Canonisation of the Artist
by Eero Epner
Dear listeners. I will be giving what is probably today’s most hypocritical presentation because I would like to speak questioningly about something that I myself have contributed to.
Konrad Mägi, the son of a farm housewife and a manager of manorial estates, who is known – as a quick check of Google tells us – as the most important Estonian artist of all time, the great figure of Estonian art, but also the classic of Estonian painting, outstanding master, the great man of Estonian art, Estonia’s best painter of landscapes, but also our most famous artist, was born today 140 years ago about thirty kilometres from here. The restaurant Konrad in the Palace Hotel in Tallinn opens its introduction with the sentence: ‘Konrad Vilhelm Mägi can be considered a miracle of Estonian art’. I have been to that hotel. I spent a night there a couple of weeks ago because I had written a few texts for the hotel on Konrad Mägi and we decided not to settle our accounts in cash but rather in overnight stays. My astonishingly soft bed was situated beneath a gigantic reproduction of a Mägi painting. I recognised Sea Cale, Konrad Mägi’s probably best known work, of which only the lower third of the painting had made it into the repro: a frizzy field of stones, plants with yellow and white blossoms, and, as is so often characteristic of Mägi, the thread of the canvas not covered by paints glimmering between rapidly applied brushstrokes. I slept soundly and peacefully that night.
Yet I myself suggested that writing about Mägi could be paid for by the chance to spend the night beneath a repro of a Mägi painting because I wanted to physically experience one possible consequence of Konrad Mägi’s canonisation. I wanted to be in an environment where the signs surrounding me all speak of only one thing: this would not be here if Mägi were not a canonical auteur.
The placement of works of art, but also of artists, in various social nests, locating their meaning and role not in scholarly texts on art, but rather on people’s walls, in their dreams and conversations, is always most interesting but it is also equally almost impossible to study. How can we ascertain what a husband and wife talk about on Sunday evening while standing before a Konrad Mägi painting? How can we identify what people actually think of art, beyond canons and predetermined descriptions, when they are simply together with a painting? I don’t know, but I’m nevertheless somewhat afraid that this field of ideas is perhaps narrower than I would dare to hope, and not because people’s imaginations are meagre but rather because the field beyond canons and predetermined descriptions becomes ever narrower with every canonising work. This is a fear that has accompanied me over the last couple of years while I have diligently and unimpededly worked on canonising Konrad Mägi.
Jacques Ranciere says at the beginning of one of his essays: ‘A certain power of resistance is often ascribed to art.’ I recall that I did not continue reading at that moment. That sentence was enough for me to outline for myself four aspects that are potential negative consequences of canonising an artist.
First: art’s power of resistance is absorbed, domesticated, and art, in the nature of which there should be an oppositional attitude, becomes the opposite of itself as it starts affirming generally agreed principles related to the ordering of the affairs of life.
Second: healthy critical dialogue ceases, the blood circulation of different opinions is closed off in the canon’s body and is replaced by standing water. A canon is not argued with, a canon is admired. The person becomes a monument and his art becomes something like mouldy brown bread, which is admittedly viewed from a distance but in which nobody wants to partake anymore.
Third: interested participation is replaced by uninterested enjoyment. This perhaps overlaps with the previous aspect, but I would like to specify this with an additional nuance in the terms of Pierre Bourdieu: if the closing off of interpretations could be viewed as personal practice, then the emergence of uninterested enjoyment also has clear social consequences, since such enjoyment turns the spectator into a passive participant in a social circular dance, the rules of which are dictated somewhere else. Somebody has set the piano playing, somebody has demonstrated the steps, and now everybody walks in the museum to the accompaniment of this imaginary piano music. They head for Konrad Mägi’s paintings first, thus affirming by their trajectory not only the art historical canon, but also obedience to canonisation as such.
Fourth: since uniqueness is in the nature of the canon, a canon does not tolerate another canon beside it. Since sufficient interest and resources for creating alternative canons are always lacking in any kind of society, some very broad-based phenomenon starts being equated to a canon. When somebody says ‘figurative art’, this is immediately associated with Konrad Mägi, and present day artistic practices also start being assessed according to whether and to what degree they conform to the rules established by the canon, even if those practices have nothing in common with the canon. It is only a small step from here to the recognition that there is right and wrong art, good and bad art, and of course, right and good are defined by the canon, and wrong and bad are defined by what does not fit into the canon – and it must be admitted that not much fits into it because a canon can only fit the canon itself into it.
Yet before we try to answer the question of whether and how it would be possible to avoid the dangers that arise in canonisation, let us try to answer the question of how it has all turned out like this.
We must point out that nothing has simply ‘turned out’. If we glance at the history of Konrad Mägi’s canonisation, we can notice a whole series of conscious steps in this history that had to contribute to what the young Mägi allegedly said to his father when the latter called into question Mägi’s decision to go to study art: ‘When you die, that will be all, but my art will live forever’.
In Konrad Mägi’s case, it has to be said that some canonising steps were taken even before starting to remember, in other words they were already taken during Mägi’s lifetime. I would consider the first canonising gesture – if we can take a certain ritual that departs from the environment in which art naturally emerges and places the work of art in a broader symbolic field as the basis for defining such a gesture – the late spring of 1921, when the nation started preparing an album introducing Estonian art. The selection included a total of 23 artists, both living and deceased, and 64 works – and altogether ten of those works were by Konrad Mägi. Note that Nikolai Triik was in second place with five paintings, and even fewer works were by other artists. By way of this gesture, the state – or the experts who operated in its name – entered the field of art and selected artists who best represented the state. By giving Konrad Mägi 15 percent of the paintings that were to be displayed, that 15 percent also became one of the first canonising bricks in the wall that started taking shape.
Naturally, the designation of such a gesture as the starting point is conditional and debatable in every respect. As a matter of fact, the canonisation of every cultural sign starts from the level of that sign – if Konrad Mägi had not painted the way he painted, he would not have been canonised. We could also speak of the exhibition of 1910, when Mägi’s works were placed before spectators for the first time, and of the enthusiastic reaction that followed.
Yet in this case, certain separately undertaken rituals are precisely what interest me, not exhibitions and their reception, which are an organic part of the art world. And the next such ritual, of course, is the artist’s funeral in August of 1925. This is because it is here in particular that those persons step into focus for the first time who over the next ten years will look after Mägi’s canonisation the most – his students and friends. It is they in particular who focused extremely quickly on establishing Mägi’s post mortem status, which begins perhaps already with mythologising descriptions of his funeral. Namely, a description has been preserved to our time of Mägi’s funeral as having taken place on a sorrowful day in the pouring rain. Here the ‘rain’ naturally inevitably forms a metaphor as well – the metaphor of the weeping heavens. It was not merely an artist who was buried, but rather someone whose passing even the heavens mourn. At the same time, the memoirs of someone who was present at the funeral have only recently come to light, according to whom it was a warm, sunny day instead: the heavens did not weep, the artist was a person like any other and was buried like any other. It is possible that this was merely a case of different layers of memory. It is possible that it rained intermittently, with spells of clear weather, but this metaphor of the weeping heavens, whether it was born by accident or on purpose, soon continued.
Because hardly had Mägi passed away when an issue of the periodical Looming appeared that can also be referred to as a special Konrad Mägi issue: the sad memories of Mägi filled with longing written by Mägi’s friends Friedebert Tuglas, Gustav Suits, Julius Genss and Alfred Vaga were published in this issue, covering more than twenty pages (note that by randomly found comparison, this same literary periodical limited itself to an 18-line obituary after the death of the prominent Estonian writer Eduard Vilde). In these memoirs, Gustav Suits, among other things, also launched the myth of the start of Mägi’s path to becoming a painter: ‘Once upon a time there was Konrad Mägi, the six year old son of a manorial estate manager. A master house painter with his journeymen was summoned from town to the manor. The little boy stared in wonder at how the ceiling was being painted in the manor’s grand hall. For some unknown reason, he was seized by the irresistible wish to imitate the master’s skilful brushstrokes – to paint and daub. Little Mägi asked the master painter working up above for a paintbrush. The master handed the persistent moocher the craved brush but told him to use it not inside but outside. Six year old Mägi now revelled for the first time in the ecstasy of using colours: while columns were protected and walls kept from him, rocks invited him, created things provided surfaces. The manorial estate manager’s frisky whippersnapper eagerly brushed things with paint for his own pleasure. He scurried freely about the grounds of the manor accompanied by the jovial grins of the practical master painter and his journeymen.’
Simple memoir literature is interwoven with the creation of myths in the remainder of memoirs as well, for which reason it can be said that the construction of the canonical and mythical picture of Mägi that persists to this day was already completed barely a month after Konrad Mägi’s death. This picture can be briefly summed up with the acknowledgement that Mägi was society’s outlaw, constantly in conflict with his surroundings, constantly suffering, but his oeuvre is above everyday life. It is jubilation, exuberance, consecration, where – as Mägi’s first dedicated critic Hanno Kompus wrote – LIFE is manifested. But not life in its commonplaceness, but rather life in its sanctity, since Kompus also writes that word throughout his text with its first letter capitalised. The legends that appeared in Looming did not remain the only ones. Shortly thereafter, Artur Adson’s memoirs were also published, as well as the descriptions written by Mart Pukits, about which Evi Pihlak has pointedly said: ‘Konrad Mägi’s vivid traits were just as firmly etched in the memory of the writers as were his works’.
We see that the formation of a new trajectory had begun exceedingly quickly. This could be described as the transformation of a life story into a distinct object. The logical terminus of this trajectory is the monograph written by Mägi’s student Rudolf Paris, which was published in 1932 and among other things can nowadays also be described by the word ‘exclusive’. This hardbound publication in large format, with comprehensive references to sources, colour reproductions and thin, delicate interleafs of gossamer paper, remained Estonia’s most distinguished art publication for several decades. This exclusive publication forms the first foundation pillar of Konrad Mägi’s canonisation, which stands steadfastly to this day: this is the biography of the artist. It is the artist’s life in particular, his character traits, his incidents and affairs that become a means of communication with the public. An altogether separate Mägi dramaturgy emerges that skilfully creates an image of a suffering genius, because Mägi’s life is also shown as being ingenious, unusual and uncommon. Thereby the first stereotype of the suffering artist, who is in conflict with society and finds solace in art alone, a stereotype that is familiar from Western European literature on art, is created in the history of Estonian art. Admittedly, in the case of Konrad Mägi we have to recognise that, as is the case with many clichés, this was also unfortunately true to a certain extent since he really was in conflict with society, and according to Mägi himself, he did indeed find solace in art alone. Yet at the same time, I also claim that this principle or stereotype has been overdramatized in the name of canonisation in order to achieve a more emotional and theatricalised image of someone whose difficulties would make us sympathise with him, engage with his life, so to speak, and identify with him. His courage in creating outstanding paintings in spite of all difficulties, in turn, make us admire him and consider him above ourselves – or at least above ordinary people.
And of course we can only agree that there was a certain existential gap in Konrad Mägi’s soul, but tales of his poverty or loneliness were quite certainly untrue. We know from archival sources that Mägi’s income was substantial. The prices of his paintings were so high that they matched half the annual salary of the mayor of Haapsalu. Barely a couple of days before his final hospitalisation at the end of his life, Mägi deposited an amount in the bank that would have been sufficient for paying the rent for his studio apartment situated on Town Hall Square in the centre of Tartu for the next five years – and this was a rental rate that lawyers, former mayors and major businesses were able to afford in the same building. He could also have felt alone in his soul, but he was actually never left alone – quite the contrary, starting from the outset of his path to becoming an artist in St. Petersburg, he was constantly surrounded by a colony of friends, which at some point was also reinforced by a flock of students, who related to him with great warmth. This is how they responded to the charisma and affability towards people that radiated from Mägi. According to his students, there was nothing in his attitude that would have indicated any wish to snub others and to commit himself to solitude. And when he had no friends or students, like in Norway for instance, he quickly found new ones, getting on well with men, women and children. Mägi felt alone, but he was not alone. And finally, what kind of conflict with society can we speak of when he was a recognised auteur who immediately found general popular admiration in Estonia with his first works, and who rose to the position of director of the Pallas Art School, a true authority whom the editors-in-chief of newspapers invited to lunch, whose acquaintances included former cabinet ministers and leaders of the women’s movement, and from whom justices of the Supreme Court, politicians and students’ organisations purchased or commissioned works of art? We cannot speak of abandonment as in the case of Vincent van Gogh, but regardless of that, Mägi’s life story has aroused particular interest – by now, four voluminous books on Mägi’s life have appeared. On at least two occasions, his correspondence has been published in separate publications. A stage production has been created and the actor who played the leading role earned the award for best male actor of the year for playing the role of Konrad Mägi. The house that has been built on the spot where the schoolhouse once stood where Mägi managed to study for three months is marked by a sculpture. Finally, a memorial plaque has been affixed to the building in Tartu in which Mägi’s studio was located, to say nothing of the reminiscence show that was broadcasted in its day on Estonian Radio’s Vikerraadio programme, and of two documentary films on Mägi. I am truly surprised that no feature film has yet been made of Mägi’s life as has been made of Čiurlionis, Lithuania’s canonical artist, for instance – admittedly I have not seen that film because so few people shared it in pirate programmes that the programme has been downloading it since April. Thus it can be said that Mägi’s life story has evidently been published, commemorated, visualised, dramatized and poeticised more than that of any other Estonian artist.
Yet it must be stated right away that volume is certainly not the condition for canonisation here. The amount of memories alone does not determine who is canonised and who is not. Let us place Nikolai Triik beside him, for instance, Mägi’s friend, colleague and I dare say also someone who set an example for Mägi. Triik’s early works deserve at least just as much attention as Mägi’s works – and we see that three monographs and three very comprehensive catalogues have similarly been published on Triik, but still Triik has not become an equivalently canonised auteur for the broader public. I believe that the reason is simple: Konrad Mägi’s life is considerably more theatrical. Mägi’s life comprises anarchism and solitude, an early death and hunger, suffering and fame, conflictiveness and odd little peculiarities that were already amplified in those memories that appeared in Looming. In other words: the prerequisite of canonisation has been the theatricality, dramatic nature, and performativity of Mägi’s life story. Had Mägi lived a more boring life, we might not be gathered here today. Yet proceeding from here, it could be claimed that the question does not lie in boredom or even in theatricality, but rather in emotionality. Everything that is connected to Konrad Mägi is emotional, enchanting, infectious, and this goes not only for his life story. What has been written about Konrad Mägi is also often in considerably more emotional hues than what has been said about Triik, for instance, or Kristjan Raud. For example, Hanno Kompus, evidently the most important art critic of that time, wrote in 1916: ‘We got to know Mägi as an artist who goes down untravelled paths, digs in untouched ground, who appears to perceive exceedingly personal forces in a person’s soul, the power of which it is impossible to avoid, [forces] which operate as some sort of cosmic law,’ or also: ‘Everything lives, moves, is born, dies, wildly rouses itself or timidly contracts, bellows hideously or is frightfully silent, is heaped full of mysterious power, which as a thousand shards in things are struggling with themselves in those same shards…’ These dramatic, but above all emotional descriptions of Mägi’s paintings correspond to descriptions of Mägi’s life created in a similar emotional tone. His canon is also formed in this emotionality, at least for the general public, because emotions not only construct someone’s importance or meaning, but also someone’s or something’s appeal far more effectively than rational descriptions of tranquil life and analyses of rational art. In the eyes of the public, the Expressionist who lives expressively always has a considerable head start in the canonisation competition compared to the rational Conceptualist. A good example of this is the very successfully staged play Portrait of a Freezing Artist, which first of all already created a vivid image of the suffering artist with its title, and secondly admittedly told the story of Konrad Mägi’s funny early life filled with a great deal of adventures in its plot, but ended at the moment when Mägi actually started creating art. That is when his life became tamer and theatricality started trickling out of it. This no longer interested theatre.
Thus the role of Mägi’s biography in Mägi’s canonisation seems to follow Western European examples. Its dramaticism is amplified here and there, evidently in the name of Western European canons, but also in the name of greater emotionality. One difference nevertheless stands out in comparison to its models. Namely, dramaticism returns to Mägi’s life in his final years when he becomes ill and dies at a relatively young age. Even this biographical tragedy corresponds splendidly to the stereotype of the modernist artist, but it turns out that Mägi’s illness has not been important in his canonisation. The biographical film about Vincent van Gogh that was just recently screened here in Estonia focuses precisely on van Gogh’s dramatic death and his possible mental illness as its cause, but in the case of Konrad Mägi, such moments are glossed over without dwelling on them. For instance, Evi Pihlak devotes three and a half pages of her 200-page monograph to the illness that clouded the last years of Mägi’s life, at the same time delicately passing over precisely naming Mägi’s illness – syphilis – and using in its place euphemisms like ‘worsened health condition’, ‘the initial diagnosis of his illness was not very precise’ or ‘feeling in poor health’. Maie Raitar relates to this matter in Mägi’s biography with the same degree of respect, similarly refusing to mention the name of his disease and describing his diagnosis as ‘progressive paralysis’. Although she uses excerpts from Mägi’s case history as illustrations, she does not use those passages that refer to the relevant pathogens. I must be honest, I am the one who has done the most to drag another person’s health concerns before the public, but I would nevertheless claim that although one of the foundational pillars of Konrad Mägi’s canonisation has been the amplification of his life story and its theatrical and emotional matters, Mägi’s illness and exceedingly dramatic death in a mental hospital have not participated in his canonisation process, and to be honest I am very glad that this is so. We could, of course, reflect separately on why Mägi’s illness and death have been shunned as such ‘opportune’ building blocks – ironically speaking. It seems that in this respect, it is not possible to outline a distinctive cultural feature that would apply generally, a distinctively Estonian disinclination to engage with the illness of the artist, since ‘illness’ plays practically the central role in the canonisation of Juhan Liiv, for instance, or Marie Heiberg. Thus we could ask if this is perhaps a principle of the history of Estonian art. Indeed, especially in older literature on art, biographies are generally purged of references to mental illness, alcoholism and other such afflictions. Yet in the case of Konrad Mägi, it appears to me – and this is only a hunch that is difficult to prove – that this is perhaps a case of cultural aversion of sexuality, since syphilis is associated with a person’s sexuality, yet sexuality is definitely not something that Estonian cultural history is resplendent with. Yet I repeat that we can only rejoice that this is the case, because when I lately led a tour of Konrad Mägi’s exhibition, three questions were posed from the public. The first question wanted to know whether Mägi was a drug addict, and the other two asked in almost identical wording whether he was a homosexual or a heterosexual. If these themes become decisive in measuring an artist, then it is better not to measure at all.
The other foundational pillar of Konrad Mägi’s canonisation has been the image of him as a Teacher. This word has to be capitalised because already the first canonising ritual that his students carried out after his death did not treat Konrad Mägi simply as a pedagogue, but as a mythical Master (this word is also capitalised): namely, his students lit torches in front of Pallas and walked through night-time Tartu to Mägi’s grave on at least the first two anniversaries of his death. This torchlight procession to their teacher’s grave was not merely a memorial act, rather in its dramatic nature it referred to the sad fact that they had not gotten over their mourning. This procession said that someone has passed away for whose remembrance words alone are insufficient. A ritual, a gesture, some sort of performative procedure is needed. I would like to draw your attention to the route of the procession. His students did not simply gather at Mägi’s grave, and they did not start their procession indicating continuing mourning from in front of Mägi’s studio, which would have shortened their route even a little bit. Instead they gathered at the school and went from there to their teacher’s grave. This silent sea of lights that snaked its way through night-time Tartu tied together the school and the teacher post mortem, Pallas and its first director, as if symbolically and ritually trying to restore the connection between the teacher and the school. Although Konrad Mägi was dead, they still connected him to the school as before. He was not allowed to leave the school, he was asked to return. His students did not only go to remember their teacher, rather they continued to define the whole Pallas school through Konrad Mägi. The logical continuation of this identification was the renaming of Pallas as the Konrad Mägi State Art College, which took place in 1940, admittedly for political reasons.
Yet here the question is not only in the consecrational relationship between the institution and its former teacher. In subsequent years, the image takes shape of Konrad Mägi as the teacher or master of all Estonian painting in a broader sense. Now the circle of Mägi’s students also expands alongside Mägi’s actual students like Aleksander Vardi, for instance, who for some reason, out of all the places in the world, bought a new summerhouse for himself in the 1930s precisely in Hellenurme, the place where his teacher Konrad Mägi was born. Imaginary students are added: those who were not students of Mägi, but rather of Mägi’s myth. Thus for instance, Enn Põldroos has recalled that although the exposition of Konrad Mägi’s paintings was prohibited after the Second World War, they as art students nevertheless secretly went to look at them in painting depositories. It is true that they also viewed the works of other older artists, but Mägi’s works were undoubtedly some of the more important works that they secretly went to study behind closed curtains. Of course, Olev Subbi has stressed Konrad Mägi’s importance most vigorously. He admittedly confessed his unwillingness to travel exactly the same route as Mägi, but was willing to consider exactly the same values to be important in painting as Mägi had considered important. Yet at some point – and I speculate that this took place in the 1970s – Konrad Mägi actually developed from these isolated examples as a broader canon that in some way defines or qualifies all of Estonian painting. It is obviously difficult to describe precisely how the canonisation mechanism operated. Many steps were taken as a result of lobbying. Many steps did not even turn out as steps. Many were also surely random – as is often the case in life, yet at this point I would speculate that the fact that Evi Pihlak and Mai Levin, the two most important art historians of the 1970s, devoted themselves in that decade to studying Konrad Mägi became very important. Mai Levin curated a major exhibition in 1978 with over a hundred paintings, while Evi Pihlak published a comprehensive monograph on Konrad Mägi in the following year that remains unsurpassed to this day. Thus I find that by the end of the 1970s, a background or general understanding had emerged in Estonia according to which Konrad Mägi in particular is the one who should be featured, not only as an artist who had lived a colourful life story, but also as the canonical auteur of Estonian painting – as someone whose grave all painters should symbolically visit with their torches. I would consider 1978 as the culmination of this kind of canonisation, more precisely today’s date 40 years ago, when the hundredth anniversary of Konrad Mägi’s birth was commemorated throughout the country. Precisely 40 years ago today, the gigantic exhibition organised by Mai Levin was opened at the Art Museum of Estonia. A special radio show was broadcast on the radio. Famous actors performed a script on Mägi’s life that Evi Pihlak had written. The following day, a memorial plaque was affixed to the house that had been home for Mägi and a wreath was placed at his grave. An academic conference opened by the ESSR Minister of Culture was held the day after that. Jubilee medallions were minted and they were handed out by the dozen not to people in the art world, but rather to the most important people of the union republic, among others to ministers and the leaders of the Communist Party as well. Articles appeared in the newspapers, a documentary film was premiered, a special chest pin with a wave motif was stamped, actors from the state theatre performed at memorial evenings, and musicians played Bach, Händel and Debussy. No Estonian artist had ever before been the object of such orchestrated rituality, which on this day 40 years ago encompassed politics and the mass media in addition to the art world and operations of remembering. The end result of these gestures remains the medal named after Konrad Mägi that was established in 1979. According to its statute, it started being awarded for ‘a work of art, a series of works or an exhibition set that has significantly enriched Estonian painting’, yet essentially it became the most important award or prize for painting, which in turn canonises some painter. This new tradition constructs once and for all the image of Konrad Mägi as the forefather of Estonian painting, the teacher and master in whose footsteps all other painters follow, with the medal named after him on their chests.
These two principles – the poeticisation of Konrad Mägi’s life and his definition as the primal source of Estonian painting – have been the foundation in canonising Mägi both among the general public and more narrowly in the art world. New mechanisms have emerged in recent years. For instance, the Palace Hotel’s decision to construct its identity around Konrad Mägi’s works indicates that Mägi is becoming a trademark with a convertible value. Yet I do not wish to speak at great length about these signs of a new era since I myself am participating in them, meaning that such commentary would turn out very hypocritically. Besides, I have a meeting at 11 o’clock tomorrow morning at the Palace Hotel, where we will be discussing with wine specialists which wines fit in with Konrad Mägi that should be offered at the French embassy’s reception, where I will incidentally be giving a half-hour long presentation on Monseigneur Mägi – such formats are contradictory, but perhaps it is nevertheless within such formats that the ‘crux of the matter’, as it is said, can be spoken of. But I honestly admit that I have no clear answer.
In conclusion, I would like to describe a few possible ways out of the dangers associated with Mägi’s canonisation, but I would be very grateful if more such ways out were to emerge.
First: the continuous openness of Mägi’s oeuvre to dialogue. Canonisation’s greatest danger is the declaration of somebody’s legacy to be faultless and perfect. Dialogue is discontinued, the blood circulation of interpretations that gives life to art comes to a halt. An excellent example of the opening of dialogue is the exhibition curated by Tiina Abel that was held at the Art Museum of Estonia in 2010, where Mägi’s oeuvre was contextualised into Western art history for the first time, placing works by Western European artists beside his works. Such recontextualisation does not consecrate Mägi’s name (although this is doubtless also a by-product of this background). Rather, it keeps dialogue open and interpretations free, constantly offers new angles, and at the same time says that not one of the hitherto existing angles should be taken as being canonical, meaning indisputable. To be honest, it is for this reason that today’s day of presentations is taking place: in order to find viewpoints that have not been found before – so may today be a small act of resistance to today’s date 40 years ago, when the Konrad Mägi memorial medal was pinned to Arnold Rüütel’s lapel.
Second: we should find more ways for how to bring viewers into contact not with the Mägi myth, but rather with his works. To try to construct or bring back that moment when a person is on his own together with a work of art, and to clear guiding interpretations away from around that moment, to leave the walls of the gallery blank and catalogues devoid of analyses – or if those interpretations are there, then they ought to express the conflicting nature, contradiction and subjectivity of interpretations. Bringing the viewer back to the work of art through a mythologised jungle, of course, means first and foremost offering possibilities for how a person can experience a work of art. Yet in addition to exhibitions and permanent expositions, this also more broadly means a continuous invitation to return to the surface of Mägi’s paintings. To give preference to the texture of Mägi’s paintings ahead of his life story, to Mägi’s brushing style ahead of his illness, to Mägi’s visions of nature ahead of his importance, because only there, at Mägi’s paintings, is it possible to break free of the canon.
Third: to untie Mägi from generally accepted discourses, for instance from nationalism, all the more so because Mägi’s oeuvre does not offer any particular support for this connection. If we compare Mägi’s canonisation to the Latvian Vilhelms Purvitis, for instance, then we see that although both mechanisms have been similar – for instance, the Purvitis Prize was established in Latvia ten years ago, though some mechanisms have also been different. For example, the Purvitis Prize is meant not only for painters, but more broadly for all projects associated with visual art, for which reason the Purvitis name is reduced from the definer of painting to a mere symbolic name. At the same time, in the case of Purvitis, a number of steps have been taken to commemorate his life story more. While in Estonia, Mägi’s studio is marked with a modest little plaque and the place where he once upon a time attended school for about 90 days is marked with a sculpture, in the case of Purvitis we can speak of a house museum. By virtue of this, a much stronger localisation of the Purvitis name with Latvia and a closer connection to the nationalist perspective has also taken place.
The introduction of a monograph on Purvitis says, for instance: ‘We can say that the Neo-Romantic depiction of Latvian landscapes that Purvitis created has become a marker of nationalist identity’. Especially nowadays, when nationalism has started becoming a normative category, we should seek other perspectives for Mägi. It is true that alongside all this I would like to stress that while canonising is often based not on works but on life story and symbols, then decanonisation could always begin with works, and if there are no arguments in relation to those works, then there are no such arguments.
If we can thus manage to bypass the idea that Konrad Mägi will start to be taken as an indisputable canon, then we may succeed in two things. First, we will succeed in erecting monuments to him, organising concerts, publishing books, holding exhibitions, and doing other things, since they introduce his works, but more broadly perhaps, they take the public to the road leading to figurative art, which – as we all know – is considerably more overgrown with weeds in Estonia than the roads leading to theatre, literature or music. And secondly, we will then succeed in being a little more true to Konrad Mägi’s own anarchistic spirit, which had no regard for canons. Or as Aleksander Vardi has recalled his teacher: ‘Mägi did not tolerate the school system in teaching art. “We have to close down this shop, it’s turning into a school.”’