Portrait of Karl PärsimägiEstonian Institute
Heie Treier
In 2002 one hundred years had passed since the birth and sixty years since the death of the painter Karl Pärsimägi (1902-1942). Tiina Abel, curator of the Estonian Art Museum, organised a comprehensive exhibition Pärsimägi and Pallas in spring 2003 to celebrate these anniversaries. At the same time the present author completed her monograph Pärsimägi. Võrumaa - Tartu - Pariis.

Eduard Wiiralt. Karl Pärsimägi Let us take a look at Pärsimägi's mysterious personality with the help of his portraits - it is impossible to understand his work without examining his life, which floats above his bright-coloured paintings and monotypes like an invisible halo. Here are the facts, very quickly. Pärsimägi's creative period precisely coincides with the political independence of the Estonian Republic in the 1920s-1930s. Although none of his paintings exhibits a hint of politics, world politics shaped his destiny only too powerfully. The artist obviously had an extraordinarily strong sense of justice. As a teenage schoolboy he participated in the 1919 War of Independence and later, when he settled in Paris, the Mecca of art, he apparently joined the French resistance movement as a courier. (This information comes from Evald Saag, a professor of theology, who served as a reconnaissance officer in the Estonian army in the 1930s.) Pärsimägi was arrested in September 1941 and was executed on 27 July 1942 in Auschwitz, having been taken for a Jew. Pärsimägi's work contains four self-portraits from different periods of his life. Two of them - Self-portrait with a Hat and Self-portrait with Pearls - date from the first half of the 1930s, and seem rather odd in comparison. Is this the same person in both pictures? Looking at photographs and considering the memoirs of his contemporaries, and finally Eduard Wiiralt's two portraits of the artist in 1925, the confusion increases even further. Pärsimägi is remembered as a very modest and shy young man. In photographs too we often see the artist trying to hide from the camera. He communicated easily with only a few people. At the Tartu Pallas Art School, he mostly befriended other students like himself from the Võrumaa area in southern Estonia who spoke the Võro dialect. His perception of himself must have been of someone different who failed to completely blend into the prevailing cultural context. Additionally, as an artist he was destined to remain at the margins of society. There were those who laughed at him. Even people in his native rural Võrumaa wondered: "What's an artist anyway?"

Karl Pärsimägi. Self-portrait with Pearls Eduard Wiiralt, one of the most beloved Estonian artists, a virtuoso at drawing, was an equally shy man and thus obviously understood Pärsimägi very well. Both came to Pallas in 1919, when the school was founded, straight from the War of Independence. In Wiiralt's oil painting, Pärsimägi's chest is decorated with the Independence War Order of Merit - a medal with a blue, black and white ribbon. The colours of the national flag were forbidden in Soviet times, and the painting was thus not exhibited until 1988, when the Soviet Union was on the brink of collapse. The single instance when the painting was reproduced, in 1966, the Soviet censor erased the medal on Pärsimägi's chest.
Wiiralt's portraits can be considered realistic. He depicted Pärsimägi as a poetic soul, whose sensitive nature is clearly evident, unlike many photographs of Pärsimägi in the 1920s in which he often seems a pale shadow beside his school companions.
The self-portraits, however, speak an entirely different language. The self-portrait of 1921, the artist's exhibition debut, presents a close-up of a strong-willed face. Self-portrait with Pearls carries the same message, although here the determined expression is largely erased by the string of pearls against the bare skin. The man looks straight ahead, at himself (when the picture was being painted) and at the viewer (after completion). We see an elegant and even fashion-conscious gentleman whose refined mind is anything but provincial.

Karl Pärsimägi. Self-portrait with Hat The motif of the pearls can be explained in either a 'boring' or 'risky' manner. The first refers to ethnographic roots - in the Pärlijõgi (Pearl River) in Võrumaa people allegedly found pearl-bearing oysters as late as the early 20th century, and the women wore strings of pearls even on workdays, to say nothing of holidays. Pärsimägi painted or drew pearls around the necks of many of his models. The riskier explanation tries to reveal the artist's (latent) homosexual identity. There is not a single trace of that in the archives. The only love story in his life about which other artists gossiped involved a young Jewish girl at the Grand Chaumière Academy in Paris at the end of the 1930s. Pärsimägi supposedly tried to defend the girl from the fascists, which in the end cost him his life.
Both the pearls and the hat are odd details that can be interpreted metaphysically. However, people in Võrumaa are often simply different, just like Pärsimägi's farmer father Jaan who wondered what sort of a creature an artist was, but at the same time imagined elaborate artistic projects connected with the shipping lanes between Võrtsjärv Lake and the Pärnu River, without ever actually visiting the locations. He also repaired windmills until they stopped working altogether and stood in his fields like weird folk architecture.

| Estonian Art 1/03 (12) | Published by the Estonian Institute 2003 | ISSN 1406-5711 (Online) | ISSN 1406-3549 (Printed version) | einst@einst.ee | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |