The Tartu milieu, irrespective of its diversity and picturesqueness, was
not nearly so remarkable as that of Dresden in 1922-1923 at the time when
Wiiralt lived there. Social contrasts, rife prostitution and the rhythm of
life of the metropolis, inspired him to produce works like In a Canteen (1922,
etching), In a Brothel (1922, aquatint), Hunger (1922, dry point), Late Stranger
(1923, dry point, copper engraving) and so on. Through these works Estonian
art was most directly and powerfully associated with verism. After returning
to Tartu, and in his early days in Paris, the veristic pathos in his work
diminished, giving way to a calmer, more descriptive neue-Sachlichkeit version,
a style that, from the mid-1920s onwards became synonymous with art déco.
This modification became the most widely disseminated version of neue Sachlichkeit,
involving, to a greater or lesser extent, almost every significant artist,
including members of the Estonian Group of Artists (founded in 1923) with
its cubist-constructivist orientation. Eduard Ole and Felix Randel, for instance,
experienced a relatively brief geometric period. Between 1926 and 1927 both
fully adopted the neue Sachlichkeit manner, nuances of which were already
present in their earlier works. With his paintings, watercolours and gouache
drawings, which so lightly and elegantly treat the topics of modern urban
life, Eduard Ole is an excellent representative of the aforementioned blending
of neue Sachlichkeit and art dòco. His manner resembles the Japanese
artist Tsougouharu Foujita who was quite popular in Paris at that time. Johannes
Greenberg's paintings of the early 1930s depicting emphatically wholesome,
sensuously languid female nudes seem, in their turn, to parallel the fashionable
types of Tamara Lempicka, the favourite painter of high society at that time.
Lydia Mei-Starkopf's masterful water colour still lifes and Arkadio Laigo's
still lifes and oil painting compositions include elements of both styles.
In Laigo's early work during the second half of the 1920s and early 1930s,
the naivistic trend in neue Sachlichkeit prevails. This had been intimated
even earlier in such paintings as Laigo's Farm (1923, EMA) and Juhan Muks's
Mother (1923, EMA). Moreover, the geometrising generalisation of form also
brings them closer to the aspirations of the Estonian Group of Artists. Such
a naivistic approach that infused Estonian art, combined with neue Sachlichkeit,
helped many a struggling artist to find him or herself. This was the case
with Larin Luts who, at her graduation from Pallas, produced such extraordinary
works as Island of Happiness (1928, EMA), Gardener (1928, TAM) and Killing
Innocent Children (1928, EMA).
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Die neue Sachlichkeit, having emerged in German
art from 1910 to 1920 (although only gaining its epithet in 1923 courtesy
of Gustav Hartlaub), was in a certain sense a derivative of expressionism.
Its socially as well as formally more radical wing - verism - could be called
the expressionism of the era shaken by war and revolutions, embittered by
the destructiveness and corruption of people, and by shattered illusions.
It is therefore natural that its earlier manifestations in Estonian art
were fitted into the notion of 'expressionism'. Just like the expressionism
of the late 1910s, die neue Sachlichkeit, too, seeped into Estonia from
German literature, travel and personal contact. The Pallas art school was
founded in Tartu in 1919. Head of the sculpture department, Anton Starkopf,
had studied in Germany between 1911 and 1912 and again from 1914 to 1918.
His circle of acquaintances included Otto Dix, one of the most prominent
representatives of neue Sachlichkeit in painting and graphic art. According
to Aleksander Vardi, Dix was one of the idols of young Estonian artists
in the early 1920s. His work had an impact on Eduard Wiiralt, who began
as a student of sculpture at Pallas before specialised in graphic art. Georg
Kind, who came from Dresden in 1921 to teach graphic art, helped Wiiralt
to further his skills in sculpture at the Dresden Academy of art, and also
supplemented his knowledge in graphic techniques.
Wiiralt was one of the earliest followers of neue Sachlichkeit in Estonian
art. This cannot be merely ascribed to outside influences. He was an exceptionally
skilled draftsman, forever drawing from nature. His depictions of every
conceivable type of person were often transformed into grotesque caricatures.
Grotesque and parody, typical of neue Sachlichkeit, came naturally to him.
German and Estonian life alike afforded ample material to such an artist.
Wiiralt was actually the one who introduced Tartu slums to Estonian art,
with their dilapidated wooden houses, market stalls, barge owners and pubs.
The latter theme rapidly became popular in the early 1920s. These include,
among many other works, Wiiralt's Teahouse Jakori (1922, etching, aquatint),
Arkadio Laigo's painting In the Pub (1922, oil) and Peet Aren's Village
Pub (1923, destroyed).
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