Rhizome-Alphabet: Between Film and Art of Priit Pärn

By Andreas Trossek (Estonian Academy of Arts)

© Andreas Trossek, 2010

Seeking to provide a short overview of Priit Pärn (born in 1946; lives and works in Tallinn, Estonia) and his creative output in caricature, animation, book illustration, comics and graphics over the course of more than half a century is not an easy task. In order to start with generalizations, the right kind of context is needed first. But what would that context be? And how to present it?[1]

When Priit Pärn works, he draws. So this should make him first and foremost an artist; and the reception of artists is something that is usually dealt with within the discipline of art history and/or studies of visual culture. Then again, not so much has been written about him in this regard[2] and the fact is that Priit Pärn has gained international recognition in animation, so this should make him a man whose œuvre belongs first and foremost to film history. However, this act of contextualization would implicitly mean that his drawings, caricatures and graphic art were merely “side-products” of the filmmaking process and therefore less worthy of attention. Yet this cannot be the case—in fact, it would be impossible to ignore that Priit Pärn was one of the most famous caricaturists of the Soviet period in Estonia: his first caricatures were published already in the second half of the 1960s and Pärn was rather active cartoonist up until (and slightly beyond) the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moreover, his prints and drawings have been exhibited in galleries and museums since the early 1980s when Pärn declared publicly his interest in graphic arts.

It might as well be that the right kind of context, a proper cultural, historical and theoretical background for considering the works of someone like Priit Pärn should not be only within the framework of film history or art history but perhaps precisely between the two. The next step would then be to find an adequate form of presentation in order to introduce all these different and sometimes overlapping factors that make up his story. The following article would therefore have to possess a structure open to additions, fragments or quotes that may seem slightly “out of context” or even irrelevant at first glance. Different facts and definitions are usually organized in an alphabetic order when it comes to dictionaries and/or encyclopedias, so could this essay be written like a primer?

A as in Alphabet
This “alphabet” would have to maintain a playful and at times jumpy narrative logic, which characterizes both his works (for example, in 1983 Pärn published a collection of his caricatures entitled Naljapildiaabits—a title, which could be translated as Primer for Funny Pictures) and those various stories that are surrounding him (or the myths behind the Various Persons Named Priit Pärn, as it has been put succinctly [3]). This “alphabet” could not appear as a conventional linear narrative: a straight story about the “in-betweenness” of Priit Pärn, the artist and/or the animator and/or the caricaturist, would simply not be the best possible solution. When Hardi Volmer directed a tongue-in-cheek documentary film about Pärn in 2005, wittily entitled Pärnography: The Man from Animazone (Pärnograafia: mees animatsoonist, 2005), mixing facts with fiction and documentary reels with animation and feature film, Volmer said that his idea was “to approach Pärn using his own methods” (Kask 2005).

Figuratively speaking, this new alphabet would have to be rhizomatic, a kind of “rhizome-alphabet.”

B as in Botany
Given that Priit Pärn has an undergraduate degree in biology and that he worked in Tallinn’s Botanical Garden from 1970 to 1976 as a plant ecologist, the botanical definition of a rhizome should be familiar to him. Additionally, however, rhizome is also a philosophical concept, a well-known model developed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (amusingly, roughly at the same time) in their often-quoted theoretical work Capitalism and Schizophrenia (published in two consecutive volumes, Anti-Œdipus, 1972 and A Thousand Plateaus, 1980). Philosophical concepts, of course, are hard to summarize in one or two sentences where there is no room for elaboration. When Gilles Deleuze agreed to give a series of consecutively televised interviews to Claire Parnet in 1988, the interviewer and the cameraman Pierre-André Boutang selected the primer format: a series of discussions took place which were structured alphabetically according to the successive themes (A as in Animal, C as in Culture, etc.), which the interviewer proposed to Deleuze instead of asking questions.

Incidentally, a book of various drawings by Pärn from 1964-2006 compiled by Toomas Kall contained a special chapter PPE, i.e. Priit Pärn’s Encyclopedia (Kall 2006: 338-58) in which the same alphabetic-encyclopedic structure was used. In fact, it appears that the initial idea already existed decades earlier. In the 1970s Pikker, a popular Estonian humor and satire magazine, published a special parody section, Käkker. Among the contributors there were also Pärn and Kall. Kall later published a kind of a spoof biographical lexicon, which said about Pärn: “A well-known artist and biologist. Started in the second half of the 1960s in Tartu in the amateur group Rajacas, and soon became one of its leading artistic figures. In the first half of the 1970s went to Tallinn Botanical Garden, achieving remarkable results in the environmental research of the Estonian SSR.” (Kall 1982: 41)

C as in Connections
Deleuze and Guattari have also written a book about Franz Kafka (Kafka: Towards a Minor Literature, 1975) where they ask rhetorically: “How can we enter Kafka’s work? It’s a rhizome, it’s a burrow.” (Deleuze and Guattari 1986: 3) They argued that all human thinking is based on the model of a vertically growing tree (with the root being the “mirror” of its crown, and all sorts of other binary ideas). In order to counterbalance this tree logic, they proposed an alternative model: a rhizome as s symbol of the multiple, a root-like system that spreads itself horizontally (without having a central “trunk” or an ideal “core”). In other words: the concept of the rhizome hints at something without a clear beginning or end.

“Literature, which is not a ‘tree,’ exists, just as music, painting, film, etc. Estonia is no different,” adds Hasso Krull in his short introduction to the philosophy of Deleuze and Guattari (Krull 1995). “For example, Priit Pärn’s animations appear astoundingly schizoanalytical and rhizome-like: Is the Earth Round?, …And Plays Tricks, Some Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life are all works where the narrative progression of a tree-structure is aligned with something much more massive and branched.” Krull follows this with a more detailed synopsis of …And Plays Tricks (…ja teeb trikke, 1978):

The Green Bear, which transforms into a hat with earflaps, a television set, a bird-cage, a flock of birds, is a plateau of intensity, which “vibrates on the surface of itself” and which is connected to social structures with multiple rhizome-like connections. There was no MTV when these cartoons were made, and it is unlikely that Pärn was familiar with schizo-analytical theories. Nevertheless, connections can be made with both and now it is a completely different rhizome. (Krull 1995: 26)

If there is one statement that Priit Pärn likes to repeat, it is an answer to one of those reoccurring questions which interviewers have asked him over the course of years: what has Priit Pärn, the animator, caricaturist and artist, learned from biology, a discipline he left behind in 1970s? And his answer has been: “In nature all things are connected.”

D as in Dilettante
However, Pärn’s status in the contemporary Estonian cultural terrain is a peculiar issue. On the one hand, he is regarded a living classic and a “poster boy” of Estonian animation, which has been one of those few branches of local film production that has been successful abroad. On the other hand, he has made no secret about his lack of formal training both in film and art, as well as his indifference towards any kind of diplomas. Additionally, Pärn’s signature style in drawing has often been described as deliberately “ugly” or unaesthetic—that is, compared to Hellenistic canons and traditional mainstream paradigms of Western art dominating until the 19th century. No doubt, raising the question of broader reception poses a paradox here: Pärn is most definitely a well-known artistic figure but is he also culturally renowned?

Pärn has always been a man who “enters art as if from some other place,” as the art critic Heie Treier (1992: 50) has quite accurately put it. Indeed, Estonian critics and journalists never forget to mention Pärn’s background as a biologist, which means they implicitly emphasize that he is entirely self-taught in matters of art. Although among the colorists and background artist in Pärn’s films there are such well-known Estonian artistic figures (i.e.artists with professional training) as Kaarel Kurismaa, Lemming Nagel and Miljard Kilk, for a long time Pärn was not regarded as one of them. And it seems that Pärn, too, has almost intentionally distanced himself from the local art scene.[4] Furthermore, it is worth stressing here that Pärn started meddling with graphic art only after he had learned the rules of caricature and cartoons, which, needless to say, were not considered as “true” art in the Estonian SSR.

Of course, with hindsight it would be easy to state that Priit Pärn gradually transformed from a so-called dilettante into a recognized professional in all of his chosen fields of activity. And this statement entails a full acknowledgment of the thoroughly interdisciplinary nature of Pärn’s body of work. Seemingly, he did not simply overcome all the difficulties in the process of institutional and professional acceptance, he simply went through those imaginary cultural barriers: his clever caricatures could be easily “converted” into scathingly witty Pop-Art-ish cartoons, and the abundance of serious allusions in the latter, in turn, into graphic art, full of references to expressionism and of surrealism with all its grotesque features.

parnA similar imagological intertwining applies to Pärn’s reception in Estonia. Again, it was a gradual process but Pärn’s reputation as an original caricaturist of the 1970s was replaced with the more prestigious halo of an award-winning cartoon maker by the mid-1980s. And it can be argued that only at the end of the decade, after the completion of Luncheon on the Grass (Eine murul, 1987), which won numerous prestigious festival awards abroad and which was described by Jaan Ruus, an Estonian film critic, as perhaps the best Estonian film ever, “an almost brilliant film” (Ruus 1992: 38), did his graphic works earn wider recognition. To put it metaphorically: it is as if the author had to become famous somewhere else (i.e. in some other country, in some other field of activity) first and only then could he slowly gain recognition here (i.e. in this country, in the chosen field of activity) as a world-class author. In this sense, Pärn’s gradual cultural recognition is symptomatic of the way in which acknowledgment is earned in a small, geographically limited cultural terrain: only the “outside opinions” are the ones that matter, and even more so if the “export sector” is marginal.

E as in Estonia
Estonia is a democratic parliamentary republic, bordered to the north by the Gulf of Finland, to the west by the Baltic Sea, to the south by Latvia, and to the east by the Russian Federation. With a population of 1.34 million, the territory of Estonia covers 45,227 km². The capital and the largest city is Tallinn. Over the centuries, the land was subjected to Danish, Teutonic, Swedish and Russian rule, followed by a national awakening in the mid-19th century. In 1918 the Estonian Declaration of Independence was issued, followed by the Estonian War of Independence in 1918-20. During World War II, Estonia was occupied and annexed first by the Soviet Union and subsequently by the Third Reich, only to be re-occupied by the Soviet Union in 1944. Estonia regained its independence on 20 August 1991.

F as in Film
In retrospect it is interesting to note how “foreign” the film medium has been in Estonian culture during the Soviet years, how “imported” the whole field has been. Unlike in fine arts or literature or theater, almost all pre-war developments in local cinema were cut short by World War II, the occupation and subsequent Stalinist repressions, as if everything went back to square one. After the war, technical know-how, finances, industrial infrastructure and ideological guidelines were all received from Moscow, and Goskino officials called the shots. Nikita Khrushchev’s “thaw” brought more Estonians into filmmaking, yet, as late as 1968 Lennart Meri, a scriptwriter of the republic’s main studio Tallinnfilm (and the first future president of the newly independent Estonia), made an oft-quoted remark: in the general cultural arena, film still remained in the role of a “great loner” (see e.g. Näripea 2006: 74).

One of the most famous anecdotes in post-war Estonian film history concerns Priit Pärn and his first encounter with the Moscow-controlled film world. Namely, Pärn was one of the anonymous stuntmen in The Last Relic (Viimne reliikvia, directed by Grigori Kromanov, 1969), a blockbuster which can be regarded as one of the most popular Estonian films of all times (Kärk 2008: 179). Whereas Pärn was evidently keener on sports than acting during his university years, the young man could only test his good physical form in a few scenes—the result of his active samba practice. Nevertheless, a curious prediction to Pärn’s future status as a “rebel” in the Soviet animation industry is well illustrated by the fact that the credits of The Last Relic mention him as Rebel No. 4.

The art director of The Last Relic was Rein Raamat, who can be considered the father of the regular production of cartoon animation in Estonia. Soon enough he distanced himself from feature films altogether and established in 1971 a subdivision in Tallinnfilm specializing in cartoons. At that time, Pärn was working in the Tallinn Botanical Garden, from time to time drawing caricatures for the cultural weekly Sirp ja Vasar, the newspaper Edasi and later also for the humor magazine Pikker. In the mid-1970s, Pärn won his first awards, among them a Grand Prix from Skopje in 1974. Roughly at the same time, Raamat offered Pärn the position of an artist in his film The Gothamites (Kilplased, 1974), alongside Kaarel Kurismaa, a pioneer of kinetic Pop sculptures in Soviet Estonia, who served as color artist on Raamat’s film. “It was just another commission, a job to be completed by a deadline,” Pärn explained later (1984: 16), commenting on his now legendary character design, which basically “stole” the whole cartoon from the director.

Next, Pärn worked as an artist on two more animations. First, his character design provided a slightly twisted moral angle to the educational purpose of A Romper (Rüblik, 1975), a film by Raamat, which was meant to instruct children to keep off the grass; yet in Pärn’s version the authorities are portrayed as wretched as the one who breaks the law. Then Pärn boldly turned Avo Paistik’s directorial work Sunday (Pühapäev, 1977) into a medley of “degenerated” Pop Art à la the legendary feature-length animation The Yellow Submarine (1968), and by doing so, effectively “heisted” another film from its director. Pärn accepted this commission as an artist under the condition that the next film would be his own and in 1976 he indeed became an artist-producer and director at the Tallinnfilm cartoon studio.[5]

After completing Sunday, Pärn’s first auteur film was Is the Earth Round? (Kas maakera on ümmargune?, 1977), for which he served as scriptwriter, director and art director. The screenplay told a simple story about travelling the world in order to see whether it is really round—quite unpretentious and innocent, as was expected from a typical Soviet children’s cartoon. Yet, the completed film was not accepted for theatrical distribution in Moscow and ended up causing Pärn a fair amount of trouble with the authorities. It could only be shown within the Estonian SSR, but was de facto banned elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Yet it is highly likely that this very cartoon—with its shockingly “ugly” and “flat” graphic design—was responsible for introducing Priit Pärn to the cinema circles of Soviet animation as a problematic, but nevertheless talented innovator.

G as in Graphics
This is how the process of metamorphosis was initiated—a process that turned a trained biologist drawing caricatures in his spare time into an animation director with a studio contract. On the other hand, Pärn has admitted that after he had finished secondary school in 1965 in the small Estonian railway town of Tapa he planned to study printmaking in Tallinn, and even attended preparatory courses at the Estonian Art Institute with this in mind, but then decided that his drawing skills were too meager and not sufficient to pass the entrance exams.

There is yet another early parallel with art: Tartu University, where Pärn majored in biology until 1970, and the group Visarid in the university’s art studio led by Kaljo Põllu, the leader of this group. Visarid exhibited between 1967 and 1972, and is one of the most legendary artistic groups in Estonian art history because Kaljo Põllu was bold enough to introduce young people to the latest trends in modern art, such as Pop Art and Op. Pärn did not belong to the group and does not consider himself much of an art lover when it comes to Visarid, but the fact remains: as Põllu has testified, Pärn was among those students who visited the studio in order to try out various techniques of printmaking. Additionally, his drawing style was much more simplified, schematic and “Pop-like” by the late 1970s than the more grotesque and “hairy” style he found for himself in the 1980s.

However, the most prominent parts of his extracurricular activities consisted of publishing caricatures and also participating in the musical-theatrical shows of the parody group Rajacas (1967-70), very popular among young people in Tartu.[6] Perhaps it is an overestimation (or a brain-teaser how to compare something with “something completely different”) but a somewhat wild parallel has been drawn in the documentary Pärnography that the shows of Rajacas were perhaps a contemporary analogue to Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-74) on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Well, at least a similar sense of absurdity connects these two groups.

H as in Humor
A characterization that keeps reoccurring when critics describe Pärn’s works is that all of them are connected by the keyword “absurd” (Latin: absurdus—discordant, pointless, silly). True, the intended effect of estrangement in his handwriting is quite obvious and it would be easy to refer to existentialist thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre who visited Estonia in 1964, or Albert Camus or Franz Kafka whose key works were translated into Estonian in the 1960s.

Overall, Pärn’s absurdities turn out to be surprisingly rational. It is almost as if he was consciously provoking his viewer by saying that any absurdity in life could be logically explained, no matter how pointless it might seem at first glance. This is, of course, an artistic stance that acquired a much more critical potential within the everyday absurdities of the Soviet system itself; as if the individual holds a mirror and the system can see its own reflection. In some sense, Pärn has always been a man to take things very seriously. “Humor is a consolation for the weak,” is one of his most-quoted statements. It is a consolation for those who cannot stand up for themselves in any other way. If someone with great authority hurts you and you cannot fight back, then you can at least make a joke out of it.

In a few interviews Pärn has stated that he considers himself lucky because he has lived both before and after the dissolution of the bipolar world system. In history such grand political changes seldom happen and it is even less likely that they take place in one person’s lifetime. Therefore, Pärn argues that his life experience is perhaps richer compared to someone of the same age living somewhere else in the world. An era, referred to as the Cold War between the Western world and the USSR and its “satellites”, ended in 1991 when Pärn was making an animated film precisely about these two systems, their visible differences and hidden similarities. Symbolically, Hotel E (Hotell E, 1992) was also produced as if between those two different socio-economical systems; it was one of the first films made in post-Soviet Estonia which managed to raise extra funds from the other side of the Iron Curtain.


I as in Iron
The concept of the Iron Curtain symbolized the ideological and physical boundary dividing Europe into two separate areas from the end of World War II in 1945 until the end of the Cold War in 1991. A long-standing symbol of the Curtain was the Berlin Wall, which fell in 1989, prompted by a set of political and economic reforms (glasnost and perestroika) introduced by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from 1986 onwards.

J as in Joke
Gorbachev came to power in 1985. The previous epoch is usually referred to as the period of stagnation, characterized by a long, gradual socio-economical slowdown. “The bolts were tightened” is a figure of speech Pärn himself likes to use to describe the atmosphere in filmmaking after the late 1970s when cinema authorities were busy leveling the charge of “adult,” i.e. artistically pretentious tendencies, at the screenplays he proposed to Goskino. But curiously enough, some of Pärn’s short films began to win festival prizes already in the early 1980s, despite the fiasco of his directorial debut Is The Earth Round? in Moscow. His next cartoon, the psychedelically “yellow-submarinesque” …And Plays Tricks, where the director experimented with all kinds of metamorphoses possible in the animation technique, was awarded several prizes, including the prize for Best Children’s Film at the 2nd Varna Animated Film Festival in Bulgaria in 1981. Next, he was able to make his third film, with a range of allusions to René Magritte, Some Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life (Harjutusi iseseisvaks eluks, 1980), which was awarded one prize in Tallinn but failed to reach international festival audiences, since the cinema officials seemingly did not approve the author’s underlying intention—to satirize bureaucracy with scenes full of mechanical and meaningless repetition. With every consecutive film he became more and more serious, closer to black humor, as was also the case with The Triangle (Kolmnurk, 1982), basically a story about preparing food but also about the routine of marriage, relationship triangles, divorces and gender stereotypes. The distribution of this animation was effectively limited because Goskino ordered only a handful of exhibition copies. And it got worse. Pärn’s next script, with the working title Luncheon on the Grass, was not put into production at all: Goskino categorically rejected the proposal. Pärn had to wait until Gorbachev’s reforms before he was be able to finally make this deeply socio-critical film.


K as in KGB
In the meantime there was Pärn’s Time Out (Aeg maha,1984), which seems to have been made just for fun, as a “time out” indeed, but it nevertheless managed to earn once again the highest prizes at international festivals with playful ease. For the author, this humorous film, which has turned out to be one of his most popular works,[7] meant another compromise with the Soviet cinema industry, as the censored and non-censored version of this film prove. At some point, according to Pärn, men in leather suits from the KGB were standing next to the editing table.

At the time, some of Pärn’s caricatures anticipated or replayed the topics of his animated cartoons. For example, in 1980 the publishing house Kunst in Tallinn published Pärn’s now legendary graphic novel Tagurpidi (if an English version existed, the translation could be Upside Down), a kind of a symbiosis of an illustrated children’s book and a comics book, which, in fact, paraphrased a lot of that surrealist-yet-serious-as-life material that was previously unused in Pärn’s animations because of bureaucratic interventions. To the reader, parallels between the book and particularly Some Exercises in Preparation for Independent Life were undoubtedly clear. Similarly, the collection of caricatures published in 1983 under the title Naljapildiaabits, another book by Pärn “officially” targeted at small children, could be viewed as a warm-up for Time Out. In 1981 Pärn started to contribute to the caricature section of the children’s magazine Täheke. He has said that his objective was to bring up a new generation accustomed to visual humor, i.e. to non-verbal rebus-like caricatures that need to be viewed and thought about simultaneously. It seems that the “occupational disease” of the plant ecologist—the need to watch something grow—was still very much present in Pärn’s blood. On the other hand, it is clear that Pärn’s animations, caricatures, illustrations and also prints—all the different techniques that he began to practice more seriously during the early 1980s—are connected to each other far more closely, regardless of the expressive format of any specific image.

A motif from a print or a charcoal sketch can come directly from Pärn’s film, or might be on its way to one of his productions, or perhaps has lost its way. For example, the comic book version of The Gothamites (published by Kunst in 1977) only partly covered the material presented in the earlier film. No matter how you look at it, you have to admit that Pärn’s activities have indeed been rhizome-like: partly not considered “true” art (caricatures, comics, illustrations), partly closer to “true” art (prints, drawings), and partly “semi-art” (animations), forming an all-encompassing network of connections distributed across the cultural terrain.

L as in Laughter
From 1976 Pärn, the “ex-biologist,” continued his work as a caricaturist and book illustrator in parallel with his filmmaking. Starting in the late 1970s and early 1980s, he also had started exhibiting his graphic art. Whether printmaking provided an escape route from the obnoxious film bureaucracy and censorship or from the routine of animation work, is another question, but probably it worked both ways. Yet it seems that Pärn’s public image was tied to his caricatures. Caricature has indeed been valued and honored in the Estonian cultural context, but it has hardly ever been considered a “true” form of art. Then again, why should it be?

The Soviet experience made Estonians appreciate caricature in literary, rather than visual categories, as caricature was subject to the Soviet (self) censorship rules that applied to everything in the public realm. Caricature was appreciated as a kind of Aesopian fable, a form of resistance packed with hints and allusions. In this sense, it was another “consolation of the weak”—the assumption that the darts of derision masterfully aimed at the authorities were visible to “us,” but not to “them,” as “they” were not supposed to understand them. Yet everyone had to understand something, regardless of that imaginary front line. If it was possible that Soviet public culture—primarily literature, but also visual arts and film—could sometimes be read between the lines (a figure of speech that is often used in reminiscences about Soviet life and its many double standards), the code would have had to be relatively open. Therefore, the author’s primary concern was to avoid direct verbalization when sending out critical messages, to leave them intentionally unarticulated and vague or ambiguous. Pärn himself has commented on these complicated games of hide-and-seek: there was no point in drawing caricatures you knew were never going to be published. In this respect, the same logic could be broadened:

“In the West many people think that in the films there was some kind of special language that those in power didn’t understand,” Pärn says. “But what would you then say? That life in the Soviet Union was bad? Everyone knew it. The message in my films was that somewhere there is a guy who thinks in a strange, different way. The absurd films were against the monolithic system. You could draw a sausage and that was a message because there wasn’t any sausage. Everyone knew it, but that was not the point. The point is that someone did it.” (Quoted by Jokinen 1998)

parnIn this respect it is not accidental that the most famous caricature by Priit Pärn was the scandalous Sitta kah! (direct translation Just Shit! but roughly Whatever! or I Don’t Give a Shit!), published in the local cultural weekly Sirp ja Vasar on 8 May 1987. What was there to see? A mean-looking man in a padded jacket (the garment could be read as a symbol of Russian, or more precisely, Soviet mentality) standing on a broken horse-led wagon (with the horse also looking weary and worn out) and using a pitchfork to throw a chunk of manure onto a ploughed field. This gesture is accompanied by a verbal obscenity from the mouth of the protagonist, symbolizing the mood of resignation, and the shape of the chunk shares a strong similarity with the contours of Estonian map. The so-called Phosphorite War was currently going on, a massive environmental campaign against the planning of new environmentally hazardous phosphorite mines in the Virumaa region. Even the local bureau of the CP Central Committee discussed Pärn’s picture. The poor Soviet Estonian functionaries were most likely not able to determine who the alleged “shit-throwers” referred to by the caricature were:  they themselves, or the central authorities in Moscow who had laid out the initial plans. This semiotic expertise at the local “White House” probably reached its climax when microscopic “onion domes” from Moscow’s Kremlin were also discovered in the caricature. As legend has it, different obscenities flew across the meeting table—all in an attempt to find a suitable Russian equivalent for the verbal part of the caricature (Lättemäe 2005), because what should they say to the bosses in Moscow?

In some frantic way, this drawing almost became part of subsequent historical events as Pärn’s caricature was widely discussed everywhere in the republic. Eventually, fearing the continuation of mass protests, the Soviet authorities dropped the mining plans. People in Estonia definitely lost some of their fear of the regime after these events of 1987. In this context it is interesting to note that after the publication of this cult caricature, which was more of a general socio-political act of protest than merely a drawing, Pärn’s activity as a caricaturist almost ceased. Pärn, who started drawing regularly in the late 1960s, has published altogether over 600 caricatures, but on average only two caricatures a year after that infamous picture (see Kall 2006: 20, 347).

Instead, these socially and politically tumultuous years found him concentrating more and more on graphic art. These new works were now less and less linked to the caricatures the author had become famous for. His charcoal drawings or prints seemed to have no narrative content, no point whatsoever—an artistic stance that Pärn the caricaturist could have never allowed himself to adopt. Yet, even here, Pärn was pursued by fame from other fields of activity: “Everyone who knows anything about art should notice that his caricatures, although drawn by the same hand, are completely different from his graphic works,” said Jaak Olep, an art critic, in 1988, only to disqualify his statement a little later, by stating, “Even so, Priit Pärn is not to be considered a conventional graphic artist.” (Olep 1988: 29)

M as in Marginality
Pärn’s commercial clip Switch Off the Lights (Kustuta valgus, 1988) for the state-owned energy company Eesti Energia won the Bronze Lion at the 35th Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival in 1988. More than twenty years have passed, yet no Estonian advertising agency has been able to repeat this achievement. Aside from that and according to chronicles, this was also the first film ever made in Estonia, which was actually shown in Cannes—although not in the program of the world-famous film festival.

Pärn’s multifunctionality as an animator and artist has definitely been a blessing on the international level, but a tough cross to bear in the confines of the conservative local art scene. It is unlikely that Pärn’s success at international festivals would have been half as great if his unique and immediately recognizable drawing style, his “handwriting,” had been more conventional and his ruthless sense of humor had been lighter. Then again, Pärn has readily defined himself as a bystander in relation to the local “serious” art circles, too. Overall, it is clear that Pärn is a creative persona who has always worked in more marginal fields than those of “high” art: caricatures, book illustration, comics, animation—and only his graphic art has been made with the context of a traditional art gallery in mind.

N as in No
In 1982 Pärn’s exhibition of eight prints and thirty five drawings was displayed in the Tallinn Art Hall Gallery. Pärn had held a few exhibitions before, but in less prestigious places compared to the Art Hall. Pärn the artist declared that he did not believe in indisputable laws of pre-determined aesthetic beauty; he added further that he saw himself in the modest role of an artist who depicted human relations. Even though Pärn’s prints and drawings were immediately praised by Jüri Hain, a renowned Estonian art historian and specialist of graphic arts (Kirt 1984: 18), the local art world was, allegedly, rather reluctant to accept him as a “true” graphic artist.

However, Pärn’s prints were also displayed at the reputable Tallinn Print Triennial in 1986 and 1989. Still, many of his newfound colleagues felt that his artworks were nothing more than technically improved and framed caricatures. This “Pärn’s no artist” attitude apparently did not concern him too much. In 1984, he became a member of the Artists’ Association of the ESSR as a film artist; this allowed him to acquire a studio space equipped with a printing press, and this was indeed the most important institutional recognition. The majority of his graphic works have been created during periods when a film project had been completed and another one not yet begun.

O as in Oh
In 1986, Pärn and several other Estonian animation artists organized the group exhibition Tallinnfilm’s Surrealists (Tallinnfilmi sürrealistid), the title also being the group’s name.[8] It took place at the Tallinn Song Festival Grounds, in a place called Tantsutare (which was destroyed in a fire in 1994). In addition to caricatures and humorous drawings and paintings, the display also included absurd gadgets that had been assembled from film props and other oddities, all of which were presented in a darkly cheery atmosphere. The exhibition was popular, but earned mostly a half-joking reception (à la “Oh so funny!”), except Harry Liivrand’s attempt to conceptualize the event from an art critic’s point of view (Liivrand 1986: 96). However, the fact that the exhibition was a sensation in “higher” art circles as well is evident from the bursts of “retro-surrealism” in the following years, for instance, the formation of the group Para ’89, led by Ilmar Malin, one of the most important “secret” surrealists in post-war Estonian painting. Surrealism was about freedom of the imagination, and for the artists of the Soviet era the question of artistic freedom was ultimately equated with the question of personal, i.e. social and political freedom.

P as in Politics
Pärn has never been a “political” artist or a politically engaged person, although his most well-known works seem to hint at a political stance, including Luncheon on the Grass, an ultra-critical backlash on the Soviet system. Moreover, his most famous caricature Just Shit! was certainly a bold act of political criticism that tested the borders of Soviet censorship, but that was as far as it went: during the late Soviet period the editors and publishers, not authors, were usually responsible for the political correctness of public material. “No one even contacted me in this matter,” Pärn has said.

However, Pärn remembers that in 1989 his very good friend Siim Kallas, one of the key figures of the Estonian political establishment of the 1990s (and currently a high-ranking official with the European Commission), asked him to join politics, but after taking part of only one bigger meeting, Pärn abandoned the idea, perhaps realizing that this was simply not his game (Kannel 1993).

Instead, in the aftermath of Luncheon on the Grass, which received its first international festival award from Finland in 1988 (Grand Prix from the 18th Tampere Short Film Festival), Pärn began to exhibit his expressively sketchy graphics more frequently: first in Finland, and then also in Central Europe. Finally filming the screenplay, which had remained on the shelf for several years, was such an exhausting process that after the completion of Luncheon on the Grass, Pärn and his color artist Miljard Kilk swore that they would never make another animated cartoon again. The piece was nearly half an hour long and the work process proved to be technically complex—with one of the scenes executed in a labor-intensive painterly style by Kilk, but the vow probably just hid Pärn’s secret desire to dedicate himself more fully to graphic art. Luncheon on the Grass earned several prizes and awards at film festivals all over the world: aside from Finland also in Croatia, China, Portugal and Australia. In 1989 the film won a “Nika,” the highest national award of the Soviet (and later Russian) film industry, basically the Russian equivalent of the Oscar.

parnDue to the liberalization of perestroika and the changes in the Soviet power elite, Pärn was permitted to make Luncheon on the Grass in 1986, although the script had been pitched to the Goskino officials in Moscow three years earlier, but without much success.[9] This opus, which was divided into five grotesquely depressing episodes and culminated in a colorful homage to Édouard Manet’s painting of the same title, continued the trilogy of serious, profound and dark films that had begun with The Triangle and ended with Hotel E. While The Triangle depicted the relationship between a man and a woman, Luncheon on the Grass dealt with human relationships within a dysfunctional empire and Hotel E finished the relationship theme with an analysis of the condition of being on the meeting point of two systems: the (authoritarian) East and the (liberal) West.

parnNext, everything went to plan. Since the late 1980s, Pärn has had over 30 personal exhibitions all over Europe and also in Canada, alongside a few modest displays in Estonia. These years saw the powerful emergence of Pärn as an active graphic artist: finally, his line had “matured.” In the mid-1990s, Pärn had been experimenting with the printing press for nearly a decade, trying out all sorts of techniques (linocut, etching, dry point, aquatint and carborundum), different formats (from caricature-sized sheets to 3x6-meter compositions) and playing with different coloring options on paper (charcoal, pastel, acrylic, gouache, coffee, tea and red wine). Yet, the first really noteworthy retrospective of his art works (mainly charcoal drawings) in Estonia took place as late as 2007—in the new building of the national museum, the Kumu Art Museum.

In the meantime, Estonia regained its independence, which had been lost in World War II. Pärn traveled throughout the world, continued to make films (of which 1895, made in collaboration with Janno Põldma, has been the most successful with fifteen awards) and also started to teach animation in various film schools and art academies outside Estonia. In 2001, the International Animated Film Association (Association Internationale du Film d’Animation, ASIFA) granted Pärn a Life Achievement Award, which is the world’s highest recognition for an animator. In 2002, Pärn was honored with a Kristjan Raud Art Award, which is the highest form of recognition for an artist in Estonia.

And that might as well be the end of the story.

Q as in Questions
Sometimes it seems that there are too many legend-like stories surrounding the works of Priit Pärn and it is difficult to distinguish facts from fiction. The truth just slips away, like sand between the fingers, leaving behind too many questions. What is the moral embedded in his body of work, what is the “core” of his art, the tree trunk of this “linden” (because this is what pärn literally means in Estonian)?

“I got nothing to say to my viewers,” Pärn replies (Kall 2007). The main thing is to create tension, he explains—both within the work, and between the work and the viewer.

R as in Rajacas
See: B as in Botany, G as in Graphics.

S as in Surrealism
See: O as in Oh.

T as in Tapa
As usual, in the beginning there were a man and a woman. Priit Pärn was born on August 26, 1946 in Tallinn. He finished secondary school in the railway town of Tapa, where his father worked. Priit was one of the few schoolboys in this small town who spoke Estonian as mother tongue, so for young Pärn his childhood was like living in two parallel countries. Soon the streets of Tapa provided Pärn with perfect mastery of Russian and, perhaps more importantly, the knowledge of when to fight and when to run. Pärn has cultivated the image of his younger self as a boy interested in sports, yearning to become, perhaps, a wrestler rather than an artist. Yet, instead of a wrestler, he became a biologist, caricaturist, filmmaker and graphic artist. He worked as a biologist only for six years. As an artist and a filmmaker his defiant dilettante nature therefore became his chief defining characteristic—as only a dilettante feels the full pressure of the need to prove himself and surprise others.

U as in USW
Und so weiter. German adverbial phrase. English translation: and so forth, and so on, et cetera. Abbreviations: usw, u.s.w. Pärn has declared that he does not understand German, although in his animation Night of the Carrots (Porgandite öö, 1998) one of the characters gives a lengthy monologue in German.

See also: Q as in Questions.

V as in Victory
See: X as in X-rated.

W as in West
See: H as in Humor, P as in Politics.

X as in X-rated
“A Soviet woman has never been shown like this!” a Moscow cinema official is said to have gasped in shock at the premiere of The Triangle. The year was 1982 and Pärn had made one of his finest works about cooking as well as adultery, which combined photo collages cut from glossy Western magazines with scenes full of groping, flying skirts and pert nipples.

“Well, now it’s done then,” answered Pärn and rebelliously refused to cut out more than one and a half seconds from his film—instead of the demanded eight minutes.

In retrospect it seems that The Triangle would have definitely been an X-rated cartoon, if the Soviet cinema industry had had such a category (which, of course, was unthinkable). For Pärn, however, this film only secured his status as a “rebel” of Soviet animation.

See also: F as in Film.

Y as in Yellow
In some regard, Pärn’s first animations from the late 1970s are reminiscent of the 1968 world-famous animated film based on the music of The Beatles. Pärn himself says he saw The Yellow Submarine somewhere in the early 1970s, “a few years after it was made,” and admits he was rather impressed, but denies being directly influenced by it, referring instead to his primary interests in Eastern European caricature. In this context it could also be said that some of Pärn’s films are influenced by the œuvre of Federico Fellini, or, that his graphic art is reminiscent of Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dalí or Otto Dix, to mention only a few predecessors. Pärn has admitted being an avid reader and a true book worm, so this list of possible sources of impulses could go on almost endlessly.

See also: F as in Film, G as in Graphics.

Z as in Znanie
As suggested in the documentary Pärnography, Pärn used to read the Russian popular science magazine ZnanieSila (Knowledge is Strength) as a school kid. Among the illustrators of that magazine was also the Estonian artist Ülo Sooster (1924-70) who played a very important part in the unofficial avant-garde art scene in Moscow and became extremely influential with his surrealistic paintings and drawings. Pärn and Sooster are also linked by the trivial fact that, despite being from different generations, they were colleagues in the direct sense of the word. Near the sudden end of his life in 1970 Sooster used to work as an artist for the biggest Soviet animation studio Soiuzmultfilm in Moscow and Pärn was hired by the cartoon division of Tallinnfilm in 1976. Sooster’s short-spanned career as a co-artist in animation started with Glass Harmonica (Stekliannaia garmonika, 1968), a film by Andrei Khrzhanovskii, which was shelved by Soviet censors until perestroika, while the 1977 directorial debut of Pärn was not allowed to be screened outside the Estonian SSR. Sooster and Pärn never met. However, they would have to stand side by side both within the context of art history and film history—or perhaps between the two.


1] This essay is based on a short catalogue text written on the occasion of Priit Pärn’s solo exhibition in Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn in 2007. It has here been thoroughly revised and expanded, and as such it represents my initial plan of presentation more accurately. For comparison, see Trossek 2007.
2] The most recent general Estonian art history from 1999 entitled A Concise History of Estonian Art only mentions Priit Pärn’s animations. For more detail, see Helme and Kangilaski 1999: 184.
3] This is a chapter about Priit Pärn in Chris Robinson’s Between Genius & Utter Illiteracy (Robinson 2003: 134-53).
4] “In hindsight, his subsequent career as a printmaker appears to have been reasonably successful, with many respectable exhibition appearances and awards, but Pärn seems to look back to it with a hint of bitterness and still considers himself an outsider in that field. His background as a self-taught cartoonist may have caused some prejudice against his prints.” (Laaniste 2009: 149)
5] Formally he was employed there until the dissolution of Tallinnfilm in 1994. By then, the Soviet Union, together with all its vassal republics and the Moscow-controlled cinema system had already become a chapter in history books. Since 1994 Pärn has worked in the Eesti Joonisfilm studio, which basically grew out of Tallinnfilm’s subdivision for cartoons.
6] According to a letter from Jaak Allik to the members of Rajacas on the occasion of their reunion concert at Viru Folk at Käsmu culture house on August 9, 2008.
7] For example, Time Out was the first among Pärn’s film that became available on YouTube (at the time of writing this essay it had scored 37,275 views).
8] The exhibition of the group—the core members in addition to Pärn were Heiki Ernits, Rao Heidmets, Miljard Kilk, Kalju Kivi, Mati Kütt, Riho Unt, Aarne Vasar and Hardi Volmer—was also displayed in the Tartu Art Museum a year later, and, under a new heading Esttranssürr, even made its way to the West (largely thanks to the good reputation of Estonian animation), namely to Finland, in 1988.
9] Mari Laaniste has written a brilliant essay on this film, so there is no need to go into detail (see Laaniste 2006).

Works Cited

Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1986) Kafka: Towards a minor literature, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Helme, S. and Kangilaski, J. (1999) Lühike eesti kunsti ajalugu, Tallinn: Kunst.

Jokinen, H. (1998) “Little big Estonia: The Nukufilm studio,” Animation World Magazine 2.11, February.

Kall, T. (1982) Ajaloo tajumine, Tallinn: Eesti Raamat.

Kall, T. (ed.) (2006) Pärnograafia. Priit Pärna joonistusi 1964-2006, Tallinn: Eesti Entsüklopeediakirjastus.

Kall, T. (2007) “Priit Pärn: Mul ei ole oma vaatajale midagi öelda,” Agent 10, pp. 12-3.

Kannel, A. (1993) “Priit Pärn: multifilm ei huvita mind enam,” Hommikuleht, 3 July.

Kask, M. (2005) “Neli kokka köögis ühe Pärna kallal korraga,” Postimees, 9 December.

Kirt, L. (1984) “Priit Pärn: olen tegutsev pessimist,” Noorus 12, pp. 16-8.

Krull, H. (1995) “Risoom ja tuhat platood,” Kunst 2, p. 26.

Kärk, L. (2008) “The Last Relic: from a genre film to a genre film,” in Näripea, E. and Trossek, A. (eds.) Via transversa: Lost cinema of the former Eastern Bloc. Special issue of Koht ja paik / Place and Location: Studies in Environmental Aesthetics and Semiotics VII, pp. 177-89.

Laaniste, M. (2006) “Eine murul. Ühe animafilmi tekst ja kontekst,” / “Luncheon on the Grass: The text and the context of one animated film,” Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi / Studies on Art and Architecture 15.4, pp. 77-95.

Laaniste, M. (2009) “Karikatuur ja/või kunst. Valdkondade vahekorrast Eestis Priit Pärna loomingu näitel” / “Cartoons and/or art: On the relationship of two fields in Estonia, based on Priit Pärn’s creative career,” Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi / Studies on Art and Architecture 18.1-2, pp. 111-50.

Liivrand, H. (1986) “Sürrealism Tallinna moodi,” Teater. Muusika. Kino 10, p. 96.

Lättemäe, S. (2005) “Kuidas tõlkida ‘Sitta kah!’?,” Maaleht, 24 November.

Näripea, E. (2006) “Film, ruum ja narratiiv: ‘Mis juhtus Andres Lapeteusega?’ ning ‘Viini postmark’,” / “Film, space and narrative: ‘What Happened to Andres Lapeteus?’ and ‘The Postage-Stamp of Vienna’,” Kunstiteaduslikke Uurimusi / Studies on Art and Architecture 15.4, pp. 55-76.

Olep, J. (1988) “Priit Pärn kunstnikuna,” Vikerkaar 10, pp. 29-38.

Robinson, C. J. (2003) Between genius & utter illiteracy: A story of Estonian animation, Tallinn: Varrak. Published by John Libbey in 2006 as Estonian animation: Between genius & utter illiteracy.

Ruus, J. (1992) “Uuendaja Pärn,” Teater. Muusika. Kino 7, pp. 38-42.

Treier, H. (1992) “Priit Pärna kodus—avastusi tema vabagraafikas,” Teater. Muusika. Kino 7, pp. 50, 96.

Trossek, A. (2007) “Risoomja alfabeedi algus: Priit Pärn ja tema looming” / “The beginning of a rhizome-like alphabet: Priit Pärn and his works,” in Komissarov, E. (ed.) Priit Pärn. Kataloog / Catalogue, Tallinn: Eesti Kunstimuuseum, pp. 12-48.
Updated: 15 Mar 10