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Estonian painter August Künnapu

The Fuel of Joy 0

Interview by Anna Iltnere

August Künnapu’s exhibit My Favorites will be on view at Galerija 21 in Riga through July 30.

Estonian artist August Künnapu (1978) said in this interview that good exhibitions must be like fueling stations of positive energy. I’m convinced that something slightly flammable flows through his blood, too, which operates a motor of joyfulness and a brightness that can’t be faked. I feel an urge to call him a naïf, applying this term both to Künnapu as a personality and to his paintings. But this wouldn’t be anything new, because the Estonian press has referred to him as a “wunderkind” and “the little prince.” For a column about Künnapu, the British curator and artist Harry Pye chose the title “Sunshine in August,” and the Estonian artist Kaido Ole christened him as the best Estonian painter right now.

My Favorites is Künnapu’s second solo exhibit in Riga. The first was also held at Galerija 21, two years ago. The exhibit consists of portraits, in various sizes and formats, with renowned people that are important to Künnapu. Roy Ayers, Kim Ki-Duk, the Dalai Lama, Devendra Banhart, and the Latvian poet Rainis (who is very respected by intelligent young Estonians) are just a few of the figures featured in his portraits.

Künnapu has created thematic portrait series before. For example, in 2002 he painted portraits of architects on various doors of his childhood summer home, which was later torn down. These included Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and Konstantin Melnikov. In 2003 he painted portraits of historic scientists: Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, among others.

Looking over Künnapu’s paintings from the last decade (an extensive catalogue of his works was published in 2007), you get the impression that he’s able to find ideas for his works at every step of the way. Along with portraits, a large part of his “archive” consists of figural compositions saturated with excitement over life situations: people in model airplane competitions, doctors examining patients, a boy with a bicycle, tennis and hockey players, dogs and cats, a weapons factory, a visit by Brezhnev, young people reading a newspapers, urban planners, people celebrating with an accordion, a zoo, a shaman, and more.

This reminds me of childhood, when those who liked to draw put down on paper everything they experienced, be it a visit to the dentist or your grandmother in the kitchen. Yet a sympathetic naiveté in the themes and style is just the lining of the garment. Künnapu’s paintings are artistically mature and “woven” from the most refined fabric, formed by talent and unflagging, constant work. 

Among other activities, Künnapu has also published the cultural newspaper/magazine Epifanio twice a year since 2005. The publication is well known by artists, architects, and writers outside of Estonia as well.

Who are your biggest favorites in art, and who inspired you to grow as a painter?

British artist David Hockney (1937). I’ve painted him, too, though the portrait isn’t included in the Riga exhibit. I haven’t seen any of his solo exhibits, only individual works, and I’ve read his book. He’s a painter, yet he writes very well. In the book My Early Years, Hockney talks about how he began his career in art. He first attended the Royal Art College in London, and then brought his works to New York when he was twenty-six. Hockney later moved to Los Angeles. 

How did you become an artist?

I started going to a children’s art school when I was twelve or thirteen. There was a teacher at the school who urged me to take up colors and get to work, without thinking how much I was wasting. I simply had to abandon myself. That might have been the first time I was encouraged to open myself up creatively. 

Does painting come easily for you, or do you have to struggle with yourself?

Almost all of these works were created specially for this exhibit over the course of the last year. Office employees work from 9:00 to 18:00. Sometimes I start a little later, yet either way the work becomes routine—though it’s a creative routine. Working on these paintings, I sometimes got bored. Then I’d stop for a moment, publish an issue of Epifanio, and continue with new energy.

How are you able to manage and combine your work as an editor with your work as a painter?

I try to divide up my time. When I paint, I paint. When I put together the newspaper, then I do only that. Of course, sometimes the work overlaps. I am also an instructor at the Estonian Academy of Art, where I teach set designer and metal artists to paint.

Today it is very characteristic to work with lots of different things, but this just stresses out most people. How do you manage this, and how are you able to invest positive energy into your work?

I pick up my brush and dip it in paint.

Sometimes it happens that I don’t really feel good—for example, my throat hurts. But as soon as I start painting, the energies start moving and begin to flow, and I immediately feel better. If a painting works out, then I’m happy.

This should be felt in the galleries, too. A good exhibit is like a fueling station of positive energy, where you can fill up. Thought there is much negation in contemporary art, I believe that art shouldn’t breed bad emotions. These don’t do any good for either the visitors or the artists. I don’t understand why blood or murder should be depicted.

Are the visitors to exhibits important for you? What does the realization mean to you that someone will look at your painting and think about it?

That depends on the painting. Works may also be very personal; then you don’t need for everyone to look at them. But in general, paintings shouldn’t be hidden.

I think it’s good if private collectors also open up their acquisition for public viewing.

Are your works in private collections, too?

An Estonian collector has nine of my paintings from various stages of my career. This collector’s first commission was a portrait of him and his wife, with both of them at a music festival. I recently received a new commission—to paint his 1987 BMW.

I’ve also had other commission, but I’m always given creative freedom. Nobody meddles in my work.