Lake Pühajärv

Lake Pühajärv

1918–1920Oil on canvas52.7 × 68 cmArt Museum of Estonia

This painting could initially be confused with a realistic view of northern lights but it does not depict the aurora. While the resemblance is accurate, everything else here is consistent with the white nights of summer, a time when the northern lights are, of course, not visible. Until late August, the sky is too bright. There is also no record in the press of the northern lights being visible at Lake Pühajärv in those years.

Mägi fuses an idyllic and quite typical image of the lake, considered one of Estonia’s gems, with an extraordinarily dramatic, almost apocalyptic sky. Here again, there is a conflict between the calm decorative landscape and explosively writhing sky, albeit where the turmoil has little influence on what lies beneath it. Thus, the drama of this painting is not focused only on the celestial; in fact, the drama only occurs in the heavens.

In some sense, the painting can be seen as the culmination of Mägi’s sky observations. Even in his Norwegian period, he often focused special attention on the dramatic cloud motifs in order to express a metaphysical or sacral dimension. Largely due to Mägi’s way of depicting sky and clouds, there is a pantheistic sensibility here, with all of nature resonating with a religious dimension. For Mägi, this aspect meant not quiet harmony but sublimity. Mägi’s skies are often very moody, with outsize emotional impact, and the objective appears to be cathartic.