Chronicles of Art Life
Art after the Second World War
Chronicles of Art Life presents a selection of photos of the art and cultural scene in Estonia from the 1940s to the 1980s. Instead of trying to illustrate particular narratives in the history of art, the aim of the exhibition is to direct attention to the role of photographers in the creation of those narratives. In the selection of the photos, the primary concern was not the significance of the people and events depicted, but rather the evocativeness of the images themselves: the way the photos represent and shape their times and our understanding of them.
The ways that artists and the art scene have been recorded have changed in response to changes in art and society and in connection with how artists sense and present themselves, or how photographers acknowledge their roles and objectives. Naturally, the spread of new technologies and skills has also played a part. Throughout the post-war decades, the number of photos documenting the art and cultural life grew exponentially.
Even though there are vastly different photos in each decade, the 1960s witnessed some fundamental breaks both in photography and art. The images from the 1940s and 50s are often focussed on an artist posing with his/her work, and his/her status as an artist is confirmed by the mastery of a certain technique; we see a painter in a beret holding a palette, standing in front of an unfinished painting, or a sculptor in his/her work coat putting finishing touches on a sculpture. The photographer, who is undoubtedly a co-author of such scenes, remains in the background and thus the photos seem random extracts from the artists’ everyday life.
In the 1960s, the photographer evolved from a recorder to a self-aware and active co-creator: Jaan Klysheiko’s, Jüri Tenson’s, Kalju Suur’s, Valdur Vahi’s photos are just as artistic as the activities recorded. It is also noteworthy that the 1960s saw a significant change in the self-determination of the younger generation of artists. They no longer necessarily identified with just one technique (such as painting or sculpting), but rather viewed themselves as generators of ideas, who could use any media they chose, or make their entire lives into creative projects. In connection with this, the photographers started to turn their lenses to a much wider sphere of the artists’ lives: their social life and friends, exhibitions and show openings, homes and studios: the artist’s place in his surroundings. As the focus of the art scene moved away from the individual creator and his/her work to events and processes, the photos documenting these events and processes became increasingly more important agents in the history of art.
Chronicles of Art Life shows only a tiny part of what was going on in the Estonian art and cultural life in the second half of the 20th century. The display could be supplemented by hundreds, even thousands of photographs that are just as characteristic and evocative of their era. On the other hand, there were numerous events that were never recorded; these could be partly reconstructed via other means, or they will eventually be almost or completely forgotten. This illustrates eloquently how much our understanding of art history – its key moments and main characters – has been shaped by those who were, or were not, present with their cameras in hand.
All displayed photos belong to the photo collection of the Art Museum of Estonia, unless noted otherwise. If the photographer has not been mentioned, he or she is unknown.
Photographers: Arvo Iho, Annika Jönsson, Jaan Klysheiko, Konstantin Kuzmin, Elmar Köster, Gunnar Loss, Rein Maran, Ilmar Prooso, Artur Rätsep, Jaan Rõõmus, Matti Saanio, Andrei Solovyov, Kalju Suur, Paul Talvre, Jüri Tenson, Tõnu Tormis, Valdur Vahi, Rein Välme and others
Exhibition curator: Anu Allas
Exhibition designer: Reimo Võsa-Tangsoo
Graphic designer: Külli Kaats
We thank: Raul Kalvo, Helen Oja and USB Repro
Cooperation partner: Tallinn Photomonth
On the set of the ETV production Armastus, armastus (Ene Rämmeld and Jaan Tooming). Photo: Jüri Tenson, 1969. Art Museum of Estonia archives