Saaremaa Motif

Saaremaa Motif

1913Oil on canvas42.9 × 61.2 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Konrad Mägi arrived on Saaremaa Island in summer 1913 and returned once more in the following summer. He mainly painted on outlying Vilsandi Island and in and near Kihelkonna around Abaja Bay.

The trip was undertaken on the orders of physician Hermann Valtok. In the sheds along Abaja Bay, he took mud baths to try to heal his arthritis-afflicted body. His stay on Vilsandi was perhaps on the recommendation of his good acquaintance, the poet Gustav Suits, who had spent a summer on the island in 1908. In one of his letters, Suits says he was the only holiday-maker on the island, which must not have been an established destination during the day, its vistas largely unknown to the public.

Similarly to his Norwegian period, Mägi only dated a few paintings of the ones painted in Saaremaa over two summers. Today we know of only three works where Mägi himself inscribed the date – “1913” in all cases. This date is not surprising – it was his first summer on Saaremaa and since his work was done in a very emotional manner, the first impressions may have had a stronger effect and made him work with greater verve and vigour. Yet this is surprising given the weather records.

One of the oldest weather stations in Europe operates on Vilsandi and thus we have detailed meteorological information about the summers of 1913 and 1914. These were very different summers. The summer of 1914 was very typical of Vilsandi: dry and sunny. The summer of 1913 on the other hand was unusually rainy.

And yet Mägi dated this work 1913. The odd clouds in the sky, like hatching or a dotted line, also confirm the recorded date. This is a common weather phenomenon where the clouds lift after a rain: streams of air that were rising during the rain now start descending in the drier air and the cloud massif is torn into fragments like these by the air moving in different directions. We see the moment when it has been raining and the rain clouds have not yet exited the frame, and yet the landscape lies in some kind of especially intense abundance of light and colour.

Although 1913 was a cloudy and rainy summer, Mägi’s paintings from this year – and other Vilsandi paintings whose year we do not know – are full of light and colour. Indeed, the light is generally very bright in the Saaremaa cycle, which should make us ask whether the intense sense of light can be attributed to the weather conditions – sunlight from behind the clouds after a rain can seem very striking and powerful – or a certain psychological state where light is perceived as stronger and clearer than it actually was in real life. Is the date inscribed in the bottom left corner of Saaremaa Motif logical and realistic or just a clue as to the artist’s emotional state, some sort of tension, either personal or perceived as universal?