Exposition au musée

Wild Souls. Symbolism in the Baltic States

From April 10th to July 15th, 2018
Johann Walter
Jeune paysanne, vers 1904
Riga, musée national des Beaux-Arts de Lettonie
© Photo Normunds Braslinš / DR

Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia became independent a hundred years ago, during the period when the Russian Empire was teetering. It is probably no coincidence that the prevailing Symbolist movement in these three countries at this time drew on history and local traditions, as if to add lustre to the Baltic identity through art which is eloquent and poetic, yet largely overlooked.
Estonia and Livonia (which surrounded part of Latvia) had been within the Germanic sphere of influence since the Middle Ages, while the more structured Lithuanian state preferred to forge closer ties with Poland.
The collapse of the Teutonic Order in 1561 paved the way for Poland and Sweden to assert their authority in the region, but in the eighteenth century, it was the Russian Empire which gained ascendancy over the three Baltic countries.
Although the Tsarist power’s sympathetic attitude to elites with foreign origins fostered a climate of relative prosperity among the people of Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania expressed a more cautious response towards St Petersburg from the outset, which was exacerbated when an uprising was ruthlessly suppressed in the early 1830s.
The censorship imposed on intellectuals and the church fuelled loyalty to old traditions; this was a slower process in the other two countries, which initially tried to preserve their historic Germanic influences.
The sense of a national identity did not being to take shape until the mid-nineteenth century. This was also when the name Latvia began to be used for the first time, echoing the desire for recognition expressed by Estonia and Livonia.

Carte des pays baltes-
Carte des pays baltes
© Musée d'Orsay / Sophie Crépy
Oskar Kallis-Kalev sur le dos de l'aigle
Oskar Kallis
Kalev sur le dos de l'aigle, 1917
Tallinn, musée d?RTMArt d?RTMEstonie
© Stanislav Stepashko

Myths and legends
It is therefore clear why artists turned to legends embedded in the collective imagination and memory of their country. Greek and Latin mythology is, significantly, almost totally absent from the art of this period, although Janis Rozentāls (Arcadia, 1910) reworked the legacy of Böcklin, and Kristjan Raud perpetuated the time-honoured conventions of religious painting in pared-down form.
The Kalevipoeg saga, finalised by Friedrich Kreutzwald between 1857 and 1861, replaces references to antiquity and provides a rich fund of material for artists. It traces the eventful life of Kalevipoeg, son of Kalev and Linda, who is confronted by a series of invaders who best him, although the hero is eventually raised from the dead.
Oskar Kallis used it as subject matter for some forty paintings, as did Nikolai Triiik and Välo Tuul. The sense of drama in Raud’s The Death of Kalevipoeg, conveys Estonians’ passionate connection with this text very clearly.

Ferdynand Ruszczyc-Nec Mergitur
Ferdynand Ruszczyc
Nec Mergitur, 1904-1905
Vilnius, musée national des Beaux-Arts
© Photo Antanas Lukšinas

However, certain visions have a closer affinity with the realm of dreams and magic than the more rigid world of politically-charged myths. Enchanted City by Petras Kalpokas and Fantastical Landscape by Emilija Gruzīte depict worlds pervaded by a strange atmosphere, which strike a chord by offering an alternative to a disappointing contemporary universe.
Nec Mergitur by Ferdynand Ruszczyc could be a depiction of Poland in the guise of a boat battered by the waves, braving the twists and turns of history, but the appeal of the image lies primarily in its fantastic quality.
The dark landscapes of Gustavs Škilters and Sigismunds Vidbergs, in which the influence of Beardsley can be discerned, offer a clear illustration of the more sombre side of this late Symbolism. An agenda is never far from the forefront, as is the case, for example, when Antanas Žmuidzinavičius depicts the final resting place of Povilas Višinskis, a politically engaged writer and vocal campaigner for Lithuanian culture.
Burials are also in evidence in the artist’s work In the Land of Giants’ Tombs , suggesting that history can only be viewed in the tragic mode.

Nikolai Triik-Portrait de Konrad Mägi
Nikolai Triik
Portrait de Konrad Mägi, 1908
Tallinn, Centre de littérature Under et Tuglas
© Photo Courtesy of the Art Museum of Estonia / Stanislav Stepashko

The Soul
This anxiety can also be identified in portraits such as Triik’s painting of his friend Konrad Mägi (1908). A picture hanging on the wall in the background introduces an unusual pale blue into this wan environment, suggesting that affliction and hope coexist in a permanent dynamic.
Mägi also produced a strange painting ( Portrait of a Woman) depicting two very different female figures, who are allegorical reflections of an era poised between sadness and euphoria.
In 1911, Adornas Varnas painted a “double portrait” in a similar vein, showing The Pessimist and the Optimist shoulder to shoulder. Certain portraits by Rozentāls and Pēteris Krastinš (Italian Woman) also have a decorative element which contrasts with the enigmatic expressions and gestures of the sitters.
Furthermore, Rozentāls and Boleslas Buyko sometimes depict figures whose bodies are hunched or awkwardly seated, their malaise accentuated by their raw nudity.

Konrad Mägi-Portrait de jeune Norvégienne
Konrad Mägi
Portrait de jeune Norvégienne, 1909
Tartu, musée d'Art de Tartu
© Stanislav Stepashko

Social and political unrest at the turn of the twentieth century, epitomised by the 1905 revolution, raised a number of questions. In his painting The Past (1902-1903), Ferdynand Ruszczyc presents an austere, soundless building, which seems to be relegating things associated with the distant past to the realms of silence and immobility.
For Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, the past takes the form of a huge cliff resembling a primitive mask, which could be viewed as either terrifying or comical. Pain, by Žmuidzinavičius, or the scene By the Sickbed by Peet Aren, powerfully convey the torments experienced in this period of rapid historical change, which also witnessed the birth of psychoanalysis and an interest in afflictions of the soul.
The small colourful formats employed by Kallis convey a feeling of genuine exaltation close to frenzy, occasionally becoming oppressive scenarios (Fever, 1917) doubtless expressing fears relating to the war raging in Europe at that time.
In Čiurlionis’s hands, even a classic shoreline scene is threatened by the eruption of steely black dots (Pain I).

Mikalojus Konstantinas dEiurlionis-La Création du monde VII (cycle de treize tableaux)
Mikalojus Konstantinas dEiurlionis
La Création du monde VII (cycle de treize tableaux), 1905-1906
Kaunas, musée national des beaux-arts M.K.-dEiurlionis
© Photo by Arunas Baltinas

The perspective on the world is therefore deeply subjective. This aesthetic is also informed by both popular images and the scientific discoveries of the day.
This is apparent in Creation of the World, by Čiurlionis, a cycle conjuring up the aquatic realm and celestial bodies which were being discovered. The landscape is based on primordial symbols, such as the sun, in the case of Kallis (pastel, 1917), epitomising rebirth and decline, with which mankind fosters a mystical and ceremonial relationship (Kiss of the Sun).
Trees are another powerful vitalist symbol which also feature in the landscapes of Kallis and Pēteris Kalve. The series Sonatas by Čiurlionis (1908) celebrates the sea. By taking a synaesthetic approach to landscapes, Čiurlionis adds a monumental dimension to his depiction of the universe, in which sound and sight come together to convey its majesty.

Johann Walter-Forêt de bouleaux
Johann Walter
Forêt de bouleaux, vers 1903-1904
Riga, musée national des Beaux-Arts de Lettonie
© Photo Normunds Brasliuš

By contrast, the Norwegian landscapes of Jaan Koort, Triik and Mägi seem to be influenced more by Neo-Impressionism, which they each reinterpret in their own way. They all spent time in Paris, and Triik was influenced by Van Gogh, whom he discovered in 1908.
However, Mägi’s division of the canvas into coloured fragments betrays a movement towards the ornamental which is more reminiscent of Klimt. For the Symbolists, the landscape only acquired value when it was reworked. Johann Walter uses birch trees as stripes to divide the canvas, and Vilhelms Purvītis redistributes elements of his landscape as if to highlight the complicity between man and nature in creation.
There is a quest for harmony which is both heady and disenchanted, as it forces artists to confront their own limitations. This explains why another artist of the period, Jūlijs Maderniek, was drawn to the use paradox, describing these paintings as the expression “of boundless happiness born of the tragic fate of humanity”.