Meditation. (Landscape with a Lady)

Meditation. (Landscape with a Lady)

1915–1916Oil on canvas81.6 × 106 cmArt Museum of Estonia

This painting is the only example where Konrad Mägi has depicted a human figure in a non-portrait format. In other works, Mägi has incorporated human figures into a landscape or park motif, but in no other known works did he make a person the focus as he does in this work. So this is a rare example in his oeuvre, where he was not reacting directly to an external impulse but consciously constructed the painting’s motif.

Meditation dates to the years immediately following the Saaremaa summers, when Mägi was living and working in Tartu and Viljandi. On 20 July 1915, he sent Marie Reisik a letter in which he writes: “On top of everything there’s one thing that has come out very well for me, and it is something that I have always longed to do but never managed before, i.e., I have not even tried. It is a sketch for a Madonna. Of my current works, it is the one experiment that has come out best, most spiritual in colours and form.”[1] It isn’t known whether the letter is about this painting, because the work was exhibited only in 1917 under the name Panel. Meditation.

Edgar Allan Poe stories have also been considered to play a part in the origin of the painting. Artur Adson remembers: “In spring 1917, I bought from him [K. Mägi] at the Tallinn art exhibition the painting Meditation, which was supposed to have been painted based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe. It depicted a woman with a grey veil covering her head, bouquet of roses attached to her waist, in the middle of a very colour-filled landscape, and it hung on the wall of our Nõmme home until we fled the country.”[2] Since Adson and Under were good friends of Mägi’s, the comment about Poe may have been from Mägi himself.

Poe was said to be Mägi’s favourite author back then, but maybe Adson’s memory is imperfect and Mägi was influenced by Poe’s poems instead. Namely, Mägi’s young friend Johan Leppik wrote him: “I have a surprise for you: E. A. Poe’s songs with 28 colour illustrations by E. Dulac. I figured it would bring you happiness.” It was Dulac’s illustrations for Poe’s book The Bells and Other Poems (1912), where Dulac uses similar female figures in long black hair in a mysterious environment.

Another theory is that the female figure was a spiritual medium. We know that Mägi took part in séances in Helsinki and, back in Estonia, helped organize them. There is some indication that the esoteric arts were quite widespread in Tartu in the First World War years and had been imported from St. Petersburg by people fleeing war. The famous dancer Ella Ilbak, who befriended Mägi and often sat in his studio (Ilbak said being in Mägi’s company was always a jolly time and his works were “bold, fresh and had a great individuality”), took part in these séances as well.

The title of the painting however refers to Rudolf Steiner’s theosophy. In Steiner’s ideas, meditation is a key to experiencing a higher sphere that lies behind the visible world. Konrad Mägi first heard of Steiner’s ideas when he was in Norway. In spring 1909, Steiner delivered a lecture in Oslo on the connections between theosophy and apocalypse – it is not known whether Mägi attended. Some say Mägi may have even painted a portrait of Steiner, but no details about this exist.

As a literary parallel, Tõnis Tootsen brings out not Poe but Friedebert Tuglas’s story At the End of the World, which was published around the time of the painting’s completion, appearing in the Young Estonia magazine Vaba Sõna in 1915, and in 1916. In the novella, Tuglas painted a picture of an island inhabited by a giant virgin.

“She was everywhere I turned: in the trees, lake, meadows. The sky and earth were full of her. There wasn’t one of her, there was uncountably many, and she was everywhere. The lush grass was like her hair…”, writes Tuglas. The island is also characterized by very prolific, exotic flora. When the giant virgin starts showing her dark side, the plant life also changes: “Entire areas were covered with flowers, the gigantic blossom chalices were the colour of human skin. They broke underfoot and exposed their contents, which were bloody as raw meat…” Finally, the main character slays the woman and “her blood flowed on the sand, into the sea; I saw the water turn red”.

Tuglas also describes the silver threads woven into the virgin’s hair and the veil around her head. He also describes the virgin watching the sunset with other giants. It has been conjectured that Tuglas wrote the story with Marie Under in mind. The words “Giant Virgin’s letters” is written (probably in Elo Tuglas’s handwriting) on the wrapper of Under’s love letters to Tuglas.

If so, then Mägi has painted a work that is based on the love story of Tuglas and Under, the painting is bought by Under’s new companion as the work belonged to Marie Under and Artur Adson.

The painting hung in Adson and Under’s various homes, starting in 1933 in their house in the Rahumäe part of Tallinn. They did not take the painting with them when they left the country; it remained in the possession of Friedebert Tuglas, who moved into the same house, and through whom the painting was acquired by the Art Museum of Estonia in 1946.

Marie Under and Konrad Mägi interacted frequently, beyond just the context of this painting. Marie Under also mentions the painting in her home in a poem published in 1918:

A lamp – smaller rival to the bigger sun –
Is waiting on the table in the red glow of a silk dress.
And on the wall, Mägi’s painting revelling in colours:
A young woman, eyes covered, in reverent redemption.

(From the poetry collection Blue Sail, the cycle “Interiors”.)

[1] Quoted in Rudolf Paris’s monograph Konrad Mägi (1932), p. 170.

[2] A. Adson (ed.), Marie Underi eluraamat. Stockholm: Vaba Eesti, 1974, p. 65.