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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wandering Estonian Gallery Worth a Stop

The Art Museum of Estonia has had a rotten time this century. Founded in 1919, it began life in the attic of the Estonia Theater. Since then, it has moved no fewer than six times to venues ranging from the grand Kadriorg Palace in the suburbs of Tallinn to the building of a former restaurant.

Its name has been changed almost as frequently, often for no apparent reason (it has been known successively as the Estonian Museum, the Art Museum of Estonia, the Tallinn State Art Museum, the State Art Museum of the Estonian S.S.R. and then the Art Museum of Estonia again). Most damagingly, the museum suffered during the bombardment of March 1944, when the building in which it was located burned down. The collections of furniture and applied art, the museum's archive and some of the paintings all perished. Fortunately, the majority of the fine art collection was evacuated and saved.

The museum's unsettled history this century is still not over. In 1994, a competition to design a new home for the museum was won by Pekka Vappavuori, a young Finnish architect. Construction will begin in 1999 and when it is done the museum once again will have to move its offices and paintings.

In view of all these changes, it is difficult for a tourist to know where to look for Estonian art. After World War II, the Art Museum returned to the Kadriorg Palace, which was a relatively easy landmark to find.

However, the palace has long been closed for renovation, frustrating many a potential visitor who made the journey out to the suburbs in vain.

The museum's collections are now temporarily housed in the Knighthood House at Toompea Hill, near the parliament building. The venue is not ideal: While all museums only manage to display part of their holdings, the proportion of the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia on display here is particularly small. The Knighthood House also is devoid of adequate lighting or climate control, and there is little indication on the outside of the building to tell the casual passerby what lies within.

However, any visitor to Estonia with even a slight interest in the visual arts will be richly rewarded by dropping in as there is a wealth of material on show, covering Estonian developments in painting and sculpture from the early 19th century to the present day.

The earliest works encompass the development of a classical style in Estonian painting, encouraged by the opening of a school for drawing at Tartu University in 1803. Following in the footsteps of the European academies of art, the drawing school appropriated the practice of emulating works by Old Masters in order to achieve artistic perfection.

Splendid portraits of pompous aristocrats demonstrate the pose, poise and finish characteristic of traditional academic art, while landscape artists imitated the classical idealism of painters such as Poussin and Claude Lorraine.

However, an identifiably Estonian element is soon visible. Carl von Neff, for example, produced typically polished academic portraitswhile working as the court painter of Russian tsars Nicholas I and Alexander II, but turned his attention to peasant women in national Estonian dress when he worked in his home territory of Virumaa. These are analogous to the work of Alexei Venetsianov, Russia's great peasant painter who turned to the rural population for inspiration. Both artists shifted their priorities from historical and mythological scenes painted according to classical academic dictates to images of local, contemporary life.

This interest in modern models was taken further in the work of Johann Koler (1826-1899), an artist who had a peasant upbringing in Viljandimaa before training in the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. Like so many artists of his day, Koler went to Italy to study the highlights of Western European art, producing a striking series of costume portraits there before returning to Estonia in 1863.

These portraits include "A Roman Girl" (1858), in which a dark, sultry beauty is momentarily distracted, turning her head away from the artist who is painting her. The care with which she has arranged her hair and clothes is belied by the intensity with which she looks at something (or someone) just out of the picture frame. This is a woman who has made an effort for the portraitist, but who would normally have more interesting things to think about than her appearance. Even her hand, which grips the arm of her chair, seems about to move away.

Later artists pass through the phase of social responsibility that seems obligatory in so many countries in the second half of the 19th century. In contrast, the museum's 20th-century collection teems with exciting new discoveries.

During World War I, for example, the artists Eduard Ole, Felix Johannsen-Randel and Johan Raudsepp all studied at the Penza Art School and became acquainted with the innovative developments taking place in Russian art. These inspired experimentation with cubist and constructivist forms but with a distinct Baltic identity.

Estonian art has yet to feature in the Western European canon of art history, and yet many of the works here easily merit inclusion. The Art Museum of Estonia may therefore be homeless and underfunded, but it makes an invaluable contribution to its country's new, assertive identity.