|Portrait of Karl Pärsimägi|
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.
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?"
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
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.
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) | firstname.lastname@example.org | tel: (372) 631 43 55 | fax: (372) 631 43 56 |