Konrad Mägi (1878-1925) was one of the first modernist painters in Estonia and the Nordic countries
He was born in 1878 in Southern Estonia and spent his early childhood there. Little is known about his family: his mother was a farmer’s wife, and his father was a manager of manorial estates who also participated in the Estonian nationalist movement. Mägi was 11 years old when his family moved to Tartu. Alas his education turned out to be extremely brief.
He went to work in Tartu as an apprentice joiner. As a youth, he and his friends started taking an interest in physical culture as well as various cultural pursuits (theatre, music, literature, etc.). Additionally, on the orders of his employer, he attended drawing courses, which all in all led to his increasing interest in figurative art. This was an unusual wish in early 20th century Estonia. Since there was no opportunity for studying art in Estonia, Mägi went to St. Petersburg.
The Stieglitz Art School in St. Petersburg was of a more technical orientation. Students there learned to design furniture, wallpaper, etc. Mägi actively visited exhibitions and it was in this city’s museums that he gained his first extensive experience of art, but he left school discontentedly. He participated in numerous events of the Revolution of 1905, studied briefly at a studio, yet soon left St. Petersburg, going to Åland together with his friends in the summer of 1906. That is precisely where Mägi painted his first paintings (primarily under the influence of Nikolai Triik). We know almost nothing nowadays about these paintings. When he went to Helsinki in the autumn, Mägi did not continue to intensively paint. For years already, his dream had been to go to Paris, yet prior to that he had to work transcribing Estonian folk songs for a year in Helsinki with that goal in mind. Mägi finally travelled to Paris in the autumn of 1907.
Mägi lived in meagre conditions in Paris, yet tried to find opportunities to continue studying and also for painting. His lack of money made this very difficult. Additionally, Mägi started becoming fed up with the big city. He went to Norway with his friends for the summer of 1908 with the wish to spend a few summer months there. Yet when his friends returned to Paris in the autumn, Mägi was forced to remain in Norway because he had too little money. Although in his letters he complained for the following two years about being hard up for money and about the unfriendliness of the conditions there, it is precisely Norway where Mägi started painting intensively. He is known to have completed at least 75 paintings there (there were most likely even more of them and Mägi already sold many of them in Norway in order to earn money). These paintings almost exclusively depict deserted landscapes. With their bold colours, hallucinatory images and expressive experiences of nature, they reflect Mägi’s emotional states, but also the distinctive feature of his experiences of nature: for Mägi, the landscape was a place where alongside aesthetic experiences, religious and exalted experiences could also be gained.
Mägi’s paintings were displayed at art exhibitions that were held in Tartu and Tallinn in 1910, and they immediately became immensely popular. Mägi travelled from Norway to Paris with the money he earned from the sale of his works. There he tried unsuccessfully to achieve a breakthrough in local art circles. His painting excursion to Normandy was admittedly successful and Mägi succeeded in having three of his paintings displayed at an exhibition. He returned to Estonia in the spring of 1912 after being abroad for years.
Here he initially sank into depression. At the same time, his health had already suffered serious damage from starvation and poor living conditions. In the summer of 1913, he went to Saaremaa to improve his health, but was charmed by the natural settings there and returned to Saaremaa the following summer as well. Over the course of those two summers, he completed a new series of paintings that stands out with the intensiveness of its experiences of nature, its abundance of light and colour, yet also its prominent modernist features. Here the artist’s subjective manner of depiction became more important than the realistic canon: the question ‘how to paint’ is more important than the question ‘what to paint’.
Over the following years, Mägi consistently lived in Tartu but while living in the city, he painted only portraits and still-lifes, but not cityscapes. In the summers, he went on excursions to various places in Southern Estonia (the vicinity of Viljandi, Võru County, Kasaritsa, Otepää and the surroundings of Pühajärve Lake, etc.) and his oeuvre underwent a more minor or a more major change almost every year. The style of his brushstroke and his colouring became altered, along with his angles and foreshortening, composition, and to some extent also his choice of motifs. His paintings became ever darker and more closed in, while obscurely perceptible religious undertones emerged ever more frequently at their core. Mägi aspired towards metaphysical, mystical, irrational experiences by way of nature scenes, desiring to find in landscapes what in Mägi’s opinion everyday life did not have.
Mägi became an art teacher in the 1910s and was one of the founders of the Pallas Art Society. When the Pallas Art School opened its doors in 1919, Mägi was elected director of the school. Nevertheless, discontent with conditions in Estonia deepened and in 1921, he went to Italy by way of Germany. His final complete creative period began there, focusing on views of Rome, Capri and Venice. Although we see numerous seemingly urbanistic motifs instead of landscapes, Mägi continued to aspire towards different kinds of experiences, which he had described in one of his early letters as the creation of art with the help of the ‘path of the soul’. We never see references to modernity and his present time in Mägi’s paintings. He treated time abstractly when he painted in Italy as well, largely purging his works of paraphernalia associated with people.
Mägi returned to Estonia in 1922, but his health already deteriorated to such an extent that although he continued to paint, he did so less frequently and no longer with his former vigour. The lack of a correct diagnosis of his condition allowed his illness to progress unchecked, and he was taken to the hospital in the spring of 1925, where he died at the age of 46 in August of that same year.
The total number of Mägi’s paintings is thought to have been approximately 400 paintings. Half of them are lost or have been destroyed. A great deal of attention has accompanied his works from the very beginning. Only at the start of the Soviet occupation of Estonia at the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s were Mägi’s paintings banned and their public exposition was prohibited. Extensive exhibitions were held in the following decades. A monograph from the pen of Evi Pihlak and various shorter treatments were published. A medal in the name of Konrad Mägi for honouring painters was also established. Interest in Konrad Mägi has also grown in Europe at the end of the 2010s: his solo exhibition has been held at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna in Rome, and Mägi’s works have also been on display at the Vittoriano museum complex in Rome and at the Orsay Museum in Paris within the framework of the Baltic Symbolism exhibition.