“Power within solitary dreams.” Transformations of the private sphere in Soviet Estonia.
I In “Laughable Loves” Milan Kundera describes two lovers for whom their regular meeting place in the male character’s apartment becomes inhospitable and who have to take refuge in a random studio of an artist that the man happens to know. There, in the huge room under a high ceiling, in the middle of canvases leaning against the walls and the careless disorder of the artist’s lifestyle, the narrator is suddenly seized by a “blessed sense of freedom”: “I flung myself on the sofa, thrusted the corkscrew into the bung and opened the wine-bottle”1 The special attention devoted to the private sphere in Kundera’s novels and stories has been analysed by Slavoj Žižek. In traditional understanding the private escape from the totalitarian society, the islands of everyday life with their “small joys and pleasures, laughter and tears”, as described by Kundera, are considered to be away from the reach of ideology, and allow from its distance to make the ideological ritual look ridiculous. In order for this apolitical position to be possible in the private sphere, it needs participation in the ideological ritual publicly and becomes thus utterly conformist: “it is not sufficient to ascertain that the ideological ritual is mere appearance which nobody takes seriously – this appearance is essential”2, writes Žižek; by following it one already supports it. What Kundera, in Žižek’s view, wants to show is not the possibility of the untouched lifesphere but the “compulsive” character of the depoliticised private life, how ideology is present there in the form of absence, marked by the ban of “free political discussion”, avoiding the real issue, etc. That is why, Žižek concludes, “there is always something damp, claustrophobic, inauthentic, even desperate, in the characters’ striving for sexual and other pleasures.”3 Yet, despite this suffocating conquest of the private, the totalitarian society created several specific phenomena or reactions that were more than just a cynicist escape. For Žižek these are foremost embodied in the “extraordinary flourishing of authentic friendship”4, visits, dinners, close-circuit intellectual conversations; or in our case we could add the private sphere of artists homes and studios that became sites for close-circuit demonstrations of the performances, films and private exhibitions.
I would like to start from this latter suggestion and then to proceed a step further, to discuss the role of the public sphere in Soviet Estonia that it gained through representations in a art and design magazine “Kunst ja Kodu”.
II Radical changes in the post-war capitalist society – consumerism, commodification of the private sphere, changes in transport and spatial organisations, the domination of mass-culture – reached in a mutated way, and somewhat later, the Soviet and thereby also the Estonian society. Starting with generally optimist Khrustsev reforms in late 1950s, this period took a negative turn after the suppression of mass-demonstrations in Prague in spring 1968, and resulted in the general withdrawal into the sphere of private property and consumption. The 1960s and 70s was the time when the ideals of Scandinavian middle-class lifestyle reached Estonia, when owning a car, a house or a summer cottage counterbalanced collaboration with the communist system. “One has to live in this society and be successful according to its rules”5, sounded the outline of the dominant attitude of post-war generation. Of several artistic-intellectual reactions to this, a local version of Pop-art, a grouping “Soup ‘69”, alluding explicitly to Warhol’s Campbell Soup, acted as the most radical critique of art institutions (organising several exhibitions in non-traditional spaces off-city), but more decisively it turned its often very ironic gaze towards the surrounding environment and the everyday. If the mass-produced iconic goods in the context of Soviet scarcity would appear in western context truly unusual, ranging from colourful plastic sculptures to oversized packets of Georgian tea and bus tickets6, then the relation to the surrounding space and built environment was even more ambivalent. Soup 69 was the first so clearly Western-orientated art movement in post-war Estonia. Their devotion also reveals more clearly the differences and divergences of the art discourses between the two Cold War sides.
The ambition of the neo avant-garde in the West to transgress art into life, to unify the artistic and the political, was in the Soviet conditions, where art as propaganda was an official canon, either not understood or found inappropriate. Revolts against artistic autonomy and pure pictorial quality reminded too much of the official socialist realist dictum; minimalist and conceptualist break was thereby commonly comprehended or adapted in terms of the older art discourse (understanding art as apolitical, where primary is aesthetic pleasure and skilful craftsmanship) and followed as style. It is here that the “apolitical” private sphere gains its significant role as the realm for unrestricted artistic development, as the site for experiments with new techniques and materials; cut off from the public restrictions and demands.
III “Kunst ja Kodu”/ “Art and Home”, was started in Tallinn in 1958 by the State Publishing House “Kunst” as a design and home decoration magazine appearing twice a year. From 1960 the Estonian language edition had a parallel issue in Russian; with the common circulation of 50 000 copies7. The initial topics ranged from architecture and furniture design to woodcrafts, knitting and gardening, the intention being to assist the owners of new tiny flats in industrially produced housing, to organise their interiors most efficiently but also to introduce a new lifestyle. Symptomatic are the titles from 1959: “Where to put the TV and the radio?” or from 1964 “Television set – to where and how?”, “What kind of a bedroom?” etc. The end of 1960s introduces casual articles about foreign design but the magazine changes its course wholly at the beginning of 1970s when Andres Tolts, a member of Soup 69, became both the editor and the designer. From do-it-yourself mentality it became a more ambitious design magazine with more abstract articles, illustrations and interests in technology as well as landscapes. A leading member of “Soup 69”, Leo Lapin introduced a series of articles called “Rationalism and Romanticism”, there were special numbers devoted to artificial environment, to style, textures etc. It was clearly avant-garde orientated, with keen interest in the corresponding western techniques and products that were understood and decoded with the common “shift” in meaning characteristic to Eastern Europe in general.
Countering the collectivising tendency of official theories, most of the articles stressed the individual nature of homes and the private sphere. The tiny generic flat in a system-built house could be remodelled and refurbished in most imaginative ways, the small private territory within a homogenous block could become almost anything as long as the users followed the guidance of the professionals. Stylistically deriving most heavily from pop art, the examples came frequently from among the editors homes and studios or from the flats of their friends and acquaintances. Also in writing about “Our Home” Leonhard Lapin idealizes the home of a creative person being superior of others:
“In these interiors one finds a constant atmosphere of creative work that causes the somewhat chaotic arrangement of things and attributes needed for creating. From the point of common principles of interior design these spaces could be considered even unorganised and sometimes full of unnecessary items.”8 So it is not unexpected when the photos depict interiors overloaded with different artworks: paintings, posters, decorative pottery and even with small sculptures. This is supported by articles like “Art at home” (1/1974), teaching with the help of numerous illustrations various ways of filling one’s walls with pictures, or “Prints in space” (2/1974) with vibrant pop posters covering the wall of a bedroom. But artworks appear as illustrations also to other less relevant articles: “Pattern, textile, space” (1/1974) is illustrated with assemblages by the editor Andres Tolts, “The mirror in space” (2/1974) is exemplified with a conceptual photo by Juri Okas and most amazingly, Dan Flavin’s installation with neon lights in a gallery space, attributed to “designer” Dan Flavin, is there to illustrates ways for lighting one’s room (2/1974). But if in some cases the painting or a collage is reproduced in the centre of the magazine without any direct link to the contents, the obvious question becomes: why did the design magazine have to devote so much space for figurative arts? This is even more justified knowing that from the same year and the same publisher had appeared also an art magazine “Kunst”. The answer lies clearly in the status of craft and design, that, compared to painting, was considered secondary and inferior in the eyes of the official discourse. Thereby a magazine dedicated to these issues had several advantages in terms of censorship and prescribed limits, the object had just to be renamed to fit a suitable category; this tactics allowed even a random American conceptual artist to be smuggled to the publicity under the title of lighting effects. The representatives of local unofficial art, who for exhibiting their works in public galleries had to fulfil several demands in terms of medium and contents, could on the pages of the interior design magazine show their works as part of the interiors: this is clear when we look at the numerous illustrations that minimize the spatiality of the depicted rooms and look more like amateur reproductions where not all the sides have been cropped out properly. So being titled private, opened up a free public arena for exhibiting non-traditional techniques, non-conventional works and unofficial artists.
“When the public sphere no longer offers a place for political investment, men turn into “hermits” in the grotto of the private living space”9
Michel de Certeau has described how the more the space in contemporary cities is unified and homogenised, the more the private, inward-turned spaces become smaller: “It seems necessary for this personal place to become denser, materially and emotionally/…/”10. It is this intimidating density of the private spaces that is also reproduced in the “Art and Home” magazine issues, homes as art collections, homes as oriental spaces, walls covered with suffocating patterns or walls left spotlessly white. Yet, if De Certeau would see these as solely personal and private zones, where men would hibernate dreaming of “other spaces for action, invention and movements”11, the disorderly homes of the “Soup” generation artists are the actual sites of action. Being first the places of their discussions, alternative art exhibits and experiments, they enter the public sphere and discourse through the “Art and Home” magazine in the beginning of 1970s.
1 Milan Kundera, Naljakad armastuslood. Loomingu Raamatukogu nr 39 (Tallinn: Eesti Raamat 1965), p. 64
Slavoj Žižek, The Metastases of Enjoyment. Six Essays on Woman and Causality (London: Verso 1994), p. 65.
Ibid., p. 63.
3 Ibid., p.64.
5 Tiit Hennoste, “Hüpped modernismi poole”, Vikerkaar (11/1995), p. 53.