“After all, art history is a new discipline at this university”. Establishment of the cabinet of art history at the University of Tartu


  • Eero Kangor Estonian Academy of Arts




University of Tartu, art history, Tor Helge Kjellin, art collections, Kunstwissenschaft


The aspiration for truth that was a feature of the Age of Enlightenment was also a driving force for studying Baltic history, and for describing and drawing old buildings and ruins. This activity became more systematic in the next century, when the Baltic educated literati established learned societies. However, when the University of Tartu was reopened in 1802, the professor of aesthetics and related subjects focused on classical antiquity and neglected local art history. It was only in 1919, when the University was reorganised as a national institution of the independent Republic of Estonia, that a separate chair was established for art history. The competition for the first professor of art history resulted in the invitation of a Swedish art historian Tor Helge Kjellin (1885–1984), who launched the systematic study of local mediaeval heritage, especially churches. His arrival in Tartu in 1922 can be considered the starting point of the professionalisation of the research of Estonian art history.

Estonian art historiography has been studied sporadically since the 1960s, with only a few articles published before the 2010s on the beginnings of professional art history education at the University of Tartu. The Soviet occupation of Estonia made it impossible to travel abroad to study Helge Kjellin’s written legacy in Swedish archives. After the restoration of Estonia’s independence, a new interest in Estonian art historiography emerged. The leading researchers of Estonian art historiography have been Juta Keevallik and Professor Krista Kodres, who have inspired me to study the 1920s.

In 1919, following the example of the Nordic countries, a ‘chair of aesthetics and general history of art’ was also established at the University of Tartu. Yet it was not until the Estonian state had acquired part of the art collection of the Liphart Baltic German noble family that the competition for the chair of art history was launched in June of 1920. A year later, the Viennese professor Josef Strzygowsky was elected as the first professor of art history, but since he declined, the next candidate in the competition, the art history docent from Lund University, Helge Kjellin, was invited. He arrived in Tartu the next year, on 17 January 1922. On 23 January, he already appealed to the university rector to allocate rooms for his art history seminar:

After all, art history is a new discipline at this university and so the university library is not stocked well enough with special literature on art history. Therefore, I have brought with me my own library […], and picture collection (photographs, slides, etc).

Professor Kjellin pointed out that the art history seminar should also be provided with drawings and graphic art collections for the students to study different artistic techniques. He mentioned 15 chairs for students as part of the furniture needed for the seminar. However, a week later it turned out that about 40 students had registered for his seminars and about 100 wished to attend his lectures, most of them girls who thirsted for knowledge. In Estonia, art history was still regarded as a subject of general knowledge for the educated elite, rather than the scientific study of art, Kunstwissenschaft, which German scholars envisioned and had aspired to since the end of the 19th century, with the most important centres at the universities of Berlin and Vienna. However, it was precisely this new Scientific (or academic) art history that Kjellin wanted to establish in Tartu.

Kjellin directly linked Tartu to Berlin. He had studied at Uppsala University with the Swedish art historian, then a docent, Johnny Roosval, and later at Lund University with Professor Ewert Wrangel. In turn, Heinrich Wölfflin and Adolph Goldschmidt were Roosval’s professors in Berlin. Roosval wanted to shape Swedish art history according to the German model. He inspired his students to choose Swedish mediaeval art as their subject, and Kjellin was one of the students who followed his advice. After graduating from Uppsala University in 1913, Kjellin worked at museums in Stockholm and Malmö, but was then invited by Wrangel to continue his studies in Lund where he also defended his doctoral thesis in 1917. Kjellin concentrated on the study of mediaeval Swedish churches. In Estonia as well, he wanted to discover the mediaeval influences from the island of Gotland on the churches in the Old Livonian island of Ösel and the county of Wiek (the western part of Estonia).

Kjellin managed to engage at least some of his Estonian students to help him with his scholarly pursuits. In fact, the University of Tartu’s study system at that time encouraged students to already practice research methods in their first years. Seminars had a significant role in the teaching of art history at the beginning of the 20th century. Kjellin gave students practical exercises in the art history seminars at Tartu, e.g. they had to describe neoclassical buildings in the city of Tartu. Later they would catalogue the university library’s graphic collections. In seminars, they would present a paper on a chosen or given subject, but they would also discuss papers presented by their fellow students. During summer vacation, some students had the opportunity to put their knowledge into practice by helping Kjellin to describe churches in Saaremaa. Some more able students, who chose art history as their main subject, would even conduct independent research at archives in Tartu, Tallinn, and Riga, where they would also collect (photo)graphic and descriptive material on historic buildings and art.

Kjellin already left the chair in Tartu in September of 1924 for financial reasons. The University of Tartu could not pay Kjellin the salary he requested because it was more than the Ministry of Education allowed.

Foreign professors received larger salaries than Estonian professors anyway. Kjellin agreed to examine his students in 1925 as well and reviewed a few of his students’ master’s theses in 1926 and 1928. He also continued his research on Estonian medieval architecture and published a few studies in 1928 and 1932, but later dropped Estonian subjects from his fields of interest.

As mentioned before, Kjellin had ca 100 art history students. A third of them took the final exam in art history. Only seven of them sat the exam at the most difficult level, which allowed them to defend a master’s degree in art history. Of these seven, only two defended their degree and only one of them – Voldemar Vaga – went to work as an art historian and later became Professor of Art History at the University of Tartu. Many of the female students who studied art history with Kjellin became history teachers in schools.

However, Kjellin’s contribution to the study and teaching of art history, but also heritage conservation in Estonia, is fundamental. Together with the archaeology professor Aarne Michael Tallgren, he prepared the draft of the first heritage conservation law in Estonia, which was passed in the Estonian parliament in 1925. The study collections – photographs, slides, measurement drawings, and descriptions of the art history seminar (later cabinet) have retained their scholarly value even today. Although the chair of art history was left vacant starting from 1925, Sweden was once again the place from where the second professor of art history – Sten Ingvar Karling – was invited to Tartu in 1932. Kjellin had created excellent teaching conditions for the new professor and for future students to study art history at the University of Tartu.


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Author Biography

Eero Kangor, Estonian Academy of Arts

Eero Kangor is Leading Specialist in the Heritage Conservation Office of the Urban Planning Department of Tallinn City Municipality and PhD candidate at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture of the Estonian Academy of Arts; MA in art history.