Study: Christian Ackermann – Tallinn's Phidias, Arrogant and Talented
Interview with Prof. Hilkka Hiiop and Dr. Tiina-Mall Kreem
- curators and researchers of the project
Hilkka Hiiop & Tiina-Mall Kreem. © Estonian Academy of Arts
— First I would like to know was it difficult to prepare an exhibition during the lockdown, how did it all happen?
Hilkka Hiiop: Sounds incredible, but we can't say that the Pandemic significantly hindered the preparation of the exhibition. Most of our active investigation campaigns — the research of Christian Ackermann's oeuvre — was done before the lockdown. When everything closed down, we had already focused on the analytical part and written texts for Ackermann's exhibition and on finalizing the monograph about the master's life, works, and meanings for later centuries.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: It is also true that Covid-19 has made the Ackermann exhibition even more important for the Art Museum of Estonia than it had been before the pandemic. Namely, the Art Museum of Estonia has been focused very much onto exhibitions with big and attractive loans from abroad last years, but due to the lockdown, it was not possible anymore. So, the museum was forced to focus more on the exhibitions that introduce and show local artistic heritage. Even more national tourism became suddenly important. And now, when the Covid-19 has started to spread aggressively again, the local people as visitors are especially important to the museum, they are actually the only hope for every museum.
Hilkka Hiiop: Still, of course, Covid-19 had also some negative impact on the preparation of our exhibition as well. For example, the conservation of one of Ackermann's most beautiful works — the crucifix of the Koeru church — was hindered seriously. Conservators simply couldn't do their work as actively as planned because the crucifix was brought from the church to the conservation studio of the Estonian Academy of Arts, but the Academy was closed due to the Pandemic. So, I as the employer of the Academy was the only one allowed to enter and was left all alone with the Christ in the empty house of the Academy.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: This made the work schedule tight. And now when it seems, that we will be ready with the show on time, the problem of Covid-19 is even more acute problem as it was in the spring. We do not know what will happen in the near future and whether people will dare to visit museums or not.
© Estonian Academy of Arts
It seemed to me that the name of Christian Ackermann is not well known in the history of art. There are practically no publications about him and not enough information on the Internet. This event will be the first personal exhibition dedicated to Ackermann?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Yes and no. In the professional sphere of the Estonian art history, the name of Ackermann is well known. At the same time, it is still quite unknown among the audience. And this is definitely one of the reasons why we started this Ackermann's research project and why we are publishing a monograph and organizing a large exhibition about Ackermann's life and oeuvre at the Niguliste Museum.
Hilkka Hiiop: The problem with Ackermann's heritage is that most of it are still in churches, where it has primarily religious function. On the other hand, this is also a great fortune — the artworks are still in their original context and authentic function. But it is not commonly realized, that except being religiously functional objects, Ackermann's carved figures and ornaments which are the best examples of Estonian Baroque art and the pearls of Estonian art history as well.
© Estonian Academy of Arts
Tiina-Mall Kreem: It's also true that Estonian art historians have mostly focused on researching art collections in museums, and there are only few specialists who are interested in artworks in churches. This is, of course understandable, as it is quite difficult to study religious art in churches without technical support. For studying such kinds of artworks, a proper team is necessary, a scaffolding is necessary, support of church congregations, and the heritage protection agency is necessary.
Hilkka Hiiop: It seems like a happy coincidence that at the end of 2016 we were able to build up such a great interdisciplinary research team. And also, I would like to add, because it is important, that it was our luck that the team acted so attractively that different organizations and individuals started to support the project.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Saving Ackermann's name out from oblivion was our main purpose. We want to popularize his oeuvre via research and via all kinds of public workshops, lectures, and excursions in the context of the project.
Hilkka Hiiop: As a result, we hope to introduce Ackermann not only to our citizens but also the international arena. His heritage is a part of European baroque culture undoubtedly.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: For sure, as a result of the 4-years project, most of the Estonians population know the name of the master Ackermann already.

© Estonian Academy of Arts
It is known that Ackermann was born in Königsberg (Kaliningrad). What do we know about Ackermann's early years?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Almost nothing unfortunately. We know only from the archival sources that Ackermann arrived in Estonia from Königsberg via Danzig (Gdańsk), Stockholm, and Riga. In 1674, he was already in Tallinn. His life in Estonia is quite well known. For example, the fact that he married the widow of a guild master and had a child with her too soon (only 22 weeks and 3 days) after the wedding — that is, in violation of the prevailing moral norms. And this was a great scandal in his times.
Hilkka Hiiop: We also know that Ackermann did not join the guild of cabinetmakers and woodcarvers, but began to act as independent master. And that was a reason why between him and the guild's masters had begun a strong struggle which finished in court. Ackermann won and got the permission to work alone, he was the first independent sculptor in Estonia.
© Estonian Academy of Arts
Why was the exhibition named "Tallinn Phidias"?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Good question, indeed. In fact, the term "Tallinn Phidias" was taken from a historical document in which the local guilds masters mocked Ackermann with such a name, hinting to his arrogant behaviour.
Hilkka Hiiop: It seemed to us that in the context of Tallinn it is very apt for Ackermann, without any irony — there was no other such a good baroque sculptor at the end of the 17th century in Tallinn and in whole Estonia.

What was the idea of antiquity in 17th century Estonia?
Hilkka Hiiop: If you mean that Ackermann was ahead of his time, then you are absolutely right. Our research work showed that many new ideas and forms arrived at local woodcarving art through Ackermann's workshop.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: For example, a naturalistic plant ornament, which could be found on the master's various works: altars, pulpits, coat-of-arms epitaphs, but also on the door portal of the merchant Hopner House, which has survived as a great rarity.

Are there any famous sculptors of that time (in this region) whose work was very remarkable apart from Ackermann? Do we know their names?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: No, there were no such remarkable masters at the Ackermann's time. There were a lot of masters, but none of them could imitate nature, human physiognomy, and anatomy so well as Christian Ackermann did.
© Estonian Academy of Arts
The main problems of sculpture, and especially of wood sculpture, that over time, it is separated from the place for which it was originally created. What is known about Ackermann's works?
Hilkka Hiiop: What is exceptional at Ackermann's case – the major part of his surviving artworks is still in their original location, that is, mostly in the functional churches. The problem, however, is that all of them have been redesigned, rebuilt, and repainted. Thus, one of the most important aims of our project was to identify and visualize the original Baroque form and colour.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Just in case, I would add that we could only examine the works that have survived. We know that many Ackermann's works were destroyed, for example before and during the Second World War.

Will the exhibition include works from the other collections or institutions?
Hilkka Hiiop: In fact, almost all the works are coming from outside the Art Museum of Estonia, largely from churches all over the country.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Only a small crucifixion from the collection of the Art museum will be displayed at the exhibition. We don't know which church it was belonged in past. Much more important that thanks to the upcoming exhibition, the crucifixion has attributed to Ackermann. It is one of the latest works of the master's creative period and it is comparable to the beautiful crucifixion of Koeru church.
© Estonian Academy of Arts
Did Ackerman have any non-religious works?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Yes, he did. Thanks to historical sources we know that he has also made decorations for carts and coffins, and we assume that his workshop produced frames of mirrors and paintings and decorations for a different kind of furniture, etc.
Hilkka Hiiop: But unfortunately, most of the non-religious works have gone. The portal of the merchant Hoppner house, which we mentioned already before is only exception. The portal, covered with elegantly carved plant ornament, is very outstanding work.

What new facts were discovered during the research?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: There was no information about the structure and technical aspects of Ackermann's sculptures so far. Surely it was very enlightening to get knowledge about the Ackermann's workshop practices, and information about his collaboration with cabinetmakers and painters, etc.
Hilkka Hiiop: We have also discovered a lot of new information about the original form and especially about polychromy of the Ackermann's work. Polychromy, as known, was an extremely important part of the Baroque sculpture.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: It is important to note that some of the Ackermann's works were re-attributed.

Tallinn Cathedral. © Estonian Academy of Arts
With whom of the sculptors could you compare the manner and style of Ackermann?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: There are actually no local masters with whom we can compare him. But, of course, we could find masters of somewhat similar quality, especially in the German and Swedish Lutheran cultural space.

Which of his works is the most valuable, in your opinion?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: Certainly, it is the Ackermann's altarpiece, originally was decorated with the initials of Swedish king Charles XI, from the Tallinn's Cathedral.
Hilkka Hiiop: Probably the biggest surprise for us was the crucifixion of Koeru Church. It is technically and stylistically equivalent to the Cathedral's altar-sculptures, but is very special in its sensitivity and surprising polychrome, which we discovered and uncovered during the project.

What expectations regarding the upcoming exhibition do you have?
Tiina-Mall Kreem: We do not expect a large number of visitors because of the lasting lockdown. For us much more important to make Ackermann's name well known again than the number of visitors.
Hilkka Hiiop: And to talk about Ackermann's works and the fate of his heritage, for the first time in the art museum's context.
Tiina-Mall Kreem: The exhibition will close at the beginning of May. But it doesn't mean that our work is done. It will continue with many pop-up exhibitions in Ackermann's "home-churches", where sculptures will return after the exhibition at Niguliste Museum.
Hilkka Hiiop: We invite everyone to visit the homepage of the Ackermann's research — Also we want to inform that the monograph about Christian Ackerman will be published by Christmas.

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