Driven by the desire to taste urbane life, to study art and to succeed in this field, Estonian artists travelled to European metropolises such as Paris, Berlin and Munich at the beginning of the 20th century. Mostly there were no great careers, but the big city offered the opportunity to come in direct contact with both the modern art movements and urban life characterized by a bohemian spiritual atmosphere, vibrant nightlife and fast-paced life, a colourful company and different forms of communication between people. Many new and interesting things were opening up to the artist’s mind: crowds, modern architecture and urban planning, new vehicles, but also a lot of air pollution. The environment in which artists from rural and urban areas of Estonia found themselves was very different from their home. The metropolis was inspiring in its specialness and left an extremely profound impression on artists.
However, urbanization also accelerated in Estonia at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. It was related to various social and cultural, economic and technological processes that can be called as modernization. Living space in the city of Estonia gradually began to resemble the urban landscape of Western Europe, but the urban lifestyle and urban mindset or mentality spread much faster.
What is this city dweller’s mindset like? To sum up, urban mentality contrasts with the mentality of the feudal society or the people living in the countryside and with their life in general. This urban mentality can be compared to the perceptions, principles and behaviours that emerge in capitalistic and market-based societies. For example, the dominant features of urban mentality are the celebration of individualism and the constant need for self-fulfillment, as opposed to the rural community-based lifestyle, which emphasizes strong family and friendship ties instead. At the time, it was said that the modern urbanite is self-centered and superficial, wears a mask and is never quite himself/herself. Rather the urbanite goes along with what is more popular than has a lasting outlook on the world. At the same time, this wearing of mask, or the constant changing of roles according to the situation, was probably due to the specific working environment and social relations of the city. It was the chameleonic abilities that helped to stay competitive and be (socially) accepted while living and working in the city. However, as Friedebert Tuglas wrote in his essay “Kirjanduslik stiil” (“The Literary Style” 1912), this urban-like mindset also reached the countryside at the beginning of the last century. Thus, before the physical environment clearly began to urbanize, people became urbanized in their own minds, due to the culture: through reading contemporary literature, blooming journalism, modern hobbies, traveling and other things. For Tuglas – as for many other creative persons – urban mentality was associated with intelligence: with a wide knowledge and valuing of (self-)eductaion.
The exposition seeks to capture the groundbreaking changes and the most common ideas associated with urban culture reflected in the early 20th century Estonian art. There has been a search for how the changing living environment or modern urban space was perceived and visualized. Attention has been paid to the way the city dweller of both the homeland and European metropolises was seen and portrayed. The pictures show the stereotypical perceptions most often portrayed in Estonian art, which are associated with the city and the city dweller and the townie. They are about manners, hobbies and appearance. Hopefully, the exhibition will also allow for identification with the urbanite and highlight the similarities of perceptions of the city then and now, because in many respects we still perceive the city(life) as it was portrayed by artists at the beginning of the last century.
Exhibited works are gathered from different museum and private collections: Under and Tuglas Literature Centre of the Estonian Academy of Sciences (UTKK), Art Museum of Estonia (EKM), Tallinn City Museum (TLM), Tartu Art Museum (TKM) and Narva Museum (NLM).
Changed Smell and Rhythm of Life
The urban smellscape is nuanced, but artists’ works suggest that the smell of a city is mainly associated with industrial odour, the foul stench of toxic gases or pollutants. Towering chimneys and skies fogged by smoke are often the leitmotif of pictures depicting cities. These motifs point to the fragrance bouquet which distinguishes a modern city from a pre-industrial city, rural village, or forest, places associated with pleasant aromas. However, chimneys and skies fogged by smoked don’t necessarily refer to something unpleasant, they can also be related to progress and modernization, as a positive phenomenon.
In addition to the peculiar smell, time also flows at a different rate in a city than, for example, in the countryside. Artist’s sketch people who are in a hurry, referring to the notion that there is never enough time when living in a (big) city. The people depicted are often given a tired look because having a fast pace of life is tiring. A change in the rhythm of life was clearly perceived at the beginning of the 20th century, when agrarian societies transitioned into urban societies. It was also thought that the fast pace of life in big cities causes various health problems, including stress and anxiety. And in relation to the health problems, artists frequently depicted the constant and annoying noise that is unavoidable part of the urban life experience.
The Many Faces of a City
Artists became interested in the everyday life of a city dweller as well as the downsides and conflicts of urban life. This is why the negative phenomena associated with the city and capitalist society at the time – economic stratification, self-centeredness, carelessness, and crime – started emerging as an important topic in art. Social problems were clearly highlighted due to the coexistence of different social strata and different types of people in a shared urban space. The ever-changing and different patterns of behaviour and thinking that characterize the era are clearly visible in the city. By addressing concerns, artists hoped to broaden their fellow citizens’ horizons, hoping to make the world a better place to live and make people more caring.
The city could be a disappointing place. Success in the city may be followed by an unexpected downturn. People moved to a (big) city from a village or small town in search of happiness, but were instead often greeted by poor living conditions, economic hardship, tough competition, and hard work. In art, for example, the stonebreaker’s image symbolises the hardship caused by urbanisation. The occupation of stonebreaker was born out of desire to build modern paved city streets. However, the job was physically demanding and often ruined workers’ health.
Free Time and Partying
The art of the 20th century often depicts leisure and holiday activities of urbanite. For example, people living in cities enjoyed taking trips to scenic sites and walk in parks and harbours to relieve stress. Going to the beach was also a popular pastime. Sports and physical activity became a growing trend in the early 20th century and an athletic or muscular body became the beauty ideal.
Many popular places of entertainment were associated with the city – theatre, cinema, and cafes. More conservative people considered the city a sinful place and thought that cities with their entertainment establishments encourage bad habits. In particular, conservatives disliked casinos, cabarets, and bars, where, in their mind, people consume a lot of alcohol, gamble, engage in prostitution, and dance modern solo and partner dances which look erotic. Because urban lifestyle was associated with various amusements, urban dwellers became perceived as frivolous and the term townie was coined.
Portrait of a Chic Townie
Artists put a great deal of emphasis on the appearance of the townie which points to the widespread perception that people living in cities are obsessed about the impression they leave upon others. It is the appearance that distinguishes them from rural people. Urban dwellers usually look chic, wear the most fashionable clothes and hairstyles, which is often covered by a headgear. In addition, artists enjoy emphasising the vanity of the townie with accessories such as oversized jewellery, lap dogs, or cars.
Many people were proud to be a city dweller. At the beginning of the last century, portraits with one’s home city in the background, featuring elements characteristic of the city, such as the red roofs and cobblestone roads of the Old Town of Tallinn, became quite popular. Such images may express love for a place and also a sense of pride in being a city dweller. The status attached to being an urban dweller was also highlighted by a new trend in art – the city dweller was drawn as part of the urban environment with the human figure or face blending into the urban space and architecture.