TALLINN - I arranged to meet Juri Arrak at Kumu, Tallinn's striking modern art gallery which is currently hosting an exhibit to honor the artist's 70th birthday.
When I show, the gallery is closed for a conference. Even Arrak 's arguably the most important figure in Estonian art 's cannot talk his way past the tough-faced security guard who refuses us entry.
"It's my exhibition," Arrak tries to explain politely. The security guard shrugs her shoulders. Arrak shrugs his.
A less humble artist might have made a fuss, demanding to speak to "somebody in charge." Arrak simply walks away. "We'll go to my studio instead," he says.
Such is the nature of Arrak, whose surrealistic images of mythology and religion are renowned both in and outside his home country.
The painter's work is undeniably unique 's his gothic figures with strangely angled heads, vivid colors and crazed eyes.
Despite his fame, Arrak drives a modest family station wagon, the back seat a jumble of bags and coats.
"What do I need a fancy car for?" he asks. "I think it is absurd that people in Estonia today are so worried about money. They want a big car, a new house, they spend, spend, spend. I have enough money for all I need, I don't want more than that."
It's for this reason that Arrak is not eager to sell his work, despite the sizeable sum he could reap by offloading his personal collection. His studio is filled with racks of his work, large canvases stacked in deep shelves.
"I don't want to sell it. What do I need so much money for?"
There's no Arrak gallery in Tallinn, no calendars or coffee mugs. His images aren't made for mass consumption 's they are challenging and evocative, frightening in some aspects.
"I find them scary," a friend recently told me. He recalled being terrified by one of Arrak's dark-faced monsters, something summoned straight from a childhood nightmare. "I remember seeing it in a shop when I was a kid. I begged my mother to leave, I was so scared," he confessed.
Arrak laughed when I recounted the story to him.
"Of course, it's not my goal to be scary, but life is not so funny and easy. Life is not always pretty, like a painting of flowers, just a decoration. There is always temptation if you want to do something good in life. There are narcotics, women, alcohol, power, money, and there is the temptation to indulge. Maybe these faces or figures are scary. But maybe people see themselves in these images, and it makes them think about the mistakes they made yesterday."
One thing's for sure, there's nothing scary about Arrak. His eyes sparkle brightly behind wire-rimmed glasses and he chuckles regularly. He's a passionate animal lover, and proudly shows off pictures of his recently-deceased dog. Arrak's basset hound was his constant companion, and his death has clearly had an impact on the artist.
Arrak is also fond of a family of stray cats that live in the courtyard of his inner-city studio. He recounts the genealogy of the scruffy-looking tabbies that hang around his back door, pointing out the snarly patriarch of the clutter. "I feed them sometimes, but they don't let me touch them. They are very wild," Arrak says, and speaks to the growling cats in baby-talk. "I love animals. I think we can learn much from them. They were here before man, they are our older brothers."
We ascend the stairs to his studio, located on the fifth floor of a gray apartment building near the center of Tallinn. He has occupied this space for nearly three decades now. There are 110 stairs to the top floor, he tells me. The daily walk up and down keeps him healthy.
"I know many people in this building, from when they were children to grown men. There was once also a bordello here," he says, motioning to a door as we pass the third floor landing. "At first I thought maybe it was a family with many beautiful daughters, but then someone told me, 'No, it's a bordello,'" and he lets out a hearty laugh.
Arrak's studio door is hand-painted. No doubt it will be unhinged by a collector and put on display in decades to come. Inside it's bright but chilly. The artist doesn't seem to notice the cold. He bustles about, opening curtains as I gaze about his walls, heavy with posters from his exhibitions, pictures of his family and religious symbols.
Religion is the central topic of Arrak's work these days. For many years he painted scenes of mythology, abstract and surreal portraits of monster-headed beings.
Converting to Christianity some 30 years ago had a profound impact on Arrak, who has mused long and hard about concepts such as creation, the nature of God and our place on earth. He's not so much a theologian as a philosopher, and his writings and paintings challenge us to ponder the topic of belief.
Arrak's strong Christian influence sets him as a stark outsider in the world of Estonian art, which tends to focus on Estonia's old nature-centered pagan religions. Indeed, it sets him outside of Estonian culture, which is strongly anti-religious.
But after he begins to explain his philosophy, it's clear Arrak sees his art as part of a higher calling.
Art is a three-step process, he says. To learn art, one must first understand and refine the practical skills. The next step is aestheticism, creating something pleasing to the eye. It's at this stage that many artists stop their development, Arrak says. They never progress to the final stage, which is understanding art as an "ethical" creation.
"Art is not only aesthetic 's it's not only about games of color and light. It must teach, too. This part has disappeared from art in the 20th century."
Arrak was born in 1936, and still remembers seeing German soldiers on the streets of Tallinn as a young boy. He entered art college in the 1960s, studying primarily as a metal and jewelry artist. After dabbling with graphic design and print work, Arrak settled on paint as his favored medium.
Did the Soviet occupation and subsequent independence impact his work? "No," says Arrak emphatically. "It only gave me the possibility to paint religious themes openly."
That said, one of his most vivid images is "Monstrumi Lagunemine," or ("Fall of the Monster"), an epic visualization of Guernica proportions that represents Estonia deconstructing its Soviet past and rebuilding a new future.
Arrak returns to his religious philosophies when musing Estonia's future.
"I think it will take 40 years for Estonia to be truly free. Moses spent 40 years in the wilderness before Israel was free. We are only 15 years old now, and everyone is obsessed by money, money, money. It will take another 25 years for us to become our own nation."
Estonian art critic and curator Anders Harm said Arrak's style is so individualistic that others dare not copy him: "He has always been present as a grand figure of painting, and he has always done his own thing."
"Man Looking Back."
Kumu Art Museum.
Through March 11