At the crossroads of cultures

Being open to the sea and trade due to its geographical position, Estonia has been characterised throughout the centuries by a large variety of cultures. Bearers of different cultures arrived here at different times and for different reasons – either as colonisers or peaceful merchants and workers.

The material culture of Estonia in the middle ages was dominated by Baltic German influence — this is evident in the old town of Tallinn, late medieval churches with their laconic style and the manor houses scattered all over Estonia together with the art heritage that they contain. Two prominent 15th century painters, known throughout Europe, are associated with Tallinn: Bernt Notke (1430/40 – 1509) whose Dance of Death (1463 or 1466) is located in the St Nicholas church in Tallinn, and Michel Sittow (1469-1525) whose clients included several crowned heads, such as Isabel I (Castilia), Christian II (Denmark), Fernando II (Spain), and Carlos I (later the German-Roman Kaiser Carl I).

The 1919 land reform and, later, the mass emigration of the Baltic German nobility before the Second World War resulted in a large number of abandoned manor house complexes. After the expropriation, many of them became schools, village halls or other types of public institutions. With radical changes in life, the new owners were often unable to take proper care of the manor houses. Some buildings started falling apart already before the 1940s, but it was in the Soviet era that the faded manorial buildings with collapsed roofs became inseparable parts of the Estonian landscape. From 1990 onwards, several wealthier Estonians have bought a manor house for themselves, trying to socially identify with the leading position of the former Baltic Germans.

Estonia has several Russian communities as well. A highly original small nation lives its quiet reserved life on the shores of Lake Peipsi in Eastern Estonia — the Russian Old Believers. After the 1653–1656 church reform they found themselves in conflict with the Russian authorities and emigrated to the areas by the Peipsi. The Old Believers have created an independent school of icon painting and are still developing it today. The southeastern part of Estonia is inhabited by the Setu people who combine elements of both Russian and Estonian culture. The Setu culture in Estonia is primarily known for its original dialect, vivid folk heritage and national costumes still worn today. An important component of national dress is a huge silver brooch, passed on from mother to daughter.

Scandinavian cultures have also had their impact in Estonia. The heritage of coastal Swedes has survived in Western Estonia and on the islands; a much-valued sight is the 17th century wooden church on Ruhnu Island. Finnish culture has left a lasting imprint on Estonian urban life thanks to their world-famous architects. One of the national monuments, the Estonia Theatre (1913) in the Nordic Jugendstil was designed by Armas Lindgren and his wife Viwi Lönn. The prominent Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen also provided projects for various buildings in Estonia, and in 1912 even made the plans for Greater Tallinn — a city that was supposed to develop into a metropolis. The coming First World War quashed his plans.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, artists of Estonian origin developed into professionals not in Estonia, but by studying at various art schools in St. Petersburg, Pensa, Düsseldorf, Munich, Paris and other big cities. It is natural that Estonian professional art being a relatively young phenomenon has gone through a “German period” (expressionism during the First World War), a “French period” (post-impressionism of the 1930s, represented mainly by the Tartu Pallas school which was both a teaching establishment and an artistic style), and the forced “Russian period” (socialist realism of the 1940s and 1950s). As a reaction to the latter, the younger generation greatly encouraged the triumphal breakthrough of an “American period” (pop art) in the late 1960s. For Estonians, the American image, then and earlier, signified the ideal of freedom, how else can one explain the naming of a South Estonian lake Dollar Lake, or calling two Tallinn streets Big and Small America. Early 21st century Estonian figurative art, on the other hand, exhibits clear English influences.

The above might give the impression that there is nothing ‘genuine’ in Estonian culture, that everything has been borrowed and learned from the others. On a closer look, however, quite a lot of typically Estonian features can be discerned, features not found anywhere else.

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