Nikolai Triik: Estonia's Master Modernist

Nikolai Triik (1884-1940) was one of Estonia’s most important exponents of Modernism in painting. Triik was at the vanguard of a group of young painters and writers who turned their gaze west, towards Scandinavia and Paris, to free themselves from what was seen as an undeveloped arts culture at home. A renowned portraitist and landscape painter, Triik’s innovative use of color mark his works as especially aesthetically pleasing and insightful in his portraiture. Tallinn Arts spoke with the curator of Kumu’s Triik exhibition Liis Pählapuu about the special qualities of the Estonian master and his art...

Could you place Nikolai Triik in context of Estonian art history in the first half of the 20th century? What broader trends in European arts are exhibited in his works?

Nikolai Triik belonged to the first generation of Estonian modernists. The new ideals and hopes of the young artists who entered Estonian cultural life around the turn of the century can clearly be traced in Triik’s own life and career. As there were no comparable art schools in Estonia at that time, many young people went abroad to look for the opportunities of art education. The first destination was St. Petersburg with its large Estonian community, but further on, interest turned toward Europe with especially Scandinavia and Paris as the main attractions. The Estonian artists whom we now may consider as the classics of that early modernist era, succeeded in finding their own path and truly original outcomes in that mixed circulation of different ideas. That is also true about Triik, who ́s creative work shares both the traces of classical fundamental values as well as the stylistics of Art Nouveau, Symbolism, Fauvism and Expressionism. It has been emphasized, that the main concept Estonian artists learned when experiencing works of art in different European exhibitions, was the freedom to interpret form and colour.

In Norway, where he spent the summers of his Paris years (1907, 1908), Triik apparently developed in his landscapes an interest in the ponderous decorativeness of the Norwegian artists’ use of colour, in which he probably saw a greater kinship with his own creative nature. The Decorative Norwegian Landscape (1908) shows the discovery of emotional bright colour, that will later enter his portraits. Concerning Triik ́s interests it is also vital to note his fondness of discovering thenational roots and bringing them to art’s sphere – the romantic tendency in the end of the 19th century, that achieved national characteristics especially in countries with an as-yet embryonic professional artistic culture. On one side, intellectuals in Estonia set Finland as a role model – a place where artists had succeeded in synthesizing from international Art Nouveau an authentic art form that had a genuinely “native” national quality. Triik showed an interest in developments in Russian art. In total, Triik spent seven years in Russia. Of his periods abroad, Triik considered his contacts with the Russian school to be the most important, seeing it as the greatest influence on his own development. The artists in the circle of Mir Iskusstva mapped a Nordic visual idiom and used it as a source for contemporary art. In the Russian context, Triik was also exposed to Ivan Bilibin’s idea (based on Art Nouveau stylization) of a book design being an artistic whole.

Could you explain the Noor-Eesti movement?

Triik’s emergence in Estonian art circles coincided with the era of the Young Estonia ideals, when a group of young intellectuals, in the first years of the 20th century, recognizing that Estonian culture was lagging behind, set a goal of bringing to Estonia European developments and a European-modelled ethos accentuating personal liberation and individualism. Young Estonia, guided by

its leaders Gustav Suits, Friedebert Tuglas and Bernhard Linde, saw the key to national culturaldevelopment as being an education abroad and active international relations. Yet the group’sorientation should not be viewed as a one-way street. The aesthetic palette of the “Young Estonians” was broad, and included both national and international elements. The most ambitious goal set

by Young Estonia – to firmly plant Estonian culture on the global stage, every bit the equal of its international ilk – is typical of the idealism of that entire first generation of artists who headed off to Europe. The searches of the Young Estonia writers and artists were typified by their mobility between different places in Europe. The years that followed witnessed a number of reunions and group travels in Europe’s metropolises, where they hatched plans to reinvigorate local Estonian culture and made future travel plans, only to go their separate ways again.

Nikolai Triik’s first collaboration with Young Estonia was Album I. He stylized the cover design of Fire Bearer as a decorative version of a classical Pegasus motif – a trenchant opening salvo for the album’s introductory text Noorte püüded (Strivings of Youth), where Suits called on youths to be more idealistic. Probably it was the successful cover design – which quickly became the group’s emblem – that blazed the trail to further collaborations.

In 1908–1910, Triik was involved both with studies in St. Petersburg as well as with events in local art circles centered in Tartu. This is the period in which Triik became actively engaged in the activities of the Young Estonia group. Triik, now about to become the most important person in shaping the artistic reception and visual appearance of Young Estonia artistic community, also became an important link between the group and the first generation of modernists who studied abroad. Concerning the Second Estonian Art Exhibition (1909) organised by the Young-Estonians, Triik’s contribution has been seen as a catalyst.

In general, Young Estonia, a child of a revolutionary period, did not choose to belong to a specific camp in society, preferring to remain apolitical. Aino Kallas has called Young-Estonians “Democratic aristocrats” potential and the energy seen in modernist art and literature - they remained remote from the people, and uninitiated audiences did not sense the the potential and the energy seen in modernist art and literature.

As a portraitist, what really stands out in NT's work?

It has been noted, that Triik’s artistic nature was shaped by a quality more often seen in writers and less often in artists – the French call it polypersonnalité, that is, the quality of penetrating another person’s personality and inner life, the property of imagining and sensing oneself as another person, founded primarily on a particularly finely developed sensuousness, receptiveness and imaginative powers. It seems that Triik had a special skill in establishing a contact with the person depicted. The portrait of poet Juhan Liiv, is especially unique, as Liiv was not fond of letting himself be photographed. In Liiv’s portrait, Triik shows extraordinary skill in bringing out the tension that defines a human personality through charcoal strokes at once intense and sensitive. The portrayal of Liiv denotes both inevitable static inescapability as well as extraordinary human warmth and closeness, supported by very careful choice of the intimately small format of the drawing.

After the summers in Norway, that had fundamental value in Triik ́s development, he brings the bright colours and decorative red, white and blue combinations previously employed in depicting landscapes to the human form. The unexpected colour scheme that disregards natural shades nevertheless accurately follows, in streamlined manner, the character and form of the face. It has been said that Triik builds portraits like an architect, providing synthesis that is coordinated right down to the final stroke. Triik ́s portraits stand out from his contemporaries ́ with their consummate self-confidence and powerfully serious manner. Triik ́s portraits show a special skill of combining captivating strength with an ultimately hermetic, unfathomable secret behind a person.

After 1913, when Triik arrived back from Berlin, he established himself as a well-known portraitist and had many commissions. The commissioned portraits Triik would henceforth paint speak a different language compared to the portraits and landscapes that he painted based on personal contacts. The portraits, which prominently aspire to solidity and dignity, unite the tastes of the time and a lifelike portrayal of the subject into a calm whole. The portraits he painted in later years are of people who had achieved some stature in the society back then.

NT's use of color and brushwork are intriguing. Could you comment?

Triik ́s way of treating colour is deeply connected with strong drawing as the basis of the picture created. In portraits, Triik „models“ people with colours. Even his Expressionistic works are never just spontaneous outbreaks, but based on several pre-works and studies. Triik was very systematic and commanding and his way of depiction is very much based on Art-Nouveau ́s linear manners.

Triik is generally known as a remarkable portraitist, but in his work landscapes were an area for a more unshackled pursuit of self-inquiry and painterly ideas, and they resulted in a string of successes. In Finnish Landscape (1914) Triik has molded an impulsively soft mass of colour, allowing it to resonate as a material, out of which evolves a teeming, restless form.

Why the interest now in NT? What brought about the exhibition?

Kumu holds a series of exhibitions called „The Classics of the Early Modernist Era“. The exhibition in 2014 is meant to celebrate the 130th annual of Triik ́s birth. With the exhibition, we set a goal to give a fresh look on Triik ́s legacy, in finding new emphases and creating a visually attractive whole in order to make it easy to follow the fundamental values and developments in his career, also to enlighten effectively the controversial dramatism between different chapters. When working with the exhibition it seemed important to bring the pieces to viewers keeping in mind the honesty of the material and the character of different pieces. That is, for example, to show the sketchy works accordingly, released from hard frames. With this exhibition we are happy to present two outstanding portraits from a Finnish private collection which can be regarded as new discoveries in Estonian art history.

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