The Global Invention of Art: Race and Visual Sovereignty in the Colonial Baltic World, 1860-1920

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This study examines the role of art and visual culture in the Baltic Provinces of Imperial Russia, present-day Estonia and Latvia, between roughly 1860 and 1920. This period witnessed the unraveling of a strict social hierarchy that for centuries had long incubated a Baltic German elite, while suppressing the lives and aesthetic expressions of Estonians and Latvians. After the abolition of serfdom, dramatic social, political, and cultural gains transformed possibilities for indigenous Balts, yet most scholars suggest that art and visual culture were not concomitant with the rapid progress of the era. I reveal instead how images and the ability to assume the power of image-making—what one scholar has called “visual sovereignty”—were pivotal to changing these social stratifications.

The dissertation examines the ramifications of the necessity to invent “art” when native languages possessed no word to designate “artist” or “painting” as late as 1900. Since Eurocentric models of art history have preconditioned us to accept the fine arts as intrinsically natural to society, we have no model to grapple with the reality that art could be epistemologically novel, as it was for Latvians and Estonians. Working at the intersection of art history’s global turn, postcolonial studies, and critical race theory, I extrapolate the discourses of seemingly disparate but simultaneous happenings across the globe to reveal that the art world of the colonial Baltic was a microcosm of global nineteenth-century debates about race, medium, and modernity.

At its core, the study investigates how art assumes significance for disenfranchised populations. The first chapter reveals how indigenous thinkers invented “art” in relation to their spatial experiences, from public monuments to intimate wooden chests. The second explores why photography became the most valued of all visual media, while the third contextualizes how painting, once deemed foreign and culturally irrelevant, could suddenly assume viability by the 1890s. The fourth chapter examines how native artists deployed the conventional genre of landscape painting to transcend the contingency of race in cultural production after 1905. The conclusion offers directions for global art history, revealing the planetary ramifications of Baltic coloniality.