Man Looking Back. The Early Work of Jüri Arrak

October 27–March 18, 2006
Kumu Art Museum, 4th floor, A-wing


Jüri Arrak is mostly known as the preacher of the Christian moral. Even the artist himself is beginning to forget, that 40 years ago, being a member of a grouping ANK’64 and a new graduate of the ERKI, he was a follower of avant garde, broke traditions and ridiculed the sanctity of art. Now, when the artist is turning 70, it seems appropriate to look back to those times.


The central works in the exhibition “Man Looking Back” were completed when Arrak belonged to the group ANK ’64 and immediately after this period in the 1960s and early 1970s, a time when his interests were varied. For a number of very productive years, Arrak, who had originally chosen jewellery as his field, proved himself as a printmaker, painter, as well as assemblage and performance artist.


One element that runs throughout Arrak’s work is surrealism, whether this be abstraction based on free association or the depiction of the strange activities of anguished symbolic figures that do not conform to a common morality. In Arrak’s system, surrealism is based on the absurd or the grotesque, as was often true of the culture of the hypocritical Soviet Union. Arrak’s earliest works in the exhibition are surrealist automatic drawings dating from his final year at the art institute 1965–1966, and they reveal his fascination for Picasso. His metamorphic images often refer to a moral, providing hints of a critique or ridicule of human faults. Over the decades, his works have attacked the inevitable traits accompanying the Soviet system – censorship, hypocrisy and conformism.


Arrak’s method of delivery is generally aggressive, whether the framework for the idea is a bloody scene, a violent motif or the exalting gestures or threatening poses of the characters. As an extrovert he has always relied on war and trouble rather than meditation.


Arrak’s early surrealist abstract paintings, when compared with the drawings, are softer and “wetter” – the forms seem to flow and drip. Abstractionism, as an extreme opposition to socialist realism, the imposed art dogma of the Soviet system, had an important role during the period of Khrushchev’s “thaw”, as part of the unofficial Estonian art and pushed the boundaries of creative freedom. It was via abstractionism that the youth exhibition in 1966, where ANK ’64 received public attention for the first time, validated itself. Arrak has few purely abstract works, his element is after all primarily narrative and for this reason narrative paintings dominate his work in the 1960s.


In addition to abstract or semi abstract paintings, Arrak also made object paintings and witty Dadaist assemblages of found objects. The astute eye will no doubt recognise metal as Arrak’s favourite material. Arrak’s refusal to commit himself to a single medium is not only evident in his assemblages and object paintings, but also in his performances. “Cleansing Fire”, being included in this exhibition, is the only performance by Arrak that has been documented from start to finish.

The exhibition represents the works from the collections Art Museum of Estonia, Tartu Art Museum and artist’s private collection.

Curator: Kädi Talvoja, Designer of the exhibition: Jüri Arrak