The exhibition Invisible Monumental Painting. Monumental art by students at the Painting Department of EKA 1962–1995 organised by the EKA [Eesti Kunstiakadeemia – Estonian Academy of Arts] museum and exhibited at the EKA Gallery in October 2020 introduces the collection of monumental painting designs from 1962–1995 stored in EKA Museum including design proposals for various works in all classical techniques of monumental painting: fresco, sgraffito, mosaic, and stained glass. The exhibition was accompanied by a 160-page catalogue, curated and edited by Reeli Kõiv, which provides an overview to the teaching of monumental painting at the EKA in 1962–1995 illustrated with documentary photographs and reproductions. The catalogue also addresses the fate and status of monumental painting today. A roundtable discussion was held about monumental painting, its possibilities and future place, drawing on their personal experience, moderated by Gregor Taul and involving contemporary painters Merike Estna, Kristi Kongi, Urve Dzidzaria, Kaido Ole and Tõnis Saadoja.
Gregor Taul: It seems to me the title of the exhibition, “Invisible Monumental Painting”, refers to the infamous remark by the Austrian writer Robert Musil written in the 1930s, where he says there is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument. They are no doubt erected to be seen – indeed, to attract attention. But at the same time they are impregnated with something that repels attention. Like a drop of water on an oilskin, attention runs down them without stopping for a moment. This disparaging or ironically sympathetic attitude towards monuments describes a substantial part of the relevant literature of the past hundred years. Monuments and their erectors have been accused of being authoritarian, of monopolising the truth, and of misperceptions about art and urban planning. However, in monumental painting, one might think that this invisibility is of a simpler nature: indeed, older works that have been forgotten, partially destroyed or miraculously preserved, as well as a few new ones, are hard to come by. However, as we delve deeper into the subject, it may turn out that the invisibility of monumental painting may be related to other criteria, such as being situated somewhere between painting and decorative arts, architecture and design, as well as the position of the authors in the art scene, technical specificity of the genre, etc. In your view, what constitutes the invisibility of monumental painting? How relevant are parallels to these invisible monuments?
Urve Dzidzaria: It seems to me that monuments and the so-called monumental painting can by no means be equated with each other. In fact, even the term monumental painting does not properly describe the nature of a work connected to a particular space, be it an interior or an exterior. Rather, we could call it “art in architecture”, that is, arts organically combined with architecture (stained glass as a window; fresco and sgraffito as wall or ceiling surface, mosaic on the floor, etc.). The dimensions and subject matter of a work of art combined with architecture do not need to be “monumental” in any way; they may be very intimate, depending on the nature of the space.
Kaido Ole: I often feel that everything in a public space is too self-evident for many, and therefore perhaps less valuable and ultimately indeed invisible. You see it, but you do not consider it important enough to remember. Displayed at a museum or at somebody’s home, a painting is more memorable and more important to many than when seeing daily in the lobby or the third floor corridor of your workplace, for instance. It’s the same as asking what kind of furniture you have in your office. Most people do not remember it accurately, although they constantly use it. Yes, curiosities surely transcend this memory barrier and are remembered, but in general, both art and furniture are made and selected for public spaces based on reason, rather than seeking to shock or astonish anyone. It has its good sides and bad ones.
Tõnis Saadoja: I once formulated the idea that monumental paintings will always end up being alone. It was inspired by the perspective that the initial context around most of these works has quietly disappeared and only a mark in the memory has been left behind. Paradoxically, removable works travel more with space, while works meant for “public use” and attached to a specific space are more likely to be buried under the cultural layer. This invisibility of works increases with time, as we get accustomed to their constant presence.
Kristi Kongi: Invisibility is definitely caused by the fact that when we get used to something, we no longer notice it – it becomes part of us. Every monumental painting is a mark of its time. And as times change and we change with them, our surroundings also change. Every now and then, we need a new kind of functional urban environment, architecture and design. However, we bring along things that have already been around. The invisible too should carry along. It is simply placed in a new environment every now and then. For example, architecture is changed around or within it. In my view, these signs of a certain era are important.
Merike Estna: I think that just as there are monuments that are invisible and those that aren’t, monumental paintings too can be either invisible or visible. In many cases this invisibility is a deliberate blending with space and environment. At the same time, there are monuments that seem impossible to get accustomed to – whether because of their meaning or their nature. Even if one may not be inferior to the other, many important details in life seem to be invisible at first.
Gregor: When I associated monumental painting a priori with monumentalism in my opening question, the adjective monumental in the Estonian context somewhat inevitably brings up the topics of the Soviet time and memory, historical confrontations and ideological quarrels. However, this does not have to be the case, as monumental painting can be approached from different angles, be it painting techniques, architecture, interior design, synthesis of different arts or diverse examples in art history and contemporary art from around the world. Urve already answered this question, suggesting that “monumental painting” might not the most appropriate term to use. How do others feel about it?
Kristi: I understand monumental painting as a work of art created for a specific place, taking into account the specific nature of that place. In my opinion, the task of monumental painting is to relate not only to the place, but also to the time. A monumental painting has a certain starting point and purpose. Most of all, I am interested in the idea behind the painting. It can be a narrative work or an idea that originates from light and shadow. I see so much potential in monumental painting and I do hope more thought-provoking works will be made also in Estonia.
Merike: To me, this is a very wide concept. Monumental paintings may or may not be linked to a specific context and environment. They are mostly defined by their format, their relationship to space, and their traditional wall painting technique. However, we see that monumental painting can also be removable, and its meaning may be changing. Take for instance a detail of a fresco by Dolores Hoffmann made in 1963, rescued from Rahu Cinema, which is now displayed on the studio wall of the Painting Department at the Estonian Academy of Arts (EAA). It still carries the meaning of monumental painting, even though it is physically removed from its initial space and exhibited only as a fragment.
Tõnis: I also think that the physically perceptible handling of material, large format, and being chained to a particular space(-time) are the three big “whales” that help define monumental painting. I agree that this is a classic definition, largely inspired by the Soviet heritage. Although numerous gigantic eye-catching images have appeared in the cityscape during the past ten years, most of them are too “lightweight” to be able to evoke the word monumental.
Kaido: For me, it is history – more precisely, personal emotional history – that fills this term with a specific content. I believe that although size should play an important role, unfortunately for me it is still the technique what is most important. This is why a fresco, a sgraffito or a mosaic immediately and exclusively associates to me with monumental art, no matter how big or small the particular piece is, whereas even a giant panel painting is still merely a very large panel painting. It’s not a very smart logic, but I’m still quite happy to let it guide me. I remember that one of the conditions was the removability, so if you can’t take it off the wall or ceiling, it’s a monumental work of art. Anyway, my concept of monumental art is very much dependent on the experience I got from Dolores Hoffmann’s class in my sensitive student age.
Gregor: Let us continue from this very spot. What was your first encounter with monumental painting? Was it before you commenced your studies? What was your exposure to monumental painting during your studies? What kind of school projects did you make, and do you remember what were the key instructions from the tutor(s)?
Urve: When I entered the Painting Department of the State Art Institute of the ESSR (ERKI), at first I still saw myself as a future panel painter. Of course I had seen the reproductions of Michelangelo’s ceiling paintings in the Sistine Chapel and was fascinated by the works of other great masters of the Italian Renaissance, but I knew nothing about the specifics of this art form. In addition to studying panel painting, during our first year we were also given space-related composition assignments and introduced various techniques: mosaic, stained glass, sgraffito, fresco. In all of these techniques we also had to make physical test pieces, often copying fragments of works by renowned artists. My teacher was the legendary Dolores Hoffmann, and it was probably her passionate and devoted attitude towards art and teaching it that inspired me to specialise in monumental painting in my third year. I clearly remember her instruction: “When designing a work of art for a building, you must first “bow to the architecture”, that means, to follow the specifics, proportions and volumes of the architecture and consider that the artwork will (hopefully) remain in that space for a long time and influence the people in it. Therefore, it should have an organising effect, it should be oriented towards harmony and positivity. In interior design assignments we were instructed and consulted by interior designer Aate-Heli Õun, also an excellent, dedicated lecturer.
Kaido: I cannot remember my first encounter, it could have easily been at ERKI, during the preparatory courses which I attended during high school, taking a train to Tallinn from Rapla twice a week. No, actually, I do remember a strange experience from Rapla High School. When I started my 4th grade, we were moved over to the main building. In the so-called new part of the building, there were plaster bas-reliefs of a couple of square metres on the walls in two corridors – scenes from Oskar Luts’ Spring painted in monochrome tones. They looked professional, probably a mass production, but that part of the school was anyway built after Stalinism, so I guess it was not exactly Stalinist gypsum art. Most of the students seemed to be quite indifferent to these bas-reliefs, but I constantly found myself staring at them, especially admiring their realistic and convincing forms. Whether or not it was monumental art is another question, but these artworks left a mark in my memory. When I was a child, me and my parents made a lot of car trips around Estonia and to the brotherly republics, spending nights in tents, as was very common at the time. I must have seen monumental art in my travels too, but strangely enough, I can’t remember it. So it was invisible already then, at least to me, even though I was an art-loving kid!
From my time at ERKI, monumental art only associates to me with Dolores Hoffmann, and even these details have become quite hazy in my memory. I liked her enthusiasm and dedication; she seemed like a kind person and this helped me do what was asked of me, even though I immediately realised that I was not personally interested in any of these techniques. Later I have often made works that were perhaps even too large, and I guess I already had these origins in me back then, but somehow, I did not yet sense this attraction during our course of monumental art and I failed to see the opportunities of making large-scale artworks. Again, this was probably the “curse of school time”: almost everything you learn comes at the wrong time for you; you draw fundamental conclusions from this and exclude many things for yourself forever. I just realised that now I’d be happy to make a large sgraffito or a mosaic!
Kristi: My first actual and conscious encounter with monumental painting was during my years at Tartu Art College, where I studied in the Painting Department, which meant getting acquainted with different monumental painting techniques and also creating large-scale works. During my studies I made several artworks, both for practice and for money, in different Estonian manors (Esna) and in Villa Margaretha in Tartu. Toward the end of my studies, I was part of a team that painted the mural depicting the main building of the University of Tartu on the side of the Von Bock House. These experiences were very educative – I received an excellent technical preparation in Tartu. The teaching there was also built on acquiring different techniques. When designing, we always had to consider the functions of the space and features of architecture. Important lecturers were Heli Tuksam, Valentin Vaher and Madis Liplap. Thanks to my studies in Tartu, I right away started to consider space in my paintings. It also gave me an impetus to always think big. Although I have worked more in the context of the white cube now, to me a work of art always means the entire space as a whole.
Merike: My first conscious contact with monumental painting during my studies at the EKA. I was taught monumental painting by Heldur Lassi, and the focus was on learning different techniques. I tried fresco, stained glass and mosaic too. All of these seemed extremely difficult and distant technical possibilities to me at the time. My notion of these techniques has been greatly influenced by my subsequent exposure to historical works while travelling in Central and Southern Europe. Recently, I have started to take an interest in these possibilities again, and I see in these techniques an excellent opportunity to talk about the historical.
Gregor: Urve, one of your first monumental works was the sgraffito made for the canteen of the old building of the Academy of Arts. Would you tell us the story of how it came to be? This image, remembered by many, is still alive today, because its fragment was recently installed in the café of EKA’s new building. Perhaps you could also expand on what the destruction of your works has meant to you (in 2019, the fresco in the former Nõmme Internal Diseases Hospital, “Spring Prelude” from 1994 was covered with wall paint, and your fresco “To Get to the Spring” made in 1989 for the club building of Paide Motor Depot, has stayed in a half-abandoned building for years, and if I’m not mistaken, there is no information whatsoever about the works you executed in Moscow). Is this uncertainty about the preservation of an artwork something intrinsic to monumental painting? Does knowing that the survival of a work depends on several chances also affect its creation?
Urve: Designing the sgraffito for the wall to the right from the window in the former ERKI canteen was a composition assignment in our second year (1972) that all students in our class had to submit for evaluation. For some reason, my design was selected, and I executed it alone, from drawing the cardboard cartoons to the final result on the wall (except for the plastering done by the master or our department). In 1978, when I had already graduated from ERKI, it was decided to continue decorating the canteen and I was commissioned to also design the rest of walls. In the decorative composition of the first wall I had used only plant motifs; on the other walls I also introduced stylised human and animal figures (the idea was to show all creations as a single interconnected whole). According to my design, the students drew a 1:1 cardboard cartoon and executed it on the wall as their practice in monumental art. Considering that drawing a cartoon for a mural is not merely a mechanical enlargement of the design, but also requires creativity in specifying the tension of the lines and the proportions of the figures, the students applied their skills and potential there, and I can therefore only claim my authorship in the case of the first mural I executed myself. The sgraffito fragment installed in the new EAA café comes from the original part of the mural completed in 1972–1973.
During my studies at ERKI, I also designed a tempera ceiling painting for the former Ministry of Forestry on Toompuiestee, which me and my classmates executed as part of our practice in monumental art. My graduation project at ERKI (1976) was a stained-glass window “Home. Homeland”, which was designed, executed and installed in the lobby of the Tallinn Children’s Shelter No. 2 on Kadaka Road, Mustamäe. Now, the stained glass about the size of 4m2 has been lost, the building complex was reconstructed and now serves a different function.
Of course, it is sad to see your own works destroyed. It is especially painful when works that have been preserved completely undamaged for over 20 years are consciously and intentionally repainted by the new owner of the building… This was the fate of my fresco “Spring Prelude”.
That piece was unique in my creation in many ways: firstly, its execution went very smoothly in technical terms, because the painting surface was prepared for me every morning by Heldur Lassi, who, as a monumental artist, has excellent knowledge of the fresco technique and who makes no mistakes in the composition of lime and sand nor in the quality of surface smoothing. Also, when I saw the fresco a few years ago, the colours were still bright, which means that the lime used was of high quality and well “extinguished”. For other frescoes where the surface was prepared by a plasterer hired by the client, I have had a hard time with the technical execution of the painting, as the surface was poorly smoothed and did not have the correct ratio of lime to sand. It often happened that I needed to remove all day’s and start over the next day. It can also be seen retrospectively that in several frescoes (e.g. “Time for Living on Earth“ in Vana Tall guesthouse in Väätsa) the lime used has been of poor quality and has begun to eat away the colours over time. That is, poorly extinguished lime undergoes a chemical process that kills the intensity of the colours.
In 1991 I performed a stained-glass window “Cloudscapes” at the Institute for Standardisation in Moscow, which comprised of two decoratively realised compositions (about 6m2 in total). Unfortunately, I neither have a preserved sketch nor any photos of the work. However, I am most sorry about the fresco “Life of Man. Fate of Mankind” (60m2) made in 1982–1984 in the Moscow Institute of Scientific Research, which was a philosophical reflection on the course of a human life and the meaning and goals of life, executed in six figurative compositions. A few years ago, I received photos of the current state of the fresco from an acquaintance in Moscow. There, too, the building has gone into private hands and has been redesigned according to the ideas and needs of the new owner: the photos show deep holes rammed into the fresco surface and other damages…
I have to add here that in none of my commissions, neither in Moscow nor in Estonia, I was never requested to do Soviet propaganda, and I have always been allowed to realise my own ideas and worldview.
Gregor: Moving along to the paintings in the old building of the EKA, which formed a remarkable part of its atmosphere, then Tõnis and Merike, you also completed your first monumental paintings during your studies there. Could you talk about these in a few words?
Tõnis: Yes, according to the curriculum, we made test pieces of fresco, sgraffito and mosaic as well as stained glass. As the building of the Academy of Arts on Tartu Road resembled a large community where every nook and surface was filled with somebody’s artwork, the performance tension was relatively low. Our interest in “heavy techniques” was also very low at that time. The fluidity and precision of tonal oil painting defined almost everything a good image could represent, so I didn’t pay much attention to anything else. On a mandatory basis, I painted a scene of St. Francis speaking to the birds on the wall of the monumental painting class. It was a fragment of a fresco by Giotto, located in the church of the city of Assisi, where the remains of St. Francis are also buried. When visiting the church in 2014, I saw for the first time the original painting the detail of which I had meticulously copied ten years before.
In short, I had no idea, technically or in essence, what I did there in the monumental painting class around 2001. I remember having a hard time with plastering; secondly, painting in layers caused insurmountable difficulties to me. I remember how my classmate Maarit Murka achieved enviable smoothness and airiness in her fresco piece. As I remember, she copied a fragment of Michelangelo. About a year later, I completed a sgraffito in a school corridor. By that point, I had decided to take a more conceptual approach and made a copy of Allex Kütt’s sketch “Welders” found in the book “Travelling through Soviet Estonia With a Pencil and Sketchbook” (“Pliiatsi ja blokiga mööda nõukogude Eestit”, 1960). After it was completed, no one even noticed that a new piece had appeared on the school wall, because in its laconic heaviness, the social realist sketch translated into sgraffito technique looked as though it had always been there. A similar fate was met by a stained glass window which I cleverly “hid” on an inner window of the corridor – a geometric composition depicting the urban plan of downtown Tallinn, sandblasted on clear glass.
I had more trouble with mosaic where I combined tiny pieces of glass with a pixelated photographic image, and also used a broken car windshield and a blank concrete surface in the composition. The works completed as part of that course were supposed to be displayed on the corridor wall of Eesti Ekspress office, but the deal was cancelled. From among the described works, these are the only ones that still exist.
Merike: I have to agree with Tõnis in many points; I went through a very similar course while studying at the EAA and it was difficult to relate to it because I hadn’t had much contact with such art and copying didn’t seem very inspiring either. I wouldn’t call these tests monumental paintings; they were copies and technical samples.
Gregor: The prolific period or monumental painting in late Soviet Tallinn ended with the proliferation of the so-called supergraphics, when the Chief Artist of the City of Tallinn, Urmas Mikk managed to channel significant amounts of money into urban design. Dozens of works were completed, where the design submitted by an artist or designer was executed by decorators. Kaido, what was your relationship with supergraphics in these years of transition?
Kaido: Considering my year of birth, and especially my logic of learning and development, I only admired that supergraphic art as a viewer, and didn’t even think about whether and what I would like to do if I received such an offer. For some reason, I was convinced that the artist had to play a leading role, also climbing on the scaffolding or riding in a crane basket. As I’m very afraid of heights, I was actually glad at the time that I didn’t need to face such challenges.
Gregor: When talking about the 1990s, the stereotypical notion is that there was no public art at the time – except for the restoration of the monuments of the War of Independence and church interiors. In fact, it is still an unexplored area that is yet to be discovered and contextualised; it could be that art for public space was manifested as a principle in something else. Urve, you managed to make both monumental and stained glass works for churches as well as private houses during that decade. Kaido, did you have any custom orders completed at the time?
Urve: From my frescoes, I performed the 11m2 “Vita Brevis” for Iva Restaurant in Viljandi (1990), which has been destroyed, and the previously mentioned “Spring Prelude” for a hospital building in Lõuna Street in Nõmme (1994). As for the stained glass works, I made the two aforementioned windows for the Moscow Institute of Standardisation (1991), as well as stained-glass windows for the St. Mary’s Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul’s Cathedral in Tallinn (1993), for Lääne County Environmental Board.
Haapsalu Forest Department (1995), Viljandi Baptist Church (1997), a tourist farm in Abja (1997) and a private house in Tartu (1998). All these works were done in collaboration with interior designers who included me in spatial design process.
Kaido: Oh no, not at all. I was actively making panel paintings and held solo exhibitions. For some reason, I had no interest whatsoever in making any sort of art for public spaces, although what else is a solo exhibition but art for public space, except temporary. I really liked the white cube as an exhibition venue, and I didn’t even think about any other alternatives.
Gregor: Even before the Commissioning of Artworks Act came into force, Kaido’s mural “New Model” at the Contemporary Art Museum of Estonia (EKKM, 2010) and Tõnis’ ceiling painting at the NO99 Theatre (2012) were completed in the late 2000s and early 2010s. It was a time when the terms public and public space vigorously entered the cultural sphere, illustrating, on the one hand, the direct disappointment in the quarrels over monuments at the time, but on the other hand, they implied an overall transformation of values in the wider picture. The commission for the NO99 monumental painting and its accompanying publication, “Konspekteeritud ruum”1 signalled the social role and potential of art for public spaces and, more specifically, of monumental painting. Tõnis, how do you look back on this process now, given that the circle has closed, in a way: NO99 no longer operates and the earlier optimism, as I would call it, has been replaced by a somewhat more serious atmosphere?
Tõnis: I’ll start with the end part of the question. The ceiling painting of the NO Theatre continues to live on Instagram. My friends occasionally send me photos of how the painting is captured on the background at different parties (but also theatre and art performances). Theatre NO99 has finished its work, the fate of the building is uncertain, everything that started this discussion has already begun: the invisibility and the gap in sight, that is, the original context is being replaced by something else. I watch with quiet interest where this image is drifting, because no one has control over it. The completion of the painting was accompanied by a highly contextualised research and publication, “Konspekteeritud ruum” (“Notes on space”), which documented my work process, but also gave an insight into the history of documental painting in Estonia. The second edition, published in English,2 was considerably different from the first one, printed on a different type of paper and having a different colour scheme, among other things. Some of the problems phrased in the book in a novel way have been solved by now. From the very beginning, this ceiling painting has been talked about as something eternal, yet I have always known that it could turn out to be something very temporary.
Kaido: While doing this particular piece, despite having a very cool client, I was still a bit absent and couldn’t quite get the full grasp of what I was doing. A bit of a dream-like experience I’ve never had before – or since. Even now I look at this mural as a strange exception in my biography, but it worked as a wake-up call, because since then I have made quite a few large-scale projects in different places for different reasons. But then again, although my “Handsome Hero” at Kumu was of considerable dimensions, maybe even my largest work of all, I did not feel like making monumental art at all. I just felt like making art. In fact, my only proper and relatively stylish monumental work for public space is the painted stainless steel “Independent Freak” on the wall of Väo Power Plant, completed a few years ago. At least I myself felt closest to the field of monumental art when making it.
Gregor: In the beginning of 2011, the so-called Percentage Act3 came into force, the first “fruits” of which were completed in 2013. Over the period of roughly seven years, almost a hundred competitions have been organised, the winners of which have also included a few “traditional” monumental paintings, such as Peeter Krosmann and Nadežda Tšernobai’s “Garden” (2015) at the Tartu University Clinic in Maarjamõisa. Kaido and Merike, you have successfully participated in these competitions and executed your ideas in different educational and administrative institutions. Could you please talk about these paintings? In connection with the topic of our conversation, I am also curious as to what extent could we speak about these works using the terms of monumental painting?
Merike: My first major winning competition entry was for the Viljandi State High School building. The work consists of sculptural objects in front of the building and paintings inside. It forms a conceptual whole, with paintings inside the house depicting the placement of the sculptures or views on them in the sketch phase. I consider this work a monumental painting, although the paintings are made on canvas and the concrete spheres are placed outside of the building. My second commission was a painting for National Audit Office building in Tallinn. It is an extremely simple work which, in its meaning, refers to the function of the meeting room, reflecting the environment symbolically rather than literally. I combined patterns in my image that are related to the traditional visual language of handicrafts and digital images.
Kaido: Again, since my winning work for the new Rapla State High School was in fact a large canvas mounted to the wall out of reach, not once did the term monumental art cross my mind during the entire process. Now, afterwards, the resulting piece can be of course placed in a variety of contexts, including that of monumental art. Oddly enough, I have nothing special to say about the competition or my winning entry because everything went smoothly from start to finish. I’m a little superstitious, and perhaps because I hadn’t had success at the previous two competitions, I decided that the experiment for Rapla State High School would be my last try, and that it is nice to make this last attempt for my former hometown. A very symbolic act. But I won, and since I had already completed the painting as a design on canvas in quite large dimensions anyway, the risks were minimal. There was only one obstacle, which confirms one of my favourite quotes, “Man makes plans … and God laughs”: despite the previous measuring, the finished painting did not fit through the main entrance of the school, because I had missed the fact that it had to be tilted and turned at the same time to get it through, and this all demanded a wider doorway than the existing one. We eventually squeezed it through another doorway. And when the painting had been mounted high on the wall with the concerted effort of five men and everyone had already left, after a while, annoying wrinkles appeared in one corner of the painting, which could only be corrected by taking the painting down again. First you get angry, then you accept it.
Gregor: I would like to enquire some more about the so-called Percentage Act. When speaking about the Commissioning of Artworks Act, several people involved have stressed that it has not been carved into stone in its existing phrasing and that it must be supplemented or modified in the future as necessary (which has been repeatedly done already). What do you think could be done to improve the Commissioning of Artworks Act, or what could a national public art commissioning system ideally be like, so it would, among other things, provide better opportunities for making monumental art?
Kaido: I have only participated in three of the so-called percentage art competitions, and I have been a jury member only twice, I believe, so my experience on either side of the table is surely not sufficient for generalisations. The idea itself is great, but the methods and rules could be more flexible, because the goal can only be to get the best piece, or pieces, for a particular spot, and everything else should be serving this goal. We are clearly a little too concerned about uniform and equal justice, fearing that a certain form of competition might leave somebody (unfairly) excluded, instead of thinking whether the presumably most appropriate ones even participate. Luckily, Estonia is small and the makers and their strengths and weaknesses are widely known; it is natural to hope for surprising newcomers to appear, but it is also logical to try to attract participants who would meet the particular conditions. In my opinion, competitions with wholly or partly invited participants would often be more effective, and I wouldn’t be so afraid of any corrupt favouritism.
Merike: The current system in Estonia is good, but is still extremely conservative. The competition is usually announced with a specific vision of where the work should be placed. Thus, it is already predetermined that it will be a stand-alone object rather than a work that could be part of a building or interact with what goes on there. After all, art for public space has much broader possibilities than an object placed on a specific spot in space. Competitions could take place much earlier and be more open. It often seems that artists are not trusted enough to give them control over space; I believe that more open competitions could lead to extremely interesting projects, which would be more “present” – both technically and conceptually.
Gregor: Returning to art education, some departments at the EAA teach courses dedicated to the so-called Percentage Art in their Master’s curriculum, where the students, after receiving the theoretical, practical and legal guidance, are required to take part in an ongoing art commissioning competition. The Painting Department at Pallas University of Applied Sciences has been actively looking for opportunities for their students to create monumental paintings in Tartu urban space. What is the position of the EAA Painting Department in this respect? How much interest have the students shown in performing their own art in public space?
Kristi: For a little over a year, Merike and I have been involved in developing the content of Bachelor’s curriculum at the Painting Department of the EAA, and we have wished to link the subject of monumental painting more closely to the context of contemporary painting. We both have different starting points and ideas of a monumental painting as artists, but this kind of difference makes it even more exciting. We see how many ways there are to link monumental painting to contemporary painting. It is important to introduce these opportunities to students, because maybe somebody will find something important for their creation precisely in that area. Students also have a keen interest in various techniques. Commissioning of Artworks Act has certainly raised an interest. The so-called percentage art is also one of the main ways to apply this interest and experience. Another important way is to apply monumental painting techniques in personal creation. Therefore, in recent years we have tried to combine monumental painting techniques with studio practice.
Students see that there are different options. It is always the case that some become more enthusiastic than others. In fact, monumental painting techniques are very different in essence and vary in difficulty. Making frescoes requires a certain kind of concentration and focus, which is completely different from sgraffito or stained glass. In my opinion, it is important to talk about different techniques in the context of contemporary art, about how an idea leads to a choice of materials and techniques, and how it is also important to understand space. The current curricula are so compressed that there is, unfortunately, no room for further study on this subject. Ideally, studying monumental painting techniques could go much further, and in fact, painting students could also collaborate with architecture students, as monumental painting always takes into account space and site specificity. Similarly, architects should pay more attention to visual arts.
Gregor: In conclusion, I would like to lead the discussion to the current state of monumental painting and its so-called critical potential. On the one hand, there is quite a lot of historicisation of monumental paintings in our region (doctoral theses in Finland, Estonia, Lithuania; the wave of research in recent years on the “decommunisation” of Ukraine). On the other hand, it can be seen and felt that it is a topical phenomenon in contemporary art and also inspires the wider cultural public. I mentioned Tõnis’s ceiling painting in this context, but the massive exhibition projects by Merike, Kristi and Kaido would also fit into this list. I also remember the 2017 exhibition of a Vilnius artist Anastasia Sosunova (who recently performed at the Kogo Gallery in Tartu) surrounded by the frescoes of the Ignalina Cultural Centre. However, as always, such cultural dominants tend result in the commercialisation of the trend. For example, in the café of the Vilnius MO Museum, the wallpaper was made after a famous Soviet-era fresco that is in danger of disappearing. The building owners of Tarvas Restaurant in Tartu indeed couldn’t see such potential when dismounting the sgraffito by Elmar Kits. What do you think, where does monumental painting currently stand and what does its popularity and/or significance consist in?
Kaido: Perhaps my answer deviates from the question, but I personally would prefer to approach the matter as straightforwardly as possible, ignoring as much as I can the meanings and emotions that have been (historically) attached to the various terms. By straightforwardness I mean that as an artist I would love to receive a serious offer to make art in public space today, but I would like to base myself on the physical requirements of the place in combination with the proposed theme or the aura of the place as I see it. Next, I would go through my current “toolkit” to see what I could use and how I could accomplish the task in order to establish myself adequately in the specific place. I would try not to think in some restrictive and guiding terms, but would rather choose a specific technical solution solely on the basis of the idea and conviction that has emerged, which could even be a collage of different methods.
The classic tradition of monumental art here was obviously interrupted already shortly after its emergence, and the only consistently strong circle of artists in the field today is the masters of street art with their advantages and limitations. But should we start implementing a new tradition now and wait for it to bear fruit, or should we hope that something brilliant can be still accomplished by a right artistic nature at the the right time and in the place even without specific preparation and training? I prefer and believe in the latter.
Tõnis: In the classical sense, monumental painting probably stands where it came to a halt on a large scale: in the Soviet legacy. Contemporary wall paintings are another topic, it even can’t be explained objectively, but since there are great differences in “ingredients” and stories of birth and the size does alone not define one thing or another, monumental painting in my opinion is on hold until the specific techniques are revived. In the case of sgraffito, the thickness of the plaster and the perceived heaviness of the artwork are still part of the viewing experience. Sprayprinter is fundamentally a different thing than a trowel or hand-applied pigment. However, the art world has functioned in cycles, at least in the past few decades, bringing back techniques and materials that have been forgotten, so we only need to wait until sharp pieces of glass and stones will again be pressed one by one in the wet compound used to cover concrete panels. And this is by no means an assessment of today’s wall paintings; I am just pointing to a different category. The method is a significant part of the result. And personally, I am generally interested in small formats.
Kristi: It seems to me that the impression of monumental painting having come to a halt is caused by the fact that people are simply not familiar with more recent works. They might know some large-scale monumental paintings from history and mainly from the Soviet era, but they cannot relate these to the present. I am convinced that monumental painting will return. Maybe I have so much faith in it as an artist because I have a lot of relevant ideas which I haven’t yet executed. But there are wonderful new monumental paintings all around, both in Estonia and elsewhere in the world.
Merike: I believe that contemporary monumental painting has changed, or is changing, more radically than we can imagine. Monumental paintings can be found in places where it is difficult to even notice them at first.
Gregor: Finally, monumental painting is perhaps primarily meant for viewers. Theoretically, it should be more accessible and democratic than other art techniques. Please tell me about your experience in dealing with this situation. In what way is the afterlife of monumental painting different from that of exhibition art? Is the feedback more active, more extensive? What has been the feedback from active users of spaces?
Urve: Direct feedback has been mainly positive. I have received very good response for my 1979 fresco “Humans in Nature” for the reception hall of the Habaja sovkhoz centre, and for the stained glass “Annual Cycle” for the dining hall, where the building went into private hands after the break-up of the collective farm. The new owner made sure the fresco and stained glass would be preserved. Currently, the building serves as a library and village community centre; I have been invited to meet the local people and they have promised to take good care for the fresco and the stained glass.
Vana Tall Guesthouse in Väätsa, with my 1987 fresco “Time for Living on Earth” in the fireplace hall, also has a new owner, who has promised to soon invite me to restore the fresco. My fresco “To “Get to the Spring”, completed in 1988 in the lobby of the former Paide Motor Depot, the building which has been severely damaged in the years between, also received a new owner recently who intends to restore the work once the new function of the building has been become clear. Unfortunately, not all new owners are that art-conscious and art-friendly, and the current laws in no way protect the preservation of artworks from recent history which are often executed in unique techniques that are hardly ever commissioned or realised by anyone these days. After all, many of the monumental artworks commissioned by wealthy kolkhozes, sovkhozes and farms during the Soviet era are our common national artistic heritage, and I believe that the laws need to be changed to make new owners responsible for preserving these.
Kaido: Every now and then, I have been playing with the idea of installing hidden microphones close to my works to get authentic feedback, even if just partly, but I haven’t got to that – and probably never will. I cannot speak of massive, or even moderate, feedback, although I am convinced that people relate to what they see. It’s just, nobody will bother to tell you anything, because it requires a certain effort and initiative. I do not go to see my own works later like this, so that people can meet me and address me directly. There have been a few heartfelt moments where I least expected them, but as an optimist I truly believe this is just the tip of an iceberg.
Exhibition art often eventually finds its place with a particular person or group of people, i.e., is being sold and bought, and then there is no difference between different types of art. An interesting nuance, which might even sound a bit perverse, is that on many occasions I have had quite a strong artistic experience when seeing some of my own works on somebody else’s wall. A much stronger one than when I first displayed the same pieces at an exhibition. Unfortunately this is not the rule, but there have been surprisingly many of such instances. It’s very strange.
Tõnis: I may have answered this question in part already, but I must emphasise that I have completed only one monumental work in public space so far and have decided to drift with it. Whatever will happen is part of its natural process.
Kristi: As an artist, I have mainly created perishable works in gallery spaces. Such large “spatial paintings” may have a slightly different effect on the viewer, because perishability is already written into the process of creating the work. Of course, it depends on the idea and execution of the pieces. Indeed, I have mainly received feedback from people wondering how I can work on something for this long, knowing that it will be eventually covered with a coat of wall paint. These different moments in my work process have been rather inspiring to me.
I have only made works for public spaces during my studies. I find it difficult to describe these experiences, because they were part of the study process, rather than anything else. I once created a monumental work for Seanahk Festival in Haapsalu, but already when making the piece, I knew that it would be made for a certain period of time and it would only last as long as the dilapidated building around it.
Merike: When we talk about monumental painting as art for public space, I have always been interested in its reality and involvement in life. I haven’t looked at it as a special status but as a natural condition, because what could be more natural than being part of the living environment where things happen and move?
1. Aliina Astrova, Eero Epner, Paul Kuimet, Tõnis Saadoja, Indrek Sirkel, Gregor Taul (Eds.), Konspekteeritud ruum. Tõnis Saadoja laemaal Teater NO99s. Eesti monumentaalmaal 1879–2012. Tallinn: Lugemik, NO99, 2012.
3. The Percentage Act, officially titled the Commissioning of Artworks Act, stipulates that one percent of the budget for any state-funded (though not local government-funded) public building or infrastructure must be used to commission artwork. The aim of the legislation is to aesthetically enrich public space through synthesis of art and thereby create a more human- friendly environment.
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