Monumental Painting as Public Space
In December 2012, Tõnis Saadoja completed a ceiling painting in foyer of Theatre NO99 in Tallinn. The painting depicts a view we see when we look up into the sky in a deciduous forest. The event was especially noteworthy because monumental painting in Estonia has for years been as good as dead, and only a few professional contemporary artists have received institutional commissions over the last decade to undertake any large-scale works. The mural was supplemented by a book recording Saadoja’s work process and introducing the history of Estonian monumental painting.
The ceiling painting was, symbolically, commissioned by a theatre which has been politically the most active cultural institution in the last five years. One ideal of NO99 seems to be that a bit of news from the morning should appear as a production in the evening. Besides swift reaction, they are consistently involved in mapping and directing social processes, aiming to improve our local, somewhat shaky democracy. Commissioning the painting is another example of how a theatre that is concerned about and feels responsible for the abuse and non-use of public space manages to find means – instead of moaning and groaning – to visually and socially enrich the theatre. It is also typical that NO99 has no far-reaching plans for their current building in Sakala Street, and actually seems keen to leave it behind as quickly as possible. The ceiling painting that could, if it is lucky, survive hundreds of years, is primarily an addition and a gift to the building (and its cultural history), and not to the theatre itself.
The building was completed in 1947 as the Culture House for Working People. When it was designed earlier, during the Republic of Estonia (Edgar Kuusik, 1938), it was supposed to accommodate the Central Board of Officers in Tallinn. The architect installed a casino and a banqueting hall, which now serve as theatre halls. Saadoja’s mural now adorns the ceiling of the foyer between the two halls. Typically of the era, the building is quite lavishly decorated, boasting the obvious Soviet symbols of victory. Saadoja’s mural is located on a decorated ceiling, once also adorned by a mural, which was later repeatedly covered with white paint. Saadoja decided to supplement the Stalinist interior (NO99 had already treated some of it rather boldly) with a sotto in sú “forest view”. Without going any deeper into the topic, I’d just like to mention that the picture resembles the sky of the mural in the Estonia Theatre, but with no figures. It emphasises the absence of people.
The book published to go with the mural features photographs of most of Estonia's monumental paintings (starting with Johann Köler’s 1879 fresco in the St Charles Church in Tallinn), taken by the photographer Paul Kuimet in summer 2012. However, these are not the usual reproductions in the service of art history: like the mural, they have a wider critical purpose. The mere fact that Kuimet used a medium format camera and black-and-white film stresses the essence of his photographic diary as an independent art project. Kuimet’s pictures add a certain sense of distance and a double coding between the monumental paintings (including their spatial location) and the book's readers. Besides interpretations, this is also a demanding statement regarding the usage of public space. The click of the camera in front of a mural is like a Marxist fist: it is unacceptable that the public space is uncontrollably covered with shameless, mostly ugly and profit-hungry endless advertising noise. Taking pictures of the monumental paintings took four months out of the life of the productive artist, who could have done something else with his time, and thus the whole process of purposeful usage of time is certainly a statement in itself.
The photographs show a total of 100 objects, most of which were, for obvious reasons, made in the Soviet era. However, it would be a mistake to assume that the Soviet-era monumental paintings (i.e. frescos, seccos, sgrafiti, mosaics, ceramic murals etc. made for specific rooms) were limited to portraits of Lenin or other political leaders, or various other forms of propagandist “pictorial monuments”. Such works can be counted on the fingers of one hand and, ironically, one of the most extensive of them was completed only in 1987 in the Estonian History Museum in Maarjamäe. The wall painting by Evald Okas, created at the same time as the Singing Revolution, became a curiosity back then, rather than a serious slogan, and vividly demonstrated the inability of the Soviet power to present itself in any credible manner.
Most of the monumental paintings of the Soviet era didn’t bare any ideological connotations and were executed at a high technological level. One reason for this was the establishment of a Council of Monumental Art in 1965 at the Soviet Estonian Ministry of Culture, which included professionals in the field. The unshakeable competence of the respected council in artistic matters restrained the employees of the ideology section of the Communist Party to the extent that they did not stick their noses into the “alien” business (to turn monumental art into an “alien” business was a remarkable achievement in itself for the ideologues!). More important than placating the ideologues, was restraining all kinds of amateurs. This is colourfully recorded in the minutes of many meetings of the time. Alas the monumental paintings in more secondary locations didn’t have to pass the aesthetic requirements of the Council of Monumental Art – hence dozens of truly poor artworks were accomplished.
As for individual artists, Enn Põldroos was the most fruitful in monumental art (mosaics in the Radio House and Tallinn Technical University, mural in the Soviet Estonian representation in Moscow, sitespecific oil painting in the University of Tartu, one of the world’s biggest tapestries in the Tallinn City Hall, etc.), and Rait Prääts was one of the most talented in stained glass (his works are in the Estonian National Library and St Nicholas Church). Eva Jänes and Urve Dzidzaria produced numerous frescos. Artistically, the most successful frescos were made by Elmar Kits in various places in Estonia.
In addition to the aesthetically more demanding interiors, murals were also commissioned in different Soviet Estonian towns. These pictures, completed in the spirit of a synthesis of the arts, are clear evidence of the strange fact that we are currently talking about the poverty and dullness of the public space, whereas it was the opposite during the Soviet Estonian period, when the space was over-loaded. It is naturally a different matter whether it was a positive space or an “official”, “state”, “party-line” or some other kind of dubious space. In any case, the private sphere began only after you closed the door of your flat, which meant that the outer wall of your home belonged to the public, to whom the state had to tell something positive all the time.
In independent Estonia today, the professional artistic design of urban space is considered unimportant. The public space is dominated by advertisements or feeble attempts at street graffiti, which have not yet reached monumental scope. It will be interesting to see what happens next. The idea of monumental painting has been resurrected and we will shortly learn if and to what extent the time- and money-consuming monumental painting as public art is possible in capitalist Estonia.