Evald Okas: an unfinished portrait

  • 2005-10-19
  • By Elizabeth Celms
TALLINN - Like his life, Evald Okas' paintings have a story to tell. The narrative begins with a boy, nearly 20, swept away by youthful naivety and budding talent. His only ideal was art for the sake of art, and he would do anything it took to master this.
Seventy years later, Okas stands in front of a small group of journalists, artists and friends who have gathered at the Tallinn Art Hall to celebrate nearly a century of his work. Okas' eyes are glazed over with age, his hair is thin, but he exudes the same sense of self-assurance he carried at age 20.

"Unfinished Painting" 's the title of Okas' most recent work 's which he assures the public will not be his last, is fitting, as is the symbolic choice of words. His paintings have captured an epoch: years of war, years of occupation, years of freedom. But at age 89, the Estonian artist still has more to say.

"I am learning all the time, even now," says Okas, who will celebrate his 90th birthday next month.

In honor of the event, the Tallinn Art Hall exhibited a retrospective of Okas' art last month. From his sketches as a student in the early 1930s, to paintings completed only months ago, the exhibition serves as testimony to this man's legendary talent.

Best known for his female nudes, Okas' paintbrush has dappled in a range of artistic forms. From Social Realism to ex libris, from Eastern art to graphic design, he has left few areas unexplored.

"School was my beginning," he says. "There I learned it all; painting, theater decorations, carpentry, graphic work."

After learning the fundamentals of art at the State Art School in Tallinn, Okas' studies were cut short by the war. In 1941, along with most of Estonia's artists, writers and intellectuals, Okas was deported to Russia. He was, however, one of the "lucky ones."

Along with a handful of his contemporaries, the young artist ended up in Jaroslavl. By some whim of fate, those exiled to this small Russian town were met with a relatively tolerable atmosphere. The group of artists collaborated, determined to keep Estonia's culture alive, despite its recent occupation by the Soviet Union.

"These men were later referred to as the 'Jaroslavl artistic ensemble,"' says Reet Varblane, the curator of Okas' exhibition. "In addition to Okas, there were the well-known painters Aino Bach and Rihard Sagrits. A total of 10 Estonian artists ended up in Jaroslavl."

The exiles devoted several years to developing their talents. Shrewdly, they abided by the rules of Social Realism, knowing it was their only path ahead. But underneath this, they were motivated by a deeper desire - to save Estonia's artistic culture from extinction.

Okas was still young, and still hungry to learn. He would eagerly swallow up any artistic direction, as long as it would improve his technique, Varblane explains.

"He was skilled, and learned quite easily," she says. "Okas adopted a completely academic position. He drew what he was ordered to draw. He had no ideological interests, just the desire to improve his composition."

In the end, it was worth it. Okas' charcoal drawings and paintings were well received by the Soviet system. Soon he was accepted into the highly prestigious Academy of Moscow. This, it turned out, was his golden ticket.

As a member of the Academy, Okas was given the freedom to travel. He first visited Armenia and Georgia. Then, in the late 1950s, he was permitted to travel outside the Soviet Union. There was no question where he would go: Europe.

By 1970, if Okas wasn't already the envy of every artist in Soviet Estonia, he should have been. The man had seen Holland, Paris, Italy, Greece, India, Central Asia, Japan, and America. And his art, needless to say, was better for it.

"When I was in Japan, I was exposed to artwork that was far brighter," Okas says. "My style has changed a lot. It all depends on your environment."

For many years, Okas made a comfortable income from drawing ex libris, a graphic design that identifies the owner of a book, usually pasted onto the inside cover . Although almost non-existent today, the practice was fashionable at the time. Okas is known as the Estonian master of ex libris, Varblane explains.

The painter also received wide acclaim for his graphic drawings of European architecture and urban development in the 1950s and 60s.

"During this period in Europe, people were carried away by the idea of a bright future, led by science and technology. Okas began to reflect this in his paintings," Varblane says. "Using his background in graphic art, Okas captured this urban development. He united aspects of realism 's like people and buildings - with the abstract to create absolutely surreal cities."

But perhaps more admirable was Okas' devotion to Estonian society. Not only is he an avid member of the Estonian Artists' Association, but Okas taught for many years as a professor at the Estonian Art Institute. He retired only some 15 years ago, but has remained a leading figure in the country's artistic community.

His latest work, "Unfinished Painting," is a symbolic self-portrait. In the middle of the canvas Okas lies dead, surrounded by reclining nude women 's recognizable figures from past paintings.

"The juxtaposition is exceptional," says Varblane, glowingly. "The self-portrait is very ambivalent, very symbolic."

Like so many great artists before him, Okas' chameleon-like ability to master a whole range of artistic forms has given him an enduring quality. At a time when painting has been declared "dead" by several prominent art critics, Okas has provided inspiration for many younger artists through his sheer passion for his work.

"He has represented our country for so long," explains Varblane. "Even now he still draws and paints and has preserved his own technique. That is why he's so popular."