The Tartu Circle and Ülo Sooster
Location: 4th floor, B-wing
Time and again, Ülo Sooster has been portrayed as a great lone wolf in Estonian art history. Yet his artist friends in Tartu, Moscow and Tallinn played an important role in the life and work of this legendary Estonian artist of the Soviet period. Interaction between Sooster and his Tartu circle from the art school days in the late 1950s and 1960s are the focus of this exhibition.
Having its inception in the halcyon student days at the post-war Pallas Art School, the Tartu circle unfortunately also shared experience of the Stalinist-era repression and attempts to destroy Tartu’s inter-war-era reputation as an art hub with a French orientation. In 1949–1950, the brightest art students in Tartu were arrested and sent to Soviet prison camps, including Ülo Sooster, Lembit Saarts and Heldur Viires. However, in the late 1950s the Tartu circle reassembled in the university town after the male members were released from the Gulag. Paradoxically, their reuniter was Ülo Sooster, who had by this time relocated to Moscow and was fast becoming a central figure in that city’s underground art scene. Sooster was a charismatic personality without whom the annals of Estonian art history might not have included a chapter on the avant-garde artists of Karlova district, and during whose visits to Tartu the latest art ideas were exchanged, in conversations that often lasted all night.
The interaction between the Tartu circle and Ülo Sooster is best documented in their works from the late 1950s and 1960s. Depicting numerous meetings and visits, these works compensate for the nearly complete lack of photo archives of the Tartu circle. The more experimental side of these works attests to a flow of ideas between the artists that has not received the attention it deserves. The works are characterized by their small format, and tend to be surrealistic and abstract experiments done not on canvas, but on pieces of cardboard, employing improvised media that reveal the artists’ resourcefulness: scraps of cloth, pieces of thread, forms, chest pins, coins, old newspapers and magazines, and even food scraps at times. The experimental works of the Tartu circle in the end of 1950s and 1960s can be considered to be a domestic avant-garde, an attempt carried out in post-war Tartu to continue an art revolution within a small circle of select individuals, in a bid to transform intellectual kindred spirits into people with refined sensibilities.
A large number of the works at this exhibition and in the accompanying book were not exhibited publicly back in the 1960s, yet they can be found today in the museum collections in Tartu and Tallinn, as well as in the famous Norton and Nancy Dodge non-conformist art collection in New Jersey. This exhibition is an homage to artists’ homes, those creative and social oases where they met and celebrated, but also created, enjoyed and preserved art: works that are clearly important in post-war Estonian artistic innovation.
Ülo Sooster, Valve Janov, Silvia Jõgever, Kaja Kärner, Lembit Saarts, Lüüdia Vallimäe-Mark, Heldur Viires
Curator: Liisa Kaljula
Exhibition design: Flo Kasearu
Graphic design: Tuuli Aule