Estonian art

Young Estonian artists: Kristel Saan

Kristel Saan is a young artist, with aspirations reaching beyond Estonian border. She has lived and studied in London, travelled a lot and participated in many international exhibitions. Her first solo-exhibition ‘Sunbed’ took place in Helsinki, Finland.

We asked this young artist what it’s like to be a part of the international art scene and what is the relevance of the art medium.

By Kristel Saan


Alright, “international scene”. A couple of days ago I was sharing a table with two men at a local noodle bar. A brief conversation about food, Chinese cuisine and art led to one of them giving me his card: “I have run a gallery, for the last nine years. This is my friend from Australia whose exhibition opens on the 8th of February.” Well, I do actually have a project in the works that would need a gallery. After googling I found out that we were talking about Vancouver’s best private gallery of 2012. Nice.

Even though I studied ceramics, I wouldn’t strictly call myself a ceramist. I made a major breakthrough in my work while studying in Central Saint Martins (CSM) in London. I began combining materials and medium more liberally. In my work I have been moving towards sculpture. I also do location-specific installations and redefining space — space meaning more than just four walls.

Travelling or as an exchange student in various locations, I have also began to try more drawing and painting. I always want to do what is not on the agenda and whenever I feel like it. Dave Kinsey has been a recent source of inspiration. Fashion is also something that I am fiercely passionate about. Alexander McQueen was the alpha and omega and so forth. Him and his brand, fashion shows and collections were so much more that just a moving wardrobe. I think it was in 2010 — the models in his show were made up like Marilyn Manson and there was a huge pile of garbage in the middle of the catwalk — oh, how I loved that collection.

The choice of material is imperative in helping to send out that specific message that the idea required. The medium holds no importance anymore unless it’s intended to be a part of the idea.

One big difference between studying arts in Estonia and in Western society is that elsewhere the process is more research-based while in Estonia the focus is more on the assignment. Thus, if you happen to lack a steady hand, your work might be more conservative. Character can only be developed through personal experience and you yourself are your own supervisor. It sounds a bit like Hinkus’s cry: “I myself came upon me” from The Dead Mountaneer’s Hotel, but this is the way it is. The strength of art studies in Estonia is definitely the excellent command of material inside a specific medium and also the thorough focus on general subjects like drawing and painting that form a substantial basis. I have yet to come upon a similar system elsewhere.


While talking about modern art in general, it should be noted that it has become more conceptual than ever before — the narrative is an important part of the piece. Making something simply because, well, I just wanted to — this holds little validity. It is not a taboo anymore to include assistants or just generate ideas. This is how most of the work by the crème de la crème of contemporary artists happens, just look at Anish Kapoor, Mona Hatoum, Thomas Heatherwick or the famous sunflower seed project by Ai Weiwei that included the participation of a whole village. These are but a few examples, but most established artists only work with the process and not the material itself. Found objects and reworking are most welcome.

I would really want to say that artists are one big family, but at the same time I wouldn’t want to confine us to one small scene either. Participation from representatives of various different fields can lead to brilliant collaborations. Co-operation, exchange of ideas and research (there doesn’t even seem to be a good way to put that word into Estonian) take us closer to the target. Movement, communication and playing with material as well as ideas, flexibility and determination — all good starting points. I think the Estonian artist that has the coolest ideas has to be Kris Lemsalu.

I strongly believe that travelling and learning about art and the world in general from different viewpoints is super important for every young artist. It helps you to find yourself and your place in this colourful society. Working on an international level is definitely complicated, positioning is not as clear and one-dimensional as it is in the safety of your hometown. It is enriching to work and study inside systems that are diverse, and also at the same time to experience the assorted and specific processes that lead artists from the idea to the final product. Also, as a student, it is not overly important whether you reach some kind of final conclusion or not. It is about experimenting — like a laboratory.

One thing that has not changed is the importance of the idea. It is the beginning and it is the end. The key is how the artist influences the audience through the final product.


This interview was brought to you in collaboration with Wader Media.

Photos: Juho Pöysti and Evelin Saul.

Group exhibition by Estonian painters opens in Corfu, Greece

Group exhibition by Estonian painters opens in Corfu Municipal Art Gallery.

“Two-Way Street. Contemporary Estonian Painting” by Vano Allsalu, Mihkel Ilus, Mihkel Maripuu and Jaan Toomik is open from 12 July until 31 July.

The exhibition provides an insight into contemporary Estonian painting and creates an opportunity to view it in terms of current international trends as well as in the context of two cultural “localities” — Estonia and Greece. The introduction of Estonian art in Greece has an important potential for further cooperation and creative exchange. The current exhibition could therefore also open up new inspiring perspectives.


One of the topics that is discussed today, is lifelong learning. It is not, however, regarded merely as acquisition of skills and knowledge but rather as a multi-faceted social process, the success of which depends on the will, motivation and communication skills of its participants. The master–apprentice model in its traditional form belongs to the past. Today the professor is rather a creative advisor or a discussion moderator, while the student is a partner in the process of exchange of ideas and the one who opens up new horizons.

How can this shared continuum be expressed in works of art, in different author’s positions at the exhibition where both professors and students present their works democratically under one roof, both in terms of shared values as well as oppositions and creative competition? This creative intrigue is also present in the title of the exhibition “Two-Way Street. Contemporary Estonian Painting”, which raises the questions of painting’s “blood exchange” with other media, of the relationship between the artist and the public, and — why not — of cultural exchange as an essentially two-way process.

Exhibiting artists

Jaan Toomik is one of the most internationally distinguished Estonian artists. His paintings and video installations, centred around existential themes, have been exhibited at numerous prestigious galleries and exhibitions, including several times at the international Venice Art Biennale. He is also Professor of Painting at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA).

Vano Allsalu is a distinguished Estonian painter whose mainly abstract paintings focus on the questions of form, colour and meaning. He is an Associate Professor of Painting at the EAA. Since 2013 he is also the President of the Estonian Artists’ Association.

Mihkel Maripuu and Mihkel Ilus are enrolled in the Master’s Programme in painting at the EAA. Both have presented their works in Estonia and abroad at solo and group exhibitions and are actively involved in the local art scene.


Corfu Municipal Art Gallery:

St. Michael and St. Georges Palace

Palaia Anaktora

Kerkyra, Corfu Town



Pictures: Vano Allsalu

Ivar Kaasik – a struggling artist in Berlin

Ivar Kaasik is an Estonian abstract painter, who since 1992 has resided in Berlin. Born in Kuressaare, he started to study architecture at the Estonian Academy of Arts in 1983, but graduated as a metal and jewellery artist. In 1989-1992 he studied at the University of Art and Design in Halle and in 1996 won the De Beers grand …

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Estonian display at Venice Art Biennale – “Evident in Advance” by Dénes Farkas

At the 55th international art biennale in Venice, Estonia is represented by the artist Dénes Farkas with the project “Evident in Advance”, curated by Adam Budak.


Dénes Farkas is a Tallinn-based post-conceptual photo artist, who has been focusing on social structures since the second half of the 2000s and presenting them in a laconic artistic expression, which unites photography and the photo caption. His works have been purchased to the collections of the Art Museum of Estonia, as well as by private individuals.

“Evident in Advance” deals with the elusiveness of language and the various aspects of translation and interpretation. In addition to Farkas, the project also involves an international team of architects and theorists, curated by Adam Budak, who works in Washington at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Budak and Farkas collaborated already in 2010 at KUMU’s Photography Month exhibition “Beyond”. Budak has curated several relevant international exhibitions, including “Architectures: Metastructures of Humanity, Morphic Strategies of Exposure”, which was displayed at the 2004 Venice Architecture Biennale in the Polish Pavilion.

Dénes Farkas was born in 1974 in Budapest, and lives and works in Tallinn, Estonia. He graduated from the Estonian Academy of Arts and has received the annual art prize from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia.

Farkas’s post-conceptual photo-based practice engineers the substructures of society at the moment it renews and remakes its identity. Using minimal means, the artist constructs cinematic spaces of contemplation, where the plot awaits its author and the characters are absent. Silent déjâ vu interiors with no apparent spatial hierarchy become the potential crime scenes of a representation in yet another crisis and decline. Farkas’s social geometry is a cartography of failure and dysfunction. His visually reduced, rebellious spectacle of language announces a new melancholy in a world in doubt.

The main curator of the 55th Venice Art Biennale is Massimiliano Gioni.

The Venice Biennale is the oldest and largest international art forum, and Estonia has participated since 1997. The Estonian Center for Contemporary Arts is the official representative of the country’s exposition at the Venice Biennale.

Dénes Farkas
Evident in Advance

1 June–24 November 2013

Palazzo Malipiero
San Samuele Square, S. Marco 3199, 2nd floor
(Vaporetto stop San Samuele)



The Ascension – Room 63’s best kept secret

A host of Christ’s followers gather on a hilltop to witness his ascension into heaven. As the group watches from below, Christ’s feet disappear into an opening in the clouds. No, not a quote from an abridged New Testament, but from the British National Gallery’s description of The Ascension, one of only a handful of confirmed works of Michel Sittow, 16th-century painter from Tallinn – or Reval, as it was then known.

Room 63 in London’s National Gallery is not unlike most of its numbered siblings – open, light and airy. But, geometry aside, different rooms in the gallery (the world’s fourth most visited art museum) have their own distinct atmosphere. Having spent many an afternoon within these walls, staring in wistful abandon, I’ve noticed the most convivial ambience is to be found directly in front of Delaroche’s 1833 work The Execution of Lady Jane Grey, where in spite of its gruesome subject matter, people chat away with gay abandon. But Room 63, despite its architectural brightness, retains an atmosphere that is almost sepulchral. Again, this is not something I can explain – despite the religious character of some the assorted works (ascension scenes, mother and child, choirs of angels, etc) there is nothing exceptionally mournful about them. Yet it is a room that not only seems devoid of mirth or happiness, but one of sadness and melancholy. Nobody even whispers. People shuffle from piece to piece and move on, almost mechanically.

Undeterred by feeling as though you’re a guest at a funeral that’s being held in the middle of a shopping centre, Room 63 is one certainly worth visiting – for tucked away in one corner is the only piece of artwork you will find here whose painter originates from the land we now call Estonia. Born in the late 1460’s in what was then Reval (now Tallinn), Michel Sittow was trained in the early Netherlandish school of painting and enjoyed, by the standards of the day, a fairly lucrative career as a court painter. Amongst his clients he counted Isabella of Castille (also known as Isabella the Catholic), for whom he produced a series of painted panels of oak, to be likely used as altarpieces. Indeed, Isabella appreciated Sittow’s work so much that she paid him over double that of his nearest rival.

Despite his royal favour, life didn’t always treat Sittow well – he had probate battles over his family’s estate and lived for some years almost itinerantly, going where his work took him. After his death in Reval, probably from the plague in 1525/26, his work remained almost entirely forgotten until the 20th century, when art historians investigated the works owned by Isabella of Castille. Even then, as Sittow never much adopted the habit of signing or dating his works, much of the information about him is the result of conjecture and educated guesswork. However, almost all historians agree that The Ascension is one of the few works that can be securely attributed to him.

Painted on oak, the first thing to be noted about The Ascension is its size – at only 22.5cm by 16cm, it isn’t especially dazzling (if art should ever “dazzle”). Unlike many other depictions of the scene, Christ himself is here shown only from the knees down, Sittow perhaps wanting to focus on the witnesses to the event as opposed to the holy son himself. As the bible doesn’t list those present, the artist is free to use his own judgement on the witnesses – here we are shown Saint John the Divine, Saint Peter, Mary Magdalene and, of course, the Virgin Mary.

In a gallery full of paintings that are well over five or six times as large, you could be forgiven for making the mistake of overlooking The Ascension. And overlook it people did. I observed, quietly, for forty minutes the passing stream of assorted arty types, tourists and those who had come in to relieve themselves of the cold weather and only a handful looked at The Ascension for more than two or three seconds. Respectfully, I asked some of them what they thought and the results were less than impressive. The theme of the day (from those who speak enough English for a conversation about art) was, “It’s nice but small.” Rather saddened, I made to leave.

It was then I saw her; a lady, short, grey-haired and smartly (but warmly) dressed, making her way along to the corner spot. I made a note to myself that if she displays any interest in the painting, I’ll try and make conversation – if not, then coffee and home. To my gratification she lingered by the painting. As she moved off, I stalked my prey. To my (probably all too visible) relief she was happy to converse and hadn’t just walked in to keep the blood flowing to her extremities.

“Well, dear,” she began, “I don’t suppose you’d call me especially religious, but I do like to come and see the paintings showing Jesus and the events of his time and the bible. It’s [The Ascension] not as big as some of the others showing him going into heaven or coming back to life, but I quite like that. It doesn’t feel overwhelming if you…” and then her voice trailed off. “I know exactly what you mean,” I added reassuringly and she continued: “It seems… I don’t know… honest. Honest in showing the people there. It all looks quite simple and not overblown and more real. Not that I know anything about art, but I do like it.” I thanked her for her time and let her be on her way and she told me to “have a nice day, dear”.

I looked at my notes of what she said and in her own simple and rather charming way, she’s right.

The Ascension by Michel Sittow is currently displayed, on loan from a private collection, in Room 63 of the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London.


Photos: National Gallery, London.

Artist of the week: Toomas Vint

Our latest “Artist of the week” is a legend of Estonian art and literature scene, writer and painter Toomas Vint. Undoubtedly Mr Vint deserves a more special and elevated spot than “artist of the week” but in this case it’s a nod to the fact that his book An Unending Landscape was recently published in English by Anglo-American publishing house Dalkey Archive Press.

Toomas Vint has been described as a painter who writes, or a writer who paints – rather unusual feat. Vint was born in Tallinn, the son of a scientist. He studied biology and geography at Tartu University. He published his first prose in 1968 and became a member of the Estonian Artists’ Association in 1973 – and is a successful painter of what could be described as “neo-navist” metaphysical landscapes. His works have been exhibited in art galleries all over the world – in Tokyo, Helsinki, Montreal, Essen, Moscow, Budapest, Paris, New York, Gdansk, Berlin.

Toomas Vint

Vint as the author has not yet been discovered widely abroad. Paintings are more readily accessible than things that have to be translated – which is why the publishing of An Unending Landscape is a rather special occasion.

His books have been described by his peers as such: the protagonists of his works are mostly people with conflicting moods, rather rootless contemporary people. The idea of being a loner is accentuated, as is unsureness and longing. In the forefront of his works are the psychology, present state and ethical bearing and inability to form a sense of responsibility of his characters. Another aspect is the opening up of characters to new impulses. His characters often act in an irrational way, are rarely happy, and “live past one another”. It is the inner life of characters that counts. The story often evolves in the direction of the grotesque. Vint likes the concepts of “game” and “playing roles”, especially in his short-stories. In his more recent novels and stories there is an examination of the opposition of art to life. Vint takes quite an interest in sexual matters and roles, and his books contain sex scenes, usually of a complex kind, and can involve prostitutes, peeping toms, and so on. Stylistically, Vint is definitely postmodernist in his recent literature, playing as he does with levels of narration and novels within novels.


An Unending Landscape is a subtle, humorous, mind-bending novel about the origins and fates of three different manuscripts. The first is an autobiographical sketch concerning an Estonian writer’s old schoolmate, now a government official, who is trying to recruit our narrator to spy on his fellow citizens. The second, composed by the hero of the first, is a fictionalized (and far more exciting) version of these same experiences. Finally, the self-aggrandizing hero of this second story decides to write his own novel, which seems on one hand to be a plagiarism of Chekhov’s “Lady With the Lapdog,” and on the other to be retelling the same story we’ve already heard twice over—until it’s no longer entirely clear whether these stories relate to one another like Russian dolls, or are three parallel versions of the same events, each no less valid than the others.

I caught up with Mr Vint for a quick chat to talk about his book and work.

It doesn’t happen very often that Estonian books are published internationally. How and when was the idea to translate your book into English conceived?

US publisher  Dalkey Archive Press has shown lively interest for Estonian literature and culture for a while now. For example, they have published four novels by Mati Unt and recently presented “Arvo Pärt in Conversation” in London – an interview and essay collection about the world famous Estonian composer. John O’Brien, who runs Dalkey Archive Press, was interested to publish An Unending Landscape, and so it happened. I am always happy to see my work being translated. To me it means that the literature of our small Estonian language is getting more exposure. Gaining a broader audience is the natural purpose of writing literature.

An Unending Landscape was originally published in Estonia quite a few years ago, in the late 1990’s. Do you think that it would still be relevant for an international reader now?


Although An Unending Landscape describes Estonian life in the mid 1990’s, it deals with problems and issues which are still important and relevant today – and some of them are universal. Human beings change slowly and the processes started in the 1990’s sometimes show their unpredicted and awkward side today and beyond. I think that national traditions no longer have a significant role in the contemporary literature. I can see the formation of a new cultural space, embracing the best of all cultures. It is the individuality of the author that is gaining more importance—the uniqueness of his inner world that he reflects in his work.

Do you feel that the meaning of your thoughts and ideas have been preserved in the translation?

The main task in being an Estonian writer is to preserve our small language. A writer is a mother who must raise and nurture her child. If a writer can use his language to give a better understanding of human life to his readers, then his work has served its purpose. Exact translation is an impossible thing, as each language leads a life of its own. However, a good translation can capture the intellectual essence of the story. If I can recognize myself in the text while reading the translation, then it has succeeded. An Unending Landscape was translated by a very good translator Eric Dickens, whom I trust 100% – knowing that he has explored and researched the framework behind the novel so well, as if it was his own book.

You are sometimes called a writer who paints – or an artist who writes. How would you categorise it yourself and how easy or difficult it is to be one or another?

As a writer, there’s always an anxious anticipation before a novel is published – you never know what the public acceptance will be and how successfully it will be sold. Ironically, when I prepare for an exhibition, I see myself as an artist who writes – and when I’m writing a novel, vice versa. Sometimes it creates a confusion – among the public, as well as in my own creative soul.

Lately I have been more of a writer who paints. I worked very intensively on my new novel called “Openly About the Marriage” for about a year and currently feeling a bit saturated from writing. Hence, I’m planning to work on my paintings again, as there are two exhibitions planned for 2014 – “Nude in Landscape” and “Meaningful Landscape”.


An Unending Landscape by Toomas Vint is now on sale via Amazon.

Pictures by Toomas Vint.

Artist of The Week: Merike Estna (London)

Merike Estna was born in Estonia in 1980. She studied Performance Art at Academia Non Grata and earned her BA in Painting at the Estonian Academy of Art. In 2006 Merike Estna was included in ‘The best 100 (and beyond)’ international artists selected for the Italian Flash Art. She moved to London and in 2009 completed a Masters in Art Practice at Goldsmiths College. As part of a New Wave, Estonian artists of the 21st century, her solo exhibitions include the Tallinn Art Hall gallery, Estonia in 2006 and Gallery Frederic Desimpel, Brussels, Belgium in 2008. She has represented Estonia as part of group exhibitions in Czech Republic, Sweden, Belgium, Greece, Spain, France and China. Estna is a young and distinctive artist whose work is full of an exuberant femininity and unabashed joy – as she has said before: “I would travel to the end of the world for love.”




An exhibition of new painting, sculpture and installation called “Constructed Scenario: The Third Space” by Merike Estna, Claudia Djabbari and Annie Hémond Hotte opened in London this week and will run until 23 September. Between space, shapes, objects, and made up contexts the artists offer us a scenario investigating the limits between what is and what might be….

“Constructed Scenario: The Third Space” 14-23 September at No 4 Wilkes St, E16QF, London, UK:


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