Portrait of a Woman
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Portrait of a Woman

1918–1921Oil on canvas69.8 × 59 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Konrad Mägi’s art critic friend Hanno Kompus has said that a superb portrait also bears a similarity with the person depicted, but the portrait must not be a copy based on form. Aesthetic similarity is more important than a superficial proximity: painting psychological features in a way that incites feelings in the attentive viewer and makes them certain that the person depicted was just like that. Nikolai Triik’s painting of Mägi has precisely this psychological depth. We look at the work and see an empty room staring back, with only a few items in it, and Mägi sitting in the centre on a chair. This empty space creates an association with the sense of solitude felt by Mägi. His own emotionless and hunched posture and gaze – at once bitter and sad – are suggestive of his low spirits. An allusion to the latter can also be seen in the forlorn chair and headless female figure seen in the picture on the wall. The emphasis in Mägi’s picture Portrait of a Woman is likewise on emotionless, characterless aspects, although the subject of the portrait is similar to many other women depicted by Mägi. In this way, the subject almost represents a type. It can however be presumed that this is not in fact a portrait of the woman who posed for Mägi. Instead, it is as if it were Mägi’s fantastic self-portrait. The woman here bears a striking similarity to Mägi as painted by Triik. She has crestfallen, jaded gaze, a lifeless pose and is wearing stylish clothes (Mägi was a real dandy). There is something Mägiesque about the woman psychologically speaking, although her surroundings – nature – also harbour the same quality. Mägi often spoke through his landscape paintings about both the experience derived from nature and his own feelings. Portrait of a Woman shows us Mägi’s characteristic techniques and nature motifs which he uses to allude to being in poor spirits. It contains a combination of the dynamic and static used to conjure up in the viewer a simultaneous blend of melancholy, angst and unease. The static and melancholy woman is contrasted by the dark clouds writhing in the sky, which is one of the artist’s leading motifs as a symbol of melancholy and restlessness. The sharp tipped mountain ranges create an illusion of motion, perhaps even a stormy sea. The dynamic saw-toothed clouds and mountains create an anxious and gloomy emotional mode. The autumnal palette also supports the cheerless emotional landscape. This plants Portrait of a Woman (and Triik’s painting as well) in the ranks of decadent art, where affect and emotion are central, including the weaving of opposing emotions. The emphasis in decadent art is precisely on mental and physical decay, and to visualize them metaphorically the artist may speak of himself through clouds, colours or another person, and tend to extremes.