TALLINN - Surrealism is the natural art style of Estonians, someone once told me. For decades they knew nothing but the absurd middle world between occupation and freedom, indigence and luxury, modernity and backwardness.
Estonia's most famous artist, Juri Arrak, popularized surrealism through his instantly-recognizable characters with their angular and wavy dragon-like heads. But long before he turned to surrealism, Arrak experimented with pop art, cubism and realism across a variety of media. Assemblage, jewelry, metalwork and performance art were also vehicles for his expression.
This period of his artistic development is largely unrecognized, and the work is almost irreconcilable with his later style. Yet it is this period in Arrak's life that will be featured in an exhibition which celebrates the 70th birthday of Estonia's most popular artist.
Arrak turns 70 on Oct. 24, and three days later the flagship modern art gallery Kumu will open "Man Looking Back: The Early Work of Juri Arrak."
Tallinn has already been swamped by a flood of Arrak's images. Over the past few weeks many private galleries around the Old Town have taken part in a city-wide Arrak appreciation drive in the lead-up to his birthday. Some of the exhibitions were also timed to coincide with the visit of Queen Elizabeth II. At Draakoni Gallery, one of Tallinn's best private galleries, Arrak's more religious paintings were hung side-by-side with those of British artist PJ Crook, a combination suggested by Margus Laidre, the Estonian ambassador in London, as a means of symbolizing the links between the two nations.
However, this later work is a world away from his development stage. Kadi Talvoja, curator of the "Man Looking Back" exhibition, says much of Arrak's early work was kept private during Soviet times out of fear of censorship.
"In the Soviet times, they could not be exposed because they were not in the official art style. They were too modern and too erotic and too dark, and sometimes too critical," says Talvoja.
"Most of these works are from his private collection and haven't been seen before. In most pieces, you could never figure that the work is Arrak's. Most people don't know he made such art in the '60s. During his first decade, he was experimenting with every kind of space to paint. He used pop-art two-dimensional sign figures. Only in the later years can you see that it is his work."
At the time, Arrak belonged to a revolutionary group of young artists who called themselves ANK '64. This band of image makers encouraged experimentation and attempted to break out of the mold prescribed by the Estonian State Art Institute. "Man Looking Back" captures the experimentation of that period of Arrak's career.
In later years, Arrak would turn to overwhelming religious themes. During his development period, religious symbols were kept very subtle. Sometimes, even the title of the work was altered to hide the painting's true meaning.
Now, as Arrak enters his old age, his work has moved from surreal and abstract to a twisted form of realism.
"Every year he comes closer to realism. He uses more shades, and the colors are not so bright," Talvoja says. "He doesn't say anything straight, but somehow you can understand the message."
'Man Looking Back: The Early Work of Juri Arrak'
Kumu Art Museum, Kadriorg
Oct. 27 to Mar. 11.