Ten Days in Tallinn
Sondra and I were in Estonia for ten days at the end of our European Tour. Tallinn is one of our favorite cities in Europe, mainly because it has preserved its “Olde Towne” to the charm of the 13th Century. (Complete with elevators and modern conveniences, mind you.) We stay on the main town square, or nearby, and reap the beauty of walking the cobblestone streets, appreciating the preservation of eight hundred years of city architecture and cultural heritage. I am in Love with Estonia, and this goes beyond any normal affairs of international travel.
We also had the delight of visiting the Estonia National Art Gallery this year with our friend and organizer, Pille Tali. Situated in a well planned and manicured park, we also saw the presidential palace that has its unique qualities. Amidst well planned gardens and rows of topiary trees, these cultural highlights slipped through the cracks on previous visits. But this year, Sondra in her royal purple was determined to venture out of Olde Towne to see some other unique sites. We were not disappointed by her adventuresome tendencies.
Can We Meet Art Afresh?
I did not know a thing about art and culture in Estonia, other than my good impressions of the architecture in Olde Towne. But here is where I would like to make a case for the layman, and meeting art afresh, without the knowledge of art history or a value added story behind our own gut level impressions. I am all for the gut level feelings that I have about something visual, whether I know its place in the scheme of art history, or the names of the artists that created what I am looking at—or not. For most of us, that is “not.” Especially in a less touted country of Estonia on the Baltic Sea very near Russia.
Unlike seeing the Vermeer show in Amsterdam, or the Ghent Altarpiece of the Van Eyck brothers in Belgium, my experience of art in Estonia was clearly outside the “known” of my former study. The artists who painted and sculpted the works that so strongly spoke to me were virtually “unknown” to my very focused scope. I have a passion for painting, so my attentions naturally go toward those which move me beyond the normal saunter through the museum galleries. I found a few impressions stronger than I had expected. They were downright gripping.
I gravitate towards the intricately painted, and the refinement of the Northern Renaissance in which jewel-like detail was not only mastered, but clearly cherished. The Presidential Palace had numerous examples of portraits of Royal personages. This woman’s portrait gave me pause. It has a presence. Bejeweled and red-headed, her gaze is captivating. You want to know her. She looks approachable, though Royal. And that collar? Who could wield such a thing and relax into the sustained sitting for a portrait such as this? Mind you, the court painter was the “photographer” of his or her day, and the “go to” for head shots and family chronicles. But the sitter still had to sit, sometimes hours on end, for the benefit of the painter’s accurate depiction of character.
Michel Sittow at the National Gallery in DC.
Michel Sittow (1469-1525) was an Estonian painter of renown in his day, painting in the western European courts. In 2018 the National Gallery here in Washington had a small retrospective of his work, and this Portrait of Diego de Guevara was memorable to me. The detail is stunning. One feels the fur on his mantle as though it is actually touchable. Michel Sittow was from Tallinn. Most likely he studied with the Flemish Master, Hans Memling. His sense of detail and acute realism speaks of this influence.
Getting back to our actual Estonian experience, our walk through the highest and the best of Estonian fine art took us to a ballroom where our friend Pille had recently been for a state function. One could imagine the high minded mood one would feel in this Baroque Environment during a social event.
From Renaissance to Present-Day
After scanning through the Presidential Palace museum that contained many fine art works, large and small, such as the Russian porcelain figurine of Mother Feeding Her Child above, we headed over to the contemporary National Art Museum. We strolled through the delightful park grounds, through groves of well placed giant trees, rose gardens, and open courts. A grand building very modern is what we encountered. This is the Estonian National Museum of Art.
The first exhibit we saw was a whole show of prints and drawings from the Museum’s collection. One does not often see graphic arts, etchings, prints, etc, displayed on such a large scale. It was powerful to see the Museum’s full range of graphic arts, all produced by women printmakers, displayed so prominently.
When I attended the Cleveland Institute of Art (CIA), my major was Printmaking. I learned the art of fine etching and lithography. What stirred in me was a reunion with the medium when I entered into this show of prints, mostly etchings. It brought back some very powerful memories of my time making etchings in Carroll Cassill’s Printmaking classes back in Cleveland, Ohio, in the mid 1970s.
My Highlights in the Collection of Paintings
After perusing this large body of graphic arts, we ascended levels in the Museum and took in its major collection of paintings. There we saw very good art work in general, and it was refreshing to see works by people who were not even recognized in the Art History I received in my formal Art training. They may not even be known too much outside of Estonia. Nevertheless, we perused some great artworks in this Estonian collection. Sondra embraced her own ascension with this blessing from a painting of Jesus, in one of the 19th Century Galleries.
A Rich Artistic Heritage
Every Culture has a rich artistic heritage, and Estonia has done a great job in presenting Her contribution to the Art World in this National Museum. Here are some of my favorite painting encounters. The luminosity of this red clad girl is so directly painted with a few well placed broad strokes. With an enhanced and raw brushwork like the Dutch painter, Franz Hals, this unctuously painted portrait of a colorful peasant girl is as masterful as any other more well known artist.
The girl with a red ribbon in her hair is more subdued, but the presence of her gaze still speaks of the mastery of the artist who captures this mood and simplicity of character in paint. I found gallery after gallery of remarkable art works in the Estonian National Art Gallery.
One painting in particular was very striking, especially when Pille told us about her Grandfather who was sent to Siberia to work in the labor camps by the Russian Government. He was an educated person, but put to work in the lumber industry, placing logs into the rivers to float downstream to the saw mills. This painting depicts the drama of those labors: men are working together in a team, bringing the logs to the water byway that will take them to market—just like Pille’s Grandfather once did (probably in much less romanticized conditions).
A Room Full of Heads
The most moving experience for me in the whole Museum was a Room Full of Heads. This gallery was filled with busts of prominent Estonians. Bronze, marble, plaster, and clay were the materials out of which these heads were sculpted. A whole “wall of heads” formed one side of the gallery; on the floor was a forest of clear glass pedestals with heads atop them, in organic rows through which the viewer could meander.
Some of the people I found mesmerizing. There was a woman’s bronze head with enough of her torso to show her bare breasts. I could hardly take my eyes off of her, the elegance of her presence was so strong.
The presence of all the characters in the room lent itself to a kind of Estonian ancestral chorus of proud souls. I was moved. We stayed in this room quite awhile taking in this real life spiritual vortex of Benevolent Beings. The Room of Heads was surely unforgettable for me. I had not seen anything quite like it, even in the sculpture galleries of famous museums like the Louvre in Paris and the Met in New York.
My Love Affair with Estonia
I have felt at home in Estonia for as long as I have been going there, starting in 2010. I suppose I would not really know all the factors, just as I had impressions of Estonian Art this year without too much background story weighing me down and getting in the way of my pure encounters with the things in themselves.
My Love affair with Estonia is draped in this mystery. I would not need to know all the factors. In essence, I am glad that I don’t. I just feel at home. I feel the Love of God when I walk the streets of Olde Towne Tallinn. Like I have been there many times before, even before 2010 and this time around.
I am not one to spout on about past lives. They are so much speculation most of the time. But there are occasions where the feeling in the gut is so strong that you have “been there before” that you cannot ignore the pull, especially if that is a pleasant and rewarding experience of attraction. People, places and things that we encounter now have been there before. They come around again so we can appreciate them more.
Pille Tali has been our organizer in Estonia for many years. Most likely I have had past lives with her. And that is all a good thing. We meet the people we are supposed to meet in this journey we call life. And, if things like “Karma” get completed as far off as the Baltic States in those Northern most regions of Europe, my Nordic roots are enhanced and satisfied. And something from our massive past gets dissolved. We return to the places we began, and this is always in the loving arms of our Creator.
My Love affair with Estonia will probably go on into perpetuity. I have no plans to stop going back there. Each time we go I meet up with a new “Room Full of Heads.” The people touch my heart. I am uplifted. I make contact with a new gratitude that I could not doubt is divinely sent. Tallinn is the “Jewel of Northern Europe,” one in my crown that adorns the kingdom of my Nordic Love Affair.