The history of 20th century Estonia is marked by drastic schisms in which society remoulded its relationship with institutions and the state. This is true of the people who lived through the period and it continues into the present day for academic fields and disciplines, including the history of art. Olev Subbi’s artistic career and personality offer a unique view into how Estonian society reacted and adapted to many of these changes. Born in independent Estonia, living through the entire Soviet period, witnessing the rekindling of independence and entering with his country into the 21st century, Subbi’s relationship to art and the state throughout his life are the basis on which this exhibition and catalogue reformulate a position on our global relationship to the past through artistic gesture.
The 1990s in Estonia was a period in which the re-independent country was regenerated and it caused much uncertainty and economic hardship for those who lived through it. Art historians and curators took it upon themselves to make a clean break with the past, by quickly rejecting Soviet culture and aligning more closely with the West, as well as rewriting local art history to include dissident art that had been unaccounted for in the Soviet period. Olev Subbi was among those who were brushed aside by official accounts, as he refused to change his philosophy of art and stuck to his personal ways. He continued working in what he understood as art’s relationship to the state. As was typical of Olev Subbi, his time was out of joint, and the radical break and adoption of Western discourse taken by the majority of younger Estonian artists at this time was of no importance to him.
He spent the last phase of his career working closely with Estonia’s president Lennart Meri and serving as curator of Estonian painters at national representations of Estonian art, without adopting any new models of historical representation. A painter out of time, the title reflects his nature and the absence of time in favour of the non-linear reality of his paintings. From his early years studying with artists nearly ten years younger, his career following closely the developments of the Pallas school over a generation earlier, to the final work – Subbi inhabited a time outside of the present both in his life and paintings.
In the past decade, the perspective of art history has shifted once more to attempt to recuperate many of the lost histories from the Soviet period. Those years are undeniably part of Estonia’s identity and our global entanglement. The issues of Estonia’s past belong exclusively to its context, yet there are undeniable parallels that continue to make it a history applicable to other regions of the world. The struggle for independence and the issues faced by the Estonian minority within the Soviet Union to preserve language and identity strike a chord with my homeland of Catalonia, along with issues of decolonisation. Rebuilding of threatened identities is a continuous process in many parts of the world. Departing from theories of “alternate modernisms” elaborated by Sirje Helme, this exhibition attempts to tie together the strings of a shattered world whose roots grow from the same planetary soil.
Olev Subbi spoke few words about his paintings, instead preferring for the viewer to interpret them individually. His bright fields of colour and his famous themes of subjects in landscape form the image of an idealised parallel world that speaks of society and culture’s connection to nature, beauty, locality and how nature forms our very identity. The topics of ecology and identity are at the forefront of contemporary art discussions on a global scale. These two hooks provide the incentive to connect themes and concerns from Subbi across generations and geographies to interact with the urgencies of the present day.
Seven contemporary artists have been invited to interact or respond to the themes of landscape and identity. These two philosophical hinges form an important part of Subbi’s work. They serve as the anchor to propose how the works of a previous generation can be applicable to persistent issues in contemporary art. They ensure a continuity between remarkably different times and contexts – just because society changed around them does not mean that these issues have been solved or gone away. Each of the contemporary artists weaves a narrative that expands and contrasts our current discourse with that of the 1960s and 70s in Estonia. Contemporary art still reacts to the world we have inherited from the past and we continuously redraw our relationship to it.
The works of Larry Achiampong, María Dalberg, Nona Inescu, Ad Minoliti, Juana Subercaseaux, Maya Watanabe and Nazim Ünal Yilmaz each expand the themes of landscape and identity into different paths. By bringing in feminist, queer and de-colonial narratives among other strains of thought, these works expand on Subbi’s themes and show how we have grown and progressed. The relationship offered between now and then comments on our scattered yet connected relationship with history.