Typical of all major pioneering concepts, the Anthropocene is just as influential as it is open-ended and debated. There are many ways of pin-pointing when it began: the Neolithic agricultural revolution, 1492 and the Columbian exchange, the industrial revolution, or the atomic age and the great acceleration of carbon emissions in the mid-20th century. There are also numerous ways of mapping the Anthropocene in the histories of Estonian visual culture – and so far very little has been done in this direction, as the ecocritical reading of Estonian art is only beginning. Hence, this visual essay is also part of a work in progress, just one attempt to narrate local and global environmental history through visual culture. Pointing to some key themes and periods, it no doubt leaves out many other issues.

The environmental humanities stress the role of cultural imaginaries in the Anthropocene. As visual culture plays an ever growing role in environmental politics, one needs to take the agency of images seriously, as well as paying attention to how they participate in the construction of ideologies and practices, power relations and hierarchies. Images have been active in conceptualising nature, defining major binary oppositions (nature-culture, human-non-human, us-others), idealising nature, or its exploitation, among others. Therefore, a critical reading of visual culture enables us to challenge the mainstream distribution of the sensible, but also to bring forth the transnationality and diversity of voices in visual representations of the environment.

In the context of the Anthropocene, the mainstream conceptualisation of nature in Estonian culture and society is far from uncomplicated. One of the key elements of Estonian identity is the idea of nature’s nation – the image of Estonians as a forest people who have preserved their close ties to nature, as opposed to much of the rest of the Western world. While this belief has empowered contemporary environmental movements (e.g. anti-forestry campaigns), it can also work against activism, creating a calming illusion that an Estonian has nothing to worry. The importance of nature in the national identity does not necessarily lead to environmentalism – polls show that environmental awareness and concern are particularly low in Estonia in comparison to other European countries. What it can however almost surely lead to is oppositions between a nature-loving us and a polluting other.

While the idea of Estonians as forest people is believed to be very old, it is in fact fairly recent. Recent studies show that it became more widespread in the 1970s and 1980s along with the global spread of environmentalism – but also with the spread of recreational tourism. The growing environmental anxiety is also traceable in Estonian visual culture. Ilmar Malin painted his “Fading Sun” in Uzbekistan in 1968. That was the year of the Prague Spring, but it was the same year that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) was translated into Estonian. The painting reveals Malin’s interest in technology, science, and the universe, that characterise much of his work in the 1960s. It also, however, includes a vision of an apocalypse, and one can wonder whether the fading sun, or the black hole also resembles a nuclear explosion. Uzbekistan is not only rich in Uranium, but it was also the site of Soviet nuclear tests.

Another way of reacting to environmental problems and the overall feeling of a crisis of modernity was to turn towards the idealised past. In 1970s and 1980s Estonia, artists, as well as writers, musicians, and others, began to popularise the folk culture of the Finno-Ugric peoples, conceptualising this as the most ancient and authentic part of Estonian heritage and identity. Kaljo Põllu’s works, and expedition-based artistic practices were considerably influential in this process. While this phenomenon has been mostly interpreted as a reaction to the Soviet culture and regime, it also has transnational links to the global idealisation of indigenous peoples as icons of environmental activism.

Abandoning the idea of the Estonians in a harmonious co-existence with nature, where could one begin to tell the story of the Anthropocene? One could look to the late Neolithic period, which witnesses the gradual rise of slash-and-burn cultivation and agriculture. The iconic objects of local cultural memory are pieces of pottery dating back to the Neolithic hunter-gatherers – well-known examples of those have been found from the vicinity of Kunda cement factory, which recently became the object of Laura Põld’s artistic research. We could also interpret those as small monuments to the fading of the pre-agricultural era. The new technologies in archaeology can further change the meanings associated with these pieces of ceramics, as they have now been extensively analysed to study the traces of different kinds of animal fat.

The management of local resources was profoundly changed by medieval colonisation, as land and privileges were consolidated into the hands of German-speaking elites. These changes are poorly represented in the pre-modern visual culture, but as a topic this became popular in the 19th century. Influenced by global colonial expansion and related images, Friedrich Ludwig von Maydell compared the founding of the German settlement in the Baltics to the landing of Columbus in the Americas. The comparisons between the Baltics and the overseas colonies had emerged already earlier, including also the analogies between the Baltic peasants and the colonial slaves. This discourse dates back to early modern stories about the horrible, animal-like exploitation of the Baltic peasantry – partly based on the increase of serfdom, partly on the interest of the European public towards such violent stories according to which people were treated worse than dogs or cattle.

In comparison to Riga and St. Petersburg, the impact of the industrial revolution was smaller in Estonian towns. The dream of industry and modernisation was nevertheless present in the nineteenth century collections of picturesque views of Estonia – such as Wilhelm Friedrich Stavenhagen’s album, which is usually associated with the beauty of natural landscapes and medieval ruins. It is often thought that positive representations of heavy industry start in the Soviet period, one of the often-used examples being the Rising Industry of the Estonian SSR from the 1950s. Yet, industrial imaginaries were also prominent in the visual representation of the young Estonian nation state in the 1920s and 30s. Especially prominent was the oil shale industry, which also links to Estonia’s most significant involvement in the global Anthropocene – the country’s high carbon emissions per capita are largely due to oil shale based energy production.

In recent years, protests against oil shale energy are increasing, but the industry also has its supporters. While the advocates of mining use the interwar and Soviet period heroising images of the industry, the opponents can draw on the visual repertoire of the environmental protests against the (phosphorite) mining industry in the perestroika period. This illustrates well not only the power of visual culture in contemporary environmentalism (and counter-environmentalism), but also the appropriation and afterlife of old images in environmental conflicts – suggesting that an ecocritical reading of art history can be useful. The aforementioned idea of Estonia as nature’s nation is accompanied by a belief in the closeness of Estonian artists to nature – this is often associated with the prominence of landscape painting in the canon of Estonian art, well exemplified by Konrad Mägi. However, if we look at the earlier history, the positive conceptualisations of nature appear highly transnational. In Estonia, the pioneers of nature conservation – including forest conservation – were the Baltic Germans. They also created the first visualisations of the objects and icons of conservation – including the glacial boulders, and also the forest, which was emblematic for German as well as Russian nationalism and identity.

This essay is based on discussions and research relating to the preparations for the Kumu Art Museum’s new permanent exhibition and forthcoming Anthropocene exhibition (2023), which is being organised in tandem with the research project “Estonian Environmentalism in the 20th century: Ideology, discourses, practices”, based at Tallinn University. I am grateful to Eha Komissarov, Kadi Polli, Bart Pushaw, and Ulrike Plath.