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Tallinn's art rumour

The new KUMU museum is Estonia's first showcase for national art. By Holger Klemm

Cries of jubilation rang out in Estonia as the new KUMU art museum opened its doors in the capital Tallinn. The building by architect Pekka Juhani Vapaavuori cuts a fine figure – inside and out. The construction is unique both for its concept and its architectural style. Lasnaberg hill rises above the park known as Kadriorg, or "Catherine's Valley", the former summer residence of the Czarina. The artistic complex nestles into the cliff formation, commanding a fine view of the old Medieval city.

KUMU Museum. Photo: Kaido Haagen

The building's facade and interior are dominated by glass, marble and limestone. Outside, a huge glass tip juts into the sky. On entering the main hall one is immediately taken by how the complex is separated into two major parts. The free-standing, sickle-shaped wing connects smoothly with the part nestled into the cliff. Separating and connecting the two is a spacious glassed corridor running through the entire five-storey complex. The gap over the corridor is joined by bridges, balconies and an open foyer. A trip through the museum takes you on a tour of discovery, and the changing levels hold in store a stock of spatial surprises. Equally convincing are the building's clear lines and the abundance of light.

Estonia now has 5,000 square metres of space to show three centuries of artworks. Roughly the same space is reserved for the auditorium, restaurants, art shops and foyers. The KUMU gives the Baltic republic its first opportunity to present a comprehensive show of the country's national art. One part houses the "National Gallery," with classical works from the beginning of the 18th century to the end of the Second World War. Here the roots of the country's artistic self-understanding are to be found. Numerous paintings by Baltic German artists hang beside Estonian classics. From its inception, the country's art has been thoroughly European, firmly situating the tiny country in Central Europe and the developments there. Romanticism and realistic landscape painting, Impressionism and Expressionism are all represented in Estonian art. Among the classical paintings, the "national symbols" form a sub-division of their own. Here life on the land and motives from "Kalevipoeg", the national epic, are common subjects.

The atrium. Photo: Arne Maasik

The "Museum for Modern Art" is the second of three major collections. It has an even more dynamic feel to it, with works from 1945 to 1991. Estonia was the sole Soviet Republic where a form of Pop Art was already an integral part of the art scene in the 1960s and 70s. Of course, Socialist Realism existed as well. Some of the paintings show Stalin as a larger-than-life leader among farmers, soldiers and workers. This chapter of the country's artistic history is not omitted, but it is supplemented with works of those artists who managed to toe the thin line between the two worlds.

The artworks from the 1970s and 1980s are among the most exciting in the museum. The paintings profiled are highly proficient, sometimes abstract, sometimes realistic, sometimes influenced by surrealism. For the most part the artists concentrate on everyday life in their paintings that weave together discreet exaggeration and profound critique. The large tableau "Wheel of Time" – the title could well serve as a motto for the entire museum – brings together life and death, creation and destruction, mourning and joy in a circular composition, all hemmed in by a blue, black and white rainbow: the Estonian colours that had been banned during the Russian era. It does not strike one as at all kitschy that Lepo Mikko, who painted the work in 1971, has an astronaut reaching for the stars. Instead it seems like a desperate attempt to flee the cycle of destruction and foreign domination.

The third section of the museum is a romping room for experiments. The first temporary exhibition "Shiftscale" shows a collection of international contemporary sculptures which extend from the upper floor, over the large hall and into the outdoor area. Well known European artists are represented, including Pipilotti Rist, Olafur Eliasson and Superflex as well as local artists. The most impressivel objects are the ones that deal with questions of space, such as the balloon-church by the German artist Hans Hemmert, which creates a colourful, meditative space. Or the sculpture out of cow horns, which wind like a huge rhizome and seem to throng thanks to their intensive olfactory component – it stands equally for the appropriation and alienation of the space ("Kursk" by Markus Kopper, 2004). A great variety of light, sound and video installations round off this part of the international show.

The free-standing curved wing. Photo: Kaido Haagen

The curators of the exhibition play with the possibilities of the modern building, for instance when they fill both the floor and the very high walls of a pointed room with sculptured portraits. Faces from three centuries are squeezed into the narrow space. At one glance, one sees the variety of cultural influences in Estonia – both politically and artistically. Here, the condensed presentation style makes sense. In other rooms, the abundance of exhibitions can only be explained with the delight at being able to finally show a representative sample of the large collection. But from floor to floor it gets less congested and the organisation of the works becomes more playful.

There was already a movement to build an art gallery at the beginning of the 1930s, but the project only really began gathering steam in 1993. At the time, governments, art galleries and architect's associations agreed that a new building was required. Only two years earlier, the Estonians had gained their independence from the Soviet Union. It was a time of grand ideas and goals but also of empty coffers.

Architects from ten countries entered the competition, among them Estonians, Finns and Germans. Of the more than 230 projects, the winning one was the work of the Finn Pekka Juhani Vapaavuori, who was just 31 years old at the time. His ring-shaped ensemble, which he called Circulos, took the prize. After winning, Vapaavuori travelled to Europe's art galleries, to gain the required knowledge. It was alright for him to take his time. The years passed, the architect refined his plans and traded his pony tail for short hair, but other than that, nothing happened. The government put off the starting date again and again. At some point, a new location had to be found because there was an old wood house on the original site that was supposed to have been sacrificed for art but its occupant, 79 years old at the time, refused. Today, at 91, he still lives in the house. Even very generous financial incentives have not succeeded in persuading him to leave the place. So the project had to be relocated to the neighbouring property.

Maybe it's necessary to know this story in order to understand the mentality and lifestyle of the Estonians, and their art. Highways can't be built if a wooden house is standing in the way. In addition the museum project had no end of financial problems. The limestone that was extracted from the site and was to have been used as building material proved deficient.

The contract between the government and the architect was finally signed in 1999. The president Arnold Rüütel came to the first ground-breaking ceremony from his residence next door. The Art Museum of Estonia was completed in the fall of 2005. It was then that the name KUMU was decided on. In addition to being an acronym for "Art museum," it also has a meaning: something like "rumour" – that suits the ambitious museum building project, which has been in the works for 75 years, quite well.

Despite all the turbulence and delays, the building costs – 55 million euros – only surpassed the original budget by about ten percent. Many architects had warned that it could never be built for that price. But it was.

And so, just as the opening of the national opera at the beginning of the 20th century - also designed by Finnish architects - helped contribute to a national identity in Estonia, commentators now expect that the KUMU will do something similar for the 21st century. It might even be easier for the the new, internationally oriented art gallery to connect Estonia with Europe and the rest of the world.


The article was originally published in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on February 23, 2006.

Holger Klemm is a freelance journalist.

Translation: jab, nb. - let's talk european