Evi Tihemets and August Künnapu, Happiness and Everything Else
Happiness and Everything Else is a joint exhibition of Evi Tihemets and August Künnapu, open from 6 May at Tallinn City Gallery. Tihemets is a master of her field and an artist who sometimes mixes up her toolbox with the freedom of a dreamer. Künnapu, on the other hand, is a primitivist and professional who uses his dreams to paint the phenomena of the real world with admirable consistency.
Evi Tihemets is part of what is called “the Golden Sixties” in our art history. At the end of the 50s she introduced the freedom of form and generalisation into her small-format paintings, as she sought to catch up with developments in our local art scene as well as in the rest of the world after World War II. Although she studied to become a printmaker and diligently acquired training in Realism during the Soviet era without reluctance or undervaluing what she was being offered, she emerged from this experience by experimenting with painting techniques on her own. She navigated Khrushchev’s Thaw alongside her slightly younger male colleagues Peeter Ulas, Herald Eelma, Renaldo Veeber and Jüri Palm. Nevertheless, she was placed somewhere between their masculine and dynamic innovations and the works of the slightly older Vive Tolli, as well as a remarkable group of younger female printmakers. It would seem to me that in working as a freelance artist after her studies, Evi Tihemets became closer to Alo Hoidre, the supervisor of her graduation work, a printmaker and a successful painter, and Kaljo Põllu, a top printmaker who was trained as a glass artist, than her sensitive and mostly lyrical fellow female artists.
August Künnapu also works as an artist in a sort of intergenerational field, and he too has always been a freelancer – in a different time, with different attitudes and paths of development. Like his parents, he began his studies in the humanities and architecture, but since 2000 he has devoted himself entirely to painting. He entered the Estonian art scene as a long-awaited “true naivist”. As a self-taught artist, he walked the same path as Lembit Sarapuu (from Evi Tihemets’ generation), who, even though he had completed official painting education, had become an uncategorisable and peculiar exponent. August, who was initially greeted as a prodigy, was soon left alone by art connoisseurs, as often happens. From a certain point on, there wasn’t much to say about his development as an artist. His painting style, which was already matured by the time he first took brush to canvas, gave no reason to set any landmarks or describe major personal changes. Yet his joyous stills of life familiar to us all still infuse us with his zest for life, and he still has a large, enthusiastic and loyal fan club.
On what differs
Evi Tihemets has held many exhibitions over the years and received many reviews. There have been catalogues compiled, films made and articles written about her work. Tihemets’ development as an artist aligns with the styles and ways of thinking of the current times and she also draws on her experiences across many decades. She was taught to draw almost all genres of art: portraits, landscapes, still-lives, realistic and abstract compositions. Künnapu, on the other hand, does what he loves and trusts, just what feels true to him and what he knows. He has no interest in still-lives or views of nature; instead, he focuses entirely on people and the world of culture and art. “The range of themes that interest me in the visual arts is the same as in real life: medicine, filmmaking, literature, music, sports, architecture.”1August Künnapu, Epifanio 2007, p. 42. See also: August Künnapu (epifanio.eu) He describes his way of work as follows: “My painting process is thoroughly spontaneous – the colour scheme and composition derive from the inner feeling of the moment, and I never know what the outcome will be.”2Epifanio, 2/2005. EPIFANIO 2
Evi, unlike August, has maximum control over her activities, and she characterises her works by summarising these as characteristic of the current time: “One of the recurrent themes in my work is the endangered world – not so much in terms of the natural environment of humans as in terms of attitudes towards life and its core values, which of course also impacts on the environment. Another important topic has been collective memory, a call to make sense of the overwhelming number of innocent victims of recent times.”3Vappu Thurlow, Evi Tihemets. Tallinn 2022, p. 178. Both artists speak in everyday terms and select their imagery from the glorious or not so glorious everyday life and history, yet their attitudes differ. “Künnapu doesn’t care about politics, economic growth or recession, equality or whatever… Künnapu is placed to live in the present day, but his soul is set to resound in harmony with the past,”4Mare Joonsalu, Künnapu naudib hetki ja maalimist – August Künnapu, Elujõgi. 2013, p. 12. Mare Joonsalu writes.
Indeed, a large part of the themes in August’s work involve childhood memories. He is angular, gentle and delicate in his nostalgia and expresses his sympathy in a rarely direct manner. In Evi Tihemets, on the other hand, despite her long creative career, there isn’t a tiny sense of nostalgia; both she and her work fully exist in the present. “In my paintings I try to describe the world as it is – without making it more beautiful or frightful,” August says,5August Künnapu, Epifanio 2007, p. 42. See also: August Künnapu (epifanio.eu) yet at the same time he willingly uses laconic, abstract and loaded keywords such as “spirituality”, “cosmic energy”, “timeless” and “eternal.”
Evi is much more down-to-earth and sensitive to nature, which does not prevent her from being a passionate reader of literature and an attentive observer of the processes of life and art. Pure emotion is out of the question in printmaking, as the discipline requires time-consuming craftsmanship and the ability to predict things; Evi, however, is capable of anything: her compositions, colour palette and combination of images are flawless and professionally executed even now, as she approaches her 90th birthday. She picks the large shapes and timeless generalisations for her print art from the phenomena of life, as if skimming the cream from the milk.
August’s generalisation is his artistic statement, a precisely expressed artist’s position; his paintings, on the other hand, depict life without making any generalisations. Maybe this is also due to the inevitable generational difference. August uses the terms “timeless” or “big simple figure” – terms that are normally not used by his generation and that have only recently slowly started to return to use in art criticism. Evi is a positive pragmatist in life and art as well as in her words; August, on the other hand, is an expert dreamer in all of these aspects. Unlike Evi, he is also media-conscious and able to harness it. Evi prefers to work with printing plates or stones, and she builds her work on the logic of the development of a graphic image, whereas August builds his on a pre-existing film or photo frame. I would like to say that August’s work is intergenerational, but it would be more accurate to call it non-generational.
Evi’s work tries to keep pace with the times, and to follow progress. Thus, her works have been noticeably influenced by Herald Eelma, Peeter Ulas, Vello Vinn and Raul Meel, and she often places her pictures in exhibition spaces as well-thought-out art installations. Despite the fact that the heyday of printmaking is long gone and traditional printmaking techniques are losing their relevance, Evi Tihemets is passing through the peak points in her work, rekindling the flames of this art genre over and over again, surprising viewers with changes that cannot be described without delving into the artist’s medium and nuances of realisation. In the backgrounds and textures of her works, the beauty, skill and power of the whole process of working with a printing plate or stone have been made visible.
Elnara Taidre is the only one who has analysed August’s work from the perspective of form development, and even she proceeds from his earlier paintings: “His manner of interpretation is characterised by certain generalising, schematising and stylising – he says that he looks at the “world and people in images”. /…/ Colour is at the centre of attention and the main tool to find solutions for dynamics, movement and atmosphere. /…/ The details are noticeable by their spotted surfaces – brush strokes added onto the canvas, which Künnapu is keen on applying when filling various surfaces from architectural elements to the patterns of clothing. /…/ This technique creates an intense impression of the vibrating surfaces and conveys the emotional scenery. /…/ He expresses what he believes in, and this sincere conviction combined with attentive observation and skilful painting always produces an effortless effect. The world of August Künnapu is at times infantile, silly and nonsensical, but always kind and joyful.”6Elnara Taidre. Prodigy or Little Prince? – Epifanio 2007, pp. 6–30. August Künnapu (epifanio.eu)
This is exactly how it is: Evi Tihemets’ creativity and playfulness are expressed in masterful techniques and colourful imagery, whereas in August Künnapu’s work they manifest in a child-like and cheerful approach to colour and figures. August says, “A great work of art should have as much heart, hand and eye to it as the ancient Chinese used to believe. Let’s leave our brains for other activities, dear artists and art consumers!”7August Künnapu, Elujõgi. 2013, p. 7. Evi takes the Chinese tangram and explores what she can produce with the shapes formed in the game.8See the series of colourful litographs, From the Play World, 1979. She is in control of both the details and the whole, commanding her material and giving her reviewers a reason to say: “Evi Tihemets’ abstract compositions are analytical rather than impulsive. /… / She is rightly called an intellectual creator. /… / At the same time, it is said that in her best works there is a certain kind of unpretentious simplicity and awkward tenderness alongside rationality.”9Vappu Thurlow, Evi Tihemets. Tallinn 2022, p. 10.
If we were to characterise a work of art only based on theme and realisation, August undoubtedly moves along themes, while Evi focuses on realisation.
On the happiness that connects
It seems as if the happiness of August, who consistently depicts and trusts the things of the world, is coming in from the outside. For Evi, who is making the interior of the art process visible, happiness seems to come from the inside. Yet, such a conclusion does not fully apply. Evi sings for the changing times; August, on the other hand, is a hippie-like promoter of his faith and preferences. Aligning with the expectations of the outside world is indeed a prerequisite for his recognition, but his work is not affected by it in any way.
Both artists work regularly in a well-established rhythm that characterises their awareness of their profession and life choices. Evi is constantly changing: the continuous development of what she has learned has given her the ability to deviate from the rules she knows and use them in her free-form compositions or dramatic textured images with extensive generalisation.
We cannot speak of the formal development of images in August’s work. It would indeed be only ‘formal’: it would be irrelevant to his fascinating passion, filling the surfaces that make up the figures in his paintings. These are not shapes; these are figures with the attributes of their space of action that make up August’s images, some more successful than others. He is fascinated by the world as it is; and the world that August cheers along to is sufficient to fill the entre oeuvre of an artist. Theme after theme.
Evi too has more vibrant and more subdued works. As she gets older, she is learning to use her strengths more and more ingeniously, taking her growing restrictions into consideration until finally playing on a single remaining violin string, if needed. She cuts her old prints into pieces and unmistakably assembles them in new constellations like she does now, or prints over them like she used to do before.10 “In recent decades, the artist has used designs or printing plates made years or even decades earlier with such freshness and variety that even the experienced viewer’s eye may not recognise a motif or detail used once before /…/ in a new work.” Vappu Thurlow, Evi Tihemets. Tallinn 2022, p. 12.
August’s fragility and the vulnerability of his being fully engaged in culture seem to be in sharp contrast to Evi’s bold self-awareness and natural power. August creates, trusting what is given; Evi, on the other hand, shapes things according to her will. Nevertheless, the work of art in progress brings happiness to both. And when there is happiness, everything else will fall into place. Life – that what makes up the rest – does not bother either of them, but rather, inspires them with its tragedy, beauty and joy. Both artists perform their duty to life and art calmly and without a struggle. Künnapu does it “as thoroughly and accurately as possible”, as is typical of naïve artists, whereas Tihemets works as a professional who knows how to harness the possibilities of her profession.
I almost forgot to mention the colourful lithograph Happiness (Õnn) that Evi created for the 100th anniversary of the Republic of Estonia, where a short three-letter word in Estonian gives a special generalising power to the bright-looking view of nature in the picture. It is like an homage to the letter Õ and to Otto Wilhelm Masing (a prominent advocate of the Estophile Enlightenment Period who adopted the letter into the Estonian alphabet). Evi Tihemets: “I had an idea for a work, it was simple /…/ The Estonian landscape with an Estonian letter on it /…/ I listened to Vikerraadio where they talked about the letter Õ /…/ this “happiness” came naturally – the idea of writing a single short word onto that view of nature: the northern sky, southern hills and gentle ripples of the sea. There was no letter Õ in the oldest written word in Estonia, Ö or O were used instead. We must thank Otto Wilhelm Masing for this letter.”11See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bp2ZWwIgw_s
Happiness is indeed as easy to come by, as simple and natural as August Künnapu’s Young Lady With a Ball or By the Fountain.
The title of the joint exhibition of Evi Tihemets and August Künnapu, Happiness and Everything Else came very easily. It is beautiful and all-encompassing enough to celebrate the different ways of the two artists; there is quite a big age difference between them, but both have been blessed with good fortune in their lives, as well as strong individual senses of freedom and talent. Because when there is happiness, everything else will fall into place.