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Marje Taska. Mythological Landscape I. 1986. Print. Silkscreen. The Art Museum of Estonia. (fragment)

The Timeline of the Life of Graphics 0

Quick interview with the curators of “Puzzling Over the Labyrinth: 50 Years of the Tallinn Print Triennial” exposition, Eha Komissarov and Elnara Taidre.


In 1968 an exhibition called “The Present Day and Graphic Form” opened at the Tallinn Art Hall which was a joint Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian feat. The printmaking exhibition of the three Baltic countries was planned to be a biennial but it subsequently became the Tallinn Print Triennial (TPT) in 1971, evolving into a significant art event of that time. The best examples of work from the triennial constantly made it to an international level, and the whole event supported the artistic image of Estonia.

After Estonia gained independence,TPT’s profile changed. The triennial between 1989-1998 headed for globalisation and expansion into an international range. The internal reforms that launched in 1998 helped TPT become an openly international exhibition. This new era in its history was characterised by cooperation with new media, an updated range of printmaking techniques and the experience of switching to digital technologies. The exhibition that opened in KUMU introduces the history of the Tallinn Print Triennial through an exposition of works that have been presented awards in the past 50 years and now are a part of the Art Museum of Estonia. The museum has accumulated an important database necessary for understanding prints, art history and the changing cultural policy of the Baltic region. The exposition of the winners of the Soviet period is complemented by thematic blocks that give an idea about ​​the artists who took part in the triennial and remained unrecognised, but who nevertheless found a worthy place in the subsequent history of art.

Marju Mutsu. Wind. 1972. Etching. The Art Museum of Estonia

If we were to quote the press release, “Today it is difficult to imagine the daring, visionary and organisational ability required of the organising committee to enable them to carry out this large exhibition in the ideological, economic and art policy context of the Soviet Union.” How well was the idea of “Baltic art” supported as a complete and independent paradigm at the end of the 60s - beginning of 70s?

Eha Komissarov: This idea was supported by the Baltic states of the USSR and also by Estonia on the Central Committee of the Communist Party level, which made it difficult for Moscow to ban the triennial (in 1974, the Union Artists of the USSR had a quorum abroad as part of the third Tallinn Print Triennial, which put the organisation of the triennial into question). Of course, it is easy to assume now that the triennial served separatist ideas, but in reality there were several very different positions. For example, it is possible that the overall low level of printmaking in the Union was not the league in which one wanted to play. One way or another, the reason for the emergence and establishment of the triennial was a high level of printmaking in the Baltic republics and a desire to continue to develop this craft. It was difficult to expect development in the same kind of rhythm from Soviet printmaking: Boris Bernshtein describes, for example, in his memoirs called "The Old Well" the gathering of the Academy of Arts of the USSR in 1949, condemning printmaking techniques like etching, linocut and xylograph as harmful and unacceptable for realistic prints. Drawing was more preferable in that period and even many famous masters of Estonian printmaking, for example Aino Bach, switched their media to drawing.

Elnara Taidre: Baltic countries have a similar history and also the history of national art schools' formation. Undoubtedly, this created a favourable background for mutual understanding and cooperation. Strong printmaking traditions and an echoing artistic language created an impression of a "Baltic School of Printmaking” for the viewer from the outside. In the context of the Tallinn triennial it was customary to consider artists and work by the country they came from, and the process of giving awards gave the event a momentary competition between them. Nevertheless, at one point they started talking about younger artists of those three countries that were closer to each other rather than to fellow countrymen of the older generation.

Vytautas Valius. Plant VI. 1968. Artist’s own technique. The Art Museum of Estonia

Could it be said that Soviet printmaking in Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia was a field of rather brave and relevant experiments? And how did the “awards politics” of the triennial work, were the awards distributed among “ideologically correct” works or was the main criteria still professionalism?

E.K.: Considering how limited the experiments in more politically involved types of art were, like in painting or sculpture, Baltic printmaking experienced a complete bacchanalia of experimentation. Local artists worked on the level of Western printmaking and created impressive symbolism. The awards, in turn, suffered from the principle of collectivity of the Baltic countries. According to an unspoken rule, a representative of each of the three Baltic states was to be given one of the three main awards, which sent the awards politics on a levelling course. In Estonian printmaking pop art was flourishing in the 1970s and 1980s, many worked with photographic images, there was a new movement of hyper-realistic prints, and none of this work won any awards. Here black and white symbolic work that followed a literary type of thought was preferred, which, of course, suited printmaking as a type of art. In general they tried to celebrate the best, but during this period the evaluation criteria were already bursting at the seams.

E.T.: Nevertheless, it should be noted that openly opportunistic works were not awarded. Yes, as a rule, the three main prizes were not awarded to the most experimental and radical works, but strong and interesting artists became prizewinners. The main criterion has always been professionalism, which sometimes became the reason why the technically virtuosic, but less substantial works were preferred. As the Estonian organisers share in their memoirs, it wasn’t always easy for the jury to find a common language in the selection of winners, and often the relevant processes of Estonian printmaking remained foreign to their Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts. On the one hand, they had a lot in common, but on the other, each country had its own way of developing printmaking.

Anita Jensen. Reliable souvenirs 7. 1997. Photopolymer engraving. The Art Museum of Estonia

At the end of the 1990s the triennial left the confines of only graphics media. What new art territories were acquired and how did they fit into the project? Did it become an art event of Northern Europe or did it retain its Baltic context?

E.K.: In the 1990s, under the extinction of the Gutenberg galaxy, the post-graphics era had come into the world. Graphic arts moved to digital formats, which is seen as inevitable today. The understanding of technique was devalued and that is, of course, a shame. The Tallinn Print Triennial became focused on the changes in graphics which should be understood as imminent - the younger generation of young graphic artists fell sharply and graphic artists began to work in photography and digital media. In the three Baltic countries this happened simultaneously. In the globalised world of art there was no longer need for unity among the Baltic states, and therefore it was no longer possible to save it.

E.T.: In the 1990s the triennial reassessed its content, expanding it to the principle of replicability - now it is an important platform not only for graphic art, but also for photography, video art and  self-made books. This keeps the connection with the original triennial and does not allow the Tallinn Print Triennial to become yet another regular exhibition of contemporary art.

Vive Tolli. View from the writer’s window. 1974. Etching. The Art Museum of Estonia

Can we build assumptions about the near future of the triennial?

E.K.: It’s hard to assume something here, but it would be logical to admit that in the contemporary conservative period an interest in traditional printmaking and old techniques could appear again. Maybe engraving by hand would be back in circulation? Triennial, as the biggest institution connected to graphic art in this region, could react to it, I am not excluding that possibility. With regard to the idea of returning the “Baltic core”, I am sceptical. What institutions would take this on? Unions of artists are marginalised organisations in this day and age which do not have a full understanding of all phenomena of the art sphere.

E.T.: The last triennial showed that an interest in traditional printmaking is beginning to be reborn. Artists who are tired of “virtual" digital formats, are starting to once again discover the handcraft and warmth of printmaking techniques. Nevertheless there were few technically clean decisions this time, young artists freely connect different media where graphic art is one of the ways to display the contemporary world.

Sister Mary Corita. E Eye Love. 1968. Print. Silkscreen. The Art Museum of Estonia

The main exposition of the Tallinn Triennial, the curatorial project of Margit Sade "Cloudbusters: Intensity vs. Intention” is currently on view at KUMU until July 16 2018.