Luulik Kokamägi's full biography


15 April, 1921 – 25 June, 1986

Soon after graduating from the State Art Institute of the Estonian SSR (currently Estonian Academy of Arts) in 1953, Luulik Kokamägi became a highly appreciated portrait painter. Even a number of his early portraits are regarded as some of the best Estonian paintings from the 1950s − early 1960s, e.g. Portrait of Ballerina Ülle Ulla (1956, Estonian Theatre and Music Museum), Portrait of Actress Inna Taarna (1961, Art Museum of Estonia), etc. The latter quickly found its place in the rather small-scale permanent display of the State Art Museum of Estonia at the time, which meant that Kokamägi’s art was appreciated. Throughout the years Kokamägi’s art has been displayed at a few solo exhibitions: at the Art Museum of Estonia in 1969 and 1979 and at the Tartu Art Museum in 1991. In recent years, however, hardly any mention of him has been made and that is a mistake this exhibition is now attempting to rectify.

Luulik Kokamägi was born on the 15th of April in 1921 in Pärnu as the son of a primary school teacher. The Kokamägis were related to the Murriks, the family from which the well-known Finnish writer Hella Wuolijoki (born Ella Marie Murrik) descends from. Luulik Kokamägi studied at the Valga Secondary School of Sciences from 1935 to 1939, at the State Higher Art School in Tallinn in 1939 and at Valga Secondary School from 1940 to 1942. In 1942 Kokamägi tried to carry on with his art studies in Tartu at the Higher Fine Arts Courses, but was recruited into the auxiliary service of the German army in 1943. He worked as a painter on the railway in 1944, served for a while in the Red Army and then worked as a decorator in the Säde Theatre in Valga in 1946. In 1947 Luulik began his painting studies at the Tartu State Art Institute. The teachers at that art school were the former teachers and students of the pre-war Pallas Art School: Elmar Kits, Aleksander Vardi, Ado Vabbe, Alfred Kongo. They continued to pass on the Pallas painting culture to young artists and did that despite of the prevailing Soviet art policies, which favoured socialist realism. Those art policies also meant that teachers from Moscow or Leningrad were sent in to “enforce” the local teaching staff. In 1949 Maria Rudnitskaya, a graduate of the Ilya Repin Art Institute of Leningrad, was sent to work in Tartu. Kokamägi learnt a few things from her, but he was more appreciative of his teacher Johannes Võerahansu, whose art he considered to be a model for his own. In 1951 Tartu State Art Institute was merged with Tallinn State Applied Art Institute and so in 1953 Kokamägi completed his studies in Tallinn. Of all his fellow students Luulik was closest to Leili Muuga, with whom he shared both a lyrical temperament and a disposition to portrait painting. In the same year Vive Tolli graduated as a graphic artist.

As mentioned before, the Pallas painting tradition was preserved throughout the post-war period. In the middle of the 1950s during the “thaw” it was rediscovered in all its richness and evolution and it was also interpreted in the spirit of changing times. The first sources of inspiration at the time were Estonian poetic realism and impressionism of the 1930s, which had a clearly national character. Artists began to aspire for an almost old-masterly painting quality and subtlety of taste. Intimate genres were preferred opposed to the propagandistic compositions of the first post-war decade. All that makes the art of the 1950s peculiarly charming, including the works of Luulik Kokamägi. The portraits he painted at the time were mostly rendered in dark colours with a few bright accents, painted in a supple yet true-to-form manner. The subtle characteristic nuances of the portrayals as well as the technical execution are enjoyable. Particularly his portraits of elderly people highlight an aspiration to depict a “national type”, which has been characteristic of Estonian art since the 19th century (Utra Mari, 1954; Old Stoker, 1957, Tartu Art Museum). During those years Kokamägi painted a range of portraits of prominent Estonian cultural figures (Portrait of Art Historian Inge Teder, 1957; Portrait of Arnold Pukk, Director of Tallinn Botanical Gardens, 1961, Art Museum of Estonia). A separate chapter is made up of portraits depicting Luulik Kokamägi’s wife, the brunette beauty Imbi Lind, who graduated from the department of scenography at the State Art Institute in 1956, after which she began working as an artist in Estonian Television. These portraits constitute an elegant, varied series, which fascinate with its emotionality and esprit (portraits of the spouse, 1955, Art Museum of Estonia, Tartu Art Museum; Imbi in a Black Dress, 1954, Imbi in a Red Sweater, 1957, In the Studio, 1960, private collection). Luulik’s children also frequently served as models for his art: Ilo was born in 1952 and graduated as a jeweller, Epp was born in 1959 and is a painter and Juho was born in 1963 and works as a stage and film decorator. Observing children as they grew and changed, catching their fleeting facial impressions and moods, rendering their straightforwardness and sincerity – these were all challenges that Kokamägi found fascinating and he coped with those challenges better than many other artists. He painted a number of portraits of little Ilo and Juho, but he also drew inspiration from other children (Portrait of a Child, 1957, Tartu Art Museum; Portrait of a Girl, 1958, Art Museum of Estonia). Portraits of teenagers who are slightly bewildered by having to pose for an artist are particularly nice (Mihkel, 1960, Mare, 1963, Tartu Art Museum; Kalev, 1964, Art Museum of Estonia). As a master of children’s portraits Kokamägi has been almost unrivalled in Estonian art. In all his portraits, he always found the right pose, position of hands and choice of colour for each model.

Kokamägi did not react to the harsh style of the late 1950s and early 1960s with forced expressiveness, which would not have been in line with his nature. Instead he reacted by adopting bigger formats, lighter colours, a brisker study-like manner of painting, a higher level of generalisation and a clearer outline. The stately Portrait of Ballerina Elonna Spriit (1963, Art Museum of Estonia) with its clear blue-yellow-grey tonality is characteristic of the new period in his art. The interior Table and Chair (1964, Art Museum of the University of Tartu) is reminiscent of the art pauvre style, with a white light piercing through the blue-brown shades of colour. That white light became a trademark of Kokamägi’s works in the 1960s. Partly because of the whitish overall tonality of his paintings, which was due to his increasingly frequent use of tempera in the second half of the decade. As the traditional character-portrait began to lose in popularity, Luulik started to search for his path in still-life and landscape painting. It was a period of great agitation in Estonian art, as artists tried to relate to the various trends on the broad scale of international modernism and it was mainly the younger generation who was more successful in doing that. Luulik Kokamägi, like several other established artists of the older generation, went through a somewhat confusing period in their creative careers.

Better times arrived with a new wave of neo-realism, which enabled Kokamägi to show the best of his skills once again. The landscape genre fascinated him more and more. According to Kokamägi, he had not been interested in it before because of the manner nature had always been made to look too pretty. He was impressed by the simplicity of the Estonian landscape, he saw poetry in things that seemed mundane on the surface. Several of his landscapes show an early spring or autumn forest that his sensitive brush has filled with quivering life. The landscapes testify to the ripening of his new, streaking, airy, somewhat narcissistic manner of painting, which he began developing in the 1960s. In 1974 an exhibition of Kokamägi’s landscapes and townscapes was held in the Tallinn Art Salon. The novelty of his interpretation of Estonian landscape as well as his renewed manner of painting have been rewarded with the medal of Konrad Mägi, given to outstanding painters.

In the centre of Kokamägi’s creative legacy from the 1970s and 1980s are portrait compositions of his children, mostly of his daughter Epp. They make up a series of paintings that is unique in Estonian art: the compositions are quite big (130 x 130 cm on an average) and they seem to be forming a sequel. First showing a girl and then some time later a young woman against the background of an interior or a landscape, sometimes together with her brother or sister or husband and children. The first picture of the series shows Epp playing the guitar (1972, private collection), followed by Tender Evening (1974, Art Museum of Estonia) depicting Epp and Juho sitting against the background of a summer landscape and Late Summer Interior (1974, location unknown) with a girl looking into a room from the outside. The painting In the Greenhouse of the Botanical Gardens (1975, Art Museum of Estonia) opposes a Nordic-looking girl to exotic greenery. More stately portraits show Epp in a black dress (1976) and sitting dressed in purple (1978, both in the Art Museum of Estonia). In the painting Tallinn Winter (1977, Art Museum of Estonia) the interior with Epp reading a book and the view of snowy Toompea visible from the studio window above her head are competing for the viewer’s attention. The layout of Contemplation (1979, Tartu Art Museum), the triple portrait of Epp, is reminiscent of Philippe de Champaigne’s triple portrait of Cardinal Richelieu. Spring Evening (1980, private collection) is enchanting in an almost surrealist manner: it depicts Epp with her back towards the viewer, sitting against the background of a barren landscape, in the distance stands a lonely house surrounded by spruces – presumably a detail of symbolic significance for the painter. In the composition Pierrot’s Night (1980, private collection) Kokamägi has created a poetic emerald-green milieu for his daughter and son-in-law, the artist Jaak Arro. In the superbly structured group portrait Around Midsummer Night (1981, private collection) he has placed all his children and grandchildren around a table in a summer landscape. The last picture of the series is Autumn Day (1983, private collection), depicting Epp with her young daughters Liisu and Anni. As a whole, this series can be seen as the story of a girl turning into a woman or as the story of a generation of young Estonian people of the time in general.

In addition to my deep respect for Luulik Kokamägi’s art I decided to contribute to this exhibition project also because of my memories of him as a person. Luulik Kokamägi, apart from working in the décor studio of the Tallinn Art Industrial Combine from 1953 to 1957 and in the State Art Institute of the Estonian SSR from 1979-1980, worked mainly as a freelance artist and used to supervise amateur painting courses from time to time. He also supervised a painting course for the employees of the State Art Museum in the 1960s. The painting lessons also involved discussions over modern as well as classical art and I remember the tactfulness and competence of his remarks. I also remember his fondness of Velazquez’ art, which to some extent characterises him as a portrait painter too.

Text by Mai Levin