Beginning of 20th century: no grand seigneurs

Eero Epner

Art Collecting in Estonia

At the beginning of the last century, Estonian culture as a whole, including the visual arts, underwent extensive changes. Professional Estonian artists emerged, among them painters and sculptors (a few such individuals gained success in the nineteenth century, too, but this later wave was considerably more widespread and organized). In addition to the need for aesthetic modernization, this generation was driven by several nationalistic aims because the demands of national sovereignty were often linked to the necessity for “creating Estonian art”. Sophisticated art like that of Europe was thus supposed to become one of the pillars of the national cultural policy and the Estonian demand for statehood. Even though Baltic German collections showed nothing but indifference towards such modern art (created by people whose social and ethnic origins were so different from those of the landlords), other collectors still did not emerge. The two main reasons were the lack of interest and money.

Even though wealth had spread to other social classes besides the local aristocracy by the beginning of the twentieth century, and there were well-to-do merchants and even farmers who could afford to buy art, there was a widespread lack of interest. For one thing, quite a few wealthy people retained their academic taste, which had served as a certain aesthetic imperative until then, so that emerging modernist tendencies (though cautious) shocked them. Furthermore, Estonian society at the time was uncomfortable with the visual arts in general.

Cultural scientists have verified that at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, when Estonians finally started to become familiar with professional and contemporary music, literature and even theatre (in addition to folk culture), visual arts remained at the bottom of this list. As art exhibitions were organized very rarely and in a chaotic manner, the art education of the ordinary bourgeoisie, not to mention more common folk, was sporadic at best. For years it was even common simply to make room for art in some other exhibition format. For example, even at the beginning of the twentieth century, paintings were often shown as part of agricultural exhibitions. Naturally, this did not help people to acknowledge the value of works of art, and creating a generally accepted practice of collecting art as in France – where nineteenth-century bourgeois art collectors assumed the role of aristocratic patrons – was out of the question.

Thus, it is not surprising that one writer who moved widely throughout contemporary art circles wrote an essay (published in 1911–1912) stating that what was lacking was grand seigneurs, who would “ponder the end of our mortal life while enjoying works of art”, and even though “we have wealthy farmers and owners of several houses, an artist does not often have a place to put his head”. The writer continued: “We already have mayors, engineers, doctors and lawyers whose annual incomes are more than 10,000 roubles [equivalent to approximately 110,000 dollars today – ed.], but our artists... are forced to sell their skills short abroad by making posters and postcards...”. Other contemporary opinions voiced similar complaints, and they concluded that, though Estonian society was experiencing economic development and people with Estonian roots had more financial resources than before, none of them felt an aesthetic need or nationalistic obligation to collect art. Incidentally, the nationalistic aspect of collecting art was important throughout the twentieth century; it was probably motivated by the fear (common to small countries) of losing one’s culture. Therefore, any cultural act that started with creating a painting and ended up with keeping it in a collection was also a nationalistic act.

As a result of such circumstances, many Estonian artists indeed lived and worked abroad (in Italy, Norway, Germany, France and elsewhere) and sold a considerable part of their works to collectors there. This put Estonian art collecting in a strange position at the beginning of the twentieth century. More art was created and at a higher level than ever before, but this art was collected mainly in foreign countries, and there it was not done in a conscious or orderly manner, but probably largely thanks to random purchases. Yet art collecting in Estonia cannot be said to have completely halted in the early twentieth century. So the writer quoted above also mentions that “last year thousands of people visited art exhibitions” and “pictures were sold in several towns and counties for considerably more than 1,000 roubles”. One thousand roubles in today’s prices would equal approximately 11,000 US dollars, a not-insignificant sum. Granted, 300–400 roubles of it went to Konrad Mägi, who was the most popular painter of the time, a mad genius and the first Estonian modernist; he is still the most appreciated artist in the Estonian art market. The circle of private collectors alone, however, could not guarantee the survival of all the other artists at the time. Nor were corporate collections established in significant numbers back then. Even national museums had yet to be established.