Muuseumikogudes ja suulises ajaloos säilib ajalik looming / Transient treasures are kept in museums and memories
Vanda Juhansoo. Artist or Eccentric Woman?
Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design
18.01.–01.03.2020, Tartu City Museum 19.06.–26.09.2021.
Exhibition curated by: Andreas Kalkun (Estonian Literary Museum)
and Rebeka Põldsam, graphic design: Stuudio Stuudio.
Vanda Juhansoo (1889–1966) was by education a porcelain painter and furniture designer; she was, however, known as a textile and craft artist, traveller, polyglot, notable art teacher, interior decorator, advocate of women’s craft, soroptimist and gardener. Sometimes she was also known as the ‘Witch of Valgemetsa’. She graduated from the Central School of Applied Arts Ateneum in Finland, which makes her one of the first Estonian women artists with a higher education at the beginning of the 20th century.
Even though Vanda Juhansoo specialised in ceramics and furniture design, as a student she received the most recognition (as well as travel grants) for her embroidery. From then on, Vanda spent her next thirty summers travelling in Europe. Between 1912 and 1945, she exhibited her ceramics, embroidered doilies and curtains in various places, including the first ever Estonian women artists’ show in 1939. Vanda Juhansoo worked with the Kodukäsitöö limited company, that had been established in 1927 with the aim of reducing unemployment among women. Alongside craft and women’s magazines, the Kodukäsitöö was the most significant promoter of women’s craft in Estonia, regularly organising exhibition-sales and taking Estonian craft to international shows. Unfortunately, most of Vanda Juhansoo’s oeuvre was so ephemeral that there is very little trace of it now. The Karilatsi Open Air Museum near Vanda’s home in Valgemetsa and the collection of the Estonian National Museum hold items given to the museum by Vanda’s cousin’s family, which Vanda herself most likely wore – these are made to fit her petite size and there are photos of Vanda wearing these garments. Her signature style used floral motifs embroidered onto the thin textiles she wove herself. Like a painter, she spent hours embroidering, casting ethnographic patterns aside when creating her original designs. Even though the Estonian National Museum has exhibited Vanda Juhansoo’s embroidered cardigans as examples of Estonian folk art, these are, in fact, clearly original artistic designs.
After World War II, Vanda stopped exhibiting and publishing her patterns in craft magazines. Instead, she committed herself to teaching drawing and supervised a number of children’s art classes in Tartu that produced many wellknown artists. The memory of Vanda has largely been kept alive by her students, who remember her as a particularly bright and optimistic person. In addition to her embroidery, Vanda’s original style remained visible as she expressed it in her memorable multicoloured hair nets and abundant jewellery, as well as in the striking Valgemetsa summer house and garden.
The curators tried to trace back and recreate some of the wonderful world that Vanda created all around herself with her designs, handicraft, paintings, photos and memories from museums, archives, and from people who knew her. Looking at the life, work and legacy of Vanda Juhansoo, the exhibition asked: What were the choices for women artists in Estonia at the beginning of the 20th century? Why are Vanda’s works found mainly in the collections of ethnographic memory institutions rather than in art museums? Why did Vanda become the so-called ‘Witch of Valgemetsa’ and not a recognised applied artist?
In the present review, the reception of the exhibition is summarised and juxtaposed with the few studies on Vanda Juhansoo’s textile work from the perspective of craft studies and the history of applied art.