Aliens In Estonia – Art On The Margins Often Supersedes The Capitals

It’s happenstance that I have a long connection with the small Baltic republic of Estonia, and in particular with its second city, Parnu. I started going there in the 1990s, fairly soon after Estonia regained its independence from Russia, and was duly flattered to find that one book of mine, represented by a single copy in a university library (an item that, during the Soviet period, students had to obtain special permission to read) had made me surprisingly well known in the Estonian art world.

I’ve returned fairly regularly, especially for various incarnations of the long series of ‘Man and Woman’ exhibitions that have been held annually in a gallery formed from the old headquarters of the Communist Party in Parnu . This year sees the 23rd edition of these often slyly erotic shows. It was a great sadness to discover that it may in fact be the last. The building has been sold over the heads of the organisers and nay soon be pulled down and replaced by an apartment block.

I thought the new show was better than ever – this, despite the fact that (confession necessary here) it has a small selection of my own photographs in a side-gallery.  The big star is undoubtedly the Icelandic painter Helgi Thorgis Frijonnsson, a master well known in his own country, but much less than he deserves outside. Despite the fact that his paintings are unrepentantly figurative, for me they carry an echo of the mystic Early Modernist Swedish artist Hilma af Klint, whose work was recently on view at the Serpentine Gallery in London

Mark Kostabi

The other artists cover a wide range. There is work by a young Brazilian surrealist (Alessandra Barbierato), a Dutch practitioner of Art Brut (Peter Diem Top Photo), plus striking paintings from Ukraine, Denmark, Sweden and Iran. Top quality sculpture from a Russian sculptor, Viktor Kornejev – part folk art, part classicizing – now living and working in Sweden, and stunning big Surrealist prints from Oleg Jahnin, a Surrealist veteran living in St Petersburg. Plus lots of excellent Estonians. In terms of sheer density of talent, it’s hard to think of any contemporary mixed show I’ve seen recently that offered so much.

One reason, I think, for the impact made by the show is not simply the sly erotic element I have mentioned – more hints than direct statements – but the sense of alienation it conveys, encapsulated in the forthright title Aliens.

Helgi Thorgils Fridjonsson (ISL) INDIGO NIGHT

Unfortunately there is another adventitious reason for the appositeness of this label. Contemporary art is about to become alien in Parnu, with the demise of the museum that has housed it for the past quarter of a century. In the Soviet period, of course, art was controlled by the State, though less rigidly in Estonia than in other, more central parts of the vast Soviet realm. There was still, however, a feeling among the chiefs of the Politburo that art mattered. Mattered maybe enough to make suppression of some aspects of artistic expression seem necessary for the health of the regime.

The commercial interests now in charge of Parnu have freed themselves, it seems, from this anxiety. They think art doesn’t count for anything much. Better for the health of the town to build some commonplace flats for Finnish holidaymakers. Finns and Estonians speak more or less the same language, though both sides are reluctant to admit this. There’s quite a nice beach available, and a spa, Why would these prosperous vacationers bother to go to an art gallery? As for the townspeople of Parnu – let them sink into the embrace of safely non-doctrinaire new model capitalism. In the post-Soviet epoch, it still doesn’t pay to think too much.

Words/Photos Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2016

Top Photo: Peter Diem 

Save the Parnu Museum: The Museum of New Art

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