Rarely Seen Works from the Zimmerli's Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art Opens Saturday

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Opening on Saturday, April 30 at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University is Mystics and Moderns: Painting in Estonia before Glasnost.  Estonia became an important center for underground art in the late 1960s. Turning to painting, Estonian artists reclaimed this medium from official Soviet Realism, reviving the European, painterly origins of Estonia's avant-garde past. Painting constituted a laboratory for artists to reject or assimilate contemporary trends from the West. They adapted Pop, Conceptualism, hard-edge abstraction, and Minimalism to a unique culture of nationalist opposition to Soviet power. Mystics and Moderns derives entirely from the museum’s 20,000-piece Norton and Nancy Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art, the largest and most comprehensive collection of Soviet dissident art from the historical Cold War period between 1956 and 1986.  The exhibition features works by Leonhard Lapin, Kaja Kärner, Mari and Kaarel Kurismaa, Raul Meel, and many others, and runs through October 11, 2011.

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 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 forms to explore the limits of representation and experience. The exhibition celebrates this exploration, and thus the continuity of Estonian culture through the Soviet occupation and its withdrawal in 1991. 

The exhibition includes twenty-eight paintings in oil, watercolor, and gouache; but also collage, assemblage, and kinetic objects to introduce viewers to surfaces, depths, and tensions not customarily associated with the medium. “Inviting the viewer to unfamiliar sensory dimensions,” states exhibition curator Jeremy Canwell, “the exhibition dares us to reconsider our familiarity with painting – not just as an art form but also as a category of experience.” Canwell is a Dodge-Lawrence Fellow at the Zimmerli. 


Wednesday, May 4, 5 to 9 pm
The Zimmerli’s First Wednesday’s Art after Hours for May celebrates the opening of Mystics and Moderns with a reception (5-6 pm), curator-led tour (5:30-5:50 pm), music by Arvo Pärt performed by  James Keene, Aimee McPeak, and Hsin-Yi Tsai of Mason Gross School of the Arts (6-6:45 pm), and a film screening of James Tusty and Maureen Castle Tusty’s The Singing Revolution (7-8:45 pm). The Singing Revolution tells the moving story of how the Estonian people peacefully regained their freedom through music – and helped topple an empire along the way. Free with general admission.


The exhibition and related programming are supported by the Avenir Foundation Endowment Fund.


The Zimmerli Art Museum’s permanent collection comprises more than 60,000 works, ranging from ancient to contemporary art and featuring particularly rich holdings in the areas of French art of the nineteenth century; Russian and Soviet Nonconformist Art; and American and European works on paper, including prints, rare books, drawings, photographs, and original illustrations for children’s books.

The Zimmerli is midway between New York City and Philadelphia and a short walk from the New Jersey Transit station in New Brunswick.


The Zimmerli Art Museum is located at 71 Hamilton Street at the corner of George Street on the College Avenue campus of Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 10 am to 4:30 pm, and Saturday-Sunday, noon to 5 pm; first Wednesdays of each month, 10 am to 9 pm except August. The museum is closed major holidays and the month of August.

Admission is $6 for adults; $5 for adults over 65; and free for museum members, Rutgers students, faculty and staff (with ID), and children under 18. Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month. For more information, call 732.932.7237, ext. 610 or visit the museum’s website: www.zimmerlimuseum.rutgers.edu


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