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Saaremaa Motif

Konrad Mägi Saaremaa Motif 1913–1914 Oil on cardboard 36 × 39 cm

Konrad Mägi’s Saaremaa period is well known and familiar. He was 35 years old when he went to Saaremaa. He remained on the island for two summers and created a series consisting of over twenty paintings in total. By that time, he had taken a great deal of trips and lived abroad for years (Russia, Finland, Aland, Norway, France). For this reason, Saaremaa is probably one of Mägi’s first depictions of Estonia.

He had constantly grappled with poor economic conditions while he was abroad. At the same time, his health steadily declined: he had rheumatism. He arrived in Saaremaa in the summers of both 1913 and 1914 for treatment at a mud bath sanatorium. His longest stays turned out to be at Kihelkonna, near which these works were also probably painted.

Researchers of Mägi find that staying on Saaremaa and painting the island’s natural settings made him happy and glad and that this is also reflected in his paintings of that time, which are airy and rich in colour. His so called Saaremaa period is considered a striking milestone in the art of Estonian painting since according to researchers, he was the first artist who ventured to approach Estonia’s relatively grey and modest natural settings using the means of 20th century modern art. “Nobody has yet seen our landscape with that type of eyes,” wrote Hanno Kompus in 1916 on the occasion of one exhibition where – if the notes on the back of the painting can be believed – this particular painting was also most probably on display. “He could be referred to as a romantic who sees some kind of mysterious life in landscape.”


"Saaremaa Motif" consists of two fields in an interesting way. The lower field is entirely abstract, where only a few isolated references direct our thoughts to the assumption that plants are depicted there. The variety of colours, changes in perspective, and generalisation of forms all refer to the idea that Mägi drew his impulse from nature, but never once set himself the objective to convey nature to us in the wealth of its details. Yet it admittedly can be argued that Mägi wanted to convey nature’s inner power, that which he perceived as the essence of nature. ‘Nature is only a hindrance,’ he had reportedly once said, and that sentence can be interpreted in many ways, but this painting offers one possible model for interpretation. After receiving the first impulse, nature really can become a hindrance if one constantly tries to anchor the emotional shock received to what the eye catches. Shock is too all-encompassing, abstract and generalising for it to be possible to constantly find equivalents for it from the real world, for which reason the artist has to withdraw quite quickly from what he sees, because otherwise nature really can prove to be a hindrance.
The painting’s upper field, on the other hand, is a tranquil and idyllic view of a farm landscape. Strips of farm fields, a little house and trees are in peculiar contradiction not only in their style of representation – the realisticness of the upper part contrasting with the abstractness of the lower part – but also emotionally, balancing the madness of the painting’s lower field.