

Olav Maran: Talmla, 1964
Apr 30, 2011 - Oct 28, 2011
DuBrow Gallery

Estonia lies at the geographic doorway to Russia, but the Estonians have long turned their gaze across the Baltic Sea to Finland, Europe, and beyond. In folklore, mystical forces connected Estonia and its people to the natural world. Such notions of a shared, mythical ancestry captured the public imagination in the nineteenth century, triggering the National Awakening. This movement fused Estonian national consciousness with a longing for the social, cultural, and technological modernity sweeping Europe. Enrolling in the academies of Germany, Italy, and France, Estonian artists adapted the lessons of European modernism to the task of shepherding their national myth into modern form.

Soviet occupation at the close of World War II isolated Estonia from Western Europe, severing the cultural contact that had inspired and nurtured Estonian national identity. From the east, Moscow now dictated Socialist Realism, a policy that favored patriotic depictions of Soviet militarism, industry, and science. Estonian artists faced a grim choice: conform to Soviet protocols or risk oblivion.

Stalin’s death in 1953, however, sparked a period of cultural “thaw,” and renewed the question of national self-determination. Foreign exhibitions and publications brought glimpses of a contemporary art field now dominated by American painters. In keeping with their national predecessors, Estonians adapted these global forms to explore the limits of representation and experience. Mystics and Moderns celebrates this exploration, and thus the continuity of Estonian culture through the Soviet occupation and withdrawal in 1991.

Organized by Jeremy Canwell, Dodge-Lawrence Fellow at the Zimmerli Art Museum

This exhibition is made possible by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund.

Olav Maran

Talmla, 1964

Gouache on fiberboard

Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers 

Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Nonconformist Art from the Soviet Union

Photo Jack Abraham