Sea Kale

Sea Kale

1913–1914Oil on canvas56 × 66.2 cmArt Museum of Estonia

The work was painted in the immediate vicinity of the lighthouse on Vilsandi Island with a view to the north. His fascination with the Kihelkonna area and, in particular, Vilsandi Island ushered in a new period in his work, which strikes us today as life-affirming and optimistic in all of its formal characteristics: the paintings are full of light and colour, the composition is balanced, the approach to space is harmonious, the literary motifs of the works allow for observation of the world but do not intervene in its flow. Mägi’s few dispatches from Saaremaa are much more full of joy than the letters he sent from Tartu and Viljandi not long before, which emanate dark depression.

On the other hand, the entire Saaremaa cycle, and especially Sea Kale, stand out for an extreme, ramped-up intensity. There are many colours and they are vivid, strong, sometimes unblended. The big canvases are coated with thousands of quick and flitting brushstrokes, and on some paintings, an apocalyptic sun is seen blazing; dramatic clouds swirl over the horizon in other works, and on Sea Kale and a few others, we are given an intimate view as opposed to a panoramic one, albeit one with extraordinary power. It appears as if Mägi had dropped to his knees to examine the flora of the western shore of Vilsandi from up close, with some sort of particular passion. So, we can no longer speak of a striving to give aesthetic pleasure through observation of nature but rather of a nearly hysterical intensity with which the artist inhabits the work and which gives insight into the artist’s psychological state of mind, perhaps belying the life-affirming qualities. It is worth looking not only at the brightness of the colours, the great number of brushstrokes and the artist’s intense relationship with the motif but also the supercharged ampleness of light (see Saaremaa Motif, 1913).

It should not be forgotten that Mägi arrived on Saaremaa probably in the throes of clinical depression and various physical ills. Both processes had lasted long enough to rule out the possibility that a couple weeks of summer holiday would reverse them. Mägi’s spirits may have improved on the island, but his hypersensitivity to various stimuli remained strong and the fact that he used more light and colour to convey his reactions to the local nature is not sufficient to support the theory that his psychological state was completely transformed during this period. Considering the especially high saturation of the colours on the canvas, the feverish cascade of brushstrokes and the number of paintings produced, we can suppose that an array of Saaremaa works are very affective – i.e., quick and sudden reactions to some external irritant, transferred to canvas (or cardboard) with an obsessive intensity, at the same time expressing the artist’s inner tensions, frayed nerves, and raw state of his emotions.