Tõnis Vint and the search for the universal visual language

Elnara Taidre

Tõnis Vint is one of the pioneers of the post-World War II period. His art practice changed significantly the Estonian art scene, influencing visual arts, graphic design, principles of interior design and architecture from the 1960s onwards

The heritage of Estonian artist Tõnis Vint (1942–2019) suggests a remarkable example of artistic thinking. Considered one of the pioneers of the post-World War II period, his art practice changed significantly the Estonian art scene, influencing visual arts, graphic design, principles of interior design and architecture from the 1960s onwards. Vint was inspired by  various artistic traditions and methods, exploring visual cultures of different regions and periods (from Ancient Celtic to Chinese, from Native American to Australian, etc.), mapping shared elements between all of them as if they were part of a common protolanguage. In the context of Soviet occupation, Vint’s activities were related to the ethics of silent resistance and a sense of mission. Using different strategies – from home lectures to the information smuggled in the book designs – he introduced the newest developments in the international art world to Estonia, as well as sharing the implications of visual and material culture not only with the narrow artistic circle, but also with the broader audience.

[All the graphic artworks by Tõnis Vint on this page belong to the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia (link here), except Room I (fourth from the top) that is part of the Tartu Art Museum’s collection. Ed]

The book The Search for the Perfect Language by Umberto Eco helps introduce Vint to a European audience thanks to thematic and conceptual intersections between the artist and the writer. [1] In his research, the remarkable Italian semiotician approached the myth-like category of the perfect language, one that was shared by all the cultures  before the Tower of Babel. He described several attempts to recreate it throughout history by including all kinds of systems, from kabala to artificial intelligence. While Eco was mainly mapping verbal perfect languages, a similar concept existed in the visual sphere too, from the Renaissance hermeneutical mysticism of Giordano Bruno to the Futurist avant-garde’s ambition to create a new and autonomous visual expression. Likewise, the practice of Tõnis Vint can be seen as the search for the perfect visual language and universal form. It is notable that Vint considered visual language as more advanced than the verbal one: he claimed that images could express complicated meanings and information in a compact, intuitively perceptible way. As the basis for his perfect visual language, Vint chose geometrical signs found in the Far-East pictorial system as well as in the ornaments of European folk art.

Tõnis Vint
Tõnis Vint, Theoretical charts from the exhibition Two Realities, 2007.
Examples of Tõnis Vint’s comparative approach to different visual sign systems.

As ornaments originally had a strong symbolic and ritual meaning, Vint focused on ornamentation of ritual items in different cultures.  He demonstrated that the patterns and the symbolism linked to meditation in Lielvārde belts from Latvia were close to Chinese artefacts or even Celtic ornaments. If this hypothesis was confirmed, it would show how the knowledge of the Universe and its processes known to the ancients survived in the traditional craft of the Baltics. Under the threat of Russification forced by the Soviet Regime, Vint’s intention was to rescue Baltic ethnographic heritage.

For his own artistic practice, Vint embraced the method of so-called psychogeometry, which was based on the Jungian conception of archetypes and proposing ideas generally regarded as positive like concentration, balance, harmony, etc. Psychogeometry was practised by Vint himself and by his students from the Studio 22 artists group, founded in 1972.

Above: Tõnis Vint. Poster Estonian Drawing (1985) and its inspiration sources, including Paolo Uccello’s painting Saint George and the Dragon (1470), interpreting the archetype of anima.

Tõnis Vint. Psycho-geometric works from the series GM. 1989.
Tõnis Vint. Psycho-geometric works from the series GM. 1989.

Tõnis Vint did not limit himself to one system. He developed multiple methods, which themselves could be considered as instantiations of the perfect language, combining them in his approach of total synthesis. For example, he used the combinatorial system of I Ching from the Chinese Book of Changes to both prove the universality of certain ornamental motifs and to create a base for his own compositions. Vint also integrated Japanese aesthetics of the void space and minimalist shapes into his project, applying them to the legendary design of his own apartment and to the iconography of his graphic works and patterns. With a certain Modernist radicalism and idealisation, Vint took elements of Japanese design such as grids of shelves, paper screens, window structures, and floor mats, attempting to make them even more “perfect”, pure and minimal.

“Travelling motives” in Tõnis Vint’s graphic works and his interior design.
“Travelling motives” in Tõnis Vint’s graphic works and his interior design.
“Travelling motives” in Tõnis Vint’s graphic works and his interior design.
“Travelling motives” in Tõnis Vint’s graphic works and his interior design.

Vint’s method of demonstrating his theories was based mostly on visual analogies and could  function without textual comments. His attempt to create purely visual art history with “no words” could be compared to Aby Warburg’s project of picture atlas Mnemosyne from the 1920s. Despite the fact that Vint was not acquainted with Warburg’s writings, there are lots of common features in their approach: a certain “anachronism,” the inclusion of objects from visual culture beside the fine arts, etc. The structure of Mnemosyne has been interpreted in terms of montage and motion, attempting to make the analogies between images more suggestive. [2] This approach is also found in Vint’s film The Belt of Lielvārde belt (1980, Riga Film Studio, director Ansis Epners), where the artist used cinematic language for the same purpose, demonstrating in a very dynamic way the similarity of different signs, allowing them to “grow” into each other.

[Here and here are two links to the documentary The Belt of Lielvārde, scriptwrited by Tõnis Vint,1980, Riga Film Studio. Ed]

Tõnis Vint’s project was a synthesis of different approaches, all relating to the idea of perfect visual language. He did not just collect curiosities, but actively participated in the artistic and  cultural discourse, significantly expanding the usage of images and the visual sphere. In this respect, Vint’s publications should be situated close to projects such as André Malraux’s Le Musée imaginaire or Georges Didi-Huberman’s Atlas: How to Carry the World on One’s Back, themselves sharing a common lineage. In addition, Vint’s method shares many elements with a few artistic strategies of the late 20th and 21st century, providing a contemporary context for his practices. For example, the atlas form was used by several contemporary artists such as Christian Boltanski, Gerhard Richer, Ilya Kabakov and Mikhail Chemiakin, thinkers who were again occupied with the search for a universal visual language.

Studio 22 members at lectures at Tõnis Vint’s home. The second half of the 1980s Photos: Tõnis Vint (photo above) and Ene Kull. Tõnis Vint’s archive.
Tõnis Vint at his home-studio in Gonsiori St. The first half of the 1980s Photos: Ene Kull. Tõnis Vint’s archive.

[1] Umberto Eco. The Search for the Perfect Language. Fontana Press, London, 1997.

[2] Philippe-Alain Michaud, Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion. Zone Books, New York, 2004.

March 21, 2022