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Estonian painter August Künnapu

Does a painting change when it is brought out from the studio and put in another space, for instance, in a gallery?

Yes, always! That’s why I like to organize exhibits in many different places. Both in old factories and in white gallery halls. Each specific space inspires me and gives me idea for how to display my works.

Speaking of space—your father, Vilen Künnapu, is an architect.

I studied architecture too. Sometimes I include architecture in my paintings. Perhaps if I hadn’t studied architecture, I wouldn’t paint buildings. The biggest painting in the exhibit My Favorites is a portrait of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907). In the painting he is next to one of his most famous projects, Brazil’s Modern Art Museum.

In some portraits I tried to depict in the background something that was important for the subject. For instance, in the painting of the Russian master of absurdist literature Daniil Kharms (1905–1942), you can see Kharms on the balcony of the St. Petersburg book store Dom Knigi in the early 20th century.

For the exhibit I chose people who were as different as possible, with distinctly different personalities and from various time periods. There are also my long-time favorites, such as the aforementioned Daniil Kharms. But on the poster for the exhibit you’ll find a painting of the musician Devendra Banhart (1981), who is one of my new favorites.

Do you write anything too in Epifanio?

Rarely. Mostly I just gather and compiled information: the essence of art, the essence of music, the essence of architecture and literature. Similar to my paintings: when I create a portrait, I try to capture the essence of the subject, the most characteristic thing. I try to paint his or her soul.

And does it work?

That depends on the subject. There are people who are more bright and open; but then there are those who have had a harsh fate. For instance, the writer Daniil Kharms starved to death during the war. I tried to make sure that his difficult life could be felt in the painting.

How does painting feel in contemporary art?

Painting has always been the queen of arts. This can particularly be felt here, in Riga. For instance, a few years ago at the group exhibit of young artists Candy Bomber, or last year’s Urban Child, which were supplemented with quality catalogues. People here have a respectful and serious attitude toward painting. In Tallinn, painting isn’t so popular. Of course, a few young artists have still not forgotten how to paint. But the most popular media in Estonia are video and photography.

Do you as an artist think in categories like “beautiful”? Does this description still have a functional meaning today?

Yes, definitely. But I probably have a different understanding about what is beautiful. My works are much sooner a disjointed beauty. The strange and funny can be beautiful too.

I really like it when people start to laugh while looking at my paintings. Or laugh until they cry. As a child, when I studied at the children’s art school, I painted my father as a small boy. A scene from nursery school in the early 50s. My father was holding a triangle and a few other instruments. I remember how my teacher laughed until he cried when he saw the picture. 

Why is the painting of the Dalai Lama so very small?

In a sense, the Dalai Lama is sweet. This format could be more intimate. I saw him about ten years ago, when he gave a speech in the Town Hall Square in Tallinn. There was a huge crowd of people. I recall that when the speech was over, I felt a physical warmth inside. In general, it’s very interesting to create paintings with such different sizes and formats. I also have oval pictures.

Do you remember the last time you laughed or simply felt very positive emotions in front of another artist’s work?

I won’t say I actually laughed, but right now the KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn is showing works by artists form the 1970s. For example, Ludmilla Siim and Jüri Palm’s exhibit Alone in the City. I had never seen Ludmilla Siim’s works up close before. They made me happy. And then they have another exhibit by a 1970s artist: Urmas Ploomipuu’s exhibit White House. He basically works as a graphic artist and, during his life, he has created only about four oil painting works, as well as a few watercolors, but all of them are very good.

Do you have any favorites in Latvian art?

I can’t single out any one artist, but the overall level of painting is very high. At the exhibit of 2011 Purvītis Award finalists I liked the works by Kristaps Ģelzis. I’ve also exhibited together with Latvian painter Andris Vītoliņš. We are very different, yet we have a similar sense of colors. That unites us.