Oberstdorf Motif

Oberstdorf Motif

1922Oil on canvas57.5 × 70.5 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Oberstdorf marked Konrad Mägi’s second-to-last creative period. These periods are customarily treated through the changes in Mägi’s style: he painted one way in Norway, a different way on Saaremaa, and so on. The change in forms is also an important tool for organizing the artist’s work into distinct periods. But it is not always completely foolproof. In fact, the most immutable quality of Mägi works was in fact his mutability.

In Norway in particular, we see how an ostensibly cohesive period was atomized into many sub-forms. Sometimes such a subform could be made up of just two paintings, others consist of around ten, but flitting from one to another, Mägi indeed changes his format, motif, brush pattern, colour tones, composition, texture, semantic anchor points, role models and so on. This sort of jumpiness, constantly seeking, fleeing fixed form, is also depriving the existing of what he already possessed. It meant a constant self-cancellation, not at a symbolic but very real level. Having found something, he immediately or soon turns his back on it, voids it, erases it. This creative self-destructiveness can rightfully leave us the impression that Mägi was constantly trying to escape his own substance. Having found something, he then renounces it and cancels the past and, in some sense, dies as an artist, to rise again in his next work, a little bit different. This fear of or escape from substance is reminiscent of many of his own self-admissions about his fondness for being in perpetual motion: in a physical, mental and identifying dynamic.

Taking this approach, we can see any attempt to divide Mägi’s work into periods as a violent intervention since his oeuvre intrinsically resists such categorization. The aforesaid “suicidal” quality – the readiness and urge to kill off in his art whatever he happened to be at a given time – was nevertheless not self-negating but dynamic. If Mägi had wanted to commit a final auto-da-fé, he would have stopped painting. But instead, he painted prolifically, with the paintings numbering in the hundreds, and the decision to switch to a different style was part of his artistic programme and minor murder was all part of it, undertaken to ensure that his artworks would live on.

A question that comes up in the case of the Oberstdorf motifs – as it does for the Italian period – is what period the works belong to. How many paintings did he complete in Oberstdorf, and how many did he finish in Tartu based on sketches? To what extent were they informed by his travel impressions and that ecstatic feeling he got from being in a foreign place, and to what extent do they belong to the sphere of neurosis and deeper paranoia that marked his Tartu existence?

It is possible that as a result, we could see this painting not as a part of one or another period but straddling the line – a work at the intersection of two phases in his painting career, where the logic of both periods applies, e.g. the harmonious composition stemming from his travel impressions and the nervous brushstrokes produced by the flare-up of depression. Being located in such a borderline zone, this painting is a good reflection of Mägi’s characteristic roving, questing spirit.