Writing, Curating and Lecturing on Visual Arts, Public Space and Architecture

Material Public History of Sculpture

Article about sculpture published in Mare Mikoff's exhibition catalogue.

A sculpture is an object characterised by gravity, space, body and form.1 The art of sculpture has its own history which is concerned with how people have used objects in order to understand and give meaning to the world. Sculpture reveals the material nature of people.

A special state of mind applies to experiencing sculpture – sculptural imagination.2 Namely, to experience a three-dimensional work, one must first circle it. It is impossible to see the sculpture ‘all at once’, as a part of it will always remain hid- den since the sculpture could look quite different from another angle. As it is impossible to say where a sculpture begins or ends, the existence of the only true point of view is excluded. Instead, the viewer can imagine the sculpture as multi-faceted, sculp- tural. By all rights, sculptural imagination is the only possible way to perceive sculpture. Although sculpture and plastic art are usually described through tactility and mass, works must not be touched at galleries or museums. That forces the viewer to rely increasingly on their sculptural imagination, visualis- ing a spatial image together with its weight, texture, etc. Since experiencing sculpture is related to the loca- tion of the viewer in the room, the semantic field 

of sculpture is not limited to the physical body, but spreads across the room in which the viewer is expe- riencing it. The spatial perception is in turn empha- sised by a kinaesthetic, temporal experience.

The coming of age of Modernist sculpture as an independent exhibition and studio art took place a hundred years ago. Estonian professional sculpture is considered to be about the same age. Before Auguste Rodin decided to renounce major state orders during his late career (1900–1917) and continued to develop his work independently, European sculptors mainly lived from order to order. Rodin’s independence as an artist, which was gained by giving up sculpture as ruled by architecture, created a prece- dent, which served as a role model for many foreign sculptors who arrived in Paris at the time.3 The first Estonian sculptor to move there was Jaan Koort, who lived there from 1905 to 1915. Newcomers like him were the ones who helped sovereign sculpture to raise its head as their options for receiving orders in a new city were scarce, while they could not make sculptures for customers back home from a distance. They worked for exhibitions and for themselves – if they were lucky, some pieces were bought.

A hundred years is an insignificant amount of time in com- parison to the three hundred thousand years of the official history of sculpture.4 A century can barely hold four or five generations of sculptors. British art historian, James Hall, has criticised the principle of highlighting only one single sculptor to represent a specific style, a tendency prevalent since the Renaissance among Western art historians and leading to lists with names such as Ghiberti, Donatello, Michelangelo, Bernini, Canova etc. This is why the history of sculpture seems oddly mono- theistic in comparison to painting.5 You may have only one sculptor! The (chauvinistic) genealogy of Estonian sculpture could be something like this: August Weizenberg, Amandus Adamson, Anton Starkopf, Juhan Raudsepp, Enn Roos, Jaak Soans, Tauno Kangro, Johnson & Johnson, Jass Kaselaan.6 Luckily, however, this is not the case, as it is much richer, even joyfully polytheistic. 

The Estonian history of sculpture begins with an unknown ancient author, who made by hand the oldest human figure found on Estonian territory. The 10 cm stylised figurine made of a horn branch was found from the Pärnu River and probably depicts a woman. It originates from the Mesolithic era, about 9600–4900 BC. The purpose of the figurine is not known, but on the basis of analogues, it has been associated with the cult of ancestors.7 There exists a half-metre viper figurine with zigzag patterns from the same time period. It was found by the Narva River and archaeologists think that it could have originally been suspended from a post.8

While several interesting figurines have been pre- served from the Mesolithic era, the next mil- lennia, including the Neolithic (about 3200–1800BC), Bronze Age (about 1800–500 BC) and Iron Age (about 500 BC–1200 AD) offered no such find- ings. Axes, knives and other such items have been found, but in general, there had been a significant change in religious customs, which did not favour ornaments or figures.9 This does not mean that no  figurines, dolls or scarecrows were made here during these millennia.

From the later periods, to reconstruct the ‘polythe- istic’ history of sculpture, it is important to note dolls with repelling magic powers such as Metsik (The Wild One), about which the earliest written information originates from the end of the 17th century. It was a straw doll made at the beginning of winter, which was taken to the forest before spring, accompanied by a crowd of people and much noise (this way accidents and illnesses would stay in the forest). The doctor and author Fr. R. Kreutzwald even referred to these parties surrounding the Metsik doll as bacchanals.10 The Seto fertility doll Peko belonged to the whole village. In confirmation of that, it spent each year at a new farmhouse. Peko was kept wrapped in a cloth in the grain storage facility and was only taken out during celebrations. The spirit that was known elsewhere in Estonia, Tõnn, whose cult was maintained until the beginning of the 20th century, was also home-centred. Tõnn protected the herd and was embodied in a doll kept hidden in a secret corner or in the attic.11


These are only a few ancient patterns of the immense amounts of unrecognized material in Estonian sculpture. All in all, during the past 100 years Estonian sculpture has been dom- inated by the public monument, which similarly to architecture expresses power relations.12 

In fact, Western sculpture, unlike the art of painting, literature or music, has historically been more in the service of rulers, therefore primarily representing the dominant ideology. The latter is particularly well expressed in statuary sculpture, for what could be more resilient for perpetuating one’s power than etch- ing words in stone?

While the first churches were built and decorated mainly by craftsmen from abroad, by the middle of the 16th century, Estonians made up the majority in the stone masons’ guilds of Tallinn and Pärnu.13 Archive documents name these craftsmen by their first names, listing their work volumes and prices, but mostly their exact works are not known. In any case, some of these men sculpted the first collec- tive memorials to be placed in the urban space, because it is known that three public monuments were erected in Tallinn in the 1560s to those fallen in the Livonian War.14 One of the monuments still stands on Marta Street. It is a limestone cross on a high base, dedicated to the Tallinn citizen Blasius Hochgreve, one of the most well-known merchants and notori- ous smugglers of his day, who was killed there by the soldiers of Ivan the Terrible in 1560 during the Livonian War.15 

The custom of covering tombs in the floor of a church with carved stone slabs reached Estonia together with the stone churches of the 13th century. There were many such tombstones in Estonia; the inventory list of St. Nicholas’ Church alone listed a total of 195 tombstones in 1765.16 Today, the slabs are often displayed upright, with the most well- known ones, the tombstones from St. Catherine’s Church, being displayed in Catherine’s Passage in Tallinn. After the Reformation, there was a change in the iconographical content of tombstones and other ecclesiastical works of art: besides Christ as the key to redemption, the written word as a source of faith emerged. Lutheran memorial art has therefore been of interest to researchers as an embodiment and reflection of the ideals of human- ism and the Reformation.17 To what extent has the Lutheran spirit survived in Estonian sculpture? Has word dominated over image one might ask? 

Cognitive scientist and artist Erkki Luuk has pejoratively referred to monuments as ‘monukas’, which in Estonian sounds like ‘molu’, ‘moondumine’, ‘mölakas’, respectively meaning ‘face’, ‘transformation’, ‘douchebag’. The criticism of monuments probably derives from their declarative nature – as if they would like to forcibly explain to the viewer how things actually are. The person who commissions a monument may want it to carry the meaning of a historical event, but in reality it is just one of the signifiers referring to it. As culture is, above all, a complicated mechanism for exchanging and storing information, it is no wonder that monu- ments as ideological information plaques become the objects of cultural wars.

Although not all monuments are dedicated to warfare, these two are usually associated with each other. The association has been caused by the hun- dreds of thousands of war monuments of anony- mous form erected all over the word after World War I. As many bodies had to be buried at once and unknown soldiers also had to be commemorated, standard cemeteries and monuments became inevi- table.18 Grieving people in cities and in the country needed conventional monuments where to express their sorrow. The sculptors of the Paris School were at the same time creating architectonics of avant- garde form, but those were not understood or taken into use by the public.19 

In France, more than 30,000 World War I monuments were erected in 1920–1925 (15 a day). Over half of those were traditional memorial stones, followed by statues of an unknown soldier.20 In Great Britain, where 16,463 war memorials were erected at parish centres, simple cross monuments dominated.21Besides monuments, thousands of factory-made 

standard gravestones of laconic design were produced, and used in military cemeteries all over Europe. It is clear that the plethora of non-sculpted stone mass and crosses of minimal design did not have the best impact on the art of sculpture at that time. On the one hand, it simply left professional sculptors without work, and on the other hand, the uniform monuments created a critical backdrop for the entire branch of the visual arts.22

The Estonian War of Independence monuments erected during the years of the first Republic were largely as bland as their European counterparts (usually a cross or a figure of a soldier on a granite pillar).23 Moreover, Johannes Saar has argued that art history may not be the most adequate means of descrip-tion for understanding and assessing them: ‘If we ask ourselves, why our monuments to freedom look like they do, we should begin our answer from the acknowledgement that their conceptual roots are embedded in folklore and not Modernism. And that should prompt a broader socio-cultural, cultural-anthropological and, why not, ethnographic analysis. In a word, comparisons with other European monu- ments are of no help here – we should turn our atten- tion to folklore.’24 However, we should not forget the tasteful mausoleums and monuments of Edgar Johan Kuusik and Jaan Koort that were also created at the time and were closely associated with other similar creations elsewhere in Europe, representing both abstract figurativeness and deep symbol creation.

Let us also not forget the sense of pride with which these monuments were raised – for Estonians, this was the first chance to be the masters on their own land.  Even today, many Estonians see the issue of monu- ments in a similar light. However, Anton Hansen Tammsaare was clearly disturbed when a memo- rial was erected to him at his home village, Albu, in 1936, when he was still alive. The writer, who at the time was on holiday in Narva-Jõesuu, did not make an appearance, but set a telegram to the 2000 people present: ‘To everyone who have gathered for truth and justice, Tammsaare sends his regards.’25 The writer’s sceptic attitude towards his own monument implies what was felt across Europe: it is suspicious if the monuments (of certain large countries) are no longer involved with recording the past, but with heroising the present. In the case of monuments, the main question should always be – what are the ideals for which they are raised?

The Soviet Estonian monuments created between the 1960s and 1980s reflect a more refined language of art. Although representing a foreign political ideology, those monuments derived from classic high-level modernism26 and therefore beautifully fall into the canon of writing art history. Sculptors and architects sincerely strove to improve the quality of the living environment, creating dislocations in the monotonous Soviet urban spaces. Furthermore, their programme ambiguously addressed local politics. While the hidden national meaning of the high modernism characteristic of the Tehumardi Monument in Saaremaa (1967, sculptors Matti Varik, Riho Kuld, architect Allan Murdmaa) or the Maarjamäe Memorial Complex in Tallinn (1965–1975, architect Allan Murdmaa) may have gone unnoticed for a layperson, the fact that the restraint of the central monuments here differed from the rest of the Soviet Union must have been clear to everyone.

With regard to the consistency and sustainability of culture, it was of utmost importance that the sculptors and architects who worked during the Soviet era, as well as the officials of the Ministry of Culture and the heads of collective farms and other institu- tions who financed the erection of the monuments were able to ‘mistranslate’ the orders that came from  above into their own language.  The highest level of double coding is represented by the ambiguous 1969 monument to the defenders of Sakala County in 1217–1223 by the architect Ülo Stöör and sculptor Renaldo Veeber, the erection of which in the midst of the Soviet occupation seemed unbelievable to Estonians in exile. 27

The successful creation of various public works of art during the Soviet era was probably ensured by the fact that the Ministry of Culture’s Committee of Monumental and Decorative Art placed orders directly with the top artists, whereas proposals were sometimes made even before the design phase, which created an opportunity for cooperation between the artist and the architect. 28

In 2011, Estonia applied the so-called ‘percentage law’.29 According to this act, at least one percent of the cost of any building built or renovated with state financing must be allocated to visual art. Pursuant to the Art Procurement Act, contests are anonymous and the winner is selected by a commit- tee of experts. Unfortunately, practice has shown that more aware and internationally appreciated artists do not take part in such contests. Artists are not motivated to submit a conceptual design in a decision-making process which by definition entails compromises. 

Another reason for why public works of art tend to be decorative and tentative is of a structural kind and is related to the understanding of the public: the client may feel that as public money is at stake, the result must be intended for the entire public. But which public, to be more specific? If the public is interpreted as taking into account every opinion, standard and law, the birth of art is excluded to start with.30 Broadly speaking, the problem often stems from the fact that a lot of energy is spent on disputing artistic issues, while the discussion should instead be about the definition of the public
which has not been and cannot be precisely defined. On what basis do people still believe in idealistic constructs like society or democracy?

Two approaches are mentioned with regard to successful public sculptures: in the case of some works, the authors have ‘overlooked’ the pre- scribed context and created a powerful idea that completely redefines a location, while in the case of others (the majority), the artists have succeeded in finding a particularly nuanced relationship with the surroundings. With regard to the site-specificity of public sculpture, the Polish art historian Sergiusz Michalski has written that a sculpture occupies space by redirecting the view- ers’ movement, but also by being movable itself. It imposes itself and lets the surroundings impact itself, thereby risking failure on two frontiers: it may either be too imposing (Richard Serra) or too passive (‘a landing for doves’). Michalski refers to an ideal middle ground, a ‘sculptural utopia’, which is marked by the genius loci, the spirit of the place. It may be embodied in a statue, which becomes an inseparable part of the place by expressing the place’s inner nature.31 Tõnis Vint, for instance, has interpreted the genius loci of the Tallinn coast through the triumph of necrophilic energy, where the Monument to the Victims of the Estonia Ferry Disaster (sculptor Villu Jaanisoo, architect Jorma Mukala, 1996), the Monument to Charles Leroux (sculptor Mati Karmin, architect Tiit Trummal, 1989) and the Russalka Memorial to the victims of warship Rusalka (Amandus Adamson, 1902) form an arch of death.32

The Russalka Memorial is one of the first modern monuments in Estonia, the examples for which stood in big cities like St. Petersburg. The artist Margus Tamm and architect Argo Peever attempted to brighten up that tedious tradition in 2011, by submitting an idea to a contest held in the course




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