Man Reading a Newspaper: A Painting as a Document of Everyday HistoryEstonian Institute
Juta Kivimäe
Published in the newspaper Sirp, 12.04.2002

Oskar Hoffmann. Man reading a newspaper In 1986 the Art Museum of Estonia bought, from a Moscow Art Salon sale, a painting by Oskar Hoffmann from 1902, which depicted a middle-aged peasant sitting at an inn table. The man's rough and strong face shows concentration - he is reading a newspaper with the title Postimees showing on the other side. For the first time in the history of Estonian art, a newspaper had been turned into an artefact and the man is certainly the first Estonian depicted reading a newspaper.

At an exhibition held in spring 2002 in the Art Museum of Estonia to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Oskar Hoffmann's birth, a special hall was allocated for peasant scenes in inn settings. This was due to the central role of the motif in Hoffmann's work and the fact that Estonian cultural historians have primarily valued the artist for his peasant scenes. Influenced by 19th century Romanticism, many Estonian historians attempted to display great intellectuals of Estonia and Livonia, a region with centuries of multicultural history, as ethnic Estonians. This was also the case with Hoffmann, but now we know that he came from a German baker's family. He never learnt to speak Estonian properly and the peasant scenes appeared on his canvases during his unfinished studies at the Düsseldorf Art Academy for a multitude of simultaneous historically conditioned reasons. His primary motive was naturally the commercial success of the uncouth genre scenes among the middle class of Düsseldorf and also St. Petersburg. There would be no point in looking for similar peasant portraits among the works of the Estonian Johann Köler. For nearly twenty years the two artists lived in St. Petersburg without communicating with each other - such were the differences between their creeds and artistic ranges. The academic style of St. Petersburg, which inspired Köler, did not regard genre painting as a worthy topic for art. Köler's portraits of his peasant parents, painted in the early 1860s, represent an exceptionally pious and tender glimpse at a world in which the artist knew his roots lay. Hoffmann's peasant types show no signs of empathy or of the artist's effort to put himself in the shoes of the peasants depicted. For Hoffmann, whose narrow and specific genre was shaped quite early, Estonian peasants were but 'the world's most picturesque people'. Familiarity with their daily environment and characteristics, which Hoffmann recorded when visiting home, was an asset he made use of in Düsseldorf and particularly in St. Petersburg. The exotic drama, with ethnic costumes and similar inn interiors, is repeated over and over again. In a way Hoffmann provided a cumulative portrait of the hierarchy of the Estonian peasant culture of the 19th century: farm owners, parish judges, innkeepers, merchant journeymen, an occasional village teacher with inspired face, Jewish peddlers, drunks and beggars. The exotic peasants were a hot sales article and Hoffmann derived his only livelihood from the pictures he could sell.

The reading peasant as a nostalgic glimpse at the past
The exhibition at the Estonian Art Museum that offered a comprehensive overview of the life work of the popular and widely reproduced Baltic German painter also helped to clear up a couple of questionable points and correct some minor errors and myths that have passed through publications for decades. In Hoffmann's case it is clearly an exaggeration to link his affection for peasant themes with his studies under Eduard von Gebhardt, the innovator of historical-religious painting at the academy. Hoffmann, who was not very focused, stayed at the professor's studio for only three months and did not pick up any of Gebhardt's thoroughly Protestant mentality. His rapport with peasant topics and his style, which remained unchanged for the rest of his life, probably came to Hoffmann earlier, during his acquaintance with Gregor von Bochmann, who was a year older than him and had started his studies in Düsseldorf as an 18-year-old youngster. The Dutch greyish-brown palette, the emphasised expressions and the Rembrandt-style highlighting of faces on fuzzy backgrounds can be seen in his Man reading a newspaper. The topic itself, a reading Estonian, is present in a couple of his other paintings. A particularly captivating spiritual note can be seen in his two small paintings, owned by the Sagadi Manor House, which depict people reading the Bible. The Bible is also being read by the peasant keeping watch over a dead body (1899) - a picture that conveys the everyday peasant milieu with poignant truthfulness. The Parish Judge (1890), in which we see a man self-confidently reading an official paper, is a portrait which represents the emancipated Estonian peasant on the highest rung of the career ladder ever possible to attain for an Estonian at the time. In the 19th century, insufficient education and knowledge of languages precluded any further upward social mobility.
The peasant reading a newspaper, painted in 1902, was actually already a nostalgic theme at the time it was painted. By the first years of the new century, the country inns in so many of Hoffmann's paintings had vanished into history. The law establishing a state monopoly for distilling spirits, enforced in 1900, undermined the industry of distillation of vodka and rental of inns, which was one of the main revenue sources for many manors. The country inns rented out by manors were closed down and, in the early years of the century, wealthy peasants like Kassiaru Jaska, who used to party there, found it more prestigious to have themselves voted onto the boards of local temperance societies and started making donations for the building of the first county community centres and the foundation of lending libraries. The peasant in the 1902 painting, in fact, is sitting in a city pub. He wears no hat - be it the landlord's fox fur winter hat, the peaked cap of an artisan journeyman or a peasant's felt hat - which had been an inevitable attribute of Hoffmann's earlier inn scenes. The hat was kept on in inns or when doing business elsewhere and constituted a part of the peasant image of the time. In his book on folk costumes Ilmari Manninen mentions the Estonian proverb that a hat on a man's head is his honour and stature. Thus the head was only bared in church, at funerals and when talking to senior servants of the manor. The man reading the paper has no hat and his suit is a city-style three-piece garment that, however, seems to be sewn from homemade woollen cloth. Indeed, by the beginning of the century, the use of folk costumes had definitely declined in Estonia. Kristjan Raud, who moved from Düsseldorf to Tartu only a year after the painting was completed, started his campaign to collect ethnographic antiquities some years later, under the auspices of the new national museum. Then the folk costumes, which had for quite some time been linked only with song festivals, gained new value and currency as a visible sign of the sprouting national consciousness.

| Estonian Art 1/02 (11) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2002 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |