Works (i.e. the actual pictures referred to below) of Eduard Wiiralt were exhibited on E2 for two days in a Cooperative Art Exhibition. The Art Exhibition took place between January 26, 13:00 ST and January 28, 13:00 ST. Thank you, dear Exhibitioners:
allseeingeye, IWhoSawTheFace, DejaMorgana, Lometa, yclept, rootbeer277, JohnnyGoodyear, haze, GrouchyOldMan, AudieMcCall, doyle, pint, XWiz, in10se.

A wide artistic spectrum, in black-and-white

Eduard Wiiralt is — or rather was; he died in 1954 — an artist. His work consists almost exclusively of graphic art (= "prints") — etchings, engravings, woodcuts, etc. — most of it in black-and-white. But his artistic expression has varied widely, from the naturalistic / realistic to the surrealistic and bizarre. Well, actually it is the other way around — he started out as an expressive surrealist and ended up as a realist.

The beginnings

Eduard Wiiralt (alternative spelling Viiralt) was born in 1898 in the St. Petersburg region of Russia, where his Estonian parents worked on a Russian country estate. When Eduard was 11, the entire family returned to Estonia. At age 16 Wiiralt succeeded in convincing his (not altogether overjoyed) parents that his future lay in art and he enrolled in the Tallinn Arts and Crafts school.

Freedom fighter

Times during Wiiralt’s youth were turbulent. In 1917 Czarist Russia, which had ruled Estonia for 200 years, was crumbling. For the first time since the Middle Ages, Estonians saw a chance of regaining their freedom. But the independent Republic of Estonia, declared in 1918, was almost immediately attacked by Lenin’s Russians, who wanted to keep all of the territory of the Czarist Empire within the new Empire of Lenin’s own creation, the Soviet Union.

The young Eduard Wiiralt decided to become one of thousands of Estonian students and school-boys to take up arms as volunteers, defending the new Estonian Republic with their lives. Wiiralt fought as a crew member of the Armoured Train No 2, a famed Estonian assault unit during the Estonian Freedom War. Thanks to the fighting spirit of the freedom fighters, Soviet Russia was eventually forced to conclude a peace treaty with Estonia in 1920. The dream of an independent Republic of Estonia had become a geopolitical fact. True, it was temporarily crushed twenty years later by Stalin and Hitler. But it was never forgotten. When Russia crumbled a second time in 1991, Estonia again declared its independence, this time without needing to fight for it.

After the Freedom War Wiiralt returned to his art studies, transferring to the Pallas Art Academy in Tartu, an institution that was to become the most important Estonian art school during the 1920's and 1930's. In 1922 he was sent on a scholarship to the Art Academy in Dresden, Germany.

German New Objectivity

It is quite probable that during his time in Dresden Wiiralt came in contact with the new trends in German art during the early 1920's. One of these trends was "Die neue Sachlichkeit" (= literally "The New Matter-of-Factness", but usually referred to as "The New Objectivity" or "German Expressionism" in English), represented by George Grosz and Otto Dix, among others. The works of this movement actually don't look "objective" at all, but rather surreal and macabre, often being painted in an intentionally crude style.

When Wiiralt returned to Tartu from Germany (in late 1924), he started his career as a professional artist, in the beginning earning a living by mainly working with book illustrations.

Productive in Paris

In the autumn of 1925 Eduard Wiiralt travelled to Paris, intending to take in the atmosphere of the Art Capital of the World for just a limited period. But his stay was to become almost permanent — lasting the next 14 years. He didn’t see Estonia until 1939, when he returned just before the outbreak of World War II.

It was in Paris between 1925 and 1939 that Wiiralt produced his most famous works. His particular version of expressionism started to turn toward the grotesque, as exemplified by Bathers, 1927 and Gabrièliede, 1928 (an illustration of a poem by the Russian poet Pushkin). Wiiralt’s "grotesqueness" is always elaborated in meticulously fine detail, without the characteristic crudeness of the German "Neue Sachlichkeit" movement. In 1927 he had his first personal single-artist exhibition in Paris.

Suggestive nudes and ambiguous decadence

Little is known of Wiiralt’s personal life during this period. He never married or had a family. But he seems to have taken in some of the erotic atmosphere of Paris in the 1920's and 1930's, sometimes in an ambiguous way. His Paris nudes can hardly be described as neutral pictures of nude women. Woman in Red Skirt, Paule, and the pictures referred to above, Bathers (1927), and Gabrièliede (1928), exude a certain naughtiness (or perhaps decadence?) that you will not find in a traditional nude. Parisian naughtiness of a different kind is depicted in Absinth Drinkers.

The grotesque period in Wiiralt’s production culminates with the three works for which he is best known in the art world: Hell, Cabaret and The Preacher. The originals of the first two, Hell and Cabaret, are large-sized eau forte copperplate prints with extremely fine, almost fractal-like details. Such rich detail is almost impossible to reproduce in a small web image. The loss of detail in the web image is particularly noticeable in Cabaret, where the ambiguous feeling of 'disgusting decadence', that the original conveys, doesn’t get across sufficiently well.

Realism with a twist

From 1933 onwards Wiiralt changed his artistic expression radically. He started using more nuanced graphical techniques like aquatint and dry point and his pictures became realistic or naturalistic. Well, almost realistic. Because, once you have seen The Preacher or some other works from the "surreal" period, Wiiralt's realistic pictures always seem to have a twist. An emotionally moving example of this "realism with a twist" is a late (1947) Wiiralt from his post-WW II Paris period. It's a portrait of a shy girl, who feels teenagerishly awkward and doesn't quite seem to know what to do with herself — or with her hands — Regine (1947). It brings back my own feelings of unmanageable awkwardness during my teenage days.

In 1938 Wiiralt spent a period in Morocco for reasons of health, mainly in Marrakech. This resulted in a number of realistic studies of Moroccan animals and people — camels, Berber and Arab men and women. Camel with Berber Boy is an example from this period. There are no tigers in Morocco, but Wiiralt apparently became inspired to do a number of pictures of tigers as well, e.g. Tiger with Cat and Tigers.

Caught in the war

You could say that Eduard Wiiralt’s return to Estonia in 1939 wasn't particularly well timed, because half a year later Stalin's troops invaded the country. On the other hand, had he stayed in Paris, then he would have been forced to live in a city occupied by Hitler's troops. As it turned out, Hitler's troops soon (in the summer of 1941) replaced Stalin’s troops in Estonia anyway. Wiiralt himself was fortunate enough not be harmed by either of the occupying totalitarian forces. But during the war years he turned to Estonian national themes — landscapes, portraits of country people, again realistically rendered, but with a twist.

It ends in Paris

There is a caricatural self-portrait of Eduard Wiiralt, with a witch-like pointed hat, playing the violin, probably made in the 1920’s — Self-portrait with Violin. In his early period Wiiralt also experimented with different styles, e.g. in Violinist and Women’s Heads, from 1925. The style of the first reminds me of Nordic National Romanticism and the latter looks somewhat Picasso-esque. I have not been able to identify the exact period of creation of these two pictures. Nevertheless, Wiiralt seems to have abandoned these styles rather early on.

Before the end of World War II and the return of Russian troops to Estonia, Wiiralt managed to escape to Sweden. Here he stayed less than two years. As soon as the post-war conditions allowed, in his case in 1946, he returned to Paris.

Eduard Wiiralt died in Paris 1954 and is buried in the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

Stamp of approval

To celebrate Eduard Wiiralt's centenary in 1998 the Estonian Post Office issued a cleverly designed postage stamp with a rendering of Hell (if you want to look at the stamp, go to the 3rd Reference below). The picture is actually printed over 4 horizontally and vertically adjacent and connected stamps, with the connecting perforation running over the middle of the picture area, vertically and horizontally. If you want to use the stamps for postage purposes, then you get 4 stamps, each with a different quarter of the Hell image. Collectors will probably not be tempted tear the four pieces apart.


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