Children of the Flowers of Evil. Estonian Decadent Art 09/09/2017 – 25/02/2018

Kumu Art Museum
Adult: Kumu Art Museum
  • Family: Kumu Art Museum
  • Discount: Kumu Art Museum
  • Adult ticket with donation: Art Museum of Estonia
Eduard Wiiralt. Kunstnik. 1917. Eesti Kunstimuuseum

Children of the Flowers of Evil. Estonian Decadent Art

Location: 3rd floor, B-wing

In modernising early-19th-century Europe, there was still an overall faith in a brighter future for the world, yet towards the end of the century that certainty began to crumble. Those Europeans who were considered socially more sensitive, the “art folk”, became particularly restless. The general sense of the decline of Western civilisation was amplified among art and literary circles, and this was expressed in the works of artists and writers through various ways of perceiving and discussing decay and degeneration. This perception reached its peak at the end of the 19th century, with numerous people having begun to doubt the great achievements of modernisation: urbanisation, individual freedom, material wealth, appreciation of success, and a cosmopolitan civilisation founded on rational and scientific knowledge. Europe was swept by revolt and pessimism, anarchy and hysteria, accompanied by feelings that the end was near, which were referred to by the fashionable words “decadence” and “degeneration”.

In Estonia, the reactions of the cultural public to abruptly accelerated social modernisation, which were expressed in terms of decadence or celebrating individualism, or by other ways of speaking about and perceiving decay, coincided with a rise in national self-awareness (based on the collective spirit). Hence, two opposing ideologies collided here: the urge to break free from the influences of the superimposed Russian educational system and German cultural influences and to create an indigenous cultural space contrasted with a revolt against bourgeois and outdated approaches to art, primarily academism and national romanticism, accompanied by a wish to consciously modernise Estonian culture by introducing new Western art trends to express a different, ambivalent perception of modernity.

Throughout the 20th century, Charles Baudelaire was regarded as the father of symbolism and decadence. His life and creative legacy serve as a source of inspiration even today, and it is impossible to understand modernism without understanding Baudelaire. The first half of the title of the exhibition refers to his notorious collection of poems, The Flowers of Evil (Les Fleurs du mal, 1857). Yet, the use of the word “children” suggests that the point of departure for the exhibition is not a direct link to Baudelaire’s texts, but rather semi-conscious and unconscious divergences and elaborations in modernising, hence decadent, Estonian art. The works displayed provide an overview of the most significant topics, images and moods of decadence. All of the subtitles of the exhibition are based on Baudelaire’s poems from The Flowers of Evil and from his book title Artificial Paradises.

Curator: Lola Annabel Kass
Exhibition design: Liina Siib
Graphic design: Angelika Schneider
Coordinators: Karin Pastak, Liis Pählapuu and Ragne Soosalu
Project initiator and consultant: Mirjam Hinrikus

Art Museum of Estonia, Tartu Art Museum, Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, Estonian National Library, Narva Museum, Estonian Literature Museum, Foundation Haapsalu and Läänemaa Museums, and private collections.