This summer the largest personal exhibition to date of the work of Raul Meel, titled The Life of the Aborigines (Vita Aboriginum), was held in Tallinn Art Hall. This exhibition has at least to some extent compensated the lack of recognition that Raul Meel had to face during the Soviet period. He was not recognised because the doctrine of social realism held in contempt the Western avant garde art which united numerous artists throughout the Soviet empire. In the 1970s Raul Meel too was in close contact with the circle of avant garde artists in Moscow. Good relations with Ilya Kabakov have been retained. The recent exhibition Art Axis Tallinn-Moscow, Moscow-Tallinn in the Tallinn Art Hall and the comprehensive catalogue that was published are a beautiful monument to the ‘heroic avant garde’ as Charles Jencks wrote.
Raul Meel was born in 1941 in the southern part of Harjumaa county. He remembers the days of war in his childhood: “As a child, I touched the kit of both German and Russian soldiers, and ‘the forest brothers’, the guerrillas fighting for Estonian independence, let me hold acrid smelling steel in my hands”. Meel has never studied art in any academy. He came to the capital to study at the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute. As a result of several coincidences, he did not graduate from the Institute. During the Soviet period, a compulsory three years of military service followed. Meel served in Severomorsk on the Kola peninsula, where he was the head of the arms depot in the sports club of the navy and leader of the shooting team. At his latest exhibition in the Art Hall, one of Meel’s installations included a target which had been shot at. Meel once even achieved fifth place in a shooting championship of the Soviet Union. Tõnis Vint, an Estonian artist, has said: “It is not impossible that meditating during shooting competitions has led Raul Meel to art.”
Raul Meel established the first contact with the Vint family when, while serving in the army sports company, he met Toomas Vint who was at the time drawing abstract surrealist pictures and who later became an artist and a writer. On the whole, the 1960s generation was characterised by a dreadful thirst for knowledge which they tried to satisfy even in the least suitable conditions. While serving in the Soviet army, Toomas Vint started to write. It encouraged Raul Meel, and he started to write poems with the typewriter he had brought with him from home. Typewriters, which were at that time pretty rare in private use in Estonia, offer a writing experience different from writing by hand. One might say that Meel was enchanted by his material: accidentally typed letters started to lead their own life. Meel was more interested in the visual pattern the machine created than the text. A phenomenon that is referred to as concrete poetry was spontaneously born. One of the first to experiment with concrete poetry – poésie concrète – was Appollinaire during the early 1900s.
Text and images are inseparable in the work of Raul Meel. Even while producing wholly abstract series of paintings or graphics, his work has strong literal roots. It is interesting in itself to listen to Meel’s explanations of his work. One cannot avoid recalling the famous Rorschach test where abstract doodles were used to interpret people’s chains of association. Many were shocked by the series exhibited at the The Life of the Aborigines, where invectives in several languages were written in handwriting on national flags. Meel once recalled: “I was already producing abusive texts in many languages at the end of the 1960s. I imagined and designed solutions quite similar to these ‘Apocryphas’ of today. I wondered why I once was reluctant to swear in Estonian in 1995. Now I think that this ‘forgetfulness’ might have been the elation caused by the recent rebirth of an independent Estonia.”
Raul Meel is an artist who speaks in the language of international art, but uses a very specifically Estonian context. This gave the title to his latest exhibition – Raul Meel is an aborigine living in Estonia, his roots are deep in the home earth. There was one installation at the exhibition consisting of stones from fields, tied together and covered with names of those who have determined Estonian history. Taken together, the installation created a nice metaphor: stones are of long-lasting matter, names come and go. The Estonian president has told how he has taken his guests to a field and shown it as the most remarkable historical sight – a field that the Estonians have ploughed for 5000 years. Raul Meel, an Estonian aborigine, has perceived it well.