Toward a New Concept of Progressive Art: Art History in the Service of Modernisation in the Late Socialist Period. An Estonian Case

Main Article Content

Krista Kodres


The paper deals with renewal of socialist art history in the Post-Stalinist period in Soviet Union. The modernisation of art history is discussed based on the example of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic (Estonian SSR), where art historians were forced to accept the Soviets’ centrally constructed Marxist-Leninist aesthetic and approach to art and art history. In the art context, the idea of progressiveness began to be reconsidered. In previous discourse, progress was linked with the “realist” artistic method that sprang from a progressive social order. Now, however, art historians found new arguments for accepting different cultures of form, both historical and contemporary, and often these arguments were “discovered” in Marxism itself. As a result, from the middle of 1950’s Soviet art historians fell into two camps in interpreting Realism: the dogmatic and revisionist, and the latter was embraced in Estonia. In 1967, a work was published by the accomplished artist Ott Kangilaski and his nephew, the art historian Jaak Kangilaski: the Kunsti kukeaabits – Basic Art Primer – subtitled “Fundamental Knowledge of Art and Art History.” In its 200 pages, Jaak Kangilaski’s Primer laid out the art history of the world. Kangilaski also chimed in, publishing an article in 1965 entitled “Disputes in Marxist Aesthetics” in the leading Estonian SSR literary journal Looming (Creation). In this paper the Art Primer is under scrutiny and the deviations and shifts in Kangilaski’s approach from the existing socialist art history canon are introduced. For Kangilaski the defining element of art was not the economic base but the “Zeitgeist,” the spirit of the era, which, as he wrote, “does not mean anything mysterious or supernatural but is simply the sum of the social views that objectively existed and exist in each phase of the development of humankind.” Thus, he openly united the “hostile classes” of the social formations and laid a foundation for the rise of common art characteristics, denoted by the term “style.” As is evidenced by various passages in the text, art transforms pursuant to the “will-to-art” (Kunstwollen) characteristic of the entire human society. Thus, under conditions of a fragile discursive pluralism in Soviet Union, quite symbolic concepts and values from formalist Western art history were “smuggled in”: concepts and values that the professional reader certainly recognised, although no names of “bourgeois” authors were mentioned. Kangilaski relied on assistance in interpretation from two grand masters of the Vienna school of art history: Alois Riegl’s term Kunstwollen and the Zeitgeist concept from Max Dvořák (Zeitgeist, Geistesgeschichte). In particular, the declaration of art’s linear, teleological “self-development” can be considered to be inspiration from the two. But Kangilaski’s reading list obviously also included Principles of Art History by Heinrich Wölfflin, who was declared an exemplary formalist art historian in earlier official Soviet historiography. Thaw-era discursive cocktail in art historiography sometimes led Kangilaski to logical contradictions. In spite of it, the Primer was an attempt to modernise the Stalinist approach to art history. In the Primer, the litmus test of the engagement with change was the new narrative of 20th century art history and the illustrative material that depicted “formalist bourgeois” artworks; 150 of the 279 plates are reproductions of Modernist avant-garde works from the early 20th century on. Put into the wider context, one can claim that art history writing in the Estonian SSR was deeply engaged with the ambivalent aims of Late Socialist Soviet politics, politics that was feared and despised but that, beginning in the late 1950s, nevertheless had shown the desire to move on and change.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

Jak cytować
Kodres, K. (2019). Toward a New Concept of Progressive Art: Art History in the Service of Modernisation in the Late Socialist Period. An Estonian Case. Artium Quaestiones, (30), 211-223.
Biogram autora

Krista Kodres

Estonian Academy of Arts, TallinnProfessor, art historian; professor at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture of Estonian Academy of Arts in Tallinn, senior researcher at the University of Tallinn, Institute of Humanities. Head of doctoral studies of the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture. Member of the scientific board of Herder-Institut (Marburg, Germany), of the Centre for Studies of History and Culture of Eastern Europe (Leibniz-Institut GWZO) in Leipzig, and of the Böckler-Mare-Balticum-Stiftung. Author and editor of publications on history and theory of art and architecture in the Early Modern period; history and theory of art history writing; history of Estonianarchitecture and design of the Soviet period. Her books include: Beautiful House and Room (2001), History of Estonian Art, vol. 2, 1520–1770 (2005, editor and main author); Presenting Oneself. The Early Modern Tallinn (Reval) citizen and his house (Tallinn University 2014).Estonian Academy of Arts, Institute of Art History and Visual Culture, Põhja puiestee 7, Tallinn 10412, Eesti


  1. Bernstein B., “Seoses vaidlustega realismi üle” [Regarding the disputes over realism, 1–2], Kunst 1966, 3, pp. 13–22, and 1961, 1, pp. 1–14
  2. Bernstein M., Vana kaev. Mälestusteraamat [Old Well. Book of Memoires], Tartu 2009
  3. Dmitreva M., “The Riddle of Modernism in the Art Historical Discourse of the Thaw,” in: A Socialist Realist History? Writing Art History in the Post-War Decades, eds. K. Kodres, K. Jõekalda, M. Marek, Köln, Weimar, Wien 2019, pp. 143–169
  4. Esna O., “Kuidas puhastati Eesti raamatukogusid“ [How the Estonian libraries were expurgated], Pärnu Postimees 2014, 27th February
  5. Hütt W., Wir und die Kunst. Eine Einführung in die Kunstbetrachtung und Kunstgeschichte, Berlin 1959
  6. Kangilaski J., “Vaidlustest marksistlikus esteetikas” [Disputes in Marxist aesthetics], Looming 1965, 11, pp. 1707–1718
  7. Kangilaski J., “Realismi mõiste metamorfoosid nõukogude kunstiteoorias” [Metamorphoses of the notion of realism in Soviet art theory], Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi /Studies on Art and Architecture 2003, 12(1–2), pp. 11–24
  8. Kangilaski O., J. Kangilaski, Kunsti kukeaabits. Algteadmisi kunstist ja kunstiajaloost [A Basic Art Primer. Fundamental Knowledge of Art and Art History], Tallinn 1967
  9. Каган М. С., Лекции по марксистско-ленинской эстетике, часть II [M. S. Kagan, Lekcii po marksistsko-leninskoy estetikie, II], Leningrad 1964
  10. Kodres K., “Scientific Baroque – for Everyone. Constructing and Conveying an Art Epoch during the Stalinist Period in the Soviet Union and in Soviet Estonia,” in: Baroque for a Wide Public: Popular Media and Their Constructions of the Epoch on Both Sides of the Iron Curtain, eds. M. Marek, E. Pluhařovà-Grigienéenė, Journal
  11. of Art Historiography. Special Issue 2016, 15 [], pp. 1–25
  12. Kodres K., K. Jõekalda, “Introduction to Socialist Art History: On Formulating the Soviet Canon,” in: A Socialist Realist History? Writing Art History in the Post-War Decades, eds. K. Kodres, K. Jõekalda, M. Marek, Köln, Weimar, Wien 2019, pp. 11–35
  13. “Kunstiteaduse(lase) piirid ja võimalused” [Alternatives and limits of art history(historian)], Sirp 2017, 10.02, p. 5
  14. Лapмин О. В., Художественный метод и стиль [O. V. Larmin, Hudozhestvennõi metod i stilj], Мoscow 1964
  15. Лифшиц М., Вопросы искусства и философии [M. Lifshits, Voprosõ iskusstva i filosofii], Moscow 1935
  16. Lukacs G., Essays über Realismus, Berlin 1948
  17. Недошивин Г., “Марксистско-ленинская теория искусства и задачи борьбы с буржуазной эстетикой и ревизионизмом“ [G. Nedoshivin, Marksistsko-leninskaja teorija iskusstva i zadatshi borbõ s burhuasznoi estetikoi i revisionizmom/ Marxist-Leninist art theory and the tasks in fighting bourgeois aesthetics and revisionism], in: Против ревизионизма в искусстве и искусствознании [Protiv revisionizma v iskusstve i iskusstvoznanii / Against revisionism in art and art history], Москва [Moskva] 1959 (Вопросы эстетики [Voprosy estetiki] 2), eds.Ю. Калашников, Г. Недошивин [Yu. Kalashnikov, G. Nedoshivin], Moscow 1959, pp. 9–35
  18. Основы марксистко-ленинской эстетики [Osnovõ marksistko-leninskoi estetiki], Moscow 1960; in Estonian: Marksistlik-leninliku esteetika alused, Tallinn 1961
  19. Штамбок A., Против идеалистического исктолкования развития искусства [A. Shtambok, Protiv idealistitsheskovo isktolkovanija razvitija iskusstva / Against the idealistic interpretation of the development of art], Искусство [Isskustvo] 1950, 5, pp. 55–65
  20. Väike esteetika leksikon [Small Lexicon of Aesthetics], Tallinn1965
  21. Yurchak A., “Soviet Hegemony of Form: Everything was Forever, Until It Was No More,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 2003, 45(3), pp. 480–510