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Mirjam Hinrikus (Under and Tuglas Literature Centre / Tallinn University): Nikolai Triik’s “Martyr” (1913) and A. H. Tammsaare´s Judith (1921) in the Context of “Estonian” Decadence

Estonian decadence has not been discussed much at almost any time in the 20th century or the beginning of the 21th century. This is at least partly because of the “methodological nationalism” that is still quite vigorous in today’s Estonian humanities. There are two recent signs of change: 2016 saw the publication of a new Estonian literary history, Tiit Hennoste’s Estonian Literary Avant-Garde in the Early 20th Century. Leaps Towards Modernism I ("Eesti kirjanduslik avangard 20. sajandi algul. Hüpped modernismi poole I"), which dedicates quite a lot of pages to decadence; and the first exhibition on Estonian decadence in KUMU Art Museum of Estonia, which opens in September 2017 and is titled "Kurja lillede lapsed" (Children of Fleurs du mal). It is no exaggeration though to argue that in Estonia we are only starting to analyse examples of literature and art systematically through the lens of decadence or to study cases in which decadence mingles with naturalism. Examples of this may even seem to dominate, leading to the question of whether anything purely decadent exists in Nordic and Baltic countries.

This paper views the discourse of decadence as a dynamic element in the rhetoric and structure of many examples found in the different cultural media that emerged in Estonia shortly before, during, or shortly after World War I. I will talk about an intriguing painting by an artist of the Young-Estonia group, Nikolai Triik, titled “Martyr” (1913), and will link it to his “Metropolis” (1913) and A. H. Tammsaare’s play Judith (1921). I will argue that “Martyr” is closely associated with the figure of the modern artist, which emerges in Estonian culture as it does in other European cultures more or less explicitly in relation to the representation of the metropolis. This artist, at least partly metropolitan, in turn holds a central place not only in Triik’s painting but also in other examples of Estonian decadent art and literature. Moreover, it seems that Triik’s “Martyr” as the figure of the modern artist can be viewed, like many other inter-texts of decadence, as a representation of Dionysian decadence and the decadent. This in turn evokes Nietzschean ideas – not only his Dionysian exuberance but his ideas about the Superman as well. Both these references to Nietzschean decadence also appear powerfully in Tammsaare’s Judith, his most decadent text (others being The Fly and Shadings), which seems to have been written in the framework of Nietzschean decadence. However, the paper deals not only with Nietzschean ideas but also with other inter-texts of decadence in these different cultural media.

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