About the Exhibition

This year’s Heritage Days (9.–12.09.2021) are devoted to introducing hidden heritage. By virtue of this, the National Heritage Board’s virtual exhibition is dedicated to introducing heritage related to monumental art – an artform, which has revelled in great attention throughout the stages of the 20th century, but has borne witness to widespread neglect and ruin with the changing of political regimes.
Why exactly was public art of the Soviet Era chosen as the matter of the exhibition? The objects of the exhibition have been designed into public space during their time in order to be visible to and communicate with the viewer, however, that very reason has become fatal for them. The mosaic in the hall of a collective farm’s clubhouse, the sgraffito in the lobby of a kindergarten, the metal figure on the façade of a cultural centre, the stained glass in a hospital’s waiting room – all of them have seemingly always existed and have thus blended into the background of our daily commutes. It is often difficult to acknowledge that which is too close around us, and perceiving it as art is an even tougher nut to crack.
The exhibition provides an overview of Soviet Era monumental-decorative arts in Estonia – pieces that arose after Stalin’s death, and that were intended to shape and embellish public space. It was a genre specific to the Eastern Bloc, which helped communicate “progressive” messages both to itself and to the world, at least according to its initial concept. Most of the socialist states had “percentage laws” that advocated the commission of art. Art institutes taught monumental painting specialists, art scholars developed the language of the field and commissioning clients tried to outdo each other. Tens of thousands of architecture-related artworks were created in the Soviet Union, and their total number could have reached one thousand in Estonia as well. Our exhibition includes a selection of fifty examples to aid our attempt at illustrating the broadness of the subject. Broadly speaking, the choice can be divided into three: pieces directly related to architecture (murals, mosaics, stained glass, pannels etc.), decorative sculptures, and monuments conveying ideological messages.

Curators: Anu Soojärv, Gregor Taul
Exhibition panel: Saara Huimerind-Tuksam, Madle Lippus, Anu Soojärv, Gregor Taul
Text authors: Hilkka Hiiop, Anna-Liiza Izbaš, Juta Kivimäe, Reeli Kõiv, Kai Lobjakas, Johanna Lamp, Frank Lukk, Enriko Mäsak, Tuuli Puhvel, Mia Rohumaa, Anu Soojärv, Gregor Taul, Madis Tuuder, ​​Helen Volber, Merike Kallas, Varje Õunapuu, Tõnu Tammearu, Robert Treufeldt, Jaan Malin
Editors: Anu Soojärv. Gregor Taul
Copy editor: Mari Klein
Historical photos: Eesti Arhitektuurimuuseum, Eesti Rahvusarhiiv, Eesti Rahva Muuseum, Narva Muuseum, Rannarahva Muuseum, Eesti Kunstimuuseum, Eesti Tervisemuuseum, Tallinna Linnamuuseum, Eesti Tuletõrjemuuseum, Virumaa Muuseumid SA, Narva Muuseum, Eesti Ajaloomuuseum, Võrumaa Muuseum, Reeli Kõiv
Contemporary photos: Paul Kuimet, Martin Siplane, Gregor Taul, Anu Soojärv, Joel Leis, Kristiina Frolova, Eve Kiiler, Randel Saveli, EKA muinsuskaitse ja konserveerimise osakond
Special thanks to: Leonhard Lapin, Siim Tuksam, Arcwood, TLÜ Akadeemiline Raamatukogu

Such artworks are often observed as something inherently Soviet and ideological. On closer inspection of the subject, it becomes clear that most of them are the creations of professional artists and the best of the time, and the works related to architecture seldom present direct ties to the Soviet regime. Instead of ideological symbols or storylines, the scene is dominated by universal messages, references to local life, and often abstract or heavily symbolic figures. 
The artworks are hidden in cultural centres, former collective farm and state farm centres, schools, and other public buildings around Estonia. They are often in spaces that most people do not have access to or any reason to visit. Thus, many of these pieces are literally hidden, unknown and undiscovered. Additionally, the monuments often stand in peripheral parks and groves, unbeknownst to the general public.
Since the monumental-decorative arts of the Soviet Era has not been thoroughly mapped, it is difficult to foretell how many of such pieces are still undiscovered, how many have been destroyed or how many lost. It is clear that a lot of public space artworks in different styles and techniques were created during the observed period. We wish to illustrate the diversity of the genre in our exhibition, featuring pieces with high artistic value and compositions with predominantly decorative applications, artworks made with a variety of techniques and materials. The exhibition represents a cross-section of what we know. With it, we wish to build the foundation for an extensive mapping program of the monumental-decorative arts of Soviet Era Estonia. A comprehensive overview of the Soviet monumental artworks preserved in Estonia would allow to typologize the material and categorize it by value, which would significantly facilitate the resolution of questions regarding preservation. There are currently around 20 artworks under conservation as cultural monuments, however, there are plenty more that have the potential to be taken under conservation.