My interest in art began in my childhood when I visited art exhibitions for the first time with my mother. I remember from that time to the present the emotion I felt when I saw the paintings so rich in colour of Estonia’s most famous painter Konrad Mägi. My interest in art has only grown and evolved with the years regardless of the fact that I work as a businessman and I have no specialised education in art. Based on my personal experience, I consider the fostering of interest in art in the younger generation to be very important and I contribute to this as best I can.
I have actively collected and popularised the art of Estonian classical painting through various enterprises for the last 25 years. I find that this is not only the liberty of each collector but also their duty. This is especially so in a small country like Estonia where the preservation and introduction of our cultural heritage, including art history, is extremely important. I have organised exhibitions, published catalogues and books, and supported the publication of monographs because art must be accessible to the public and a part of our everyday life. I really like the idea of art as Estonia’s calling card. We can be proud as Estonians that we have had such great painters as Konrad Mägi, Nikolai Triik, Johann Köler, Ants Laikmaa, Ado Vabbe, Elmar Kits, and many others. The works of these artists could enrich the walls of every art museum in the world.
The principle of my art collection has been to collect the works of the most important Estonian painters. They have to represent the artist well, whereas I have always based my decisions on my preferences. Certain common traits, ideals and principles, the main emphasis of which is on picturesqueness and more precisely on colours, have united the art of Estonian painting though long decades.
The universal language of art speaks to and touches us all.
I wish you pleasant enjoyment of art!
In most cases, not displaying a work of art means that the work of art in question is forbidden to exist.
Enn Kunila laid the foundation for his art collection some twenty five years ago and by now, this collection has grown to become one of the largest of its kind in Eastern and Northern Europe. The focus of this art collection is quite clear: Kunila is interested primarily in the so called blossoming of the nationalist school of Estonian painting in the first half of the 20th century, with which the previous history of that school in the 19th century fits in, along with the follow-up history that some Estonian artists who were and are active during the latter half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century represent. As such, Kunila’s collection is exceedingly focused and by relying on the collection, an overview of various processes of development of certain trends in this small Northern European country can be gained. Since many artists of the first half of the 20th century interpreted certain trends from international artistic life (postimpressionism must be mentioned first and foremost) in their own work, interesting processes of analysis can also carried out on the basis of Kunila’s collection concerning developments in art history not only in metropolises but also in Europe’s peripheral regions where the modifications of art movements that were created have achieved notable attention in recent years, primarily in association with the popularity of the Northern European art of painting from the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Enn Kunila’s art collection reminds us that if we consider diversity and equality of identities to be Europe’s strength, then the same way of thinking should be inculcated in art history since the awareness of the public at large regarding art history is to this day – often for marketing reasons – shaped exclusively through “popular” and “central” narratives. The history of Estonian art is not merely an “interesting detail” in the mosaic of the history of European art, rather it is a melting pot in which different influences are amalgamated. Yet it is not merely particular kinds of interpretations of well known artistic trends that can be seen in the work of the more accomplished artists, but rather an autonomous artistic whole is created in which both international and local artistic trends as well as social conditions are reflected simultaneously.
At the same time, Kunila’s collection does not lay claim to comprehensiveness. Although the circle of artists is markedly broad, including about 60 artists, it is namely the existence of definite preferences based on taste that makes this collection interesting. As such, Kunila’s collection corresponds well to Boris Groys’s differentiation, according to which the objective of museums (but not private collections) is always to be as broad-based as possible and if some artist or trend is not represented in the museum’s collection, the museum has to acquire it as a rule to maintain its representativity. Interestingly, this has not always been so: prior to the rise of the modern museum institution in the 19th century, all manner of collections were appreciated precisely on the basis that they represented a certain taste or attitude. “The art collection of an aristocrat could thus be criticised, for instance, due to the fact that it did not manage to convey the taste of the collector sufficiently completely and contained something that did not go with that taste,” writes Groys.
Thus Enn Kunila’s collection can also be seen as a certain kind of historical curating. This means that Kunila’s collection acts as a curator in terms of art history, choosing only those works from history that best represent a certain understanding of art in accordance with the curator’s preferences regarding taste but also taking into account certain other aspects. Thus an internally uniform whole is formed where all the works can be interpreted according to what extent they share what is common to the core of the collection – yet one can be certain that such a core exists in any case and that every work in this collection also shares something in common with that core.
But what is that core like? It can be said that all the paintings in Kunila’s collection are colour oriented. In terms of style, they are mostly based on postimpressionism, yet a certain portion of works is also based on realism and abstractionism. The landscape and more broadly speaking, nature has been their primary source of inspiration. Portrait art from the first half of the 20th century also forms a separate cluster. The labour-intensiveness of the paintings, the selection of rustic and commonplace subjects, on the emotional scale both joy and melancholy, that feeling that is considered the national characteristic trait of Estonians, which is reflected even in the frequent depiction of different seasons, since the rhythms of nature inculcate in us the sense of the temporality of everything, all this should be separately pointed out. This core definitely does not originate from the periphery of the art of Estonian painting, rather it forms an organic part of the main line of the history of the art of Estonian painting. All of the works in Kunila’s collection relate to these attitudes, whereas the years of the Second World War (1939-1945) have to be emphasised separately. This period was undoubtedly one of the most tragic in social terms because Estonia went through several different periods of occupation (by the Soviet Union, by Germany and thereafter by the Soviet Union again), which in addition to acts of warfare and the destruction of several cities also brought the end of Estonia’s independent nationhood, arrests, executions by firing squad and mass deportation in 1941. At the same time, the former lines of development in the art of painting were distilled out exceptionally purely during just those years. Modernist picturesque painting, the focus of which is colour and the subject of which is idyllic everyday life or nature, went through one of its high points in the history of Estonian art. On the one hand, this can be explained by historical inevitability, since dealing with social themes was practically impossible during the occupations. On the other hand, this kind of approach was the logical continuation of previous developments, since Estonian art has as a rule avoided dissecting social issues. Thirdly, a unique situation emerged during the war years in particular where former values crystallised when the country was sandwiched between two iron curtains.
While the private art collector has been part of the awareness of the Western art world since the Renaissance era, when the modern relationship between the artist and his work and the private individual that is interested in it acquired clearer boundaries, then in Eastern Europe, Kunila’s collection and its social meaning undoubtedly has a much more innovative tone. While in the West as the result of developments that have lasted hundreds of years when the relationship between art collectors and art has been sometimes more and sometimes less discordant, by now the situation has been arrived at where the private art collector is considered the same kind of part of the art world as the curator, the gallerist or the artist himself, and boundaries are no longer drawn between the private art collector and the art world, then in Eastern Europe, the understanding is only just starting to develop now of who the art collector is. Kunila has based the shaping of this understanding in his collecting work precisely on the modern understanding of the art collector as an organic part of the art world who has something to say in shaping memory and remembering and the view based on art history among the broader public. He regularly holds exhibitions in Estonia’s capital as well as in smaller centres in the countryside where expositions of this calibre are not held as a rule. The National Art Museum also regularly borrows works belonging to Kunila’s collection for its exhibitions. As a new direction, Kunila has treated Estonian art as a calling card of his small country and held exhibitions at the Taidehall in Helsinki (incidentally with marked success) and at the European Parliament Building in Brussels in the autumn of 2013. In addition to holding exhibitions, Kunila has paid particular attention to publishing catalogues that discuss works belonging to his collection, or he has organised the publication of monographs about some important modernist painters. Enn Kunila has also earned several awards for his activity related to art and nowadays he heads the Society of Friends of the National Estonian Museum of Art.
The Collection’s Points of Emphasis
Enn Kunila’s collection was started up a couple of decades ago and has focused primarily on the art of painting, and to a lesser extent on drawings and graphic prints. The collection includes over fifty artists by now while continuing to grow. Works completed in the period 1900-1945 are characteristic of this collection above all. This is also referred to as the so-called golden age of Estonian painting during which nationalist Estonian professional painting originated and quickly achieved an extremely high artistic level. The latter half of the 19th century is also represented in the collection to a significant degree, especially the school of Baltic German artists, as is the latter half of the 20th century, when the nationalist school of painters branched out in different directions on the basis of differing desires, yet at the same time, several very important painters continued to develop pre-war traditions. Works completed during the past couple of decades are also represented in the collection, providing a glimpse of contemporary interpretations of convictions in the field of art that originated at the beginning of the previous century.
The art of professional painting had not yet established itself to any significant degree in Estonia by the beginning of the 19th century. Activity in the field of art was concentrated in Baltic German circles, yet no prominent school of painters emerged among the Baltic Germans. Only a few isolated artists achieved success. The birth of nationalist Estonian painting can undoubtedly be associated with Johan Köler (1826-1899) first and foremost. This artist was from a poor family and went to study art in St. Petersburg. He worked in Italy for a few years and thereafter achieved a genuine breakthrough back in St. Petersburg, where he worked regularly at the tsar’s court. Researchers and collectionnaires in both Estonia and Russia from the end of the 19th century onward have consistently been interested in Köler’s work since he detached himself from dry academism and began drawing inspiration from nature. Thus his paintings became considerably more lively than most of his contemporaries. Köler’s professional skills were first rate and thus he is considered one of the most important Estonian artists of all time without a doubt. Köler, by the way, also participated actively in the nationalist movement that sprang up in the mid-19th century. Köler’s work is represented in Enn Kunila’s collection by a rare view of the landscape created in Italy. It is precisely in Italy that Köler’s style underwent an important change in the direction of a more free treatment. Particular attention should be paid to his signature (“Köler Williandi”), by which the artist emphasises his national origin (he was born near Viljandi (Williandi)).
Artists of Estonian background, yet who built up successful careers in Germany, mostly at Düsseldorf’s reputable academy of art, dominated Estonian art in the latter half of the 19th century. This so called “Düsseldorf school”, also known as the “Baltic German school”, is represented in the collection by several artists, demonstrating the direct connections in that time period of Estonian art to European artistic culture. Thus, for instance, Eduard von Gebhardt is unquestionably considered the most important artist in the art of religious painting in Germany in the 19th century. Since he was from Estonia and frequently returned to his homeland to seek motifs and models for his paintings, we can also refer to him as an Estonian painter.
20th Century. The First Decades
The first artists of Estonian origin after Köler who studied abroad and achieved a certain degree of success there emerged at the end of the 19th century already. An important and complete breakthrough, however, did not take place until the first decade of the 20th century when a whole series of very capable artists emerged and laid the foundation for the nationalist school among painters. This differed significantly from the school of Baltic Germans since Estonian painting now became considerably more colour-oriented and the use of colour became richer in nuances. Landscapes had previously been used infrequently but now became the main theme of these works. At the same time, connections to European artistic culture were maintained and were reinforced even further.
These decades are in the opinion of many experts a period of true awakening not only for Estonian painting but also for the entire cultural scene more broadly. Very important developments were very quickly worked through yet at the same time, artists managed to also achieve a remarkable degree of engrossment and high quality results in creative work. Artists and writers assembled in various groupings, all of which emphasised the need to find the values of art itself and its contemporaneity in their aesthetic manifestos. For artists, finding the values of art itself meant an appeal to focus on colour. Thus we see highly modulated use of palette, yet also sensitive lighting solutions, use of varied brushwork, and the creation of atmospheres with enormous capacity for generalisation. The art of that period is mostly associated with postimpressionism, yet it is more accurate to say that each artist developed his own distinct painting style where pointillism could combine with expressionism, impressionism and art nouveau – and so on.
Aspirations to develop nationalist art also occupied an important place. True enough, this was not reflected so much in motifs (artists painted in Estonia and abroad) as in the need to lay the foundation for a strong and vigorous nationalist school of painting. That school was indeed born and has managed to endure until the present day, even though it cannot be categorised according to the attributes of classical schools of painting. It has instead meant the transmission of a continuous tradition, an active interest in what has been created in the past, and at the same time a systematic need to further develop traditions and to make them more contemporary. Thus we do not see later artists repeating what was done in the early 20th century and without delving into the subject matter, it is sometimes even difficult to see the similar existence of those values described above in the past and nowadays. Yet nevertheless, some sort of almost semi-invisible delicate threads, which speak to us of continuous quests that continue in time, connect different generations in Estonian painting. If we tug on those threads, we see that finding a harmonious balance between colour, composition and theme has always occupied an important place in Estonian painting. This is in addition to the unquenchable interest in the different co-effects of colour surfaces, which is sometimes accompanied by the question of how a distinct individual manner of using brush strokes affects associations of colours. A sometimes crisper, sometimes more romantic need for happiness or peace reigns in the atmosphere of paintings, for which reason the space of the painting is often open and high with an abundance of air and light. Instead of dramatic angles we see considerably more poetic sight angles and instead of sharp rhythms, smoother, softer transitions are preferred. (This, by the way, is probably a direct reflection of the characteristic traits of Estonian landscapes.) The mood of paintings is also somewhat dreamlike by virtue of these transitions. Many artists go back to memories of childhood and nature. Eternal time or then almost abstract time is often preferred to any particular specific time.
These artists and first decades of the 20th century form one core of Enn Kunila’s collection. Sixteen paintings by Konrad Mägi must be pointed out first and foremost. Mägi (1878-1925) is often considered Estonia’s most important painter of all time. His creative work reflects the influences of the most varied artistic trends (impressionism, expressionism, art nouveau, pointillism, and so on) and yet he managed to develop an entirely distinct style all his own that was constantly changing and being perfected over the years. Mägi’s creative work is divided up largely according to geographical locations since as a person with a sensitive nervous system, each new location influenced him to paint differently (Saaremaa, Southern Estonia, Italy, Norway, and so on). Mägi is considered Estonia’s first modernistic painter who was one of the most remarkable cultural figures of his era and one of the originators of professional art in Estonia. Factually, the largest collection of works by Konrad Mägi outside of national museums is in Kunila’s collection.
Ants Laikmaa (1866-1942) and Nikolai Triik (1884-1940) form another core of 1900’s modernism. Laikmaa was an active organiser of artistic life and a lecturer, but had to live in exile for years in Finland, Italy and elsewhere because of his political views. As an expatriate, he nevertheless tried to keep in mind the tasks set for the culture of a nation state in his creative work and other activities, repeatedly emphasising the need to “find Estonian art”. He demanded the renunciation of the academic style of painting and the merger of cosmopolitan contemporaneity with nationalist distinctiveness. Kunila’s collection contains seven works by Laikmaa, who is considered by some experts as one of the best pastellists in all of Europe, and that includes several portraits from the era of the nationalist movement in Estonia. These portraits were familiar to the entire intelligentsia of Estonia and to the stratum of prosperous farmers since they crossed the boundaries of aesthetic enjoyment and in their time were truly political manifestos as works.
Nikolai Triik was the artist most closely associated with Noor-Eesti (Young Estonia), one of the most important cultural groupings in Estonia’s history. This grouping set becoming familiar with European values and importing those values into Estonian culture as its objective, being simultaneously modern and at the same time taking previous traditions into consideration. As avant-gardists, they nevertheless did not turn their backs on an attitude that was close to nature. For this reason, the combination of an international system of artistic means of expression with images from nature can be seen in Triik’s creative work. Since the bearers of Estonian culture were closely connected with rural settlements in terms of social origin, the domination of nature and a certain romantic idyll in the paintings of that time is understandable.
20th Century. Independent Estonia
Estonia gained its independence in 1918, yet this meant institutional changes first and foremost in the artistic world since a continuous internal development was already in full swing and continued now in the subsequent decades as well. The most important change was the founding of the Pallas Art School (the first director of which was Konrad Mägi), which evolved into the most important institution of national artistic culture. Further development of what had been started previously continued between the walls of this institution. The exhibition scene was very rich and lively during the subsequent decades, although the level of quality is uneven, as is characteristic of a small country. Dilettantish art that has by now been long forgotten was created alongside truly noteworthy works. Artists strove to avoid stagnation and regression into provincialism using different means, the most popular of which was residing for a few years in some foreign country. The most important stop for Estonian artists was Paris. There artists demonstrated a great interest in the heritage of impressionism first and foremost, since the attraction of the avant-garde, which requires active attention, remained weak. Many artists managed to draw sufficient inspiration from being right at the source of impressionism in order to continue at a new level back in their homeland with their former studies in colour and form so that the works they created belong organically to Europe’s heritage of early modernism.
The Second World War brought an exceptionally intense period in Estonian art. Foreign occupation of Estonia that changed hands several times did not necessarily give art a new appearance, yet those periods of occupation did give art a new function and thus a new kind of internal combustion as well. Art now became a means for spiritual self-preservation, whereas artists did not think only of themselves under the term “self” but rather more broadly in terms of the entire people. The art of this people paradoxically became particularly optimistic when it found itself faced with the danger of destruction. The quests of artists in terms of painting gained a new objective and became more intense. For this reason, we see that the art created in 1940-1945 is at an extraordinarily high level since quests that had lasted for decades found a powerful and vivid expression here.
Pre-Second World War art as well as art created during the war is represented in Enn Kunila’s collection by dozens of very important works. Works with a positive attitude towards life and a style that is close to nature focused on shades of colour and relationships between colours, and on diverse brushwork that affirm the traditional ordering of the affairs of life are in the forefront of the selection. Time literally stood still in Estonian painting during the war. Artists did not rush to paint the war or destroyed cities. Instead, they continued depicting the pastoral idylls of the 1930’s. This helped to maintain hope and to keep spirits up. Time did not move forward after the Second World War either, since artists consistently preferred to return to the 1930’s, or if that was complicated, then at least to abstract and non-political nature. Since the life of Estonians has traditionally been very closely associated with nature, all references to pure and untouched nature had not only a timeless effect. They also acted as references back to a period when a harmonious ordering of the affairs of life elicited harmonious painting as well. While the former was destroyed, the latter was nevertheless preserved.
Thus the wartime period in Estonian art can be considered a very unique period, when artists worked on their “own” style of painting with particular intensity while living between two iron curtains. During a time when artistic influences from the West were closed off but influences from the East were unwanted, artists worked on further developing what they had already found. This did not end until the ideological pressure that began after the war.
Elmar Kits (1913-1972) should definitely be mentioned here as the most important artist of the period. Kits cultivated different styles of painting as “Estonia’s Picasso” and as an extremely many-sided artist. He nevertheless did not adopt any style just for the heck of it without some sort of relationship to it – similarly to Konrad Mägi. We see a clearly Elmar Kits-like style repeating through different periods: optical effects created as small patches of colour, the creation of very different colour associations by dense brushwork, a sensitive treatment of nature that evolved into abstract studies of form during later decades. Kits was undoubtedly one of the most important Estonian artists from the end of the 1930’s until his death in the early 1970’s who through his person and creative work formed a connection between earlier traditions and new generations growing up in a rapidly regenerating world. There are over ten works by Kits from different periods in Enn Kunila’s collection.
20th Century. Latter Half
The twists and turns of the history of Estonian art in the 1940’s and 1950’s and in later decades as well were undoubtedly affected by tragic events that had taken place in society which did not leave artists untouched: many fled abroad, many were forced to go into internal exile. Artists nevertheless managed in those complicated conditions to preserve what they had already found and to continue developing it. A certain degree of liberation took place in the 1960’s. Possibilities for participating in exhibitions expanded but artists had to continue to work as before under the conditions of the regime occupying the country. At the same time, a branching out took place among Estonian artists. Most young artists hooked up with various avant-garde trends, complementing so called painterly painting, which had thus far formed the mainstream of Estonian art, with different alternative trends. Nevertheless, not only older generation artists but also many younger artists were actively interested in the same values that the artists of the first decades of the 20th century had been fond of. These artists achieved a high artistic level and relevance due to the fact that previous experience was enriched by a contemporary perception of the world. Thus we see in many works that the use of colour is altered. More or less larger surfaces are frequently preferred instead of single brush strokes, and colour harmonies are no longer created between single points but rather between entire fields or rhythms; the landscape is ever more becoming the original source of inspiration as it is altered in the direction of abstraction, here and there arriving at complete abstraction. We also see objects of the modern world. Atmospheres are no longer merely romantic. Instead, they are more mysterious and multilayered than before; instead of idyllic moods, we see ever more reflective and crisp attitudes. After the relatively pale colouring of the 1950’s, many artists now particularly craved colour. Their use is exaggerated here and there and is very intense.
Olev Subbi and Ado Vabbe (1892-1961) should be mentioned at this point as two of the most important artists in Enn Kunila’s collection. Vabbe is represented in Kunila’s collection with almost ten works. He was one of the greatest avant-gardists prior to the war but changed his style in the early 1930’s. He became a masterful creator of figurative painting. He fell into disfavour in the 1940’s and his financial situation and living conditions were extremely meagre. He continued painting regardless of all that, among other things also creating works with motifs originating from Greece and Italy, which he had visited in the 1920’s. It was thus possible for him to travel as before while he was shut up behind the Iron Curtain, but only through his paintings.
Olev Subbi (1930-2013) has remained true to his conceptual position since the end of the 1960’s and has focused on further developing a certain modernist trend. Subbi has placed the main emphasis of his creative work on the aspiration to find the possibility for how to create a perfectly harmonious painting while at the same time being very conscious of the impossibility of achieving this aspiration. Through colour studies, experimentation with different compositional possibilities, and intentional old-fashionedness in choosing his themes, Subbi simultaneously became one of the leading artists in the 1970’s and 1980’s as well as a painter with an uncompromising attitude who defended the right of the art of painting to be the art of painting and not an appendage of secondary social objectives. At the same time, his paintings always clearly spoke to the view of the world from the 1930’s due to his choice of theme, the period of the so called era of free Estonia, unspoiled by Soviet vulgarity.
In addition to Subbi, several works by the most important artists of the 1970’s and 1980’s are also part of the collection. All of these artists focused on the values of the art of painting itself in their work. Thus Kunila’s collection also forms a most complete whole, regardless of the fact that it covers the time period from the mid-19th century up to the most recent years of the present time. Thus it can most definitely be said that Enn Kunila’s collection provides a high level overview of the development of the history of the art of a small European country starting from its beginning up to the present day, concentrating on one fixed point of view which has over time been the mainstream of Estonian art at times, and a secondary branch at other times, but has always continued and developed further. This is because even though Olev Subbi has said in describing his aspirations, “I seek values beyond the logic of art history, I blunder into everything,” both he and others blunder time and again into a certain definite place.
Eero Epner, art historian