The artist’s ex-libris for his own books reflects Evald Okas’ favourite themes


In 1985, the Estonian academic, painter and graphic artist Evald Okas designed a bookplate for himself which seems to reflect the designer’s world in exactly the way he verbally describes his delight in art, and in it he manifests at least part of the sources behind his art.


            In the bookplate there is his own portrait, drawn with more powerful lines than the surrounding themes. In the background a number of female figures hover around. It is in these figures that the artist’s lively manner of depicting such figures can be seen. Another characteristic feature, from which you can recognize Okas’ style, is the text in the picture. “Female figures are my favourite motifs”, the artist confesses.


            There is a host of variations of these figures in the bookplates designed by Okas. Some are dressed in light, crčpe-like material – others are totally naked. By a simple drawing – and, in fact, just by plain lines – he will often express all he has to say. However, in the bookplates which depict various dresses throughout history, Okas has, with changing shadows, created endless variations. The same manner of expression also characterizes the bookplates which have been designed following his trips to Japan.


            Okas has travelled a lot during his career as an artist. This can be seen in all his artistic production, not only in the bookplates.


            In the book ‘Eksliibris ja Evald Okas’ by Villem Raam (published in 1986) you will find one of Okas’ bookplates from 1985. In this bookplate, he sketched the profile of his world within bookplates. In the book there are bookplates with Kalevipoeg, the hero of the Estonian national epos, with variations of female figures, expressing something important. Unfortunately, says Okas, the book is out of print.



Made to be given as a present, the bookplate is always an artwork


         The bookplate is, taking everything into consideration, just a narrow window into the artist’s whole production. Okas says that he has designed more than 3,000 bookplates, but cannot recall the exact number. He has not kept a register of the bookplates. The major part of his production has been produced with traditional means of graphic design, but some of the bookplates have been drawn by hand – a practice, he says, he is very fond of.


            The wishes of the person who ordered the ex-libris have been taken into account. However, when designing a bookplate as a present, he lets his imagination freely take control. He wants it to become an artwork.


If the bookplate has been ordered by a musician, the ex-libris contains at least an element referring to music. And, again, if it is for a doctor, something essential associated with his profession is included. “I often used to design a bookplate as a present, and that’s when I can make it just the way I like it. I have even drawn bookplates the size of a book – I think the book deserves to contain an artwork”, the artist insists.


            The bookplate collector Kalevi Aalto from Vantaa, Finland, owns Okas’ Bookplate Book, and in it he has a unique bookplate: Okas has drawn it into the book itself. For the collector this is a special treasure. Okas is a friend of his and the plate fits one of his favourites themes of collection. Here again, the motif on the bookplate is a female figure. It was designed in 1989.


            Okas also designed a bookplate to Kalevi Aalto, depicting Kalevipoeg. Could it be that the common Christian name has given the inspiration? Aalto is not the only Finn who has a bookplate designed by Okas. The artist says that he has designed hundreds of bookplates for Finns, but the majority of his ex-libris have been designed for Estonians.


            Okas designed his first ex-libris in 1932. For some reason, there followed a pause, but the artist returned to bookplates later on. While teaching at the Tallinn Art Academy, he produced, apart from his job, small-scale artworks. Bookplates fitted splendidly there.


            Among his pupils he found kind persons, who willingly printed his designs. However, until the printing stage, all those thousands of bookplates were entirely designed and made by Okas. He has drawn, made sketches and engraved into metal.


            Drawing is, according to the artist, an indispensable condition to confer individual quality to the making of pictures. He urges young students to draw – even after having done so already. He picks up even the smallest pieces of paper just to have something to draw on.



Feelings into every stroke of the brush


         Okas considers that even one stroke a day of a paintbrush can be the key for an artist to start creating, provided that he puts feeling into it. Just a glance at Okas’ own creations makes you see that they contain a strong emotive content – although sometimes quietly expressed.


   In the autumn of 2005 the artist had a retrospective exhibition of his paintings in Tallinn. It simultaneously was the festive exhibition in honour of his 90th birthday. When the artist placed himself in front of a recent painting for a photo, he happened to choose a painting with a scene immensely full of feelings. The painting shows the revolution.


   You could see the true scale of various feelings throughout the whole walk around the exhibition. Another thing that you could sense was the change in the society, but also the way the artist pays regard to man in the middle of all. One of the walls was full of minor paintings. There was something that makes you think of bookplates.


   The creative power has not gone anywhere, it is just that the sharpness of the sight has diminished, says the artist. It does not make it easier to work with smaller art pieces, which require accuracy. He could show a bluish painting at his study waiting for the final touch. And, of course, there is a woman also in this painting.



Large paintings in small sections


         Okas has a workshop in a house owned by the Estonian Artists’ Society in the centre of Tallinn. There he still works daily. To say the truth, he also has a studio at home, but it is so crammed with his paintings that it is scarcely fit for painting.


            However, it was there that Okas made his eight-metre-long painting about the revolution, but in sections. To be able to get them to fit together, he had, from time to time, to carry them out onto the street to be able to see the whole picture. In the exhibition, you will see that a painting can successfully be made that way, too.


            Okas has made large paintings earlier as well. For example, he mentions the work on the ceiling of the Estonia Theatre, which required three painters’ joint efforts. Okas is the only survivor from that trio. The ceiling painting includes some portraits. People are abundantly present in his works: Okas exhibited a picture into which he painted the faces of one hundred people. He is there, too, one face in the crowd.


            You can only wonder when the artist had the time to create all those bookplates – even taking into account that his active life as an artist stretches over several decades. A question one might ask is what kind of future does bookplate art have in his home country? Ex-libris exist within the Estonian pictural scene in such a small alveole that newcomers have  difficultyto find it. “Young artists are not interested in bookplates. My students will still design some, but many of them are also retired by now.” Okas remarks.


   As far as artists are concerned, it seems they have quite a different retirement age from that of ordinary people. As to Okas, there seems to be no limit to his work. His creative strength is unimpaired, although his art career goes back to the 1930s.



Leila Lehtiranta


English translation: Juha Lehtiranta