Major Exhibition of Konrad Mägi’s Works Returned from Italy, Now at Kumu

6 September 2018 Maaleht
Mai Levin
Art historian

An exhibition of Konrad Mägi’s nature paintings has been opened at the Kumu Art Museum with more than 40 paintings on display from most of his creative periods. These mystical landscape views arrived in their homeland from a major exhibition in Rome.

Konrad Mägi at Kumu

The curators of the exhibition of Konrad Mägi’s landscape paintings are Eero Epner and Liis Pählapuu.

Tõnis Saadoja has created the design.

More than 40 paintings from most of Mägi’s creative periods are on display.

The exhibition will remain open until 24 March 2019.

Let me begin with Enn Kunila’s admirable affection for the classics of Estonian painting and his enterprising spirit, the results of which have been the exhibitions of his art collection at the Museo Vittoriano in Rome in 2015 and the Museum for 20th Century Art in Florence in 2017. This prepared the way for the solo exhibition of Konrad Mägi’s works at the National Gallery for Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome that was on display from October of last year until January of this year. The difficulties involved in organising the latter exhibition fell to a great extent on the shoulders of the Art Museum of Estonia, the owner of the largest collection of works by Konrad Mägi.

The above-mentioned museums are respectable art institutions. Holding events at such institutions is a point of honour. On top of this, Italy, as a lovely country with a vast repository of art, adds emotions as the county that prior to Mägi had inspired dozens of Baltic German and Estonian artists, especially Johann Köler and Ants Laikmaa from the latter group.
Mägi was similarly enamoured with that country. He called Capri divine and wrote his particularly brightly colourful chapter in the history of Estonian painting with views of Capri, Rome and Venice.

Now the works from the exhibition in Rome can be viewed at Kumu with the exception of those Norwegian and Saaremaa landscapes that were sent directly from Rome to Paris to the exhibition of the symbolism of the Baltic countries that was opened in April at the Orsay Museum.

The well-travelled Konrad Mägi gladly depicted landscapes in particular. His view, drenched in colours, of Capri…Art Museum of Estonia

…and of Norway. Art Museum of Estonia


Mägi’s oil paintings had their start in Åland

Konrad Mägi (1878–1925) studied at the Stieglitz Art School in St. Petersburg in 1903–1905, primarily wood carving under the guidance of Amandus Adamson. Prior to that – he studied at drawing courses offered by the German Association of Artisans in Tartu.

He probably already came into contact with oil painting to some extent at the start of his studies, yet he started painting more seriously in Åland, where he was staying with Aleksander Tassa and Nikolai Triik in the summer of 1906. Alongside picturesque skerries, Triik, who was a great deal more experienced in painting, could have fired up his fervour.
We know only one of his Åland studies, which was purchased at an auction in Helsinki some time ago and brought back to Estonia.

Mägi already familiarised himself to some extent with modern art trends in St. Petersburg, where the Mir iskusstva (Art World) school held exhibitions and published its own periodical. Yet it was Paris, where he arrived together with Tassa in the autumn of 1907, that primarily influenced him with its multitude of fascinating art exhibitions.

He sent postcards from Paris bearing reproductions of the works of Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau. Symbolism, which had started spreading during the last decades of the previous century, put its stamp of affinity for mysticism on his oeuvre right through to his Italian period.


Fauvists exerted their influence

It was only as recently as 1905 that the so-called wild beasts, or Fauvists, headed by Henri Matisse, had attracted attention with their hitherto unprecedented expressive style and bold use of colour at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris. Mägi also mentions Anna Zherebtsova (1885–1939) alongside Matisse in one of his letters. She was an energetic Russian maiden who moved to Paris before the First World War and prior to finding art collectors found the most revolutionary figures in the art scene there.

Marie Vassilieff was one of that group who went down in art history. She already started up the so-called Russian Academy on Avenue du Maine in 1910. Young artists from all over the world gathered there to draw, paint and spend enjoyable evenings together.

The Montparnasse Museum operated in her studio at 21 Avenue du Maine in 1998–2015. Since 2016, the renovated Villa Vassilieff has been home to a centre of experimental art.

Mägi did not enrol in a school of figurative arts in Paris like Nikolai Triik or Jaan Koort did, instead he frequented the Russian Academy after returning from Norway.

Chagall, Picasso and Braque could be found there, but Mägi surely met the well-known avant-gardist Nathan Altman there, whose portrait he painted in 1911. This fine portrait was unfortunately lost during the Second World War.

Altman lived until his death (in 1970) in Leningrad, and his solo exhibition in 1969 was very successful. Yet it never dawned on anyone to ask him if he remembered the Estonian artist who painted his portrait in Paris when he was not yet famous.


Norwegian landscapes played an important role

Mägi completed a large number of landscapes in Norway in 1908–1910. Norwegian Landscape (1909, Art Museum of Estonia), which Olev Subbi already referred to as a ‘million dollar’ painting in 1968, gives an idea of the splendour of nature in the land of fjords with its massive bluish mountain.

There is nevertheless more of the harsh spirit of the nature of the Northern lands in his stylising India ink drawings-illustrations for the periodical Noor-Eesti [Young Estonia] (from 1911/12) than in his colourful studies that he painted in the vicinity of Christiania (Oslo).

These small-format works with simple motifs are like a laboratory for trying out many various approaches to solving painterly tasks. At the same time, they are still interesting, especially considering how short the duration of his painting career was at that point.

When they were displayed in Tallinn in 1910 in the apartment of Alfred Kivi, an artist who had studied at the Stieglitz School, they came across as being novel and non-academic, and they left a strong impression, especially on young artists.
After returning to Estonia in 1912, Mägi painted art nouveau-decorative landscapes in pastel colouring during his brief Mõniste period.

Those who know Mägi’s oeuvre have observed changes in his style as the locations of his paintings change. This is why his Saaremaa, Viljandi–Võru County, Pühajärve Lake–Võrtsjärve Lake, Italian and Saadjärve periods are spoken of.

Yet his Saaremaa landscapes from 1913–1914 speak of having completely found himself. Here the pointillist technique originating from Neo-Impressionism that he used in Norway and France in Normandy reaches a mature, personalised level, and his colours become particularly vivid and boldly expressive.

Fresh studies were completed during this period along with landscape compositions painted in the studio in a more carefully considered manner. One of the masterpieces of his Saaremaa period is Maastik punase pilvega (Landscape with a Red Cloud, Art Museum of Estonia), which the English art historian Stephen Farthing reproduced in his book 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, which the publisher Varrak published in Estonian translation in 2008.

This work, which is justifiably displayed at the exhibition of the symbolism of the Baltic countries, can also be viewed as a harbinger of the subsequent more expressionist trend in Mägi’s oeuvre.


Style changed with location

Those who know Mägi’s oeuvre have observed changes in his style as the locations of his paintings change. This is why his Saaremaa, Viljandi–Võru County, Pühajärve Lake–Võrtsjärve Lake, Italian and Saadjärve periods are spoken of.

Although this artist’s strongest genre was landscape, even his portraits are a distinctive phenomenon in Estonian art. Konrad Mägi has also created elegant graphic art for books. Watercolour sketches explain his creative method.

He no doubt needed an experience of nature in order to create art, but the influence of contemporary art trends was even more important.

Mägi’s oeuvre demonstrates how the artist works through the experience of trends-styles within himself, initially earlier experiences, then newer ones.

The abrupt subjectivism of expressionism, which he admittedly already came into contact with in Paris, culminated in his oeuvre somewhat later at the end of the 1910s in his Pühajärve Lake and Otepää landscapes.

The restlessly turbulent times and the art environment that was changing even in Estonia, where the influence of the German-Russian avant-garde grew stronger, functioned as a catalyst.

A kind of clarification and pacification in the spirit of Cèzannism of the 1920s appears to have arrived in his Saadjärve Lake landscapes from the last years of his life after the exaltation of his landscapes from Pühajärve Lake–Capri–Oberstdorf. Weary of searchingly thrashing about, art sought that which was stable and fundamental that can be relied on from the oeuvre of Paul Cèzanne.

Although Mägi’s strongest genre was landscape, even his portraits are a distinctive phenomenon in Estonian art. Konrad Mägi has also created elegant graphic art for books. Watercolour sketches explain his creative method.
There is no field whatsoever in the oeuvre of any artist that is actually secondary.