Estonia's original surrealist

  • 2007-09-26
  • By Joel Alas

Wiiralt's Paris years gave his works a hallucinatory edge.

TALLINN - Surrealism, an Estonian art critic once said, is the natural reaction to the absurdities of life under Communism.
That might explain the twisted characters of Priit Parn and Juri Arrak. But how did an artist like Eduard Wiiralt, raised in the early part of the century, cultivate his surrealistic outlook?
A new exhibition at the Kumu art gallery entitled Passion: The Early Work of Eduard Wiiralt displays the full range of his nightmarish visions. They're not all dark 's many are simply portraits or simple illustrations, others are erotic studies of female self gratification. But each one contains a twist of black intrigue.
Wiiralt, one of the most loved Estonian artists, was born on a country estate near St. Petersburg in the late 1800s. He moved to Tallinn as World War I broke out, and began his art studies in that period.
The exhibition focuses mostly on the prints and designs he completed while living in Paris. The city was his home and his muse for most of his life. It was there that he created the grand illustration "Hell," which is often regarded as the centerpiece of his work.

"Hell" (pictured above) is a rather busy piece. It displays a multitude of faces and scenes. It was one of the primary influences of a short piece of abstract animation which is projected onto a wall as part of the Kumu exhibition.
According to the exhibition's curator, Tiina Abel, it was his Parisian years that brought out his hallucinations.
"The most fantastic drawings and prints belong to the period between 1925 and 1933, when the artist followed the bohemian way of life and was possessed by his work," Abel told The Baltic Times.
"It was a turning point. After that, Wiiralt radically changed his way of life. All the works displayed in the exhibition belong to this early period, when the artist was possessed by his intense work, and his fantasy was constantly stimulated by absinthe."

The exhibit shows Wiiralt's fascination with the female nude. It is full of erotic images of buxom women. Again, it appears to be Wiiralt's years in Paris that exposed him to the full range of human pleasures and vices, according to his biographers.
"There are a lot of women in Wiiralt's art, but they inhabit the world of men. They are destined to please and tend to anguish," the exhibition program reads.
Unfortunately, Wiiralt met the same fate of many artists from small nations. He was relatively unappreciated outside of Estonia, although he did succeed in holding exhibitions in Paris, Strasbourg and Amsterdam.
"Nevertheless, I can say from my own experience as a curator that Wiiralt's talent and his uniqueness has been recognized everywhere, wherever his works have been displayed. His exhibition in the Musee Felicien Rops in Namur, Belgium, was quite a success, the catalogue was sold out," Abel said.

The influence of Wiiralt on Estonia is recognizable as soon as you start to look for it. His name appears in random places across the country.
But more interesting is his influence on Estonian art. While you're at Kumu, wander up a few floors to the exhibit of charcoal drawings by the beloved illustrator Priit Parn. It's hard not to see an indirect link between Parn's contortions and those of Wiiralt.

Was Parn influenced by Wiiralt?
"I believe that these two artists are sharing the inexhaustible and galloping fantasy, mental power, esprit, the ability of creating striking and integrated images and giving them symbolic value, devotion to one's metier," Abel says.

Passion: The Early Work of Eduard Wiiralt
Kumu 's Estonian Museum of Modern Art
Until October 21