Exhibitions of the collection of American cultural historian R. PAUL FIRNHABER
Rolan Paul Firnhaber is an American writer, researcher and cultural historian now living in Estonia. His life work has involved him in the study of prehistoric art, particularly rock art and cave art left by the “ancients” over the past 35,000 years. In addition to over 30,000 photographs of prehistoric art, his 60 years of travels and work on five continents has also resulted in a modest collection of cultural art and artifacts. He brought his collections with him when he retired and moved from the USA. His collections of “findings” is periodically displayed in his “home gallery” in Viljandi.
The five galleries at Kondase Centre will feature seven specific collections – „Daumier on Culture”, „Faces”, „Textiles”, „Little objects”, „Dance of Death”, „Icons” and „Favorites”.
Honorè Daumier (1808-1879) was a popular and important artist/caricaturist during France’s 19th century struggle to become a democracy. He produced mostly stone lithographs, but for a time made wood engravings as well. Twenty of his most important engravings comprise this gallery: “DAUMIER ON CULTURE.” They were made in the 1860s as the Grand Salons and Expositions ere emerging in Paris. All are originals and are from a collection of over 170 original Daumier prints in Firnhaber’s archives.
The “FACES” gallery is a collection exemplary of a long-time fascination with portraits of people in the news and subjects of backyard fences conversations across America. Here are vintage TIME and LIFE magazine covers dating back to the 1930s, plus a selection of “8×10 glossies,” vintage silver prints from popular media originally having served as publicity photos.
“TEXTILES” displays not so much a collection but rather an accumulation of things made of fabric/textile, most from obscure places in the world. From a personal “grandma quilt” to a 6th century Coptic textile medallion to an Islamic Prayer Rug and a Tibetan Buddhist Thangka, these are things that are seldom seen together and gather only for an exhibit.
In the same gallery is a collection of “LITTLE OBJECTS” or “smalls” as the collector categorizes them. These five groupings are objects from cultures world-wide, mostly slipped into a bag or backpack and carried along home because they didn’t take up much room. They are grouped as follows: “Metal Things” that come from India, Tibet, Nepal, Africa and America, “Wood Things” from Easter Island, New Guinea, Africa, as well as grandfather Jordening, “Clay/Ceramic Things” from the Americas, North and South, and something special from ancient Egypt, “Pottery” mostly from the traditions of the Southwest American Pueblos (Hopi, Santa Clara, Acoma, etc.) and“A Few Antiquities” featuring some very old coins, clay oil lamps, pottery from ancient Holy Land, everyday Roman objects and even several Egyptian things.
The “ICONS” collection grew from a long-time interest and some serious studies in the spread of Byzantine ideas and objects as well as an academic background in the study of world religions. Orthodox Christianity was important in this dynamic and the icon was integral to it, particularly in Greece and Russia. 15-20 traditional icons are in this display, plus a small grouping of a much larger collection of cast brass Old Believer’s Icons. Here the interface with Estonian culture is visible.
Sharing that gallery is an important collection of “DANCE OF DEATH” art and artifacts. The several 16th century murals in churches and cemeteries (cf. Notke’s Surmatants in Niguliste Kirik in Tallinn), in response to the plagues and epidemics of that time, spurred the 500 year tradition that followed in Europe. In this gallery are original prints from the followers of the Holbein tradition, from the Emblem Books tradition of the same period, and from the periodic borrowing of “death-as-a-skeleton” depictions in modern renditions, particularly in response to the tragedy of wars.
The single exception is the upstairs gallery entitled “FAVORITES” which is just that: objects and art that Firnhaber has lived with for many years and are still important to him. Plus a few things only vaguely considered art, including some “found art.” Favorites!
Overall, these exhibits are not designed to represent a comprehensive view of a subject or category. Rather they display some of the collections and findings of one individual’s studies, work, travels and life. Each object in these collections can be seen as a container for histories and memories, from one person’s perspective, he considers worth keeping. For Paul Firnhaber, they are delightfully important!
R. Paul Firnhaber invites people for a museum hour every Saturday at 12 at Kondas Centre.
Paul Firnhaber and Mari Vallikivi