Universe of the Farmyard: Creators of Southern Estonia 22/10/2021 – 10/04/2022

Kumu Art Museum
Adult: Kumu Art Museum
  • Family: Kumu Art Museum
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  • Adult ticket with donation: Art Museum of Estonia
Karl Pärsimägi. Self-Portrait with Pearls. Ca 1935. Oil. Art Museum of Estonia

Universe of the Farmyard: Creators of Southern Estonia

Location: 3rd floor, B-wing

In recent decades, an “awakening” regarding southern Estonia has taken place featuring the bold distinction of its identity, which is based on such deeply rooted cultural phenomena as the local dialect, customs and a lifestyle that remains close to nature. Research on southern Estonian culture has vigorously intensified, focusing on three large areas: language, folklore and literature. Research that would also analyse “southern Estonianness” in the oeuvre of artists who grew up in the area and are closely associated with it is, however, still missing. Many of the key modernist figures of the beginning of Estonian art history were from southern Estonia and their oeuvres have influenced our imagination and understanding of “southern Estonianness” on a visual level. The exhibition explores the period from the end of the 19th century to the end of World War II. Besides a general definition of national and political consciousness, at that time the creation of regional identities also took place, including in southern Estonia.

Works by nearly fifty artists are exhibited, including those by Karl Pärsimägi, Konstantin Süvalo, Jaan Vahtra, Eduard Rüga, Villem Ormisson, Jaan Koort, Peet Aren, Konrad Mägi, Ants Murakin, Roman Nyman, Andrus Johani and Eduard Wiiralt. A special focus is on Eduard Timbermann, whose unique oeuvre has thus far not received the attention it deserves.

In the modernising society of the 19th century, interactions with the archaic nature of small cultural regions became increasingly desirable. In search of this, people also headed to southern Estonia, where the dialects, customs, handicrafts and close-to-nature lifestyle were seen as distinctive local characteristics. The individuality of southern Estonia was also acknowledge by literary circles in the first decades of the 20th century, when contemporary writers and poets had arisen from the inherently oral cultural space of the area and had started using the local linguistic nuances and regional folklore – the “Stories from Võrumaa”.

The three culturally distinct areas of southern Estonia are Viljandi County (Mulgimaa), Võru County and the Seto region, on the border with Russia and Latvia. Valga County, with the Valga dialect unique to the area, should also be mentioned. Võru County is usually considered the most distinct bearer of the essence of southern Estonia and the cornerstone of the identity of its inhabitants is the viability of its dialect: võro kiil. The spirituality expressed in the works of the creators from southern Estonia is that special “something” that is sometimes defined as genius loci (the spirit of the place). One such southern Estonian place is the farm, surrounded by diverse and mosaic landscapes with the centre of all the local values lying in its yard. The people of southern Estonia have been noted for their cheerfulness, sincerity, lively fantasy, love of small talk, romanticism and sense of humour. A beautiful description states that for the people of Võru County, the heart is more important than the brain.

The historical isolation of the area and the deep contact that people had with nature gave creators from southern Estonia the prerequisites for entering the world of modern art, which valued originality, distinctness and opposition to the status quo. The radicalism of artists from southern Estonia was shown solely by their desire to become artists. A village society with deeply rooted traditions suddenly produced people who wanted to leave. People from the small town of Võru found themselves amidst revolutionary events in St Petersburg and novel artistic truths from the metropolis were used to reassess existing values. That is why Võru was at one time the capital of Estonian avant-garde art. Another centre that rose to prominence in the art life of southern Estonia in the beginning of the 1930s was Viljandi.

Most of the artists and art students from southern Estonia were involved in the expeditions to collect folk heritage that were organised by the Estonian National Museum in the first decades of the 20th century. They often selected their home villages as their destinations and were interested in the oldest surviving layers of folk culture. Already Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald and Jakob Hurt travelled to the Seto region in search of the archaic, where the researchers were interested in the distinct language, oral heritage, culture of singing, the appearance of women’s folk costumes and the religious life, which combined “pagan” and Orthodox traditions. The Seto region and Petseri became the perfect Other for Estonian culture: on the one hand, the Seto living on the border of the country were admired as “primal Estonians”, on the other, the newly independent Republic of Estonia tried to make them conform to norms. That is why the Seto region became an exotic location for outsiders. Most of the artists who visited Petseri in the 1920s and the 1930s depicted the imposing architecture and the Orthodox churches towering amidst the landscape. However, they also noticed the local people, especially Seto women, who upheld the religious traditions of the Seto region throughout history as “Madonnas of the farmyard”. For the artists who had emigrated from Russia to the West, Setomaa and the Petseri region became a peculiar nostalgic stronghold of Orthodoxy and nationalism.

In the 1920s, southern Estonia became a popular place for summer vacations. Artist-tourists, who had acquired the veneer of moderate modernism, travelled from towns to nature, where they poured onto canvases sun-drenched idyllic views and moments of intimacy or pleasure. A separate aspect is formed by pictures with a naive visual language that mostly show farm work. The reason for their popularity might lie in the mentality of the era, which idealised closeness to nature and conservative values but also the influence of state propaganda, the development of tourism and the ideology of “working Estonians”. The idyllic hilly landscape and the southern Estonian people who were working there like “the Estonians of old” embodied the quintessence of nationalist ideals in the visual culture of that time.

The Book

In the book accompanying the exhibition, the article by Liis Pählapuu explores the importance of location-specific identity in the works of numerous artists who were born in southern Estonia or were associated with it, looking also at the role that the visual worlds created by them played in the development of the area’s image. Andreas Kalkun scrutinises the ideological aspects of the texts produced by the tourist industry during the first Republic of Estonia and the ways in which Estonian artists depicted Petseri county as a radical “Other”. Mart Velsker inspects how the written word has shaped the notion of southern Estonia and the culture and mentality associated with it. And Hasso Krull sees southern Estonia as a nearby imaginary ideal world, where the hilly landscape is a “cosmic prank” played by the trickster Devil.

The book and other products accompanying the exhibition can be found in our museum shop:

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Audio guide

A special audio guide introduces a selection of the exhibited works in the Estonian, Võru and English languages.

Voice artists: Anu Lamp and Tarmo Tagamets
Sound director: Külli Tüli (Estonian National Broadcasting)

Talomuro Audio guide

The exhibition is accompanied by an audience programme of guided tours, workshops and events for adults and for children.


Curator: Liis Pählapuu
Exhibition design: Kaisa Sööt
Graphic design: Tuuli Aule
Coordinator: Magdaleena Maasik

Exhibition team: Richard Adang, Andres Amos, Kaarel Eelma, Darja Jefimova, Jelena Jurjeva, Kaile Kabun, Liisa Kaljula, Juta Kivimäe, Maris Klaas, Klaire Kolmann, Tõnis Medri, Margit Pajupuu, Villu Plink, Jan Rahman, Renita Raudsepp, Elnara Taidre, Allan Talu, Peeter Talvistu, Kristiina Tiideberg, Uve Untera and Tõnu Uusküla

We thank: Tartu Art Museum, Estonian National Museum, Museum of Viljandi, Vana-Võromaa Museum, Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences, Setomaa Museums, Russian Museum, Vaal Gallery, Haus Gallery, Vernissage Art Gallery, Conservation and Digitization Centre Kanut, Enn Kunila’s art collection, Collection of Mart Lepp and private collections