Tartu Ülikooli kunstiajalooõpetuse moderniseerimisest ja kollektsioonide rollist kunstiajaloo professori valimistel aastatel 1919–1921


  • Eero Kangor




Modernizing the teaching of art history at the University of Tartu and on the importance of collections in the election process of the first professor of art history in the years 1919-1921

Eero Kangor, MA, Estonian Academy of Arts


The changes in the teaching of art history at the European universities were the product of the modernization of the society in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. In Estonia these changes were connected to the national movement of both Estonians and Baltic Germans as well as the Russification of the University of Tartu. In 1919 the University was re-established as the national university with the ambition to give the best possible education for the future specialists of all fields of occupation in the Estonian Republic.

The article focuses on the election process of the professor of art history at the University of Tartu during the years 1919-1921 and attempts to analyze this in the Northern European context. It develops from the academic background of the candidates and the experts involved in this process to reveal their possible interests directed to the position in Tartu. On the other hand the political situation in Estonia, the material conditions and possibilities but also the ideological preferences of the administration of the University of Tartu have to be born in mind.

The election of the professor of art history effected the professionalization of art history and with this the new interpretations given to the arts of “all times” that were created and that had remained in the Estonian territory. More generally it influenced the acceptance of this art heritage as an object of the Estonian (national) art historiography. The work with art heritage assumed a more systematic knowledge about it and required the formulation of new special collections that were to be deposited at the Art History cabinet of the University of Tartu.

In the art historiography of this period the medieval art was an active field of heated debates that engaged a lot of many ambitious and talented German and Swedish art historians. Their attention centered on the importance of the medieval Hanseatic League and its member cities and more generally the Baltic Sea as a space and medium of artistic influences. Until the 1920s medieval art in the territory of the Estonian Republic had been studied by the Baltic German art historians as part of the so-called Baltic art. Similarly the object of Estonian art was only the creation of Estonian artists from the mid-19th century onwards. None of this was of interest to the scholars at the University of Tartu where the academic study was exclusively involved with the problems of classical art.

At the time of Russification in the last quarter of the 19th century the city of Tartu (then Dorpat) was renamed “Jurjew” and followed by the renaming of the university and adding “Imperial” to it. The classical studies of the antique art where part of imperial discourse and possessed likewise importance in the British, Austro-Hungarian and Prussian Empire. For the new nation-states established after the collapse of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, this discourse had no relevance.

The founders of the Estonian national university in Tartu took the Scandinavian univesities as an example which also meant the ineluctable inclination to the ideology attached to it. As a result the chair of aesthetics and general art history was established in 1919. At the same time it could not be ignored that the University of Tartu had been a Baltic German institution since 1802 and possessed not only an internationally renowned prestige in classical archaeology but also a remarkable collection of Antique art. During the First World War this collection had been evacuated to the Russian Voronezh University and self-evidently it was the duty of the university administrators to get back its assets. This is the background for considering the Baltic German classical archeologist Oskar Waldhauer as one of the candidates for the chair of art history. The Faculty of Philosophy that was in charge of the election process might have hoped to achieve a quicker solution to the problems of the art collections when electing Waldhauer as the professor. As I have tried to present in my article it was in conflict with first the progressive mindset and the modernization efforts of the university administrators and the pursuit to approach the Scandinavian examples. At this time a significant change was taking place at the Scandinavian universities in the study and teaching of art history with the decreasing attention to antique art and aesthetic problems. Instead of the study of classical texts much importance was given to the meticulous study of the art objects, to stylistic generalizations and an attempt to chart the cultural geographical migration of the art motives in the Baltic Sea region. This meant a totally different approach to art heritage and effected the formulation of new kinds of specialist collections, e.g. photo-collections that required notable financial support.

From the correspondence with the candidates it can be concluded that it was not easy to attract foreign professors to the newly established Republic because the university could not offer sufficient financial and institutional support that was anticipated by the candidates. For the candidates it was important to have modern equipment and the special collections (books, photos and artefacts) for teaching art history, on the other hand, the professor could become a pioneer in research on the heritage of Estonia.

The help of the most renowned scholars in Germany and Scandinavia were contacted as experts to find the candidates: Fritz Knapp (1874—1938), Martin Wackernagel (1881—1962), Wilhelm Worringer (1881—1965), Helge Kjellin (1885—1984), Kurt Gerstenberg (1886—1968), Onni Okkoneni (1886—1962) and Erwin Panofsky (1892—1968). Only four of them actually considered to accept the offer (Knapp, Gerstenberg, Kjellin and Wackernagel). The reason for the dominance of German candidates was first that in Germany there were enough professional art historians at that time. There was a surplus of scholars who looked for a stable job as the inflation during the 1920s affected foremost the German academic community. However, the the University of Tartu had a cautionary standpoint towards the German candidates and the attitude towards (Baltic) Germans was also generally negative in Estonia.

Unlike in Germany there was scarcity of professional art historians in Scandinavia and Finland. Though Estonian archaeology could profit from the Finnish scholars Aarne Michaël Tallgren and general history from Arno Rafael Cederberg there was less opportunity to provide the southern nation-relatives with a professor in art history. On the other hand the concept of Baltic-Nordic Art Region put forward by the Swede Johnny Roosval could profit remarkably from the work of a disciple doing research on Estonian Middle Age art heritage. It is clear from the correspondence with Roosval that he made an effort to support his countryman Kjellin’s candidacy. Kjellin’s mission actually turned out to be successful in establishing that at least the Western-Estonian Medieval Churches have strong connections with the art of Gotland.

Finally, the Faculty of Philosophy elected the internationally renowned though notorious Strzygowski as the first professor of art history at the University of Tartu. At this time Strzygowski was already a professor in Vienna and Åbo (Finland). Estonian art history students could have profited from his inarguably strong methodological teaching but his ideological inclination would certainly have been undesirable. Strzygowski seems to have rejected the chair because of practical reasons. This meant that the second in election — Kjellin — was given a chance to develop Estonian art history study.

One of Kjellin’s first jobs was the establishment of the research collections at the Art History cabinet. For this he organised research trips with his student to the medieval land churches, the cloisters, castles, fortressess and the old towns in Estonia and also northern Latvia. During his time in Estonia (1922-24) he could not publish any research on this material until 1928 when his monograph on the Karja Church in Saaremaa appeared. This received a sharp critique by other scholars mainly because of overinfluencing the artistic influences from Gotland. This was achieved by matching the material with the Roosval’s conception of the Baltic-Nordic art region, but not convincingly enough. More important of this was that with his monograph Kjellin managed to open up a debate on Estonian medieval art heritage and make its study tempting for the Estonian researchers and in the long run this meant the integration of this heritage to Estonian art. This research profited greatly from the research collections established by Kjellin during his time in Tartu.



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