About

 

Dear art lover!

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!

Enn Kunila

 


 

In most cases, not displaying a work of art means that the work of art in question is forbidden to exist.

Boris Groys

 

Enn Kunila laid the foundation for his art collection more than 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. Kunila is interested primarily in the so-called blossoming of the indigenous school of Estonian painting in the first half of the 20th century, with which a few works from the 19th century fit in, along with works completed after the Second World War. Works by Konrad Mägi (nearly twenty works) and a collection of Olev Subbi’s paintings (40 works) come to the fore as separate clusters in the collection.

Hence Kunila’s collection is exceedingly focused and provides us with an overview of the more important trends in Estonian painting from the first half of the 20th century, which reflect regional peculiarities as well as international influences. At the same time, Kunila’s collection does not lay claim to comprehensiveness. Although the circle of artists is markedly broad, including about 70 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. 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 sorts 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.

It can be said that all the paintings in Kunila’s collection are colour oriented. In terms of style, they are mostly based on post-Impressionism. 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, the aspiration towards joy and harmony, as well as melancholy moods on the emotional scale, all these have to be highlighted separately. This core definitely does not originate from the periphery of Estonian painting, rather it forms an organic part of the main line of the history of Estonian painting.

Enn Kunila has been guided in his activity by the understanding of the art collector as an organic part of the art world who has something to say in shaping memory, remembering, and the view based on art history among the general public. He regularly holds exhibitions in Estonia (in Tallinn and Tartu as well as in Hiiumaa and Saaremaa) as well as abroad (in Finland and Belgium, several times in Italy). The National Art Museum also borrows works belonging to Kunila’s collection for its exhibitions. 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 on 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 Art Museum of Estonia.

 

The Collection’s Points of Emphasis

Enn Kunila’s collection  has focused primarily on paintings, and to a lesser extent on drawings and graphic prints. Works completed in the period 1900-1945 chiefly set the tone of this collection. This is also referred to as the so-called golden age of Estonian painting, during which indigenous Estonian professional painting originated and quickly achieved an exceedingly 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 indigenous Estonian school of painters branched out in different directions and intentions, 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 artistic convictions that originated at the start of the previous century.

 

19th Century

Professional painting had not yet established itself to any significant degree in Estonia by the start 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. We can speak of only a few isolated artists who achieved success.

The birth of indigenous Estonian painting can undoubtedly be associated first and foremost with Johan Köler (1826-1899). This artist was from a poor family and went to study in St. Petersburg. He worked in Italy for a few years and thereafter achieved a real breakthrough back in St. Petersburg, where he worked regularly at the tsar’s court. Researchers and collectors in both Estonia and Russia from the end of the 19th century onward have consistently been interested in Köler’s work because he distanced himself from dry academism and began drawing inspiration from nature. Thus, his painting style became considerably livelier than most of his contemporaries. Köler’s professional skills were first rate and for this reason he is without a doubt considered one of the most important Estonian artists of all time. Köler, incidentally, 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 landscape view created in Italy and a distinguished portrait that was completed later.

Artists of Estonian background who made 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 between Estonian art and European artistic culture in that time period.

 

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. The first decades

After Köler, the first artists of Estonian origin who studied abroad and achieved a certain degree of success there already emerged at the end of the 19th century. An important and complete breakthrough came in the first decade of the 20thcentury when a whole series of very capable artists emerged and laid the foundation for a new indigenous school of 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 as motifs but now became the main theme of these works. At the same time, connections to European artistic culture were maintained and even further reinforced.

In the opinion of many, these decades are a period of awakening not only for Estonian painting but also more broadly for the entire cultural scene. Important developments were quickly worked through, yet at the same time, artists managed to also achieve a remarkable degree of immersion in their work together with high-quality results. Artists and writers assembled in various groupings, all of which emphasised in their manifestos the need to find the values of art itself and its contemporaneity. For artists, finding the values of art itself quite often meant an appeal to focus on colour. For this reason, we see highly nuanced use of palette, yet also sensitive lighting solutions, use of varied brushwork, and the creation of atmospheres with enormous capacity for generalisation in works by all the artists of that time. The art of that period is mostly associated with post-Impressionism, yet it is more accurate to say that each artist developed his own distinct painting style, where Pointillism could combine with Expressionism, Impressionism with Art Nouveau – and so on.

Aspirations to develop indigenous art also occupied an important place. True enough, this was not so much reflected in motifs (artists painted in Estonia and abroad) as in the need to lay the foundation for a vigorous indigenous 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.

Kunila has preferred the painting tradition where finding harmonious balance between colour, composition and theme holds a prominent place. Additionally, his interest in the different interactions between colour surfaces is unquenchable. Sometimes the question of how distinctive brushing styles affect colour-based associations also joins that interest. Sometimes a crisper need for a feeling of happiness or tranquillity, and at other times a more romantic one prevails in the atmosphere of paintings that belong to the collection. For this 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 perspectives, and in place of abrupt rhythms, smoother, softer transitions are preferred. By virtue of these transitions, the mood of the paintings is also somewhat dreamy. Numerous artists repair to memories of childhood and nature, and infinite, or then almost abstract, time is often preferred to concrete time.

These first artists and decades of the 20th century form one core of Enn Kunila’s collection. First and foremost, Konrad Mägi’s paintings must be highlighted. Mägi (1878-1925) is often considered Estonia’s most important painter of all time. His oeuvre admittedly reflects the influences of the most varied artistic trends (Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Pointillism, etc.), yet he managed to develop an entirely distinct style all his own that was constantly changing and being perfected over the years. Mägi’s oeuvre 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, etc.). 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. 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 1900s modernism. Laikmaa was an active art teacher and organiser of artistic life but had to live in exile for years in Finland, Italy and elsewhere because of his political views. He demanded the categorical renunciation of the academic style of painting and the merger of cosmopolitan contemporaneity with indigenous distinctiveness. Kunila’s collection contains several works by Laikmaa, who some experts consider to be one of the best pastellists of that time in all of Europe. Laikmaa’s works in the collection include a number of portraits from the era of the nationalist movement in Estonia. These portraits were familiar to intellectuals throughout Estonia and to the stratum of prosperous farmers since they crossed the boundaries of aesthetic enjoyment and in their time were 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 artistic language with images from nature can be seen in Triik’s oeuvre.

Additionally, bodies of works in the collection by older artists such as Endel Kõks, Elmar Kits, Villem Ormisson, Herbert Lukk, Johannes Võerahansu, Eerik Haamer, Johannes Greenberg, Ado Vabbe, Paul Burman, Aleksander Vardi, Richard Uutmaa, Adamson-Eric and Lepo Mikko have to be highlighted separately.

 

20th Century. Latter Half

The twists and turns of Estonian art history in the 1940s and 1950s, 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 into internal exile. Artists nevertheless managed to preserve what they had already found and to continue developing it in those difficult conditions. A certain degree of liberalisation took place starting in the 1960s. Possibilities for holding exhibitions expanded but artists still laboured as before under the conditions set by the regime that occupied the country. At the same time, Estonian artists started branching out as well. 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 becomes more and more of a 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, rather they are more mysterious and multi-layered than before; instead of idyllic moods, we see ever more reflective and crisp attitudes. After the relatively pale colouring of the 1950s, now many artists craved colour especially. Their use is exaggerated here and there, and is very intense.

Olev Subbi (1930-2013) has to be mentioned at this point as the most important artist in Enn Kunila’s collection. It was programmatic for Subbi to continue the traditions from before the Second World War. His romantic works that delve into the strata of memory considered colour and brushing style to be most important. Subbi was also the primary advisor for Enn Kunila’s collection. The most important principles of the collection were marked out in consultation and constant dialogue with Subbi. Works from all of Subbi’s periods are in Kunila’s collection starting from the 1960s to his very last works.

 

Eero Epner, art historian