When did Estonian art begin?

The beginning of Estonian national professional art can be considered the 19th century when Johann Köler (1826–1899), the first professional artist of Estonian origin, was active. Having struggled out of poverty in a peasant family and acquired education at the Art Academy of St. Petersburg, the then capital of Russia, Köler was a keenly sought-after portrait painter among the St. Petersburg crème de la crème. At the same time he was ‘our man in Havana’, helping young Estonian artists and promoting Estonian national awakening in the power corridors of the capital.

‘Unofficially’, the start of the Estonian art could well be the second millennium BC when an unknown primeval artist carved a man’s face from a piece of bone. This archaeological find was unearthed in the Tamula settlement in Võrumaa, South Estonia.

Ethnographical material can just as well be considered in the context of art history. Since the history of Estonians between the 13th and 20th centuries mostly took place under the power of Danish, German, Swedish and Russian invaders, it is natural that our earlier visual-artistic self-fulfilment is mostly expressed in folk art — in the handicraft of men and women.

This is how ethnographical material is treated by artist Tõnis Vint (1942) who has thoroughly researched ancient mitten and belt ornamentation, trying to interpret the information coded in the geometrical patterns of national textiles. Fascinated with the esoteric heritage of the world’s high cultures, Vint claims that ancient Estonians were mentally just as mighty as the old Oriental or native Indian sages. The trouble is that the key to understanding our ancient sign systems has been lost, since the Estonians have not left any written heritage behind. The writings of earlier centuries tackling Estonia originates from the representatives of other nations who looked down on the locals. Thus the Estonians have once again remained in the role of ‘secondary people’, also on the stage of (art) history.

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