Võrumaa Landscape. Lake Valgjärv

Võrumaa Landscape. Lake Valgjärv

1916–1917Oil on canvas66.2 × 83.5 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Lake Valgjärv is right next to the town of Võru and is just a couple hundred metres from the next lake over, Lake Verijärv. Mägi probably discovered the motif while roaming around on foot – he was known to be a brisk and experienced walker. “However sick he may have been, it was hard to keep up with him when he was wandering and searching for motifs,” writes Martin Taevere in his memoirs. However, that recollection contradicts something Ferdinand Kull said six or seven years earlier. Back then, Kull travelled in Normandy with Konrad Mägi and when he wanted to go on a longer hike, Mägi said he could not risk undertaking such an outing with his “sore back”.

Roaming the countryside on foot was on one hand a practical activity for finding motifs to paint, but there was also something ritualistic in it, reminiscent of the per pedes apostolorum genre, the barefoot peregrinations of the apostles. It also brought the artist closer to the perceptions of the nature motifs, because constantly being in nature made everything more homelike, familiar; nature was no longer a mysterious Other.

At the same time, two interesting contradictions can be seen here.

For one thing, Mägi did in fact perceive nature as mysterious. Although it was also an environment he was extremely at home in, having grown up in it as a child, a foreign, unfamiliar element nevertheless budded within the consummately familiar. Because of this, he exoticized the familiar in his paintings, made the homelike peculiar and foreign.

Secondly, walking around in the Saaremaa countryside could indeed mean that the paintings were more sensitive to detail and had a more intimate mode of looking, but the opposite happened in southern Estonia. Although Mägi had not changed his style of searching for painting motifs in nature, his scenes now went from intimate to more spectacular. We see a string of framings that are striking and beautiful in the manner of postcards. As new elements in his observation of the landscape, Mägi now employs a panoramic way of looking and structures the view as horizontal bands. The latter technique can already be seen in a number of Norwegian scenes, but now it is much more starkly plain, with horizontal strips of landscape receding into the distance. On Saaremaa, colours set the tone, but now forms do the talking. The landscape is given a rhythm, where pool-like lakes and paths are prominent as recurring motifs, yet the nakedness of these elements helps to emphasize the landscape forms – they are not clad in forest.

By the time Mägi painted in southern Estonia, the tradition of depicting southern Estonia in paintings was young and not yet fully formed. Mägi was one of the first painters who painted there so thoroughly, laying the groundwork for the southern Estonian landscape experience. Since Mägi’s focus was on aestheticizing the landscape, his paintings may have influenced the later commercialization of the southern Estonian landscape experience. In the 1910s, southern Estonia was not yet being sold as a tourist destination, while this had changed by the 1930s. Ads in tourism brochures of the period use precisely the same composition that we see in Mägi’s paintings, with horizontal landscape bands approaching the horizon. And so Mägi’s paintings surely helped highlight the characteristic landscape forms of southern Estonia and also shaped the ways in which we see and appreciate that landscape today.