The Tartu slum district of Ülejõe where Nikolai Kummits (1897-1944), one of the best known Estonian slum romantics, was born late last century, adopts a highly significant place in Estonian art. After graduating from the Pallas art school in 1929, Kummits slowly developed into an artist, but one lacking grand personal ambitions. Poor health and constant financial problems set their limits on the development of his talents. Kummits was never given the chance to participate in the feverish art life of any metropolis, or to examine his own aims as an artist in the perspective of a millennia-long European art tradition. But he cultivated his ‘own garden’ during the short period at his disposal, celebrating the anything but academic atmosphere of slums in the university town of Tartu; although admittedly one cannot fully understand Tartu’s genius loci without perceiving the mutual influence of the Apollonian university and Dionysian slums.
The architecture of a slum at the time, and the psychology of its inhabitants – factory workers, cobblers, cabbies, prostitutes, poor students – were influenced by the ambivalence of its status: ties with the village had not yet been broken, whilst the town was still not an everyday reality. Significant visual elements of the slum are, for instance, a broad fence separating the house from the street, a yard and a kitchen garden. These things express the owners’ yearning for privacy and for country-life. Life in the slum can sometimes be enjoyably varied, although the most important factor shaping one’s destiny there seems to be a chain of casual events which a slum-dweller tries to resist by lapsing into alcoholism and debauchery, and by exhibiting an inert tolerance.
Due to his background and disposition, Kummits perfectly understood the existential atmosphere of the slums. He knew that a man was on his own there because he belonged neither to the city nor the country. Those aesthetic and moral criteria that should have been the yardstick by which to measure a person, were replaced by money.
What then constitutes the greatness of Kummits as an artist? Primarily his ability to overlook misery and ugliness, his forgiving nature, his desperate search for vanished or hidden-away humanity. Kummits does not create his pictures with a critic’s pen or whilst wearing a missionary’s robe. He fixes his benign gaze on the space between town and village and finds there an everyday reality which, in his opinion, is eminently worthy of diligent recording. A solitary fisherman’s cottage, an old woman peeling potatoes, a mother and child practising reading – these are the eloquent images which convey a message of loneliness and love. Kummits seems to believe in the ennobling power of poverty and hard work; the characters in his paintings possess a sincere and religious humility which, at the same time, sets stock by human dignity. The artist seems to transfer to them his own belief in the purgatory power of suffering and the need for patience. Kummits refuses to be a realist where he can be a poet. Despite idealising his subject matter, the artist never creates an idyll. The pictures are filled with tension. The gentle contrast between a country woman standing and an axe lying on the floor, could very well flare up into mortal conflict at any moment; the thin fragile figure of a child reading is threatened by a brutal blow of the fist, or by tuberculosis. But not yet, with the ever-worrying mother relaxing in a moment of leisure, and the soft glow of a lamp chasing shadows into a corner. But nobody can be certain about tomorrow.
However congenial and original Kummits’s participation in the lives of the poor might be, his paintings of slums belong primarily to the sphere of an artistic activity where the message is conveyed by means and codes of expressions characteristic of art. As a poetic realist, Kummits used a language of art which was understandable all over the Europe of the day. Over that decade, realism as a method went through a period of considerable growth. The anti-avant garde neo-realism had several different aspects, and its roots reached far down into the political, social and aesthetical collisions of WWI and the post-war period. What matters for us here is the fact that while remaining within the new wave of the close-to-nature manner of depiction, Estonian artists preferred to produce paintings on local themes in the key of Impressionism or Fauvism. Kummits’s colour sensitivity differs greatly from that particular brand of re-discovered French colourism. If we try to find paragons, then the dim colouring and hazy contours of Kummits’s paintings remind the viewer of the 17th century Dutch masters, whilst his mood resembles Louis Le Nain or François Millet. The everyday browns, dark greens and greys of the poor are among the artist’s favourite colours. Here Kummits, like his famous predecessors, as mentioned above, adhers closely to reality. Spirituality and purity in the artist’s pictures are expressed by light. At times, the light almost becomes a halo. The painter’s obvious fondness for various nuances of light has given rise to comparing him with Georges de la Tour, and even Rembrandt. The light from a lamp, the glow of a candle and the luminous moon, even darkness – everything has become a metaphor for spiritual generosity. This is how the motif of noble poverty in the artist’s paintings is accentuated, brought to the fore.
Nikolai Kummits’s artistic interpretation of slum-life is precise and convincing. So convincing, that the October exhibition of the Art Museum of Estonia, N.Kummits and the Motif of the Slum in Estonian Art, can easily embrace all the major relevant themes starting from grotesque caricatures of everyday life, to all sorts of architectural utopias which threaten to destroy the unique environment of the slum. I personally regard especially highly the manner in which the artist communes with the reality surrounding him, and the humanity and compassion, so often neglected by the contemporary, aggressive world.