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« Tuna 4 / 2017

The Artist Nikolai Kalmakov and the Twists and Turns of his Creative Legacy

Nikolai Kalmakov was an emigrant Russian artist whose paths also briefly intersected with Estonia. He stayed in Estonia in 1921 – 1923. His first exhibition was also a solo exhibition in Tallinn in 1922. It created a sensation, even a scandal. It split Estonian artists in two. Some branded him as being superficial and inept in dealing with art while others considered it an exaggeration to call Kalmakov a dilettante or altogether styled him as a master artist. The fact is that Nikolai Kalmakov’s painting 24. veebruar 1918 (24 February 1918), which depicted the members of the Estonian Salvation Committee declaring Estonia’s independence, became the bone of contention. Rumours were even spread in the newspapers that Tallinn’s Stock Exchange Committee reportedly wanted to buy this painting for an incredibly high price – 200,000 Estonian marks. Let it be noted for the sake of comparison that in those days, the prices of oil paintings on display at exhibitions ranged between 20,000 and 40,000 marks. No 200,000 mark transaction was found in the Tallinn Stock Exchange financial documentation from 1922. This painting was the property of the Tallinn Stock Exchange, but not for such an outlandish amount, rather for 400 Estonian kroons in 1930 (approximately 40,000 Estonian marks). The painting was on display in the Little Hall of the Tallinn Stock Exchange until 1940, when Estonia was occupied by the USSR. Thereafter Nikolai Kalmakov’s painting 24. veebruar 1918 was taken out of its frame, the canvas was folded into sixths and secretly taken to the National Archives for storage on a shelf. It was not until 1966 that the existence of such a painting in the archives was discovered but archival staff was unable to identify its auteur. Since the painting depicted Konstantin Päts, one of the founders of the Republic of Estonia, it was decided to deposit it in Konstantin Päts’s personal archive. Konstantin Päts’s personal archive was classified under the conditions of the Soviet regime and access to it was restricted. Nikolai Kalmakov’s painting disappeared once again into oblivion. Prior to the end of Soviet rule (1988), numerous archival materials were declassified and in the course of this process, this painting depicting members of the Estonian Salvation Committee declaring Estonia’s independence was rediscovered. Yet once again, attempts to identify who could have been the auteur of the painting did not succeed. Complicating matters even further was the fact that the artist Maximilian Maksolly had also depicted the Estonian Salvation Committee. He had completed the painting Eesti Vabariigi väljakuulutamine 24.II.1918 (Declaration of the Republic of Estonia 24 February 1918) in 1925/26. Maksolly’s painting belonged to the art collection of Estonia’s other financial institution, the Bank of Estonia, before 1940. Maximilian Maksolly’s painting had found a hiding place at the Tallinn City Museum and was brought out from there into the light of day in 1989. Confusion concerning the works of the two artists continued to prevail until 1998, when the art historian Mai Levin identified Nikolai Kalmakov as the auteur of the painting that had been hidden in the National Archives. This painting has been restored by now and is on display in the Independence Hall at the Bank of Estonia. Nikolai Kalmakov’s painting has become a painting representing the Republic of Estonia, which has been seen by the great figures of the world in the course of their visits, the most renowned of which is George W. Bush.

Nikolai Kalmakov went from Estonia to Paris, where he died in 1955. A large proportion of his paintings went missing there as well until they were discovered in 1962 by French collectors. A half-hour long film entitled L’ange de l’abîme (Angel of the Abyss) has been made about the discovery of Nikolai Kalmakov’s paintings and it has won a Cesar award as best film in the category of short and documentary films. Nikolai Kalmakov’s paintings are on display in exhibition halls in London and Paris. His works are esteemed at reputable art auctions.