Henn Roode – Modernist Despite Fate

June 29 – September 30 2007
Kumu Art Museum, Great Hall



During the last decade, Estonian art history has depicted Henn Roode (1924-1979) most often as a martyr of the Soviet system, who had to spend his most important formative years in Siberia, at the Karaganda prison camp. Accusations of anti-Soviet activity were fabricated as the basis for his arrest, while actually, by making the most talented students toe the line, an attempt was being made to abolish the position of Tartu, which was keeping the Pallas mentality alive, as an art center. In time, the authorities succeeding in the latter, but Roode remained true to his creed of modern art. Returning from the camp and finishing his interrupted art studies, although in Tallinn at the Estonian State Art Institute, he became one of the most convinced modernists and radical art innovators in post-World War II Estonia.


The majority of Roode’s legacy consists of numerous portraits, cityscapes, seascapes and abstractions in various forms and stages of deformation painted on cardboard, which as a rule were never realized on canvas. Like many artists of the 1950s and 1960s with a modernist bent, the main starting point for Roode’s work was cubism, which he developed according to his character. He also painted many total abstractions in the middle of the 1960s. Since Roode primarily acknowledged intellectuality and was a seeker of truth in art, in a strange way, he outgrew abstractionism by the end of the 1960s. That which had been the limit of extreme radicalism for Estonian artists for decades became only an interim stage for Roode. He treated abstractions as a surface for experimentation, where color could be freed from the dictates of form, treating them in a way as sketches for large figural paintings. The most intriguing parts of Roode’s work are his thematic compositions, which were often created for official commissions. The artist’s ability to blend official artistic doctrine and a modern idiom of form with such conviction is astonishing, but especially if we consider that thematic compositions were the most politicized and controlled genre of the period. However, Roode’s solutions with their radical form as a rule were a headache for art juries. As was true of many other “camp men”, the Soviet art bureaucracy remained cautious, even hostile, towards Roode. Thus, he did not succeed in working consistently as an instructor, while no one dared use the part of his work that coincided with official progressive ideology—be it a slight bow to the state’s housing construction program or the praise of work—in the interests of Soviet propaganda.


In art, Roode was primarily interested in the problems of form—color, surface, structure, composition; playing with the motif’s legibility, with smooth transitions from sea views or portraits to abstractions, and back again. All the surviving artist’s notes speak of the form of art and nature of pictures in abstract terms, never about the meaning of the motifs. In many paintings, he plays with the limit between the seen and unseen, sometimes leaning to one side and then the other. The stages of refinement in many of Roode’s works are also marginal. Playing with the idea of imperfection, he arrived dangerously close to the idea of a clean canvas in several works. It seems that the result horrified him, because in subsequent paintings, the designs are more conservative and the painted areas have increased considerably at the expense of the raw space. Although Roode seems to be primarily interested in the problems of form, his means for existence in art was a constant process of searching for the truth (of life). The self-satisfaction and level of refinement of his last works point to the fact that he arrived very close to his goal.


The exhibition in the Large Hall of the Kumu Art Museum presents a cross-section of Roode’s work as a whole, although the main focus is on his most important period of exploration in the middle and second half of the 1960s. A sizeable catalogue in Estonian and English accompanies the exhibition.


Curator of the exhibition: Kädi Talvoja

Hansapank is major contributor of the Henn Roode exhibition and the Art Museum of Estonia.