Independent state and down-to-earth art

Eero Epner

Art Collecting in Estonia

Thus art collecting in the early twentieth century can be viewed from several angles. Baltic German collections were losing their importance (due in part to their focus on the past), but the emergence of a national art and aspirations of statehood did not yet create a new stratum of art collectors seeking to collect Estonian art, even if only out of a sense of duty. Perhaps the most important fact was that, even though the social background for understanding art was gradually improving, the notion of art was still very provincial. But all the data on the history of art collecting in Estonia is, frankly speaking, very fragmentary and unclear. No one has dealt with it thoroughly, and very few collections established before World War II have survived to this day (intact or in parts), so making any generalizations is very difficult.

Nevertheless, it appears that art collecting thrived in the 1920s and especially in the 1930s, and several of the best-known collectors of this period are known by name. One collector of this period later recalled: “A group of people interested in art emerged only in the last decade before our independence was forcefully ended [i.e., before 1940 – ed. ].” However, the wider support from within society had not increased significantly by then. “Art exhibitions remained far beyond people’s sphere of interest,” one of the cultural figures of the period wrote in his memoirs. And though there were more and more exhibitions, and Pallas, the professional art school, was established, as well as the National Museum of Art, which turned into a main collector of Estonian art, enthusiasm for art did not yet exist. By 1916 there still had not been a single comprehensive Estonian art exhibition in Tallinn, Estonia’s capital. By contrast, an exhibition of Latvian art in Riga reportedly attracted 70,000 viewers. True, the state-run art life in Estonia was gradually becoming more and more organized, a system of scholarships was put in place, and artists started to get certain social guarantees. But this did not automatically lead to a widening of the private collectors’ circle. Certain signs hint at growing sales from exhibitions, and one collector’s memoirs describe a perceptible democratization of the art collectors’ circle (this collector remembers how “middle-income intellectuals, freelance professionals and second-rate officials, some individual university professors, doctors, and men of letters” now joined big business tycoons and bankers), but there were still only a few large, elaborate collections, and mid-level collections were geared toward patriotic and realist art. “We have not sold anything in a long while,” one artist told a visiting friend in 1938. “We are asked to provide down-to-earth and positive works.” Of course, such a conservative streak in an art audience can be found in any country, but in a small country this problem may well prove more paralyzing than in places with more alternatives. Additionally, Estonian collectors’ interest in foreign art has always been rather lukewarm; instead, national art quickly became the favourite pursuit of local collectors. (True, in 1936 there was an exhibition where foreign works previously belonging to private Estonian collections were put on sale. The list of artists in the show is quite impressive and includes Rubens, Jacob Jordaens, and Anthonis van Dyck. But the works that sold were mostly taken out of Estonia, either immediately or in subsequent decades. A rumour circulated that one collection even included a graphic piece by Rembrandt.)