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KÜnnapu enjoys moments and painting

In his previous catalogue, published in 2007, August Künnapu formulated his aesthetic programme. His topics include medicine, film, literature, music, sport, black-and-white photographs as sources of inspiration, he loves big simple images, clear pure colours, tests various formats, depicts shifted pictorial spaces. He has a special idea of a pure painting, which is born through the pure and positive energy of the artist and is conveyed in a moment; another idea of his claims that art has a power to improve and heal the world, which has later been repeatedly called a naïve assumption.

These principles have not changed in intervening years. The same range of topics, although his treatment of form has moved towards even simpler and clearer surfaces and his colours have become increasingly bright and lucid. He still seems to believe in the purity of painting and its world-healing effect. In the name of this, he paints with enviable enthusiasm and confidence. Like now, having presented to the museum his wish to have an exhibition in November 2013, he promised to paint new pictures in the course of the year. He also decided to have a catalogue, started negotiations with various people – set the process in motion in order to manage everything in time. Earlier this year, Matti Milius organised an evening of conversation with August and Vilen Künnapu in the Tampere House in Tartu. I was greatly tempted to ask what would happen if he were struck down by a creative crisis, or spring turns out to be of a kind when it is impossible to work, or he sinks into depression, exhaustion, or economic and political circumstances were not suitable, he runs out of ideas. August Künnapu, however, did not exhibit anything that might have made me doubt in him, and so I never asked my question. His programme and method work, especially when we add the earlier mentioned amazing capacity for work. We could of course ask that if someone has already painted several series on repeated themes, whether we should suspect him of using the once mastered tricks. True, Künnapu has his own methods and he is very skilled. At the same time his treatment is sufficiently intuitive and sensuous, displays constant movement towards the more mature and sublime, and I thus believe that also in this sense we should not doubt Künnapu.

Künnapu’s manner of painting is highly singular and easily recognisable. Various influences can be detected: bad painting, post-naivism, British neo-pop and new neurotic realism, if to name a few more used ones. Vilen Künnapu calls his manner simply August’s cubism. August agrees that everything has been influenced, although he deems it necessary to stress that not by conceptualism. In his view, conceptualism means overestimating the idea. On the whole – less communication via texts. See, for example, Künnapu’s editorial columns in magazine Epifanio, published by himself. These are brief, and he often relies on the sayings of classics. It is not surprising that the first issue of the magazine he included a prediction by László Moholy-Nagy, artist and lecturer at the legendary art school Bauhaus, written in the 1930s: „… in the future, the illiterate is not the one who cannot read a text, but the one who cannot read a photograph”. Künnapu adds that this goes for the entire visual culture. In perceiving the world, the essential sense for him is the sight, and in depicting the world it is visual thinking. Art history is full of examples of different methods how to achieve this. Mixing everything with great dexterity, he seems convincing and extremely contemporary. August Künnapu has also been called a very trend-conscious artist. (Elken, Jaan. Noor eesti kunst. Kunst.ee 2/2001).

At the centre of Künnapu’s work is man – a portrait or a figural composition. He depicts reality, selecting seemingly nondescript simple stories out of it. These are events that happen between bigger key events, they are not often noticed, but in fact provide life with its constant sense of happiness and security. Künnapu can therefore be called a painter of soft values in life – family, friends, culture, animals (“Family Picture with a Flying Bear”, „An Idyll in Landscape”, „Friends and a Tower”, „In a Hammock”, etc.). Elnara Taidre also mentioned soft values in her article („Imelaps või väike prints?”, August Künnapu maalikataloog, Epifanio 2007). The main criterion in choosing motifs seems to be that an image has to excite him, cognitively or figuratively. He then paints the motif with enormous enthusiasm and emotional charge. The result is a number of colourful situations, which cannot be taken too seriously. You often find yourself wondering how much irony these pictures actually contain. I tend to think there is quite a bit, but the irony is not arrogant, instead positive and mixed with empathy. The artist makes a special effort to avoid assessments and directly referring to something.

For Künnapu, life is nearly always nice and jolly, unlike the opinion of most Estonians that life is a valley of sorrows. This is a positive programme realised by the artist in his paintings. How does he do it? What emerges is that he does not much relate to contemporary world. Künnapu does not care for politics, economic growth or recession, equal rights, whatever. I remember a larger-scale undertaking – a mural painted together with Renee Puusepp in 2001 about Arnold Rüütel in a derelict industrial building in Kohtla in north-eastern Estonia, when Rüütel was elected the second president of the Republic of Estonia that had regained independence. The location of the picture gives it certain political significance. (Trossek, Andreas. Siis kui lõpeb lähiminevik ja algab retro. Kunst.ee 4/2006). A few paintings could be added here, but he mostly turns away from politics and avoids the role of an artist who dissects topical, painful and tragic themes altogether.

However, even in depicting the soft values, he is more attracted to life of the earlier decades than to the contemporary world. Künnapu is placed in the here and now, although his soul is destined to harmonise with the past. Old-fashioned people, clothes, hairdos and interiors. With great affection, he depicts children of Raua Street of the 1930s; his gymnasts look like students of Ernst Idla, a famous gymnastics trainer of the past; the series „Women and Lingerie” shows models from the films of the 1920s, 1950s and 1980s; jolly groups of people date back to the collective farm era or pre-war pubs in Germany. He truly lives outside his time.

A significant section in Künnapu’s work is the portrait. He has depicted more or less known people amongst architects, writers, artists, musicians, film-makers and others, always choosing those who have been important for him („My Favourites”). Who are they? Photographs of quite a few can be found in Wikipedia. The Italian film-maker, screenwriter and novelist Michelangelo Antonioni ‒ Künnapu presents a younger version of him, abandons three dimensions, stresses features that matter to him, deep furrows on the forehead, dark eyebrows, the slightly slanting small mouth with a grin, a funny curved fold in a cheek, large coal-black eyes. Eyes in Künnapu’s pictures are often big flat wheels, the whites of the eyes alertly yellow or green. Richard Brautigan is an American novelist and poet who died in the 1980s. Through Künnapu’s brush he, too, has acquired a Künnapu-flavoured face: big dark eyeballs in the boldly light pink face. The Internet provides an original photograph of the English architect Alison Smithson alongside with Künnapu’s painting. He has chosen a highly eloquent image of the American-Venezuelan musician Devendra Banhart, the musician is seen here with a tilted head, one eye closed, the other scrutinising the viewer. Through You Tube you can track down Devendra Banhart’s songs as well. His romantic soul has become visible via miraculous luminosity painted on the singer’s face. Künnapu is the child of the Internet era. The activities of people nowadays largely take place in virtual reality. „ ... he devotes much more time and interest to what is happening on the TV and computer screen and in the media, rather than what is happening in front of his own house. There is anyway nothing else in front of the house besides parked cars....”. (Paul, Toomas. Uskumatu Tooma lugu. LR 2009/1-2, p. 30). Unexpectedly, I found myself eagerly trying to find pictorial source material for each painting, reflecting on the form methods that Künnapu has used on one or another occasion. I have no idea with whom among the depicted people the artist only communicates via the Internet, and who he has met in real world; some conclusions can be drawn by age, although it does not actually matter that much. A photograph can capture a random, maybe totally uncharacteristic moment of someone’s posture or facial expression, which might contain very little information about the portrayed. Imagination must then be used, Künnapu’s unquestionable trump card is his bold and eloquent treatment of form and colour. There are also extremely dainty colour combinations, which have required who knows how many extra senses of colour in order to get it just right. He is especially extravagant in form, whereas in colour treatment he is remarkably harmonious and refined, despite the first impressions of lavish colours. As for the positive effect of Künnapu’s paintings, it largely comes from his charming perception of colours.

Now, before the exhibition at the Tartu Art Museum, Künnapu visited Tartu on several occasions in order to seek inspiration for the works to be displayed there. Two new portraits are of Tartu people Juri Lotman and Ilmar Kruusamäe. The latter is an interesting choice among artists – the one who introduced painting after black-and-white photographs. As Ilmar Kruusamäe has said, after such photographs the Tartu artists produced slide paintings at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s. Künnapu now painted a portrait of Kruusamäe in the same method, although in a totally different key. Kruusamäe knew nothing of this. This is precisely how such paintings are born. Künnapu claims that he has painted only one portrait after a live model. A photograph is usually enough. If possible, he also meets the portrayed, observes him or her; if this is not possible, the photograph has to do, always black-and-white. What colours one or another image gets, depends on the artist’s mood and on perceptions that emerged while communicating with the portrayed persons or thinking about them.

According to the artist, he is not exactly inundated with portrait commissions. The problems are especially acute with female models, as Künnapu usually makes people uglier. Sometimes they are ugly indeed. An example could be the same Raua Street children, e.g. „Horn Blower”, who looks like a little ogre, or „Models by the River”. It is difficult to imagine how Künnapu sees the world on a daily basis, whether the faces and bodies of people he sees in the street immediately start changing shape in his imagination. Or whether this happens only through a photograph. Künnapu has two contradictory sides – he seems to be ill at ease and at the same time there is an eye using a distorting mirror behind it. He has no complexes as regarding this world. I fully agree with Hanno Soans, who said that he liked the assurance with which Künnapu, setting colour and feeling in the foreground, transforms the source material of his pictures, i.e. photographs and film shots, with brisk nonchalance. (Soans, Hanno. Võluri tagasitulek. Vikerkaar 3/2003)

Among Künnapu’s compositions, quite a few are linked with the health of people.
Heie Treier claimed that as the end of the 20th century approached, art began to increasingly tackle people through the state of their health. The topic may have appeared in Estonia in connection with the activities of the tragic graffiti poet Ülo Kiple at the end of the 1980s (the message “treatment of diseases” repeated in a paranoid manner...). To prove her point she lists a number of examples depicting illness-induced suffering, especially Marko Laimre’s works that show madness quite openly. (Treier, Heie. Katarsis valu kaudu. Kunst.ee 1/2001). Künnapu’s trademark is, on the whole, a healthy and cheerful person. Still, there are plenty of motifs of doctor’s offices and recreational sport. As people are not ill, the doctors are mostly employed to carry out regular health checks, measure the height and weight and confirm with satisfaction that everything was just fine („An Alma-Ata Boy Visiting Doctor Melnikova”, „Reception”). In the last picture, no fewer than three doctors are focusing on a rosy-cheeked little boy bursting with health. Everybody is pleased. In connection with Künnapu’s painting “Competition of Model Aircraft Flying” I once experienced associations with the work by Ants and Helve Viidalepp „Young Model Aircraft Pilots“ (1951). The associations now resurface. Künnapu’s works occasionally contain a hefty amount of optimism typical of that era. Tackling one aspect of socialist realism has in his work acquired a new, parody-tinged solution, and Künnapu is enjoying this. Not forgetting delightful methods of painting, bright colours, smooth progression of black contours, tiny eloquent details, for example the colourful watches the doctors are wearing, especially the one with a red face and lilac strap, painted in the middle of the composition.

The topic of health continues in Künnapu’s sport-related pictures, the more so that they mostly depict recreational sport. The choice of topic could well reveal a little trend awareness. Recreational sport is a hot topic, the media is endlessly promoting any kind of movement, there are numerous popular sporting events, parks and forests are filling with joggers. Healthy mind in a healthy body is the name of a series of Künnapu’s paintings. He places his sportsmen on a seaside, tennis court, ice-rink, football field. What unites these characters is enthusiasm bursting out of every pore. It does not matter that the movements are often funnily clumsy and angular. Künnapu has employed his irony-flavoured humour to the full. These Latvian or Estonian ice skaters really look silly, and the gymnasts or various other characters are no less funny.

There is also an entirely new topic in Künnapu’s work ‒ during the last year he has painted a number of pictures about nudists. At first sight the choice seems rather unexpected, because naked human bodies are absent in his earlier work. However, this could be seen as a continuation of the series „Healthy mind in a healthy body”. One possibility to deal with the unity of human body and mind is to use the nudist ideas about human integrity and the naturalness of nudity.

Finally, there is no escape from cats. Cats are Künnapu’s favourite characters who turn up in his paintings time and time again. And they do not seem to be just pets. The artist seems to like the idea of the mysterious nature of cats, maybe their origin in a non-material field, why else has he named one of them the Cat of Sirius. Cats coming from there allegedly possess a power of having a healing effect on human aura or protect their family against negative energies from outside. This kind of creature certainly deserves special respect, precisely what Künnapu is doing, because his cats often look far more intelligent than humans. Prettier too. Besides showing the expressiveness of animals, Künnapu displays his excellent painting technique in organising decorative areas and alternating textures.

Life offers plenty of fascinating visual material. Künnapu has found his topics, shaped his own highly original world with a little twist in it. His presence is felt in every picture. There is no doubt about this.

 

MARE JOONSALU

Published in August Künnapu’s book of paintings “The River of Life” (2013)