MUSING | Mati Karmin, Estonian Sculpture, and the Roman God of Wine
December 30, 2016
“Everything can be done, if there is a will, there is also opportunity. However, before the will must be.” – Mati Karmin
Long heralded as one of the key figures of the so-called 1980s generation of Estonian art, Mati Karmin is one of Estonia's most notorious and prolific contemporary artists. The streets and coastlines of Tallinn and Tartu are teeming with his sculptures; they are monumental, intentional, sincere – much like the artist himself.
Professionally trained at the Estonian State Art Institute in Tallinn (now the Estonian Academy of Art), Karmin was thoroughly educated in the historical methodologies and ideologies of the masters from the field. Estonian sculpture at the time of his studies was also predominantly figurative, and almost exclusively employed only traditional materials like stone and bronze. This combination of deeply rooted traditions has informed Karmin’s work in the plastic arts, with perfect material perception at his core, and it is evident throughout his substantial and diverse career.
Notably, his use of the formal elements of art and bronze is prominent and it is critical to note the obvious and historical contexts of modern sculpture when discussing Karmin’s work, as it is so unashamedly apparent that he is working in parallel to many of the pioneers and subsequent patriarchs of modern sculpture, such as: Constantin Brancusi, Naum Gabo, Auguste Rodin, and Alberto Giacometti – all also considered avant-garde and controversial, sentiments that Karmin clearly embraces and desires. Yet, if you look closely, you will find that while he is undoubtedly influenced by these artists, both stylistically and conceptually; Karmin is not making imitations. For example, in Body II, it is obvious to make the visual association to Brancusi’s Princess X: a gorgeous example of his abstracted, non-literal representations that revealed his drive to depict "not the outer form but the idea, the essence of things." Equally, Karmin’s work emphasizes clean geometrical lines that balance the forms found inherently in his materials, and with similar symbolic allusions of emblematic art that will appear in much later pieces.
In one of Karmin’s early departures from the figure, Monument of Kärdla Baize Factory, 1985 is an investigation of balance and space as formal construction elements to explode solid matter into infinite intervals. This key idea is also found in the work of Naum Gabo: a constructivist sculptor who believed art could depict space without having to depict mass – a significant representation of his notion that the spiritual experience was the root of artistic production. Both artists’ works suggest a connection between what is tangible and intangible, between what is simplistic in its reality and complicated in its conjuring, and highlights the unlimited possibilities of both.
In his figurative work, such as Monument to Hugo Treffner with architect Tiit Trummal, Karmin emphasized the individual and the concreteness of flesh, and subtly suggested emotion through detailed, angular surfaces, and the intentional interplay of light and shadow. It is strikingly similar to Monument to Balzac by Auguste Rodin, an artist who also was known for departing from traditional themes of mythology and allegory, modeling the human body with realism, and celebrating individual character and physicality. To a greater degree than his contemporaries, just as Rodin believed, it can be observed that Karmin also establishes that an individual's character is revealed by his physical features; and by using texture and calculated forms, he is able to emphasize and express courage, labor, and struggle.
Karmin still places importance on the notion of the monument as something marked by its belonging to the past, yet is closely connected to the complicated recent history that he has always been fascinated with; and this is most apparent in Reisipraam Estonia hukule pühendatud. Much like The Nose by Alberto Giacometti, Karmin utilizes the open box or cage as a reflection of his desire to avoid mere replication of an event, but rather to express an emotional response to a subject. He offers a monument that is how the event he commemorates should be felt (and thus) seen – much like Giacometti’s intensely emotional works of the tortured figure he could no longer realistically represent. It is in presenting the shadow, the effect and all its distortions within the thin, linear confines of the experience, that allow the subtle after-effects to penetrate the collective subconscious.
Karmin is often characterized by contradictions: the disputation of values, the blurring of borders between the art forms, and the quiet rejection of traditions, sometimes blatant and other subtle; however, the notion of classical sculpture and the classical material for sculpture – bronze – is still very important to him and he has time and time again returned to it whether in free or monumental sculpture. One of his most commanding works, Bacchus from 1987, combines the powerful notions and materials of classical sculpture; both literally and figuratively, and then turns them completely inside out. Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture and wine (copied from the Greek god Dionysus) is a fitting subject for Karmin’s robust, free sculpture. Ripe with heartbreak and fraught with rapturous vulnerability and ultimate victory, his mythology as the dying and rising god (or twice-born god) seems aptly suited to portray the complicated histories of occupied Estonia, especially in the late 1980s.
Duplicitous in its creation, Bacchus offers a thoughtful combination of traditional materials and historical methods, but, Karmin proffers a new persuasive presentation and comparison of ancient Greek/Roman mythology and the equally complicated and precarious milieu of Estonia – a mythos all its own. It is a narrative of pride, ecstasy, and sympathy; the unraveling of one to become another, or perhaps a return to self. And it is this ability to invoke such breadth of emotions is the most compelling feature of this work, and has become archetypal of Karmin’s oeuvre. His distinct ability to construct something entirely new while taking great care to look to and contemplate the past is precisely what allows him to create compound narratives, without nostalgia or longing; but rather openly and unsentimentally.
Constructed of bronze and resting on a marble slab, Karmin has cut Bacchus off at the waist, amputated the left leg, and secured the right leg to the once-empty right shoulder. His left hand extended, a powerful pause for the eye, implies some unwanted advance approaches. The sagging face is sawed flush in half, the flat surface polished to a high golden gloss, a hidden profile recedes into the crevice where the ivy and grapes emerge. From the back, bounty overflows, protruding from the sleeve in his robe and the jar in his sack, onto the marble slab resting on bronze round bases (a nice nod to Brancusi). Perhaps it is a tortured portrait of the super power to the east, unrestrained in its consumption, chopped and quarantined until it is unrecognizable; though the same could be said of the occupation itself and its detrimental effects on a petite nation who has had to withstand bout after bout of ecstatic domination. Or perhaps it is an alternative depiction: a conquering god who lures a cult-following as a founder of cities – Karmin’s mirror for those who were there in the last revolution, echoing the Roman god’s return and triumph in an entirely new image.
Conceptually, Bacchus is a dualistic commentary, dissected and reassembled, but rooted in philosophical thought from as far back as Plato  to as recent as Friedrich Nietzsche. In particular, Nietzsche’s proposed correlation that the tension between Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetic principles are the very foundation for the development of Greek tragedy is a notion not lost here. Dionysus represented what was unrestrained, chaotic and irrational; he is the embodiment of the unrestrained will to power. Apollo, however, represented the rational and ordered. By splitting the god in half several times over and rearranging the parts, much like his own mythology, Karmin turns the mystical (and perhaps political) semblance on its very head. He is not denying its validity or power; but rather, bringing it forward, making it modern and distinctly Estonian – the same two dynamic characteristics found in all Karmin’s works.
Image captions (from top to bottom):Reisipraam Estonia hukule pühendatud, Tahkunas Hiiumaaal (detail), 1995; Body II, 1992; Monument of Kärdla Baize Factory, 1985; Monument to Hugo Treffner, 1997, with architect Tiit Trummal; Reisipraam Estonia hukule pühendatud, Tahkunas Hiiumaaal, 1995; Bacchus, 1987
Citations:  Martin Šmutov. “Mati Karmin: if there is a will, there is also the possibility of…” Posttimees.ee, October 2010. November 2016 <http://tallinncity.postimees.ee/324822/mati-karmin-kui-on-tahe-on-ka-voimalus>;  Grace Glueck. “ART: A SHOW THAT PAIRS MONDRAIN AND BRANCUSI,” The New York Times, December 1982. November 2016 <http://www.nytimes.com/1982/12/03/arts/art-a-show-that-pairs-mondrain-and-brancusi.html?pagewanted=all>;  Anu Liivak. “Mati Karmin.” Karmin.ee, 2003. October 2016 <http://karmin.ee/artist>;  Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 1. Translated by Harold North Fowler with Introduction by W.R.M. Lamb. (Harvard University Press 1966). *Note: The myth of the dismemberment of Dionysus by the Titans, is alluded to by Plato in his Phaedo (69d) in which Socrates claims that the initiations of the Dionysian Mysteries are like those of the philosophic path.
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