Vilnis Štrams talking to the Estonian Art and Architecture legend Leonhards Lapins in the gallery of Pāvilosta Art Residence PAiR.

“My age is my biggest freedom – I do anything I want, I don’t care what the critics say, and I don’t even care whether I sell my works.”
(L. Lapins)

Vilnis Štrams was talking to the Estonian Art and Architecture legend Leonhards Lapins in the gallery of Pāvilosta Art Residence PAiR.

Vilnis Štrams: I want to talk to you about art. Although you have been my friend for a long time, since the 1990s, I still don’t know and you haven’t told me how you decided to become an artist. When did you suddenly understand that you were interested in art?
Leonhards Lapins:
My mother told me so – when I was five years old, I was asked, just like all other children at that age, what I wanted to become when I grew up – a pilot or something. And I told my mother that I wanted to become an artist. Like that.

At the age of five, it was in 1952?
Yes. (Laughing). I was drawing all the time back then. When I was reading the biographies of famous artists, they often said that they had been drawing a lot since childhood. All who draw as children do not go on to become artists, but some do.

But you said – after you decided to become an artist; what influenced you, some personalities, artists, myths or perhaps friends? What was it, would you say, that decided your fate?
I started to do art seriously in the 1960s. I went to the watercolour master Pilars. He was living in the same house as we are today. He was Pilars fon Pilhavs, from a noble family. His brother lived in West Germany. But my brother knew his wife and sent me to learn with him. I don’t know how it he wasn’t imprisoned or shot, but he was very highly appreciated in Moscow, because he taught watercolour courses there and the women loved him. His brother sent books on modern art from Western Germany, and so Pilars not only taught watercolours, but also created these books that were a great rarity back then. That was the first turning point. I talk about it in my book “Modern Art” in Estonian, of how my teacher was “fon”. (Laughing). He not only taught watercolours, but also held workshops, not exactly expressionist – as in it wasn’t realism but also not fully expressionism. And in a few months I mastered everything I could. But later, when I started studying, I met my generation, my peers.

Why did you study architecture in particular? You did drawing a lot.
Architecture? It is very practical. My brother was the main food technologist at the “Kalev” factory, where many artists worked as well. He said that they were coming to him all the time and borrowing money and that I would have it hard, working as an artist. He said that he would support me if I went to study architecture. And I didn’t regret it, because during Soviet times, thanks to architecture, you could be more free than other artists. I earned my money from architecture and I loved to study it, because among the teachers there were professors from the period of Estonian independence – Kuusik and Volberg. There was a whole bunch. And they taught me that an architect was like a gentleman who had to have a style. Kuusik chose three students – Künnapu, Okas and I, and invited us to his place, treating us with food and cognac. He was a gentleman who said that he only drank French cognac, the most expensive one at the time that was rarely bought by anyone.

So, you could say that one of the people who affected your future life, becoming your patron in a sense, was Kuusik?
Yes, in architecture it was Kuusik.

But in art?
There was one thing that was taught officially at the Art institute, and then there was a group of artists, established by Tõnis Vint. They made entirely their own art, and held exhibitions every year in spring to show it. And I was told that Tõnis Vint was short of graduating – it was 1996, and they needed people to continue this thing. So, I was brought to Vint.

Who brought you to him?
One guy, who was older and studied at the Institute. He wasn’t a part of the Tõnis Vint group, but knew him, and we both went to meet him. There was a little house, where a whole bunch of artists gathered. Tõnis Vint himself, his wife Mare Vint, then his brother, writer Toomas Vint and painter Aili Vint.

A total of four Vints.
Four Vints. And there was a fifth one, the still young Maara Vint. That was a very serious push for me, since Tõnis Vint was collecting literature. I remember when we first went to Helsinki, we had an exhibition there; Tõnis went straight to the antique shop and sat there.

He spent the entire day in the antique shop?
All day, and he bought books; not only art books, but also ones for different curiosities. In Helsinki he showed me – see, one German here had studied that there were seven different types of women’s breasts. Germans are very into such things. But Tõnis was a very social person, everyone came to him – artists, architects, musicians, actors, dissidents…

Then you could say that Tõnis Vint was like a super artist and a father.
Well, yes, he did have something like a salon. Then in 1967, Tolt and Keskula started studying and we decided that we would establish our group. And we continued that thing until we graduated from the Art Institute.

Who else was in that group?
Keskula, Tolt, Eljand, then there was also Gunnar Meyer. Many people were related to us, for example, poet Juhan Viiding, Ott Arter, Sirje Runge, Vilen Künnapu, Jüri Okas and others.

Do you remember your first exhibition or first series of works?
There was a cafe “Pegasus”, where artists, who were older than us, held non-Soviet art exhibitions. The cafe asked to hold them since it was managed by the Association of Writers. “Pegasus” gathered poets, different people, and we held the first exhibition in 1969, which is why it was called “Soup 69”. But before that, in 1968 there were some events, student events. We were invited to organise an exhibition. It took place at several sites – Tartu, Rakvere, in some smaller cities.

I know, you are called a living avant-garde classic and also a dissident, but at what time did you feel you were a dissident? 1969, and the 1970s both in Estonia and in Latvia, and in the Soviet Union in general was a totally difficult socialism era.
I don’t even know. I was told so by the SSC (State Security Committee) – that I was a dissident and that I would never be allowed to go abroad. But I answered to them in my youth recklessness that we will see.

At what time did you encounter the SSC? Did they come to visit you?
I simply got a phone call and was told the time when to come. No reason at all. Simply like that.

But you know, in Latvia it turned out that many people of culture cooperated with the SSC.
I think it was the same here, as well.

Did you now feel that they would ask you to cooperate?
They did ask, they asked everyone.

Lapin, come, cooperate with us!
You see, Estonian dissidents had prepared an instruction – how to behave, if you were called to the SSC. And I had read it. It said that when you are called to the SSC, first, you reject any accusations. They say – you did this and that, but you say – no, I have done nothing of the kind. That was the first method. But the second was, that, when you go out of the SSC building, you have to tell everyone that you were there.
There were such cases. SSC agents were attending the clubs, and everyone knew who they were. One of them, the chief one, was a great drunkard himself. There was a writer, my peer, Remsu. We were both sitting at a table in Kuku Club, and this KGB guy comes and sits with us. At one moment I went to the WC and they remained alone, afterwards Remsu went to the WC. When the KGB guy left, Remsu told me: “So, Lapin, they say that you are an SSC agent.” And I told him: “I know, he told me the same thing about you.”
They got to everyone – as soon as you started doing something, they called you. But who really was cooperating – you don’t know.

But, continuing the previous subject – so, you graduated from architecture, but mainly decided to do art?
No, I was doing both things.

But, for instance, you did not work at the Institute like other architects, who graduated as architects in Soviet times and went to the EKE project or some other design institute?
I went to the restoration line, there was an office – Tallinn Restoration Board, where I worked for a couple of years. Then I was called up to the army, and then some older architect who had the say took my job away, and I went from there to another design group, where we designed the Piritas complex for the 1980 Olympic Games, and this job was also taken from us in 1975, and then nobody wanted to take me into any design offices anymore.

So you worked as an architect for a couple of years, but why did no one want you after 1975?
We were deprived of the project. They said that we were not serious professionals. There was a Construction Committee that said – these people must not be taken on in official positions. One from our group emigrated to Israel, another one found a job designing cemeteries. I wasn’t really striving for a job in some institution. I saw that I was doing well just the same. I had my own projects, not just in Estonia, there were some orders coming in from other countries as well – Finland, Sweden.

Looking at your early works, which are now shown in Pāvilosta PAiR gallery, I remember you said that at one moment you had a very strong feeling that you had to get into pop art and ready-mades.
The thing is that in 1969 I went to Hungary. One organisation sent students there during the summers, and I managed to go with the group on archaeological excavations. There I bought a book about pop art. It was published in English in 1968 and I did not understand English, but in 1969 it was also published with a German translation, which I bought and read together with Keskil. The ready-made technique appeared there, and we decided to give it a try.

In 1969 you, together with Sirje Runge, created the work series “Melody”. And then there was “Rhythm”. Already in the 1980s, as you told me.
It was just a rather good idea. The works are still here. Perhaps, 1989.

But let us return to the question of personalities. So, in art there was Tõnis Vint, in architecture – Kuusik. There was surely someone else wasn’t there?
We had a group in the Tallinn school that included Künnapu, Looveer, Kaljundi, Padrik, Okas and Ollik.

But those were mostly architects.
Yes, but they were all involved in arts as well. Künnapu was doing art in his younger years, and Ollik and Okas were also into photography. There was also Toomas Rein, who, in my opinion, is the best Estonian watercolourist; he makes abstract things, but Ollik did pop art together with friends. Almost everyone was doing art in parallel.

But tell me, at what point did you start to focus on Suprematism, Malevich, architects and the Suprematism method?
It is still related to architecture. I simply became interested. In 1969, at the bookstore of the Kumu Art Museum, I bought a book in Polish called “Non-material world” – it cost 30 kopecks; it was a black-and-white edition with reproductions and text, which I also read in Polish. It was one turning point, but the other turning point was Konstantin Melnikov. A scientific student organisation sent me to a seminar in Moscow. There I asked where the Russian avant-garde could be met, but at that time there was no interest in it at all there, as everyone was interested in French architecture, Béton brut. Still, I was told that there was one old man, who was sitting in the park…

At Gorky Park.
Yes, he was sitting there, in the park. And so I went there and talked to him.

Do you remember what you were talking about? Melnikovs is a legend after all! Maybe there was some interesting nuance that you remember?
You see, Melnikovs was forbidden from practising architecture, and in order to make a living he turned to painting. I noticed back then that it was realism. And I asked – how come you, being a constructivist, are doing realism? But he said: “Young man, they are two branches of the same tree.” Later I saw his works in Berlin, where the exhibition “Moscow – Berlin” took place, and I realised that it was not realism at all, but rather a metaphysical painting.

But it is a good slogan: constructivism and realism – branches of the same tree. As a motto.
And, of course, in Moscow, Tõnis Vint took us to meet Russian avante-gardists – artists and architects from the group “Movement”.

This was also in the 1970s?
Perhaps, 1971. I made different contacts that lasted until the perestroika years, since in 1985 many went abroad.

Leo, now you have to answer two questions for me – where does your anarchism and where does your Buddhism or orientalism come from?
Anarchism… We got two books from Moscow. Friends sent them, because such could not be found in Estonian libraries. These were biographies of Kropotik and Bakunin from the series Жизнь замечательных людей. Künnapu and I were probably the only ones who had ever read these books in Russian. It seemed very interesting to us; for example, the life of Bakunin. And the second question?

It is simple with Buddhism. Art historian Sirje Helme graduated from the University of Tartu and came to Tallinn to work with her husband, who is now a politician, Mart Helme, and they were associated with the circle of Orientalism in Tartu. It was a semi-official circle, because the Soviet Union had bad relations with China and therefore regarded this as being dissent as well. And the Helme family introduced me to Linnart Mall, who was the leading orientalist. We met with him very often, practically up to his death, and talked, just like we are talking now. In different situations – sometimes sober, sometimes we drank. Mall was a student of Pyatigorsk. He had met Pyatigorsk in Hapsalu, during the summer holiday. Mall had accidentally sat next to Pyatigorsk on a bench in a park, where they met and started talking. Pyatigorsk suggested Mall to go to Leningrad and helped him with contacts, but later Mall went to Tashkent to learn ancient languages, because he translated Sanskrit texts into Estonian and Laodzi from Chinese. There was such a centre in Tashkent. He lived there very poorly, saying that sometimes there was no money at all, not even food, but sometimes only bread and salt, and occasionally tea could be obtained in the canteen.

Now let’s move fifty years later to 2020. What would be your first three thoughts about contemporary architecture and art? What reflections do you have?
We have talked about this. My opinion is that there is a decline. We, the Tallinn school, wanted to create new Estonian architecture based on local traditions, among which we also took the Russian avant-garde, De Stijl, Bauhaus. We took over these practices, and we had an important genius loci, the spirit of the place; we wrote about it, we did it. It is now gone, and genius loci are very rare. Of course, there are good architects like Urbel who follow it. But in general, theoretical things are forgotten and a lot is damaged. And art, as I told you, has also become proactive. In the past, they created a work, an artefact, but now they are preparing projects to be submitted to various funds to obtain funding, and if it is not received, then the project is simply abandoned. And the situation is already so terrible that the Tallinn Art House, which should be the centre of Estonian contemporary art in the broadest sense, should be like the “Estonia” theatre, where amateurs do not sing; it is a national symbol. It should be the same in the Art House, but now there are such exhibitions that I do not attend, because some curators come, there are very few Estonian works, but works of the older generation, how to say, are not exhibited at all…

Is ignored?
Yes, completely ignored. So, that centre will vanish completely; now there will be repairs and we are all being driven out.

From artist workshops, right?
Yes, that is the thing. And the fact that today art is not the goal, but the project, and it has a very bad effect.

And if now 18-20 year old students were to sit in front of you and you had the opportunity to tell them what they should read, watch, go into in order to become good artists, what would be the basics that you would name?
In the past, I have taught many young artists and architects, not only in Estonia but also in Finland, and I have always adhered to an individual approach, because a general approach that is the same for everyone is wrong. I told the young architects that there are now so many different scholarships in the world. If you complete these studies, be sure to continue to advance yourself, and it does not have to be New York or London, let it be Budapest, Helsinki, maybe Moscow, so that you can see the world more widely.

So, in principle, there is no one main recipe, you would not say that it is necessary to read a special volume of Aristotle and Heidegger’s diaries to better understand the spirit of the time or art, or to study composition or colour theory?
Again, I told some students that they could be my assistants, but in general this is not possible because everyone is individual. I keep saying that everyone in the Academy of Arts is a personality. In my opinion, Signe Kivi destroyed the Tallinn Academy of Art. Art, the same as music, should be taught by personalities, and if a personality is teaching the student, he feels at once, what the level of the teacher is. There is an architect Raivo Kotov, who designed Estonia’s EXPO pavilion. He was studying in the first year, when I told the head of the department that this would indeed be a special architect to pay special attention to, but the head of the department answered me with some nonsense.
It shows at once, if there is no personality. There was one guy who could not draw a straight line. I found out that he was doing music, and I told him – you are no good in arts, it would be better to do music. And he left the Academy and is now a famous musician.

Alright, now I am coming to a conclusion, but you tell me, whether I am thinking right – so it follows that a good architect and a good artist is a non-standard type with some peculiarities. A creative person with a capital C is a non-standard type.
Sure. Personality.

You see, there is a paradox, that in the current situation there are virtually no people like you, there are just a few.
Very few. I am actually surprised when I look at Estonian architecture and art. There are very few, although there are some.

Everyone is very standardised, let’s say, in commercial terms.
For example, I wonder – when I designed private houses, I did it alone, sometimes someone helped technically; now the project is created by one group of young architects, four of them, but if others design, then again there are four of them, and both of these private houses look similar. There is a tendency to follow some general trend. I look at the internet, in the media, at what trend or style should be selected to be successful.

Now, my dear Leo, 18 year old artists and architects have a recipe – not to be normal, standardised.
Yes, that is a good recipe. For example, in Parnu there is Al Paldrok, who is gathering a lot of young ones around himself. He is organising various events and exhibitions. And when the world was open, they organised happenings and performances in the whole world.

But we were talking – the same Künnapu, Okas are not standardised, or, let’s say – Lapins – non-standard. But let’s move on. Arvo Perts – non-standard, Lennart Meri – non-standard. Imagine, in principle all these people we are talking about, they are not standard people at all.
I think that the creative way is a non-standard way. I, for one, would find it very boring to live such a life as…

Standard life?
Besides, if you are living like that, you are not living your own life; but you have to live your one, not the one they have given you. On the other hand, architecture is multi-layered, and someone has to implement those technical drawings, so standard people are also needed, and quite a lot.

But there are many of those – standard people.
But let the non-standard ones be the one who invent the idea.

Now I look and think that this non-standard is missing. You and I, we know the “old” Borgs, Demakova, Grīnbergs, Tillbergs, they are all non-standard. But now many have entered the general trend of commercialised art consumption, when they are engaged in art, when someone has paid for it before, or it is intended for sale in an art gallery, then we write projects again to get money for future works of art, etc., but architects today closely follow trends and design standardised style houses, which are popularised by professional publications and which the customers want.
Besides, on the computer you can make them very quickly. And the result is that if there is an international architecture competition, the Estonians do not win. For example, the National Museum of Arts of Estonia in Tartu was not designed by Estonians.

But Kumu wasn’t either. And also in Latvia – imagine, Liepāja Concert Hall was designed by an Austrian, the reconstruction of the National Museum building was designed by a Lithuanian. In general, we Latvians are a closed nation, we know very little about Estonians and Lithuanians, our closest neighbours; we live in a kind of “bubble” and we praise each other. One Latvian artist is praising another Latvian artist. Says – you did so well! You have such nice art. And the architects as well – Latvian architects are not doing anything outside Latvia. Maybe half a percent of a hundred. And at the Faculty of Architecture, the professors, I am sorry, but they are not such great personalities. In the Academy of Arts it is similar, to tell you the truth; everything is very closed.
What happened to us at the Academy was that the personalities were destroyed by Signe Kiwi. A new rector, Mart Kalm, an art historian in the field of architecture, came and hired young people, professors, who still have to learn for themselves. I was at the Council at the time – I had completed that thing a year ago. And we had a lot of polemics with them at the time. They came with such nonsense, for example, one lady said that we should invite one professor to work at the Academy to teach competition. I said – what rubbish, are you and I some kind of competitors? Now there are the ones at the Academy of Arts who teach business, economics and things that an artist does not need because there are special people who do that.

Yes, the commercialisation of art is taking place. I didn’t think about it before, but now I feel more and more that it distorts art, and, as we discussed, there is a lot of bad art.
You see, when I was young and engaged in art, no one paid me for it; on the contrary – I was always cursed that I was making terrible things. It was only when the ferry line with Helsinki was opened that people from the West, collectors, bought the works.

But, Leo, tell me a little about Latvia, about your impressions at the end.
You know, I used to live in Latvia when I was serving in the army. I met creative people, not only artists, but I also knew architects, and I could say that there is no difference; that is an international thing. People, whom I communicated with, had an international circle. And I am very satisfied with these relationships. For example, Borgs – do I have something bad to say about him?

But your impressions? You did meet Pauļuks, Borgs, Demakova, you were in Brazil with Tillbergs. You met Latvian artists.
Everyone is a personality and everyone is doing their own thing, and it is difficult to distinguish that this is Estonian art, but this is Latvian. Creative people are everywhere, it does not depend on nationality. Let’s say how much I knew artists and architects in Russia, and I cannot say that Ilya Kabakov, for example, reveals the soul of the Russian people in his works. It is difficult to say so, because everything is international. You could conclude this at some lower level – if I go to a Latvian store…

Souvenir store…
Yes, at such a level, but it is difficult to say otherwise.

Now, tell me about the age – you are now seventy three; tell me more about your inner feelings as an artist, who has been actively engaged in art for more than 50 years.
I can say that my age is my biggest freedom – I do anything I want, I don’t care what the critics say, and I don’t even care whether I sell my works. True enough, to my own surprise, lately I have been succeeding in selling them. When I retired, I was released from obligations at the Academy of Arts, and I felt very free.

Leo, thank you for the interesting talk.

When I finished talking to Leo and turned off the recorder, we entered the residence library, and from both windows on the curvature of the round stove in the corner, reflected the playfully flashing evening sunlight that Leo had long looked at and said was a sculpture. After that, I thought that a new work of art had now been added to the VV Foundation art collection located in Pāvilosta PAiR house, the performance of the evening being the sunlight stove that Leonhard Lapin called a sculpture.