The woman behind the windows. The life and art of Estonian stained glass master Dolores Hoffmann

Posted: Fri, 19 Apr 2024 17:37:04 UTC+3

Story by Aliide Naylor for The Beet. Edited by Eilish Hart.

This story first appeared in The Beet, a weekly email dispatch from Meduza covering Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Sign up here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

Estonian artist Dolores Hoffmann nurses a hot cup of tea in front of a crackling log fire. The walls of her studio, in a low-ceilinged medieval building in central Tallinn, are covered in vibrant artworks and sketches produced and accumulated over her decades-long career. Now 86 years old, Hoffmann broke onto the Soviet Union’s art scene in the 1960s and would become best known for her work with brightly colored stained glass. But the picture she paints of her childhood is bleak. 

Dolores Hoffmann in her studio in Tallinn

Hoffmann’s German father and Estonian mother met just before the outbreak of World War II. She was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1937, a year that would become synonymous in the Soviet Union with Joseph Stalin’s Great Terror. Though her father was an avowed anti-fascist, the Soviet authorities deemed him an “enemy of the people” (like other Germans in the USSR) and had him executed in 1938. Her mother was sent to a prison camp a few months later and six-month-old Dolores ended up in an orphanage. 

As the war raged on, Dolores was evacuated from St. Petersburg to another institution near Kostroma, some 400 kilometers (248 miles) northeast of Moscow. There, she was immersed in nature but left with little sustenance besides what she could forage. Several other children died. “I grew up in terrible hunger,” Hoffmann recalls. “We pulled sunflower seeds from horse dung and ate them.” 

Her mother, meanwhile, was released in 1941 and returned home, where she survived the siege of Leningrad with similar perseverance and resourcefulness. “They say that even during the siege, the Estonians survived better because they literally removed the leaves from the trees and knew how to put it all to use,” Hoffmann says.  

Hoffmann’s studio in Tallinn

“[My mother] found me after the war, in 1945, and brought me here [to Estonia],” she continues. By that point, Estonia was under Soviet occupation for the second time in five years (the USSR invaded and occupied the Baltic countries in 1940 and then again in 1944, with a period of Nazi occupation in between). As the Soviets attempted to consolidate their hold on the region, they used methods very similar to those Russian forces are using in Ukraine today: torture, rape, forced deportations, and the suppression of the local language and culture. 

Dolores, who learned to speak in a Russian orphanage, was eight years old and didn’t understand a word of her mother’s native language. So for two weeks after arriving in Estonia, she didn’t speak at all. “In the orphanage, we were only told that there were Germans and Russians,” she explains. 

“As soon as I found out the whole story about my parents, I became a staunch anti-Soviet, of course,” she adds. 

A forgotten piece

In the early years of the occupation, the Soviet authorities attempted to reorient Estonia’s cultural history, casting aside German and Baltic-Nordic influences and playing up the country’s geographic connection to Russia. “The Stalinist art-geographical construction was initially based on open falsification of history and the glorification of ‘great’ Russian culture,” writes art historian Krista Kodres

This policy of “Sovietization” (read: Russification) also extended beyond the art world. Hoffmann continued to speak Russian, which was compulsory in schools. But her last name from her sailor father betrayed her German heritage and her teachers never let her forget that she was a “child of enemies of the people.” As a result, she says, “I became alienated from [Soviet] political ideology more quickly than my peers.”

Dolores Hoffmann working in her studio

Nevertheless, a strong desire to make art pushed Hoffmann to work hard in school. “Apparently Estonian stubbornness and German gall are both in my character,” she says. According to Hoffmann, it was this very stubbornness that drove her to make decisions that, in retrospect, seem “just crazy” — “like the fact that I began to make church stained glass in Soviet times, as a child of ‘enemies of the people.’” 

But Hoffmann didn’t start out as a glass artist. As a university student, she studied at the Tallinn State Applied Art Institute (now the Estonian Academy of Arts), graduating with a degree in painting. Her first major work was her graduation project — a massive socialist realist fresco painted in the lobby of the Rahu Cinema in Kopli, northwestern Tallinn, in 1963. 

Named Hommik (“morning,” in Estonian), the panels show a group of angular people returning from an early morning fishing trip. The mural notably lacks any sort of Soviet imagery: there are no red stars, hammers, or sickles, just a sense of camaraderie. The characters’ faces were modeled on local Estonian cultural figures, including sculptor Jüri Palm and art teacher Evi Sepp, as well as fishermen from the Sõrve Peninsula on the Estonian island of Saaremaa. 

A panel from Hoffmann’s mural “Hommik”

Through her choice of models, Hoffmann managed to localize her work while also transcending the Soviet context. (Other Estonian artists also used this technique: Tallinn’s infamous Bronze Soldier monument, which was allegedly modeled after Estonian Olympic wrestler Kristjan Palusalu rather than a Red Army occupier, is another example.) She even managed to sneak in the face of American writer Ernest Hemingway. “It was the sixties! Hemingway was the idol of the youth! Everyone read Hemingway,” Hoffmann explains. “He had a very handsome and masculine face,” she adds coyly. 

A fragment of the artwork — the panel with the rising sun — leans up against the wall in Hoffmann’s studio, its unassuming shades of yellow and beige somewhat overshadowed by her more colorful works. The piece was salvaged from the Rahu Cinema, which was demolished in 2019 to make way for a new mall. When she heard the building was going to be razed, Hoffmann assumed the mural couldn’t be saved. “It was really a forgotten piece,” says conservator Hilkka Hiiop from the Estonian Academy of Arts, who led conservation efforts at the time. 

With the help of her students from the academy, Hiiop managed to preserve the fresco’s panels, breaking it down into sections. Some of the fragments are now exhibited in Tallinn’s Tammsaare Park Pavilion, while the others are scattered around Estonia. Hoffmann got the central fragment — “because she’s so sunny,” Hiiop says — and other panels went to the models’ relatives and other cultural figures, like pieces of a puzzle. The artist signed each one individually. 

“Usually, conservation means that you repair, you piece fragments together,” Hiiop reflects. “In this case, it was the opposite.”


Coming to faith

Hoffmann’s interest in stained glass coincided with her exploration of religion, which began when she was in university. “I came to faith in the late 1960s,” she says, describing herself as Lutheran. (Although in a previous interview with the Estonian press she proclaimed herself a “pagan, a Buddhist, and a Christian.”)

While studying art history under Estonia’s leading critic, the Odesa-born Boris Bernstein, Hoffmann learned about Rembrandt’s oil painting The Return of the Prodigal Son — a depiction of a Biblical parable that entered the Hermitage Museum’s collection in St. Petersburg in 1766. Ever curious, Hoffmann decided she wanted to read the Bible. But under the Soviet policy of state atheism, access to religious texts was restricted (so much so that Bible-smuggling was a common form of anti-regime activity in Soviet-occupied Estonia and Latvia). 

Luckily, Bernstein knew where to find a copy. “[In] the reading room of the public library, go to the shelf with Marx and Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and there’s a Bible there,” Hoffmann recalls him saying. She couldn’t take the Bible home, but she could sit in the library and read. “And I started reading it like a novel,” she says. 

Hoffmann’s stained glass in Tallinn’s Church of the Holy Spirit

After graduation, Hoffmann continued studying monumental painting techniques and took several different jobs before landing on stained glass as her medium. At first, she taught herself, using books smuggled into Estonia from Finland, writes art critic Gregor Taul. According to Taul, Hoffmann described a catalog of the stained glass windows in the Chartres Cathedral in Paris as her “Bible and ABC book.” “At that time, there were no stained glass windows in Estonia,” Hoffmann recalls. 

As art historian Kädi Talvoja points out, Estonia wasn’t an especially religious country even before the Soviet occupation. Hoffmann thinks both her parents were likely baptized, but she suspects that her Estonian mother never revealed her true religious views because of the Soviet Union’s suppression of religion and persecution of their family. 

Of the three Baltic countries, predominantly Catholic Lithuania was best known for its glasswork. And so Hoffmann continued her training there. “Soviet Lithuania had a great school of stained glass masters and it was praised at all-union exhibitions,” Talvoja explains. 

Hoffmann believes the Soviet authorities didn’t want her to travel widely on account of her status as a child of “enemies of the people.” But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was allowed to visit other Warsaw Pact countries, including East Germany — which was “full of stained glass” — and Poland, where she was “smitten” by the intricate windows in the country’s Catholic churches. From there, she went to Sweden, a “neutral” country that saw extensive social reforms in the 1970s, for an internship focused on glass painting. 

Hoffmann’s travels exposed her to a variety of Christian denominations, all of which influenced her later work, as well as her views on the relationship between art and religion. “The history of art is the history of religion,” she says. 

Hoffmann’s stained glass in St. John’s Church in Tallinn

Soviet atheism, meanwhile, was repurposing art forms often associated with religion to venerate its own ideology. “Soviet authorities saw a possibility to employ mural arts — frescoes, mosaics, as well as stained glass — for propaganda,” says stained glass expert Zydrunas Mirinavicius from the Vilnius Academy of Arts. “They saw the potential of big-scale images of workers, red flags, etc. executed in bright, luminous glass.”

Stained glass was especially popular in public buildings of that time — many of which fell into disrepair after the Soviet Union’s collapse. “A lot of stained glass pieces, as well as monumental wall paintings and mosaics, were abandoned, damaged, or totally ruined,” Mirinavicius explains. “A lot of them were in public spaces, [like] culture houses in collective farms and factories, which were closed, sold, [or] abandoned for decades, so most of these masterpieces were lost.”

A window to the world

In August 1991, Soviet troops tried to storm Tallinn’s TV tower. Estonian communications workers had barricaded themselves inside, risking their lives to protect the country’s links to the outside world as Estonia struggled to restore its independence. Seeking access to the building’s second floor, Soviet Russian paratroopers began smashing a wall of stained-glass windows, but the metal arteries held them back. “The glass can be broken, but the lead won’t let you in,” Hoffmann says. 

The windows, which have since been restored and moved to the TV tower’s south side, are the artist’s magnum opus. Titled Television is a Window to the World, the piece was unveiled along with the TV tower in 1980, a product of the drive to construct new landmarks in time for the Moscow Olympics.

Made up of vast brightly hued panes that stretch from the floor to the ceiling, it depicts reporters in the center with global events unfolding on either side. “Television is cinema — documentary cinema. I wanted to evoke that same feeling,” Hoffmann explains. 

Hoffmann’s “Television is a Window to the World”

To do so, she had to navigate the fine line between what the authorities wanted and what her artistic conscience believed would be suitable for the space. The result is a stunning combination of traditional stained glass work and glass painting, using the colors of the television spectrum. The red panels show the art world; the blue, the world of science; and the green, different generations caught in the crosshairs of history. Hoffmann’s favorite panel is set in red, with two hands reaching out to one another, not unlike the hand of God in her subsequent religious works.

After Estonia regained independence, Hoffmann had the opportunity to pursue religious themes with greater fervor — and to travel more widely. “[When] she was finally able to travel to France and showed her portfolio to glass art experts there, they were astounded that an artist working so far away in the conditions of communist rule considered herself to represent the Chartres school,” writes Taul. 

Neither Hoffmann, nor her oeuvre fit into a neat category, and her work has evolved greatly over time, incorporating elements of art nouveau, mandalas, geometric designs, the body, birds, and, of course, Christian motifs as her later work found a home in Tallinn’s churches.

Estonia’s natural landscape remains one of her primary sources of inspiration. Winding foliage, flowers, and even the northern lights appear throughout her work, which also makes intriguing use of perspective. One piece, exhibited in Lyon, France, depicts a scene from a vantage point above the clouds — perhaps that of God. “There are all sorts of landscapes here: nature, a bright summer, pine trees, and all sorts of Estonian plants,” Hoffmann says as she thumbs through her sketches. 

Today, Hoffmann’s stained glass windows can be found in religious institutions across Estonia — including no fewer than 33 churches and the capital’s synagogue — as well as in Japan, France, Finland, Georgia, and Russia. Russian energy giant Lukoil hired Hoffmann to create a stained glass cupola and windows for its Moscow headquarters in 2000.

After visiting her studio in 2010, then-President Mikheil Saakashvili (who is currently incarcerated in Georgia) commissioned Hoffmann to create stained glass windows for a number of public buildings in Batumi. Hoffmann had been considering closing her gallery due to financial difficulties when she received the first 64,000-euro commission. (Perhaps she hopes for a similar stroke of luck now; the city authorities attempted to raise her rent towards the end of last year, amid rising inflation and a dip in commissions.)

Hoffmann has her critics, of course. Taul describes her work as “cloying,” while others believe her pieces can be a jarring distraction from the architecture of Estonia’s churches. “[It creates] a kind of contradictory feeling — all this very valuable medieval architecture and then suddenly this very dominant, contemporary stained glass,” says Hiiop. 

Hoffmann’s work in the cellar of a wine bar in Tallinn

Even Hoffmann acknowledges the strange impact the medium can have. “[Stained glass] can have an effect on the brain, a stronger effect than painting or graphics,” she says, recalling a window in France with an evocative depiction of Mary in dark khaki green. “It was as if a tank was slowly coming at me.” 

She compares her own art to the rhythm in music and speaks about her works as if they were living things, constantly interacting with their surroundings despite being fixed in place. She also describes a quest for “harmony” in everything she does, an attempt to emulate the balance found in nature. But her overarching goal is for her art to forge a sense of connection. “My main mantra is, ‘connect to the person’ — no matter who they are,” she says.

Story by Aliide Naylor for The Beet

Edited by Eilish Hart

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