Like anywhere else, a car ride has become the most common means of communication with nature in Estonia. The rules of viewing landscape have thus changed considerably in the eyes of viewers. As everyone has experienced, the view from a car window is no longer attractive nor interesting; rather, the rider sees the environment as an obstacle which must be quickly overcome.
The abundance of forests and untouched wilderness along Estonian roads can be an arguable claim, but is still impressive to people coming from the rest of Europe. The memory of an ancient way of life led in the depths of the woods has not completely disappeared from the consciousness of Estonians. As is characteristic of people in Nordic countries, Estonians have traditionally rushed to the country at the arrival of summer to plunge into nature and lose themselves in it. Thus, there is still a possibility to substitute the patronising glance of a car rider for other ways of viewing the wilds. Still, of all the ways of viewing nature today, the most pronounced is through culture, and in art, particularly via landscape painting.
The abundance of landscapes in Estonian painting at the beginning of this century, its continuing popularity during the second half of the century, the use of nature by Estonian conceptual artists, and several video art discussions stemming from the theme of nature, are phenomena that are prototypically Estonian. An entire stratum of cultural conventions and various art policies have developed out of the popularity of the subject which, among other things, retains the archaeology of different modes of perception.
Certainly the relevance of the theme of nature in Estonian art can also be tested by the level of an art work’s quality. In the list ranking Estonian art classics, we can find an abundance of landscape painters and at least one of them has managed to leave an indelible mark on people’s memories. I am speaking of Konrad Mägi (1878-1925), the first who dared to approach Estonian landscape with the new techniques of modern art. In his adventurous life, and in its dramatic end, there are enough remarkable themes of which to speak. In art he is known as the man who put an end to the classic epoch of landscape painting; the man who, in creating a new epoch, found new meanings for the concepts of colour, light and vision. In Mägi’s art we can see the combination of local and global themes. Mägi transformed himself into an artist in Paris in 1908-1912, and led an adventurous life in Norway and later in Germany. He never renounced his international art identity.
Mägi’s style has become the subject of endless discussions in Estonia. It exists in equipoise between the three great opportunities of the epoch – Impressionism, Pointillism and Neo-Impressionism. The series of landscapes which Mägi began painting in 1912 reveal clearly what he wished to squeeze out from his examples. Let us call his goal the capture of vibrating texture in a painting, generated through the use of clear bright colours, to which a small section of a landscape must give a new truthfulness. Just at the moment when the joy of governing the bright world of colour pigments which impels the artist to search for complicated colour combinations and at which he met with actual reality, a certain exaltation occurred. An intoxicating union, the afterglow of which is clearly seen in the colours of his works.
Mägi, who stood in the middle of Estonian summer wilderness with his palette, experienced something peculiarly mystical. He was not a cold-blooded observer, a typical Impressionist flaneur. His glowing canvases express the possibility of exciting relations, of passion and strength rather than sensitivity in the general sense. There was a unifying link between motif and fantasy living in the artist’s sense of colour, and while mixing paints on the palette, Mägi fantasised rather than represented.
The question of whether any other artist has found the same energy and strength of colour in Estonian nature would remain unanswered. Was anyone else ever able to observe and see like Mägi? At least, there are no traces in our art of painting. At the same time nothing prevented people from immediately adopting Mägi’s landscape treatment. Somehow it is Mägi’s personal vision which, in the opinion of this viewer, most clearly expresses man’s deep unity with true nature. The fact that the only evidence of the reality of this vision are canvases makes no difference. Even today we can reasonably claim that with his southern glowing palette Mägi managed to touch the essence of an Estonian’s relationship with nature.
Too often feelings of archetypical origin have accumulated around the works of an artist, which alone pave the viewer’s road to the works of art, overstepping theoretical constructions and ignoring the knowledge of art movements and schools. Today, people are indifferent to the fact that Mägi belonged to the school of European landscape painters which perceived landscape painting as a mirror of the soul of an artist. It is increasingly difficult to relate the spiritual life of a person who lived and worked at the beginning of the century to the landscape experience of car riders detached from the ancient experience. At the beginning of the century the experience was entirely connected with a person’s free and unpremeditated progress through nature where variety began from unexpected changes of direction or stops in front of discovered vistas.
No doubt Mägi eternalised the lost joy of discovery. But he captured something even more meaningful pondered even by the modern car rider. Among all other things, the paintings of Mägi speak in the language of the yearning for light characteristic of people of these latitudes. His paintings are friendly companions and comforters during dark winters. It seems that even the car rider has not lost his sensitivity towards the bright beauty of light.