Portrait of a Woman (Ludmilla Allik)

Portrait of a Woman (Ludmilla Allik)

1923–1924Oil on canvas67.5 × 50 cmTartu Art Museum

Little is known about the model. In 1921, a girl by that name graduated from the Tartu Girls’ Gymnasium and thus it can be supposed that she was in her early 20s at the time that the work was completed. This is also suggested by the known information about her or her namesake, who is believed to have been born in 1901. The mother of this Ludmilla Allik was born on Lake Saadjärv, in Äksi, and since Mägi painted there in the summer of 1923 and 1924, it is possible that he met the girl there, when she was visiting her grandparents.

Yet these conjectures are too thin to say anything for sure. Allik is not in the lists of Pallas Art School students although they may have met in some other context.

Perhaps the biographical details of the model are not that important, though. Konrad Mägi has not traditionally been interested in tracing the psychological features of his female subject but rather depicting an idealized Madonna-like figure. In this work, we can also see the influence of the Italian period in the model’s clothing.

Fashion historian Anu Ojavee says Mägi seems to see a woman as a mysterious creature, someone to commit to the canvas as a graceful and distant being. In the interests of the compositional whole, Ojavee says, individual striking details (a lush rose in her hair or on her chest, ruched elements or draped fabrics etc.) are positioned on the paintings. Theatrical furs, gloves, pearls and a scarf – requisite wardrobe elements for ladies in the first decades of the century – were used as traditional symbols of elegance.

Ojavee argues that on Mägi works, the accessories often are out of sync with the time depicted and Mägi has dressed his models in another period’s clothing or arranged their hair in a way different from the fashion of that era. Then again, people are never constantly dressed as the norms of their era dictate. Mägi’s work is also characterized by a certain more abstract treatment of time, where he ignores modernization and prefers to depict timeless spaces (landscapes) or old-fashioned environments that often aspire to a generalized metaphysical state (especially in his paintings of Capri, Naples, Rome and Venice). Although Mägi’s style as a painter was modern, his painted spaces and models are not. While he uses techniques from his own period, his themes and motifs seek a mythological past or abstract timelessness.

This leads to a growing theatrical element as Mägi uses his paintings to construct fantasy-filled scenes where even nature motifs (such as clouds) may be figments of his mind, to say nothing of clothing, jewellery or hairstyles. It is possible that such an approach was related not only to the artist’s desire to find timeless generalizations but also his depression. Without attempting to mythologize the artist’s illness, there are certain connections between Mägi’s medical history and, for instance, Ludmilla Allik’s clothing.