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The Art Council of the National Park

Olev Subbi The Art Council of the National Park 1979 Tempera and oil on hardboard 160 × 210 cm

Group portraits are not a common genre in Estonian art, for local artists have usually preferred to depict individuals, or anonymity in the case of larger groups, in which clear-cut personal and historical traits dissolve and people become mere splashes of colour. Olev Subbi painted group portraits on several occasions, including nameless people from the north coast and the board of the Artists’ Association. The Art Council of the National Park has the same overall atmosphere as other Subbi group portraits or paintings: despite the wavering brushwork, layered colour blocks and joyful appearance, the painting exudes a strange melancholy. People in Subbi’s paintings seem to avoid any contact with the viewer or with other people in the paintings; they are fine with being observed but not with social interaction. For this reason, people in Subbi’s paintings often seem isolated, lonely and cut off from our world by “a thin tulle curtain” (the artist himself used this expression to describe the parallel world in his paintings) and they turn their backs or sides to their companions. The Art Council of the National Park deals with a group of people on three different levels: institutionality, friendship and politics.

First, the painting perpetuates an institution. The council established for the Lahemaa National Park was to give recommendations on the design of the manors in the national park as well as on other artistic issues. On paper, they were a unit of a Soviet institution, but in reality Lahemaa National Park was created to preserve local nature (there were Soviet military training areas in close vicinity) and cultural heritage.

On the other hand, the image depicts a group of friends, as all of the people were the artist’s close friends. On one occasion, the painting was displayed under the title Birthday, which seems to allude to a private sphere instead of a public one. In this context, the distance between friends becomes all the more noticeable. In the painting, friends become characters whose placement in the space is not supposed to be a realistic representation of a circle of friends but rather show people’s detachment from others in favour of their own imaginations and attitudes. Subbi's paintings are fragmented. Even though his compositions are whole, they consist of dozens of colour, memory and spatial fragments. For the same reason, Subbi dispersed his groups of people into smaller fragments and looked at each person separately.Subbi also referred to different fates of people in the 20th century in this work of art. For example, the artist himself had been deported and Enn Põldroos had spent a part of his childhood in Yaroslavl behind the front lines with Soviet cultural activists, so the painting is a kind of political manifesto. Former president Lennart Meri had the painting hung in the presidential palace and often showed it to his foreign visitors. Meri explained the painting as an example of the cultural elite’s mental resistance to the oppressive occupying power.