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08.02.2015 Artribune: Estonia. From Rome to Milan, from Exhibitions to the Expo Pavilion



Andrea Carteny

Sapienza University Professor of History and Art History


The exhibition Nordic Colours. Estonian Art 1910-1945 from Enn Kunila’s Collection that is being held as a bridge at the Vittoriano Museum complex until 12 February 2015 is a dignified opportunity to get to know a country that is hitherto still underestimated.

The event named Nordic Colours provides the opportunity to get to know a small but enchanting European country: with a population of 1 300 000, the grey Soviet era was left behind in 1991, it joined NATO and the European Union in 2004, and in 2011, the euro was adopted as the national currency. The patron Enn Kunila’s collection is coming to the Vittoriano Museum in Rome for the first time, bringing 45 paintings completed in 1910–1945 to the Italian public – paintings from the so called golden age of the art of Estonian painting. The art critic Arnaldo Colasanti has summed up the mentality and depicted reality of the exhibition well: “Through studying this exhibition, we have arrived at the understanding that the art of Estonian painting did not relate to Europe’s great art capitals of the end of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century with the utmost loyalty. Instead, primarily the need to know how to live in one’s own time, to become distinctive in one’s own contemporary time, was felt.”

An ancient people, part of the backbone of Baltic culture, connected with Scandinavia and the German world, a bridge to the Russian East, the active romantic and modernist aspiration towards greater independence in the tsarist empire in the early 20th century – this is the kind of Estonia that Kunila’s collection reflects. This exposition gives us an idea of the development of the socio-cultural processes and of the art trends of this tiny but dynamic country of northern Europe.


Works from the first decades of the 20th century outline the evolution of Estonian modernism at this exhibition designed by Tõnis Saadoja. There are 19 artists represented in the selection, including Konrad Mägi, Nikolai Triik and Ants Laikmaa. Eero Epner, the curator of the exhibition, explains: “All the paintings in Kunila’s collection are based on colour. In terms of style, these works refer primarily to postimpressionism, even though some of them also relate to realism and abstractionism. Landscape, or in a broader sense nature appears to be the main source of inspiration for these artists. Portraits from the first half of the 20th century form a separate group.” Works made during the Second World War resembling modernist picturesque paintings, in turn, where particular attention is paid to the objects that are depicted (idyllic everyday life and nature) and the selection of colour, are differentiated from this trend.

Thus the seasons and landscapes reflect feelings in these works, where structure and forms of light and shadow convey many nuances of melancholy – a condition that allegedly best characterises the Estonian soul. The most concealed fil rouge of the collection is the connection with Italy that developed among Estonian artists over the course of one century in 1840–1940, which extended to the island of Capri and the capital Rome. There were artists like Ants Laikmaa, who planned to spend only one day on Capri, but the beauty of the island made him stay there for a year and a half. There were also artists like Konrad Mägi, who spent several months at the outset of 1920 in Italy and began a new creative period there, enriching Estonian art with views of Venice, Roman landscapes and paintings of houses on Capri. The technique of the Estonian artists who fell in love with Italy was highly modern in depicting its antique beauty.


As Andres Kask’s active participation in the opening of the exhibition proves, Estonia wishes to introduce its country and culture through its artists. Estonian culture will be at the centre of the attention of a large proportion of the Italian and international public at the 2015 Expo worldwide exhibition in Milan. The Estonian pavilion for Expo is currently being built. The model of the “Estonian gallery” greets exhibition visitors at the entrance. According to Kask, the Estonian pavilion reflects the inclination of Estonians towards nature conservation and preservation and for this reason, 50% of the pavilion is built using recycled wood. The themes that will be on display include food and old traditions, but also contemporariness as represented by the rapidly developing information technology sector.


Published in the newspaper Artribune on 8 February 2015