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Conflicts and Adaptations. Estonian Art of the Soviet Era (1940–1991)

The fourth floor in Kumu is dedicated to the art created after World War II. Estonian art of that time had to survive in the sphere of influence of Soviet art, always testing the borders of what was allowed and what was forbidden.

On this floor, the visitor enters the permanent exhibition that was put together for the tenth anniversary of Kumu in 2016. Conflicts and Adaptations. Estonian Art of the Soviet Era (1940–1991) is, for a number of reasons, wholly dedicated to the Soviet time. The post-war art tends to remain in a shadowy fluid area between classic and modern art. It is close enough to give rise to heated debates, contempt and hero myths, yet distant enough to be easily comprehensible. At the time when Kumu opened, people discussed whether and why we should display socialist realism; this illustrates rather well how people’s opinions can vary regarding what “our own” art is and what kind of art is valuable or interesting enough to be shown and talked about.

Conflicts and Adaptations maps the processes that took place in art in the Soviet era through various themes, such as “Soviet modernism”, “Turning away”, “Surrealism and nature mysticism”, “Soviet pop”, “Aesthetic universes” and “The spirit of a place”. The focus is on art and the artist’s relationship with the environment: confrontations, adaptations, drawing closer and moving apart. For added background, we installed an archive corridor through the whole exposition to remind visitors of the circumstances in which this art was born. The display is not an overview of the history of Soviet Estonia but a collection of significant fragments (photos, texts and film clips) that show the different layers of Soviet life and cultural scene, from official practices to the hippie movement. This background information should help the viewer understand why sometimes a small dirty picture could be more significant and accurate than large colourful murals, the reason for the enormous popularity of surrealism, why artists were so fond of creating fantasy worlds in their works and what brought them closer to daily reality.

The exposition also includes “time bridges”, or works of art that look back to the Soviet period or deal with contemporary issues which originated in the Soviet times (cf. pieces by Peeter Linnap, Marge Monko and Kristina Norman). The aim of such works of art is to add diversity to our views of the past and to stress that the whole exposition is just one possible view of the past, which is open to debate. Sooner or later, a new exhibition dealing with Soviet art will be installed on the fourth floor which will look back on the Soviet period from a different point in time, providing the curator with different themes and viewpoints.

Post World War II art has also been included in Kumu’s temporary exhibitions. The B-wing of the fourth floor has offered peeks into the oeuvres of many artists, as well as several themes and artistic phenomena prevalent in the period not only in Estonia but in other Soviet republics, Eastern Bloc countries and the West. Even though the Iron Curtain divided the world into two opposing sides, many processes in art and culture ran parallel on the two sides, often even in a direct or inferred dialogue.

Author of the text: Anu Allas, Curator of the exhibition