Nature was both home and church to Estonian artist Konrad Mägi, whose major exhibition is now on show at EMMA

The exhibition The Enigma of Painting is the largest to feature Konrad Mägi’s art outside Estonia to date.

Konrad Mägi’s prime period of painting occurred when he was at Saaremaa in the early 1910s. The picture shows Saaremaa Motif, 1913. Photo: Stanislav Stepashko

8.10.2021 Helsingin Sanomat
Timo Valjakka

Konrad Mägi – The Enigma of Painting is on show until 23 January 2022 at EMMA – Espoo Museum of Modern Art (Ahertajantie 5, Tapiola). Tue, Sat, Sun 11–17, Wed–Thu 11–19, Fri 11–21.

The Estonian painter Konrad Mägi (1878–1925) is not well known in Finland, although he is considered the most important modernist of his native country. That gap is being mended by The Enigma of Painting, the most comprehensive exhibition of Mägi’s art to be held to date. Curated by Pilvi Kalhama, director of EMMA, the show comprises nearly 150 paintings and drawings from Mägi’s oeuvre of around 400 works in total.

The exhibition is timely. The art world has recently been paying attention to the forms that modernism has taken when blended with different local traditions, a discussion that has raised a number of hitherto almost unknown and marginal artists. One of them is Mägi, whose works have in recent years also been shown in Rome and Paris.

Konrad Mägi applied styles such as pointillism in a highly personal manner. Landscape in Pühajärve. Photo: Stanislav Stepashko

Estonian modernism has not always had it easy. In the Soviet Estonia of the 1940s and 1950s, Mägi was branded a reactionary and his paintings were forbidden from display. They could only be seen in museum storerooms and even then only in secret. The ban was only lifted in 1959, whereupon the Tallinn Art Museum organised a retrospective exhibition of his work.

Konrad Mägi 1878–1925

Born in South Estonia, Mägi began his art studies in Tartu in 1901 and continued them in St Petersburg in 1903. In summer 1906, he worked at the Önningeby artist colony in Åland, and in autumn he moved to the Finnish Art Society’s drawing school in Helsinki; the following autumn he studied at the free art academies in Paris.

Mägi created his first significant paintings while living in Norway from 1908–1910. They also marked his breakthrough in his home country of Estonia.

The works painted in Norway contain many of the elements for which Mägi later came to be known. Although Mägi’s oeuvre includes still lifes and portraits, he was most at home with landscapes. For a poor artist suffering from health problems and interested in spirituality, nature was both home and a church.

Norwegian Landscape with Pine is almost psychedelic in style. Photo: Stanislav Stepashko

Visible reality was only a starting point for Mägi, however. His early paintings have a strong symbolic quality, and above all they are projections of his inner feelings. The results are almost psychedelic at times, such as Norwegian Landscape with Pine (1908–1910).

Mägi’s prime period of painting was at Saaremaa in the early 1910s. It was on the shores of the island that he created his most complete and also his most famous landscapes, such as Saaremaa Motif (1913).

Although Mägi had encountered pointillism in Paris, he applied the technique in his own way, without regard to theories. Short or dot-like brushstrokes make the contrasting colour surfaces bloom like coral and radiate the bright, sharp light of the North.

The colours in the landscapes are hyper-real and the combinations surprising: ochre, pink and turquoise. It sometimes feels as if Mägi tried to capture all the seasons in his paintings at once.

Konrad Mägi: On the Road from Viljandi to Tartu. Photo Stanislav Stepashko

Mägi’s art in the 1910s was also quite original, even internationally. Although he was aware of events in the art world in Paris and Berlin, he never copied the influences he received, instead letting them filter through his powerful inner vision.

Although Mägi painted in solitude, he was not alone. At the time, many other pioneers like him occupied the northern fringes of modernism, such as the Russian-born Nicholas Roerich and the Icelandic artist Jóhannes Kjarval.

Mägi’s decidedly blue-toned views from Italy, painted in the 1920s, add one more name to the short list of possible influences. He seems to have closely studied the works of the German Die Blaue Reiter group, Wassily Kandinsky’s works in particular.

Kandinsky discovered abstract art through Russian folk art and expressive landscapes. Mägi’s last landscapes from Estonia are a form of prismatic, light-filled cubism, just a few steps away from abstraction.