Prodigy or Little Prince?

Thanks to good art the author, the public and the whole world gets better.
(August Künnapu)

August Künnapu appeared on the Estonian art scene at the end of the 1990s and immediately caught the attention of our critics and curators. His first personal exhibition merited him the title of the “prodigy of the new Estonian painting”, whose uniqueness and contemporary outlook produce a new sense of reality, at once grotesque and visionary. The image of an exclusive artist remains: in principle, Künnapu stays a singular player, whose art does not fit into the frames of any mainstream artistic trend. Various critics have tried to identify his style with bad painting (Hanno Soans) and post-naivism (Elin Kard), as well as British neo-pop (Karin Paulus).

The writers have also used the term “new neurotic realism” (Hanno Soans), which refers to contemporary British art and was utilised in late 1990s to define mainly the crowd of Young British Art movement, promoted by Saatchi.

Künnapu himself has studied in London and has closely followed the yBa activities, describing them as “original, smart, brilliant and spontaneous”, all of which can easily be applied to his own work as well. The best visual comparison for his work seems to be Martin Maloney, who also fosters naivist figurative painting. But unlike Maloney’s small comic-like narratives, Künnapu lacks the British-own shock strategy, self-evident conceptuality and irony. His paintings are characterised by sincerity and certain utopianism; his deconstructions are friendly and reality shifts soft.

Künnapu is inconsistent with the “young and angry” Estonian artist generation of the 1990’s in that he does not have the parricidal urge toward renown authorities and institutions. He works together with his father, Vilen Künnapu, who is an acknowledged architect, and rather peacefully accepts the privileges and prejudices arising from his prominent parent. There is no sense of embarrassment probably because the son has stepped out of his father’s shadow; although he has architectural education, he has not inherited neither his father’s line of business nor style.

Nevertheless, the influence of family’s creative culture and perspective cannot be completely ignored: the outlook, contacts and close circles of an artist family, as well as economical possibilities, definitely have some role to play. Precisely for that reason, Karin Paulus has called August Künnapu the Little Prince, pointing to his almost mythical artist origins (since the artist himself claims to have had a happy childhood, he could also be the Happy Prince). At the same time, the young artist seems to be quite aware of his “chosenness” and sometimes behaves in a charmingly modest egomaniacal way, publishing an interview with himself, for instance.

Outlook and painting concepts

I would define August Künnapu as the last Estonian modernist: his paintings do not try to paint the conceptual picture, but are truly picturesque, deriving from the experiences and the potentiality of the medium. Künnapu’s works cannot be described using only the terminology of the new art theories, which are more suitable for examining the context and meta-context than bringing out the phenomenology of the form. Since namely the form and its effect make up a significant part of August Künnapu’s work, the formalistic approach seems rather justified in the analysis of his paintings.

Both in Künnapu’s art philosophy and in the reception of his paintings, one can often hear a rhetoric of “modernist” originality and innovation: there is talk about a unique, self-assertive style of painting, (mediated) new perception of reality, and so on. Even though the world of his paintings is fairly self-evident and everyday, it convincingly implicates a certain general principle. Everything that the artist touches turns into his auto-portrait. It is a pronounced subjectivity that becomes a new objectivity within its own style and iconography.

Künnapu’s method of creating a colourful world is reminiscent of Marko Mäetamm’s “subjective formalism” with its surprise tactics, practiced in the early 90s, which has been compared to the “principle of defamiliarization” of Russian formalists and Viktor Shklovsky, which opposed the mechanised perception by “making strange” the ordinary reality.
At the same time, Künnapu’s attempt is not the playful, a bit frivolous approach of Mäetamm, which allowed everything to be translated into the language the artist created. Instead, he creates and conveys the “brave (not necessarily new) world”.

So he is not some kind of a new-formalist. Although he talks about “pure painting”, for him, it does not signify the medium-centred art conception in the spirit of Clement Greenberg – the painting’s purity springs from the energy invested in its creation, which in turn creates a positive reaction in the viewer (that is why the artist does not paint negative events). The causal intent of Künnapu’s sensuously gratifying figures is not a search of form for form’s sake, the form’s aim is to relate to both the subject of the painting and the viewer, to find contact, to convey a positive, life-affirming message, to influence and change people through art-communication.

Hence together with the concept of form emerge other complicated notions like energy and intuition, which today’s post-metaphysical thinking tries to avoid at all cost. While the 20th century western society has shown great interest toward the irrational experience, the symbolic meaning of which are Carlos Castaneda’s books, illuminating the shamanic practices in the cultural niche of the eternal Other. Künnapu has participated in the Native American camps and probably has experienced such phenomena first hand. (“Shaman in trance”, 2002).

What makes his work fascinating though, is that he does not paint energetic processes or their symbols: the transmission of positive impulses is carried out subconsciously, effortlessly, not through complicated (pseudo)allegories, but with the colours and emotions of the commonplace world.

Künnapu’s art conception gives him a camp look, and completely excludes any threat of New Age. Even his rather “metaphysical” idea of art as the healing medium has been expressed through a conventional exposition medium: his curator project “The Healing” (2002) was a group presentation of various artist generations in Mustamäe hospital, where the paintings were to induce cheerful emotions in the daily routine of the hospital workers and patients.

In the modernist concept, there is an allusion to art’s positive creative seed, which relates to the constructive, heal-the-world aspect of art emphasised by Künnapu. The belief that the world can be changed through an aesthetic experience seems amiably naive and modernistically utopian today. The social aspect emerges from another level – there is no progressive pretence to mould societal ways here, the action takes place on the grass-root level, simply offering good feelings that are available to everybody, not only the inner circle of the art community. Künnapu’s paintings do not carry the elitist ivory-tower ideology that was especially visible in late modernism.

Künnapu’s other great project is the cultural newspaper “Epifanio”, which seeks to create an enjoyable synthesis of text and images – timeless reading for ageless people, distributed for free. Introducing art to the general audience sounds a little like the avant-garde innovators’ intellectual and aesthetic public education programme. The revelational perspective is also notably present in the title. However, “Epifanio’s” content is defined by the editor’s wholehearted subjectivity and the paper operates as a fantastic mix of individuality and universality.

Painting language

The artist’s creed for August Künnapu is to represent things “as they are”, without beautifying or uglifying them. His manner of interpretation is characterised by certain generalising, schematising and stylising – he says that, he looks at the “world and people in images”. An important attribute to his paintings is their still-frame quality, the frame effect: he works with photos, slides and video-frames. But he seldom uses a direct reference to the picture (“Lake Leigo”, 2004; and especially “Vietnamese girls in Townhall square”, 2002). The use of photographs does not make his paintings photo-like or hyper-realistic, they are rather two-dimensional. The perspective, although conveying the sense of space, acts according to its own laws. A vital element is the surface and the unique “cornered” treatment of form.

The work begins from the base painting, which functions as the scene on which the foreground image is superimposed. Künnapu’s handwriting is recognizable in every painting, but the way the paint is applied to the canvas and the resulting texture is individual with every piece, i.e. object or motif.

The artist employs black-and-white images as a source of inspiration, adding his own colour-palette to the composition. Colour is in the centre of attention and the main tool to find solutions for dynamics, movement and atmosphere. Künnapu likes brilliant clean colours, but as a skilled colourist, he also creates nuance-rich spectrums with subtle undertones, relying on both harmony and contrast. The details are noticeable for their spotted surfaces – brush strikes added onto the canvas, which Künnapu is keen on applying when filling various surfaces from architectural elements to the patterns of clothing (“Girl with a bird”, 2001; “House in Las Vegas”, 2003; “Temple of nature”, 2005). This technique creates an intense impression of the vibrating surfaces and conveys the emotional scenery.

Geometrical axes appear in the structure of compositions: the proportion of horizontal, vertical and diagonal lines is set and serves as an effective framework to the twisting figures at the front. There is often a low horizon prevalent in Künnapu’s paintings, which he signifies with colour and weight. It is the stage on which the frontline activity is carried out. Another intriguing thing is how the parallels and doublings create a certain rhythm: repeating colour patches and shapes of the same form remain mostly inconspicuous, but influence the perception of the artwork. The sitting “Dalmatian” (2001) – a bright triangle with a red triangular necktie on top – is a compact and stimulating figure.

Künnapu’s characters are very communicative; he humorously depicts absurd angles, poses and facial expressions. On his portraits, the most prominent features are often large almond-shaped eyes and a massive one-brush-stroke nose, usually of lighter colour. The space between the nose and the chin is always managed in a peculiar way, accentuating the shape of the mouth, the gesture of the lips, thus building a character.

There is an observable permanence in the dynamics of his figures’ poses; the motion stems from the tension in the form: the chosen posture is mostly in between two main movements (“Vicky Botwright – world squash player no 23 from Manchester”, 2001; “Old-school tennis player”, 2002). Still, it is not merely a formal construction: in case of the athletes, for instance, the artist is well aware of the characteristic movements and playing style of the chosen sportsmen, depicting them truthfully.

Genres and themes

The main weight of Künnapu’s art production lies in paintings, in addition, he has filmed black-and-white documentaries, designed books and exhibitions, and curated art projects. One of his first works in the artistic field was an installation “Admiral’s box” (1996, together with Urmas Luure) and thereafter he has executed many painting-based but spatial and/or installational works. For example, the three-dimensional versions of “Angel” and “Cat and Mirror” characters (2006, in cooperation with Riina Rosin), or his earlier experiments with acrylic paintings on the TV screen (2001), and the series of architects’ portraits (2003) painted on the wooden doors of a demolished summer-house, where the different textures of the doors form a distinctively suitable setting for the portrayed people.

Furthermore, the space and spatial relations are brought to the fore in his murals, like the portrait of Arnold Rüütel (2001) that Künnapu made together with Renee Puusepp on the wall of the mining house in Kohtla-Nõmme, also the “Lemurian” and the “Cat and Gymnast” in Taiwan (2006). This enchantment with space and spatial effects must stem from his studies in architecture; the communication of space and its impact plays a crucial role in many of his paintings.

Architecture occupies a special place among his painting themes. The artist has a knack for multi-layered interiors; he understands the composition and readily interprets it through his colourful prism. He seems to be captivated by the universality and timelessness in both contemporary and long-standing architectural projects: in the homage to Luis Barragán (2003), Etienne-Louis Boullée, and Claude Nicolas Ledoux (2005), he exhibits a metaphysical dimension that can be sensed in the large empty surfaces, minimalist geographical shapes and ambiguous lighting. Whereas Künnapu’s paintings often centre around the main characters and situations, then here the action is dispensable and his focus rests purely on “portraying” the architecture, trying to catch the essence of the environment and space.

The source of the Homages is art history (“Swinging” – homage to Nikolai Yaroshenko, 2001), as much as the whole cultural and media sphere. There is a distinct subgroup of icons among Künnapu’s portraits: a continuous project of painting famous people, who are interpreted into his visual language. In case of historic figures, the key is to find a relevant image and means to represent the person as the emblem of their era. The iconography of the “Scientists interested in sun” portrait gallery (2003) relates to the historical representational portrait. The portrait of Oskar Luts (2003) could just as well have been painted by a Pallas-school artist, the images of movie-stars (portrait of double identity “Audrey Hepburn (Liza Minelli)”, 2001; “Humphrey Bogart”, 2003) exploit the coding of cinema posters and the dramatic beauty of still-frames.

In contrast to the “icons”, there are circumstantial paintings: everyday scenes with athletes, doctors and promenaders. Although their names are brought out in the titles of the paintings, these nurses and tennis players carry an anonymous and unpretentious feeling. At the same time, these works are very expressive and dynamic, filled with the quotidian poetry of casual impressions. Similar poetics can be found in the portraits of the artist’s friends. Künnapu enjoys a psychological task – to investigate the mimics and the variety of facial expressions of the model, to capture the characteristic lines on which to build an articulate personage. He tracks down the properties, background and environment that emphasise the character’s nature and state of mind.

Even his animal pictures obtain a portrait-like quality – he is an excellent animalist, his four-leggeds and winged-ones are sincere and convincing. His animals have a humane dimension, they seek contact and engage in emotional dialogue with people (“Girl with a bird”, 2001; “A keeper at London Zoo recieves a kiss from a friendly sea-lion”, 2004). The most frequent visitors on his paintings are cats, and every cat has its own individuality: temperament, position, background. The artist is familiar with the cats’ anatomy, their movements and mood-conveying poses.

Künnapu can handle both children and animals without slipping into banality and kitsch. He expresses what he believes in, and this sincere conviction combined with attentive observation and skilful painting always produces an effortless effect. The world of August Künnapu is at times infantile, silly and nonsensical, but always kind and joyful; soft values are surprisingly topical and not monotonously boring.

Elnara Taidre

  1. August Künnapu. Pure Painting.
  2. Eha Komissarov. Noorem Künnapu maalidega Vaalas/Younger Künnapu’s paintings in Vaal (Gallery). – Sirp, 31.08.2001, p. 19.
  3. Eha Komissarov. Noorem Künnapu maalidega Vaalas/Younger Künnapu’s paintings in Vaal (Gallery). – Sirp, 31.08.2001, p. 19.
  4. August Künnapu. yBa. – 2001, ed. 2, p. 15.
  5. Karin Paulus. Väike Prints/Little Prince. – Eesti Ekspress: Areen, 02.04. 2004, p. B14.
  6. August Künnapu`s interview with himself. – Estonian Art 2003, ed. 2, p. 14-15.
  7. I would like to thank Karin Taidre for her contribution.
  8. Hanno Soans. Return of the Wizard. – Vikerkaar 2003, ed. 3, p. 48.
  9. Moreover, the artist does not paint his own face into the character’s appearance, which is quite a common “symptom” in the history of art (the most well-known is the special look on Leonardo da Vincis female characters and the speculations about it; in Estonia, one could mention Karin Luts and Reti Saksa), rather he shifts people and animals and even things into the Künnapu dimension, adding them warmth and unique sensitivity.
  10. Eero Epner. Ühest verisest traumast/Of One Bloody Trauma. – 2004, ed. 2, p. 11.
  11. August Künnapu. Pure Painting. –
  12. 22+ Young Estonian Artists. Editor Karin Laansoo. Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn 2005, p. 112.
  13. I remember that this trait was brought to my attention by Tiina Abel, who said when speaking about Eduart Wiiralt’s creation: “How he could represent children and animals without vulgarising them!”