Dr Krista Kodres, Professor, Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn
This is a detailed abstract of the lecture given by Professor Kodres at the online Knowledge Sharing Workshop of the Gothic Modern Research Project, on 25 March 2021
How were different art-historiographical cultures involved in shaping the understanding of Gothic art and architecture in Estonia, a country that in the late 19th and early 20th century was part of tsarist Russia and which then, in 1918, became an independent republic? In my presentation, I also ask what kind of life-world the various art-historical interpretations created in the imagination: how did they define the spatial and temporal cultural belonging of different nationalities within Estonia.
The first art-historical surveys of Estonian local heritage were written by Baltic-German art historians. Artistic and architectural production was systematised and ordered into periods on the basis of formal stylistics. The Gothic style found its place from the start, and it also coincided with the beginning of Danish-German colonisation and the Christianisation of the Old Livonian territories in the 13th century, thus forming the foundation for all of the subsequent artistic development, i.e. Estonian art history. At the same time however, the Gothic in Estonia has been viewed as a belated and less artistic peripheral version of the German spirit. In order to overcome this unhappy conclusion, a special rhetoric was elaborated.
The first modern art historian who had to face these issues was Wilhelm Neumann (1849–1919), who was also active as an architect, and who in his later years was the Director of the Latvian Art Museum in Riga. In his book Grundriss einer Geschichte der bildenden Künste und des Kunstegewerbes in Liv-, Est- und Kurland (Reval 1887), Neumann wrote about the ‘slow becoming’ and ‘delayed arrival’ of the Gothic style because of the distance ‘from trend-setting centres and the conservative character of the inhabitants’. Therefore, he continued, ‘the forms never reached the clarity and richness of ideas and noble sublimity that is characteristic of the South [of Europe]’. In order to balance this aesthetic inequality, Neumann connected the development of Gothic forms to the use of local materials and thus made the architecture correspond to given special circumstances: ‘He (das Land) understood how to create new art forms that correspond to the nature of local materials…’ Hence, it is the Land and its people who give art-historical meaning to monuments. In the booklet he wrote for the local clergy, who were the keepers of medieval church buildings, Neumann crystallises this meaning: ‘Monuments of art and architecture are witnesses of the historical past of our homeland. The purpose of their maintenance is to preserve our consciousness of belonging to our cosy homeland, and to keep the memory of our ancestors alive’ (Merkbüchlein für Denkmalpflege auf dem Lande, Riga 1911). Accordingly, in Neumann’s view, all art-historical objects are important as material instruments of identity; they possess the ability to reflect history and affect feelings; they induce a sense of belonging. At the same time, the Gothic was determined to be the strongest signifier of ‘German power’ (Kraft) by the man who had greatly inspired Neumann, the German art historian Wilhelm Lübke.
Featured image: Bernt Notke, Dance of Death, late 15th century, oil on canvas, 160cm x 750cm, from St Nicolas’ Church, Tallinn, and now housed at the city’s Art Museum of Estonia
Photo: Abrget47j / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0
Read more — Download ‘Writing the Gothic: Defining the Character of Medieval Heritage in Estonia from the late 19th Century to the 1930s’, by Krista Kodres, as a PDF