Identity and art

The understanding of our identity in Estonia largely relies on our belonging to the Finno-Ugric peoples. It is a multi-faceted complex of ideas and understandings that primarily derives from language, the frame of mind of forest people, but also religious tradition, the geographical location in northern Europe, a damp and cool climate, long summer days and long winter nights, and many other things. The seasonal rhythm causes depression in people and makes them yearn for warmth and sunshine. The latter is an obvious reason for the frequent presence of the circle of the sun in folk art. Dreams of sunshine have probably also contributed to the increasing usage of a new form of farewell: “May the sun be with you!”

Like other Finno-Ugric languages, the Estonian language is characterised by the lack of gender and future tense. Estonians are notoriously introvert and tend to keep silent on things that matter (the word ‘love’ is almost taboo); they also possess a serious and protestant work ethic. Such a mentality can naturally be seen in figurative art as well — there is precious little sunny joy anywhere in Estonian art. Here, a shining exception is Ants Laikmaa’s portrait of the young and beautiful poet Marie Under (pastel, 1904) with whom he had fallen in love.

Estonian national identity was a prominent theme in the mid-19th century, and here ‘natural monuments’ acquired a tremendous significance. For example the huge granite boulders on the generally level landscape, which arrived here together with continental ice aeons ago. Earlier folk poetry and customs make plentiful use of such boulders, hence they could indeed be called ‘national monuments’. In art, the graphic artist Günther Reindorff (1889–1974) often depicted and poeticised them.

National identity as it is understood today has always had political content for Estonians. The problem has become especially acute at times when our more or less independent existence and customary way of life fell under the attack of foreign invaders. During the Soviet period, for instance, the state policy favoured the physical and mental Russianisation of the nation. In response to that, both conscious and subconscious cultural protective mechanisms emerged in art. The red colour was generally avoided, since the red flag of the Soviet Union belonged among the state’s official symbols. And when red was used, it mostly denoted threat, as in Jüri Arrak’s paintings or Raul Meel’s graphic art. Additionally, a self-protective understanding of ‘home-bred’ (i.e. the genuinely Estonian) as opposed to ‘alien’ was created. A myth of ‘good taste’ as something inherently typical of Estonian art was born, which separated Estonians from the Soviet culture which was considered ‘tasteless’.

Several Estonian artists have directly associated themselves with a Finno-Ugric identity, starting with Kristjan Raud (1865–1943); contemporary examples include the textile artist Anu Raud (1943), graphic artist Kaljo Põllu (1934) and jewellery artist Kärt Summatavet (1963). Kaljo Põllu’s influence is especially vivid — as a lecturer at the Estonian Academy of Arts he has been taking students on ethnographic expeditions to the small Finno-Ugric nations in Russia since the 1970s. The abundant material was later used at conferences and published in various collections. As a result, a large part of Estonian applied art is strongly influenced by Finno-Ugric ethnography and mythology. Kaljo Põllu has, with great skill and dedication, explained the connections between national costumes and the mythological picture of the world and cosmology. In his own work as well he ‘translates’ ancient knowledge into the language of contemporary art.

Functionalism is historically considered to be the Estonian ‘national’ architectural style. A style always becomes ‘national’ largely by means of processes outside art. The heyday of functionalism as the ‘cold’ style of the modernist era of technology in Europe occurred in the 1920s, precisely the time when Estonia had just witnessed emotionally ‘warm’ historical events. The country had recently become politically independent, and the young state was joyously testing the spread of its wings. Functionalism suited the Nordic understanding of simplicity and feasibility; local limestone functionalist buildings are quite unique in the entire world. It therefore seems significant that even later, from the 1970s to the present day, architects have designed numerous ‘neofunctionalist’ buildings. (The same scheme is valid with other nations — Finnish ‘national’ style is the jugendstil that happened to prevail at the time when Finland thrived politically as well as economically. The ‘national’ art style of the USA, on the other hand, was the abstract expressionism that spread after the Second World War in the conditions of political and economic flourish.) An art style often acquires a ‘national’ significance when the culture feels triumphant.

The 1990s have largely been a decade of openness, a time to re-interpret one’s identity. It is not a question of an identity in the singular, but identities in the plural, their construction and deconstruction. The movement of ethno-futurism that emerged in the 1990s “constructs” the Finno-Ugric identity in the full knowledge that identity is nothing but construction. On the initiative of the Estonian Kostabi Society, international ethnofutu congresses have been organised since 1994, encouraging cooperation between Finland, Finno-Ugric peoples living in Russia, and Estonian artists.

In contemporary society, national determination increasingly loses its importance in everyday life. On the other hand, the growing competition of states and nations within the framework of a free market economy makes it necessary to think about one’s identity. Even the Finnish owners of the Tallinn department store Stockmann have come to realise that dressing the sales-staff in Estonian national costume helps increase the sales.

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