Lighthouse on Vilsandi

Lighthouse on Vilsandi

1913–1914Oil on canvas68.5 × 57.2 cmPrivate collection

Vilsandi Lighthouse is probably the object that Konrad Mägi depicted most often – we know of six paintings where the white and red lighthouse has been featured from different angles. Mägi painted the lighthouse both from a position next to it on Vilsandi and also gazing at it from sea, from the Vaika Islands.

Yet the main event of the painting – as for many paintings in his Saaremaa cycle – is the flora: all of Mägi’s work is characterized by programmatic disregard for people in landscapes – there are only a few where humans are depicted in some way among his several hundred known works, and mostly they are an abstract and anonymous bloc of stripes of colour, not subjects with active agency. We never see any animals in his works (other than three tiny horses in the backdrop of Kolgata) and thus we can summarize by saying that the main objects depicted in Mägi’s nature paintings are small lakes, stones on Saaremaa, and ubiquitous flora – trees, shrubs, lichens, flowers, hay.

Mägi is not interested in botanical accuracy, nor does he bring any narrative approach to vegetation or ascribe to the miniature plant forms such as lichens, sea kale and flowers any special potential to speak to us in nuanced fashion about the natural world. It is hard to see Mägi’s depictions of flora as making any comment on national identity; as Saaremaa had not become a visual byword for Estonia as a whole, the insular plant life of Saaremaa would have been a bit alien to the national identity.

Mägi’s fondness for plants would not return in quite such an intimate and emotional form. Later on, he painted plants in a much more distanced and generalized manner: bushes in the distance, decorative tree trunks and so on. Flower blossoms on his paintings are generally detached from nature; placed in a vase or adorning a portrait of some lady. The wild botanical abandon of Lighthouse on Vilsandi appears to spring first and foremost from the aesthetic value of the plants: the colourfulness of Vilsandi’s flora on the microscopic level is truly extremely spectacular.

Yet the teeming baroque luxuriance of the plant life on this painting can also evoke pulsating vitality. Small plants pushing through the scree have taken over the entire seashore. The unchecked advance of such plants might have struck Mägi as mystical, perhaps exotic, because feeling such a strong will to live – almost an urge – might have been an unfamiliar notion for him. This painting can however be considered linked even to Mägi’s later Christian compositions depicting the descent from the cross and where he dealt with the idea of rebirth and eternal life: Mägi was probably drawn equally by the mysteries of both life and death.