Message of the Estonian avant-garde

Thus, if one is to believe Tõnis Vint’s theory, the innermost visual self-expression of Estonians is the geometrical abstract pictorial language. Although 20th century modernism in art brought about a prevailingly national mentality, rather associating itself with the advancement of science, we can see that the visual language of Estonian avant-garde art still contains traces of the old sign language.

Estonian avant-garde art, which had a mission in the 1920s to take local art on to international standard, and maintain the faith in freedom between 1950 and 1980 and — following Gandhi’s principles of non-violence — also strove to prevent the nation’s mental repression, has largely expressed itself visually through geometrical abstractionism. That tradition involves a number of artists, such as members of the Estonian Art Group of the 1920s — Märt Laarmann (1896–1979), Arnold Akberg (1894–1984), Henrik Olvi (1894–1972), Jaan Vahtra (1882–1974), Eduard Ole (1898–1995), and from the 1960s, Tõnis Vint, Raul Meel, Leonhard Lapin, Sirje Runge (1950), Avo keerend (1920), Jüri Kask (1949), Siim-Tanel Annus (1960), Vilen Künnapu (1948), partially also Kaljo Põllu, Aili Vint (1941), Olav Maran (1933). These and several other powerful artistic personalities identified themselves via the avant-garde. They were intellectually connected, in real time, with various progressive trends of 20th century Western art. And not only of Western art.

One of the most influential artists of the Moscow forbidden art was the Estonian Ülo Sooster (1924–1970). He belonged among those numerous people deported to Siberia from Estonia in 1950, and who had suffered the horrors of a prison camp. After his release in 1956 and marriage, he stayed in Moscow where he found a common language with many independent Russian artists, including Ilya Kabakov. The latter wrote a monograph about Sooster, considering him one of his mentors. The manuscript had to wait years during the Soviet period before it was finally published in 1996 by the publishing house Kunst in Estonian, Russian and English — Kabakov had managed to emigrate from Russia in the meantime and rise to the echelons of the New York art scene. An obituary of Sooster, incidentally, appeared in the last issue of ‘Vitvarne Umeni’ (1970), a liberal Czech art magazine before it was closed after the Prague spring events.

Ülo Sooster’s art grew out of the tradition of Picasso and surrealism. Essentially, however, he found an outlet in art to express the inequality in society, accepting no compromises himself. ‘No compromises’ primarily meant refusing to co-operate with the communist party. His visions circled around three geometrically abstracted images — an egg, juniper and fish. Like the 20th century avant-garde artists, Sooster was tremendously fascinated with the triumph of science, drawing and painting weird ‘scientific’ visions.

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