The overview of Estonian graphic art and history by
Virge Jõekalda, in Edmonton Graphic Art Symposium Sightlines in 1997:
Every overview of art is subjective. In order to understand the nature and development of Estonian printmaking, I will tell you a little about Estonia’s history and cultural background.
Estonia is located in Eastern Europe on the coast and islands of the Baltic Sea. Her territory is comparable in size to that of Denmark. Estonians have lived on these lands for 10,000 years. The Estonian language belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages. Estonia’s nearest neighbors are Sweden, Finland, Russia and Latvia.
Due to her favourable seaside location, Estonia has over the past 800 years almost constantly been a battlefield for conquerors. The Germans and the Danes used Christianization as the pretence, while the Poles, Swedes and Russians were interested in a foothold for subsequent conquests. The Estonian people have been subjugated on their own land and have been cut off from world culture.
By the time the University was founded in the town of Tartu in 1632, during Swedish rule, an Estonian language primer had been published. Estonian was also taught at Tartu University. The Great Northern War, during which Peter the Great forged a “window” into Europe, activities of the university ceased for one hundred years.
In 1802, Tartu University was re-opened and a year later a school of drawing was established there. Lithography and woodcutting workshops cropped up, which were the first of their kind in the entire Russian Empire. Although a few Estonians also studied art, their numbers were insufficient for national art to develop. During this time, the Estonian national awakening also occurred: village schools were opened, the national epic “Kalevipoeg” was recorded on paper and publication of a newspaper began, where romantic-patriotic poetry and articles were published. Brass bands and choirs became active. In 1869, the first national song festival was held in Tartu, where people gathered from all over Estonia, wearing folk-costumes from their native regions. This event marked the beginning of our national song festival tradition, which even today is a festival uniting our people.
The birth of modern printmaking in Estonia coincides with the achievement of national independence in 1918. In 1919 the first art academy “Pallas” opened in Tartu, where the teaching of printmaking techniques began. It was also possible to receive and introduction to printmaking techniques in Tallinn.
During the years 1924-1940 about ten printmakers graduated from art academies, half of whom were women. Most of them have left their mark in Estonian art history. By the mid-1930’s printmaking had risen to become the most distinguished art form in Estonia. The most internationally renowned and versatile printmaker of this period is Eduard Wiiralt, whose name is recognized even today by every Estonian. His work entitled “Hell” is a vivid example of the foreboding atmosphere existing in Europe before the war.
In 1939 the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact signed between the Soviet Union and fascist Germany contained a secret protocol, according to which the Baltic states remained in the Soviet sphere. The annexation of Estonia was followed by mass deportations. More than 10,000 Estonians, including women and children, were sent to Siberia where most of them died. These people were largely the intelligentsia of our population. World War II followed. Most of the remaining intelligentsia fled the country, including most of our best printmakers, among them Eduard Wiiralt. A second wave of deportations followed in 1949. Chaos and severe ideological pressure stalled the advancement of Estonian culture.
Nevertheless, a very important step for Estonian printmaking and art in general was taken during these depressing post-war years, the full meaning of which became apparent many years later: in 1947 an experimental printmaking studio was established at the Tallinn Art Gallery, which operates to the present day. The creation of the printmaking studio was related to the ideas and future plans of a group of printmaking enthusiasts. By the end of the 1950’s the studio had finally developed into a workshop for printmakers, but more significantly it evolved into a meeting-place for artists, where creative discussions could develop and where societal issues could be debated. Our dear printmaking master Voldemar Kann has had an important role in the evolution of the technical resources of the studio. Thanks to his personality, enthusiasm and experience he soon became the symbol of the studio. One of the most important social events has always been the master’s birthday celebration at the end of the summer, when he serves his own home-grown beans! In return, the artists give him gifts of gladioli and prints.
Mr. Kann did not celebrate his 75th birthday in the studio, but in the gallery, where an exhibition of his lithographs was opened. We had not even known of their existence! With this exhibition he won the annual Estonian culture award. Today, Voldemar Kann’s son Uku has taken his place, but the old master still comes from southern Estonia to attend Christmas parties.
Looking back to the early years of the studio, it should be noted that during this period, the word “experimental” earned its name because all techniques were experimented with. Initially there was particularly great interest in lithography, but soon interest in intaglio surpassed lithography. We were isolated from the outside world, little information about new trends in art was available and the possibility of an artist’s work being shown outside the Soviet Union was hopeless. For this reason printmaking was in quite a sorry state.
However, a portfolio of prints with views of the old town was produced, portraits and book illustrations were done and posters and historical series were printed.
In the post-Stalin period, regardless of the difficulties, several printmakers started to show their creative independence. A breakthrough occurred from the officially requested descriptive-realistic realism in Soviet art to a style which was expressive and new in form. It is surprising that these new ethical and aesthetic ideals arose in printmaking, which is usually considered to be a conservative art form. These ideas also penetrated other forms of art. These new achievements had to be recognized and introduced, and this was one reason for initiation of the Tallinn Print Triennial.
During this period artists had two choices: to either aspire for official recognition or creative freedom. The first road was chosen by few. They were required to produce public works of art to order, which was followed by approval of and prosperity for the artist. At the same time, those who chose the other path faced the risk of having a geometric composition labelled as “political” and thereby inadmissible. It was inconceivable to use blue and black on white paper – the three colours of the Estonian flag. It was also forbidden to portray an angel, a figure excluded from Soviet thinking. There were many taboos.
Counterbalancing the absurdity of life, order and harmony prevailed in creative work. In this manner, artists escaped from mundane everyday life.
In order to be convinced that our printmaking also had a place outside Estonian culture and art, the idea arose to organize the largest printmaking exhibition in the Baltic states. The decisive impetus for the idea was given by the meeting of some of our printmakers at the Ljubljana Print Biennial in 1963 and at a similar exhibition in Krakow in 1966. The continued and successful participation of Estonian printmakers at international exhibitions, which politicians tried in many ways to prevent, strengthened the artists’ belief in themselves.
In 1968, a large print exhibition was held in Tallinn to counterbalance the official art centre of Moscow. Predominant were painting, sculpture and grandiose classical painting. Latvian and Lithuanian printmakers also participated. With this exhibition Estonia, a small republic of the huge Soviet Union, displayed her ability and high standing as a centre of printmaking. This printmaking exhibition evolved to become a triennial and is held even today.
But obstacles were also set up: in order to be granted permission to hold the exhibition, participants from Belarus and Russia had to be invited to attend the next exhibition. Since some of the invited printmakers were in disfavour with officially sanctioned art, they could not be invited to participate or the triennial would have been banned. An attempt was made to invite printmakers from “sister cities” in East Germany and Hungary. This was followed by a prohibition to invite artists from outside the Baltic and anyone personally, even from the Soviet Union. An order was issued to invite representatives from two other republics or Moscow and Leningrad to each exhibition in addition to the Baltic states. An attempt to link the triennial to the international cultural program during the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, when the sailing regatta was held in Tallinn, failed due to the boycott of the games. Finally in 1989, during Gorbachev’s perestroika, it was finally possible to exhibit prints from Poland, Finland, Hungary and even Canada in addition to those from Latvia, Lithuania and Russia. To date this has been our largest exhibition, where 560 works were displayed.
This was also our second period of national awakening. In order to oppose the phosphorite mining in eastern Estonia which would have caused an ecological catastrophe, a third of our population gathered on the song festival grounds. National songs were sung, even those which were forbidden at song festivals, and blue, black and white national flags were waved. This was the Singing Revolution. On the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians joined hands to form a 650 mile long Baltic Chain which extended from Tallinn in the north, through Latvia to Vilnius in the south. In August 1991, Estonia was once again independent and the Republic of Estonia was re-established.
Officially the Association of Estonian Printmakers was established in 1992, although we actually consider our age to be fifty years.
At present the Association of Estonian Printmakers has eighty-seven members of which five are honorary members. The Association is led by a five member management board and chairman who are elected at the annual general meeting. The current chairman is Kadi Kurema. Members meet twice a year: at the annual meeting and the Christmas party. Of course members also attend openings of printmaking exhibitions.
Since the Association has no income, the activities of the experimental printmaking studio receives outside support. The state budget also supports international art events, including the upcoming XI Tallinn Print Triennial. Similar cultural events are supported by various foundations. Even the pensions of independent artists are supported in this manner.
The main meeting place for printmakers is still the printmaking studio opened in 1947. A technician is always there, ready and willing to help, and all kinds of information is traditionally posted on the door. Everything is as it has been – the century old printing press and the scent of printing in the air. Anyone can come and print at any time. In the melding into one of the arts in the media age, this appears to be a particularly old-fashioned and strange hobby. Critics find the technical aspects to be particularly backward and question its right to exist.
But this is precisely our goal – to preserve traditional printmaking, even in its present unpopular status!
The printmakers’ most spirited event is the Christmas party which was held even during Soviet times, when Christmas could not even be talked about. The day is celebrated in our studio. The printing presses and tables are covered festively with white paper, upon which huge bowls of sauerkraut and “piparkoogid” or gingersnaps are placed. The traditional Christmas auction has “elbow-room only”, with all interested persons squeezed into the intaglio room. Everything is on sale, from paper to household goods to shoes. Proceeds go the printmaker’s association. And of course there are lots of laughs. Those wishing to participate in the Christmas raffle must bring along a print.
On the celebration of its 50th anniversary the studio held an open house, where printmakers showed the secrets of their trade to the general public. Prints could be purchased there as well. Before the open house, a major cleaning day was held where everyone washed the windows and doors and even the printing presses!
On a final note I should mention that printmakers of Estonian origin are found all over the world: the most renowned of these are Ruth Tulving in Toronto, Herman Talvik in Sweden and the late Agathe Weber in New York. In recent years we have been fortunate to see their works exhibited in Estonia.
Currently dominating the Estonian Art scene are curated exhibitions, which prefer to exhibit installations, photography, performance and other modern expressions of art. These are of interest also to our youth. The orientation of our young people is evident from the Estonian Academy of Arts, from which about 5 printmakers graduate each year and where, on the initiative of printmaking instructor professor Vive Tolli, intense study of printmaking is afforded. And yet, young people are not exhibiting printmaking. Our youth have been attracted to the world of computers and new media, which is still relatively new in Estonia.