Home and away

Eero Epner

Art Collecting in Estonia

But though art collecting was not very widespread (a strange alternative to it was collecting various objects that were mass-produced in the West, such as beer-bottle labels, chewing-gum wrappers, and beer cans of various shapes), there is one particular and remarkably high-standard collection that should be mentioned when speaking of the whole postwar period. This is the Norton and Nancy Dodge collection at the Zimmerli Art Museum (at Rutgers University in New Jersey), which assembles nonconformist Soviet art from the period between 1956 and 1986. This is the largest collection of its kind in the world (consisting of approximately 20,000 works of art), which an economics professor and his wife acquired over decades. Several works by Estonian artists also belong to this collection. It is undoubtedly one of the most important collections of Estonian art, and it possesses all the best characteristics of a private collection: it is conceptually clear, the selection process has been rigorous, the works are of consistently high quality, and the collector has a personal connection with the works.  

There is no other collection like that of the Dodges. Granted, occasionally a Finn bought a work of art, and Estonian expatriate Henn Koch started a small collection of erotic art at the end of the 1970s. Here and there some works went to Russia and elsewhere, but a large and well-conceived collection of Estonian art did not come into being either in Estonia or abroad. A separate phenomenon is the collections, or rather the homes, of those who fled abroad (to Sweden, Canada, Australia, the United States, or elsewhere) in the 1940s. A good overview of those is still lacking, but for example, the collections of Alur Reinans, Henry Radevall, or Madis Üürike in Sweden consisted not only of older works of art that were taken while fleeing the country, but also of even newer Western art, as well as newer works by Estonian expatriates (many well-known artists left Estonia in the 1940s but could not succeed in the art scene of their new country, and often they continued to exhibit and sell their works mainly to Estonian expatriate circles). The most important collector with Estonian roots was Harry Männil, who left for Venezuela during the war and established one of the world’s biggest collections of pre-Columbian American art. In 1997 ARTnews ranked Männil’s collection among the 200 most important art collections in the world. In addition to pre-Columbian American art, Männil was also fascinated by contemporary Latin American art and native South American art. Männil was definitely one of the most prestigious Estonian art collectors of all time. He alone has achieved a certain grasp of the international scene and treated art collecting separately from the national discourse on preserving collective memories. Most of the other people who fled abroad saw in their collections primarily sentimental value that helped them to retain memories of their homeland. Eduard Wiiralt’s graphic print depicting an oak tree growing near Viljandi (oaks are sacred according to ancient Estonian beliefs) was said to have hung on the walls of hundreds of Estonian expatriates’ homes. To its owners it was important not because of its artistic quality but because of its ideological values. Therefore it is not surprising that in the past decade the works of Estonian artists have started to flow back to Estonia from abroad, because the new generation there no longer has a personal and sentimental connection with Estonia, and the works of Estonian artists are now unfortunately relevant only in Estonia.