The Fuel of Joy

Anna Iltnere


August Künnapu’s exhibit My Favorites will be on view at Galerija 21 in Riga through July 30.

Estonian artist August Künnapu (1978) said in this interview that good exhibitions must be like fueling stations of positive energy. I’m convinced that something slightly flammable flows through his blood, too, which operates a motor of joyfulness and a brightness that can’t be faked. I feel an urge to call him a naïf, applying this term both to Künnapu as a personality and to his paintings. But this wouldn’t be anything new, because the Estonian press has referred to him as a “wunderkind” and “the little prince.” For a column about Künnapu, the British curator and artist Harry Pye chose the title “Sunshine in August,” and the Estonian artist Kaido Ole christened him as the best Estonian painter right now.

My Favorites is Künnapu’s second solo exhibit in Riga. The first was also held at Galerija 21, two years ago. The exhibit consists of portraits, in various sizes and formats, with renowned people that are important to Künnapu. Roy Ayers, Kim Ki-Duk, the Dalai Lama, Devendra Banhart, and the Latvian poet Rainis (who is very respected by intelligent young Estonians) are just a few of the figures featured in his portraits.

Künnapu has created thematic portrait series before. For example, in 2002 he painted portraits of architects on various doors of his childhood summer home, which was later torn down. These included Zaha Hadid, Tadao Ando, and Konstantin Melnikov. In 2003 he painted portraits of historic scientists: Isaac Newton and Johannes Kepler, among others.

Looking over Künnapu’s paintings from the last decade (an extensive catalogue of his works was published in 2007), you get the impression that he’s able to find ideas for his works at every step of the way. Along with portraits, a large part of his “archive” consists of figural compositions saturated with excitement over life situations: people in model airplane competitions, doctors examining patients, a boy with a bicycle, tennis and hockey players, dogs and cats, a weapons factory, a visit by Brezhnev, young people reading a newspapers, urban planners, people celebrating with an accordion, a zoo, a shaman, and more.

This reminds me of childhood, when those who liked to draw put down on paper everything they experienced, be it a visit to the dentist or your grandmother in the kitchen. Yet a sympathetic naiveté in the themes and style is just the lining of the garment. Künnapu’s paintings are artistically mature and “woven” from the most refined fabric, formed by talent and unflagging, constant work. 

Among other activities, Künnapu has also published the cultural newspaper/magazine Epifanio twice a year since 2005. The publication is well known by artists, architects, and writers outside of Estonia as well.

Who are your biggest favorites in art, and who inspired you to grow as a painter?

British artist David Hockney (1937). I’ve painted him, too, though the portrait isn’t included in the Riga exhibit. I haven’t seen any of his solo exhibits, only individual works, and I’ve read his book. He’s a painter, yet he writes very well. In the book My Early Years, Hockney talks about how he began his career in art. He first attended the Royal Art College in London, and then brought his works to New York when he was twenty-six. Hockney later moved to Los Angeles. 

How did you become an artist?

I started going to a children’s art school when I was twelve or thirteen. There was a teacher at the school who urged me to take up colors and get to work, without thinking how much I was wasting. I simply had to abandon myself. That might have been the first time I was encouraged to open myself up creatively. 

Does painting come easily for you, or do you have to struggle with yourself?

Almost all of these works were created specially for this exhibit over the course of the last year. Office employees work from 9:00 to 18:00. Sometimes I start a little later, yet either way the work becomes routine—though it’s a creative routine. Working on these paintings, I sometimes got bored. Then I’d stop for a moment, publish an issue of Epifanio, and continue with new energy.

How are you able to manage and combine your work as an editor with your work as a painter?

I try to divide up my time. When I paint, I paint. When I put together the newspaper, then I do only that. Of course, sometimes the work overlaps. I am also an instructor at the Estonian Academy of Art, where I teach set designer and metal artists to paint.

Today it is very characteristic to work with lots of different things, but this just stresses out most people. How do you manage this, and how are you able to invest positive energy into your work?

I pick up my brush and dip it in paint.

Sometimes it happens that I don’t really feel good—for example, my throat hurts. But as soon as I start painting, the energies start moving and begin to flow, and I immediately feel better. If a painting works out, then I’m happy.

This should be felt in the galleries, too. A good exhibit is like a fueling station of positive energy, where you can fill up. Thought there is much negation in contemporary art, I believe that art shouldn’t breed bad emotions. These don’t do any good for either the visitors or the artists. I don’t understand why blood or murder should be depicted.

Are the visitors to exhibits important for you? What does the realization mean to you that someone will look at your painting and think about it?

That depends on the painting. Works may also be very personal; then you don’t need for everyone to look at them. But in general, paintings shouldn’t be hidden.

I think it’s good if private collectors also open up their acquisition for public viewing.

Are your works in private collections, too?

An Estonian collector has nine of my paintings from various stages of my career. This collector’s first commission was a portrait of him and his wife, with both of them at a music festival. I recently received a new commission—to paint his 1987 BMW.

I’ve also had other commission, but I’m always given creative freedom. Nobody meddles in my work.

Does a painting change when it is brought out from the studio and put in another space, for instance, in a gallery?

Yes, always! That’s why I like to organize exhibits in many different places. Both in old factories and in white gallery halls. Each specific space inspires me and gives me idea for how to display my works.

Speaking of space—your father, Vilen Künnapu, is an architect.

I studied architecture too. Sometimes I include architecture in my paintings. Perhaps if I hadn’t studied architecture, I wouldn’t paint buildings. The biggest painting in the exhibit My Favorites is a portrait of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer (1907). In the painting he is next to one of his most famous projects, Brazil’s Modern Art Museum.

In some portraits I tried to depict in the background something that was important for the subject. For instance, in the painting of the Russian master of absurdist literature Daniil Kharms (1905–1942), you can see Kharms on the balcony of the St. Petersburg book store Dom Knigi in the early 20th century.

For the exhibit I chose people who were as different as possible, with distinctly different personalities and from various time periods. There are also my long-time favorites, such as the aforementioned Daniil Kharms. But on the poster for the exhibit you’ll find a painting of the musician Devendra Banhart (1981), who is one of my new favorites.

Do you write anything too in Epifanio?

Rarely. Mostly I just gather and compiled information: the essence of art, the essence of music, the essence of architecture and literature. Similar to my paintings: when I create a portrait, I try to capture the essence of the subject, the most characteristic thing. I try to paint his or her soul.

And does it work?

That depends on the subject. There are people who are more bright and open; but then there are those who have had a harsh fate. For instance, the writer Daniil Kharms starved to death during the war. I tried to make sure that his difficult life could be felt in the painting.

How does painting feel in contemporary art?

Painting has always been the queen of arts. This can particularly be felt here, in Riga. For instance, a few years ago at the group exhibit of young artists Candy Bomber, or last year’s Urban Child, which were supplemented with quality catalogues. People here have a respectful and serious attitude toward painting. In Tallinn, painting isn’t so popular. Of course, a few young artists have still not forgotten how to paint. But the most popular media in Estonia are video and photography.

Do you as an artist think in categories like “beautiful”? Does this description still have a functional meaning today?

Yes, definitely. But I probably have a different understanding about what is beautiful. My works are much sooner a disjointed beauty. The strange and funny can be beautiful too.

I really like it when people start to laugh while looking at my paintings. Or laugh until they cry. As a child, when I studied at the children’s art school, I painted my father as a small boy. A scene from nursery school in the early 50s. My father was holding a triangle and a few other instruments. I remember how my teacher laughed until he cried when he saw the picture. 

Why is the painting of the Dalai Lama so very small?

In a sense, the Dalai Lama is sweet. This format could be more intimate. I saw him about ten years ago, when he gave a speech in the Town Hall Square in Tallinn. There was a huge crowd of people. I recall that when the speech was over, I felt a physical warmth inside. In general, it’s very interesting to create paintings with such different sizes and formats. I also have oval pictures.

Do you remember the last time you laughed or simply felt very positive emotions in front of another artist’s work?

I won’t say I actually laughed, but right now the KUMU Art Museum in Tallinn is showing works by artists form the 1970s. For example, Ludmilla Siim and Jüri Palm’s exhibit Alone in the City. I had never seen Ludmilla Siim’s works up close before. They made me happy. And then they have another exhibit by a 1970s artist: Urmas Ploomipuu’s exhibit White House. He basically works as a graphic artist and, during his life, he has created only about four oil painting works, as well as a few watercolors, but all of them are very good.

Do you have any favorites in Latvian art?

I can’t single out any one artist, but the overall level of painting is very high. At the exhibit of 2011 Purvītis Award finalists I liked the works by Kristaps Ģelzis. I’ve also exhibited together with Latvian painter Andris Vītoliņš. We are very different, yet we have a similar sense of colors. That unites us.