SEPP ON SEPP: A Conversation with Art Historian Eda Sepp
The art exhibit, “Peeter Sepp Colour My World,” is currently on view at Estonian House till April 17. Uno Ramat chats with co-curator Eda Sepp about the show:
How did you get the idea for the show?
Last spring, Anu [Peeter’s widow] sent me an invitation to a retrospective of Peeter’s work in Collingwood. We decided to drive up there and have a look. It was an excellent exhibit and I thought we should do this show for a wider audience.
What did you think of the work?
I was thrilled to discover this treasure trove of Abstract Expressionist art. Deeter Hastenteufel, Peeter’s friend and an artist himself, had mounted the show after storing the paintings for many years. [Sepp died in 2007.] This was a rare chance to see all of Peeter’s paintings from 1956 to 1976 together in one place.
Had you seen any of those paintings before?
I may have seen one or two, but the paintings from this period have never been publicly shown in Toronto galleries.
You share the same surname as the artist. Are you related?
I was married to Peeter’s brother for a time.
Why didn’t Sepp show this work?
Some artists put aside favourite paintings that are only posthumously discovered. This may have been Peeter’s personal collection, paintings he couldn’t part with. On the other hand, they may be paintings that didn’t sell. Only Peeter knows.
Why is this work important?
Peeter Sepp deserves to be considered a peer of Painters Eleven, the first group of Canadian Abstract Expressionists, and other artists of the time. His work compares in quality and he should be recognized as a contemporary.
Why haven’t these paintings been recognized before?
Recognized by whom? Av Isaacs, owner of the first avant-garde gallery in Toronto, knew that Peeter was a good artist. A small group of people valued his work, but Peeter himself was unsure. So he busied himself with other artistic activities. In the end, he never produced enough paintings for a show.
But there are 28 paintings here. Surely that’s enough for a show?
Take a look at Jüri Arrak’s studio. It’s crammed with work, many more than 28 pieces.
Did Peeter think he was good?
He knew his worth. But, as an officer with the Ontario Arts Council, he had to be careful of any conflict of interest. His job was to award grants to artists, so he could never include himself. He had a small group of friends that encouraged him. But for the most part, the Estonian community didn’t understand what he was doing. They didn’t appreciate the art.
But Abstract Expressionism as a movement was new in the 1960s, so most people would’ve been challenged.
Actually, abstract art started about 1911, and there were already Estonian Cubists in the 1920s. Abstract Expressionism was born after the Second World War. The point is art needs an environment in which it is accepted and appreciated. There needs to be a space for artists.
Maybe Sepp was before his time?
I don’t think so. Abstract art was long established with artists like Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich. Endel Kõks [the Estonian painter exiled in Sweden] was already painting in the abstract style during the ‘50s. But he complained that, as much as he loved abstract painting, it didn’t sell. So Kõks started adding figures into his compositions.
Do you think the Estonian community was any different from the larger Canadian society as far as the appreciation of abstract art?
The Estonian community was smaller and there were fewer art lovers. But there will always be artists.
Maybe the world is ready to appreciate Sepp now?
Well, it’s been almost 40 years. Abstract art isn’t news anymore. Then we come to the question whether the Estonian community here in Canada appreciates quality art.
That’s a million dollar question. What do you think?
I don’t think that we do. And I don’t think many Estonians go to galleries. A few go, but not many. So most of us don’t know how to look at abstract art and understand it. You have to be able to think and analyze.
What makes Sepp original?
His works are fine examples of abstract expressionism. But as far as original, you’d have to go to New York where Abstract Expressionism started after World War II. Canadian artists, like Paterson Ewen, discovered the style about a decade later. Peeter started exploring abstraction at this time, too. Artists like Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow joined the trend after New York. Peeter was part of this first wave in Canada.
Why did he stop painting in this style?
Art is cyclic, especially modern art. Other things began to interest him. He was inspired by Alfred Korzybsky’s general semantics and the ideas of John Cage. Peeter’s abstract painting had been about jazz music and feelings, but he wanted to evolve as a human being. He incorporated words into his art. Becoming a “philosopher–cartoonist,” for a while he didn’t paint at all. Instead, he experimented with different media — drawing, filmmaking, and audio experiments that he called “human co-creation.”
Maybe he had a restless mind?
I think he did. He always carried Korzybski’s books and talked about philosophy.
Abstract Expressionism is about emotion. It seems he was interested in more intellectual pursuits.
Actually, there’s a lot of theory in abstract expressionism. It’s about how you paint. About psychology you don’t want to face. About painting your feelings with a big brush on to a canvas.
But it’s not intellectual.
Hmm, I don’t know. How you paint is intellectual because you have to think it through. It’s not incidental, it’s not child’s play, there’s much more to it.
Should we look for an undiscovered masterpiece in this show?
Depends on how you define a masterpiece. I don’t think he compares to Picasso or Kandinsky but he doesn’t have to. He was a “masterpiece” in an Estonian context because we didn’t have our own Abstract Expressionist.
But does he compare with William Ronald or Harold Town?
With his best work, he belongs to the Abstract Expressionist movement in Canada.
What happens to these paintings after the show?
The paintings are for sale. I hope people buy them.
Shouldn’t the best paintings be kept together for a museum?
VEMU [Museum of Estonians Abroad, Toronto] has expressed interest in acquiring some of the paintings. KUMU [Estonian Art Museum in Tallinn] doesn’t know about this show. Yet.
But they’ll find out once they see the catalogue.
Art historians in Estonia of an older generation didn’t experience Abstract Expressionism firsthand. Being mostly underground, abstract art developed differently in Estonia. Last year, there was a major exhibition at KUMU called “The Tartu Circle and Ülo Sooster,” which introduced Estonians to post-War abstraction.
Do you think Sepp deserves a major retrospective – perhaps in Tallinn?
Yes, of course.
Who should undertake this project?
Maybe an ambitious, young art historian from Estonia. He/she would also have to research the history of the Estonian diaspora in Canada plus understand the local Canadian art scene. Quite an extensive commitment.
Nevertheless, worthwhile. I look forward to a Peeter Sepp retrospective next year or the year after.
So do I.
SEPP ON SEPP: A Conversation with Art Historian Eda Sepp Estonian Life