Raul Meel, Fires at Varbola Stronghold. 2006. Fire performance. Photo: Ly Lestberg.

Raul Meel (1941) is one of the most recognised Estonian avant-garde artists. He has been exhibiting since the beginning of the 1970s. Meel was one of the proponents of radical renewals in Estonian art that were not officially recognised during the Soviet period. Since his work erred from the approved directions in Estonian art, he was unable to accept many of the invitations from the West. He was accepted into the Estonian Artists Association only in 1987.

Meel is well-known as a pioneer of concrete poetry in Estonia, a printmaker, painter, sculptor, installation and fire performance artist, author of numerous artist books and a beekeeper – Meel is convinced that his experience with bees has pushed him forwards in his artistic practice. Thematically, Meel has continuously focused on the relationship between nature, technology, poetry and art, his art is an amalgam of visual art and literature, language, text, word, syllables and music, sound, voice, and phonemes. On the one hand, Meel’s work is characterised by aesthetic minimalism. On the other, Meel operates mainly as an artist of conceptual large-scale processes – this is how his extensive series are born, for example, the serigraphy series titled “Under the Sky” (Taeva all, 1973, 1992) is comprised of 3000 pages (63 × 65 cm each), which Meel has composed field ensembles (Raul Meel’s original term) of varying volume but of no more than 60 images.

Deviating from the norm at the Soviet time, Meel did not begin his path as an artist at the State Art Institute of the Estonian SSR but considers himself an autodidact. Meel’s artistic practice was considerably influenced by his studies at the Tallinn Polytechnic Institute (currently Tallinn University of Technology) and after discovering his calling, he was involved with the Tõnis Vint circle that played an important role in the Estonian avant-garde. Later, he had a close relationship with alternative artists in Moscow and a long-time friendship with Ilya Kabakov. Meel’s first images he created using a typewriter that are usually regarded as concrete poetry were made in 1967 during his military service in the Soviet army above the Arctic circle in Severomorsk. “Considering the Soviet context with its dire lack of international information, it is more than likely that Meel arrived at his system of concrete poetry independently, without knowing anything about the pivotal art movements in the West,” writes art historian Sirje Helme in “History of Estonian Art, Vol. 6”.

Out of Meel’s typewriter drawings grew a system, functioning still today, used to generate and develop linguistic-phonetic and visual imagery. Meel’s image-poems can be viewed as textual experimentations, based on the standardised elements of typewriters. One of the most noteworthy examples of these typewritten poems/drawings (Raul Meel’s original terminology) is “hei hoi”, also reproduced in the Polish art magazine Projekt in 1972. From Meel’s early period of concrete poetry the most notable work, often featured in exhibitions, art publications and media, is “Singing Tree” (Laulev puu, serigraphy 63 × 65 cm, 1970; typewritten drawing, 21 × 29,7 cm, 1969).

The series of prints “Under the Sky” (1973, 1992), evoking a longing for freedom, is comprised of approximately 3000 pages and based on engineer-technical graphs and the blue, black and white colour combination, that is, the colours of the Estonian flag, banned during the Soviet era. Serigraphs “Windows and Landscapes” (1986–1992, up to 100 × 160 cm) are based on the motifs of contours of the map of Estonia, barred windows, and a blue, white and black colour combination. Occasionally Meel’s work addresses social and political issues, however, he is mainly guided by the purest essence of art and poetry, a more elitist logic of progression. Meel has created numerous Constructivist works, including “Fairy Tale of Little Blue Pants” (Muinasjutt Sinipüksikesest, 1979, ten acrylic paintings on canvas, from 100 × 103 cm), depicting a dialogue of structures. And also the eight-part series of paintings “Travelling into the Green” (Teekond rohelusse, 1979), depicting a slanted line moving from left to right, and the series of acrylic paintings “Enchantment and Spirit” (Võlu ja vaim, 1988, 106 × 131 cm each), where he has used hair, sauna, laundry, garment, boot and doormat brushes to apply paint to canvas.

In 1969 Raul Meel presented the work “Dice 1–6” (1969, remake 1994) in the café of the University of Tartu, which was an artwork with an “open function”, the first of its kind in Estonia, that visitors roll in the space. Later, Meel has taken a sculptural approach when collaborating with the artist collective Non Grata – he designed assemblable iron wire geo-skeletons that were set on fire from the inside and wheeled onto the ice of Pärnu Bay. The geo-skeletons have been put to use in various installations on Meel’s Vilguti farm in the village of Pivarootsi. In the work “Estonian memorial” (Eesti memoraat, 1996–1997, 2004) Meel wrote on boulders he had collected from a field, with the help of his friends and guests, a selection of well-known names in Estonian history in blood-red paint. The boulders have been exhibited in art spaces in new configurations as installations.

From 1990–2000 Meel created several fire performances, inspired by a rural lifestyle and the primal force of nature. The fire performances held at the Varbola Stronghold near Meel’s birthplace attracted thousands of viewers. In 2001 he won the competition for international fire sculptures at the Pedvāle Open-Air Museum in Latvia.

One of the most well-known but also contested work of Meel’s from the 1990s is “Apocryphas” (Apokriivad, 1994–1997, exhibition installations, digital and printed books): collages of national flags and rough and poetic texts written on top in golden paint, that also included profanities. The series, looking at Estonia as a country, the Estonian nation and identity, was born out of a concern over developments in the newly independent Estonia, and its fate.

Meel has also presented over 300 original artist books and albums in more than 50 languages. Mainly, these are works of concrete poetry and visual and sound poetry, among them “Real Names” (Päris nimed, 1968, 1970, 1988, 1996; in the prologue of the manuscript Meel used his original terms “evident poetry” and “typewritten drawings”), his autobiography “Conspectus of the Past” (Minevikukonspekt, 2002) and “The Chicken Flies” (Kana lendab, 2004). In the city of Schio, Italy in Palazzo Fogazzaro, a permanent exhibition of Raul Meel’s work (Sale Raul Meel, 85 m²) is set up, displaying his open archive – selected artist books and albums on a digital screen and offset and digital print books, alongside large serigraph and digital images on paper, framed and protected by glass. Meel’s book “Solomon’s Song of Songs” (2010, print-run 100) is part of Herzog August Bibliothek’s collection in Wolfenbüttel in Germany and has been recognised as one of the most original and beautiful books in the world.

Raul Meel is the only Estonian artist to belong among the winners of the award of top biennials international print art (1972). He has participated in over 600 group shows, the most notable among them are the satellite exhibition of the Venice Biennale “Printmaking today” (1972); Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Arts (1971, 1975, 1977); Kraków Print Biennial (1972, 1974, 1978); “New Talents and Ideas of World of Art” in Boston, Massachusetts, USA; “Modern Masters of World Art” in Soul South Korea (1993); travelling exhibitions “Cartographers” (1997–1999); “Realities and Utopias” at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum in New Jersey, USA (2000), “Fire in Modern Art” at Pedvāle Open Air Museum in Latvia; “Books of Great Beauty” at the Roger Raveel Museum in Belgium (2011); “The Desire for Freedom. Art in Europe since 1945” at the German Historical Museum in Berlin, Palazzo Reale in Milan, Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn and MOCAK in Kraków (2012–2013); 16th Tallinn Print Triennial (1989, 2014); as an honorary guest at the international biennale “Di carta paper made” in Schio, Italy (2015); the virtual museum “Faces of Europe” (2016–2017); “Techne” at the National Center for Contemporary Art in Moscow (2018); Baltic Book Art Biennale in Saint Petersburg (2018).

Of his over 100 solo exhibitions the most notable have taken place at the Art Museum of Estonia (1989); GKM Gallery in Malmö, Sweden (1989); Kuopio Art Museum in Finland (1992), Matisse Museum in Le Cateau-Cambrésis in France (with Leonhard Lapin, 1994); Tallinn Art Hall (1993, 1997; with Ilja & Emilia Kabakov, 2004); State Museum of Western European Art in Riga (1999); Oulu Museum of Art in Finland (2000); “Estonian dialogue in Henry Van de Velde’s Art Library” in Ghent, Belgium (2010); Kumu Art Museum (retrospective in 2014, in 2017 together with Ülo Sooster, Jüri Sobolev and Tõnis Vint); Pärnu Museum (2018).

He has received numerous art awards both in Estonia and internationally: Eduard Viiralt Award (1989), Kristjan Raud Art Prize (1989), Cultural Award of the Estonian Republic (1995, 1998), the Fourth Class Order of the White Star (2007), Estonian Culture Award for Lifetime Achievement (2015), Lifetime Achievement Award of the Visual and Applied Arts Endowment of Estonian Cultural Endowment (2015); among international awards, 4th and 3rd Prize at the Kraków Print Biennial (Poland) (1972), 2nd Prize at the Frechen Print Biennial (1974), Critics’ Choice Awards at the exhibition “World Art Competition: New Talents and Ideas” (1979), South Korea´s Ministry of Foreign Affairs´ award at the exhibition “Modern Masters of World Art” (1993), Gold Medal at Biennale Internationale Di Carta (2015), Grand Prix at Baltic Book Art Biennale in Saint Petersburg (2018).

Raul Meel’s works belong to museum and private collections all over the world.

Selected projects

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