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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Eduard Wiiralt

The Violinist, 1931, Eduard Wiiralt
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia are some-times referred to collectively as the "Baltic" countries. Indeed, they are all on the Baltic seacoast on northern Europe. Of course so are what we refer to as the Scandinavian countries as well--Sweden, Norway, Den-mark, and Finland. Of course Russia, Pol-and, and Germany all have Baltic ports but apparently each of those countries are too big or too important to get lumped together except in a general reference as northern Europe. Several years ago, my wife and I cruised the Baltic and I spent one day touring Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, and the smallest of the "Baltic countries."
Street in Sceaux,
1928, Eduard Wiiralt
Reclining Tiger and Cat, 1937, Eduard Wiiralt
Eduard Wiiralt
So far as I can tell, I've never written about an Estonian artist, although I did come up with an item on the Latvian painter, Auseklis Ozols, however he spent much of his life in the United States. The Estonian painter Eduard Wiiralt, though born in a small town called Goubanitzy near St. Peters-burg, Russia, in 1898, his parents moved the family to Estonia in 1909 when he was eleven, and inasmuch as his parents were Estonian, the Estonians have long since claimed him as one of their own, considered the best Estonian graphic design artist of his time. During World War I the young artist was educated in the Tallinn Arts and Crafts School. After finishing there in 1919, he continued his studies in the Pallas Art School in Tartu under Anton Starkopf. He created his first woodcuts and linocuts in 1916 and his first etchings in 1917. In 1923 Wiiralt visited the Dresden Academy of Art, in Germany, where he studied under professor Selmar Werner. Soon after he began his career as a book illustrator.

The Head of a Woman, 1916, Eduard Wiiralt
Women in Top-Hats, 1927, Eduard Wiiralt
Wiiralt's studies were interrupted by his participation in the Eston-ian War of Independence. In 1922–23, Wiiralt continued his training, as a grantee of the school, at the Dresden Academy of Art in Germany under the supervision of Professor Selmar Werner. Wiiralt returned to Tartu in the fall of 1923. In 1924 he graduated from Graphic Arts Department of art school Pallas leading its graphic studio during following year. In his print, Cab-aret (below), the artist details well-attired men and diaphan-ously dressed women dancing in a club that looks to have been owned by a latter-day Hieron-ymous Bosch. Similarly disconcerting in its juxtaposition of the too carefully observed and the extraordinarily imagined is the aptly titled Hell (below), where in the crowded jostle of heads we find contorted physiognomies and mechanical beings that might have been conjured by an obsessed modern Giuseppe Arcimboldo. Clearly, the optimism that informed the group of Estonian Artists in the 1920s had diminished significantly by the early 1930s, when Wiiralt presented his alternative to the constructed world of Arnold Akberg and the latter's philosophy of progress.

Hell (bottom) is Raamat's most accomplished film. The film is based on three black and white etchings (Cabaret and two versions of Hell) made by Wiiralt while he was living in Paris.
Revolution, 1931, Eduard Wiiralt
Deeply influenced by the German Expres-sionism which Wiiralt had encountered a decade earlier while studying in Dresden, the etchings above express the frustrations of wartime, poverty and corruption. In the drawings, Wiiralt depicts human figures in surreal and grotesque caricatures. The first drawing, Hell (second image above), is an anarchistic vision of hell filled with contorted heads branching out of one another, violent mechanical objects, and heads exploding in-to mushroom clouds. In Cabaret (upper im-age above), we see an orgy of grotesques revelers, some well-dressed, and others in rags, dancing, drinking and flirting. The set-ting is a strange nightclub populated with dancers, a creepy old violinist (top) and his two naked colleagues who perform atop a massive violin. In the background we see branches with ghoulish souls reaching out. Finally, in the Preacher (below), from 1932, in which a group of people have gathered around a preacher to hear his warnings of what is to come. Preacher contains the same grotesque and surreal images of the previous drawings as well as their powerfully expressionistic flavor.

Preacher, 1932, Eduard Wiiralt
In this film, Rein Raamat merges these images into one and depicts Wiiralt's drawing in an underground nightclub where people dance, eat, drink, and flirt without limitations, torn between the enticing music of a flute-playing demon (top) and the more soulful, heavenly strings of a maestro's violin. Heaven and hell co-exist in this world, as they do within every one of us. But, so too does reason. Raamat notes that: "We can find these characteristics inside every one of us, the destructive side of hell is covered over by civilization like concrete in today's world. Personal hedonism and lust is regulated within society." Every person is responsible for his or her self-regulator to warn against chaos.


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