Ülo Sooster was born in 1924 in Ühtri, Estonia, and died in 1970 in Moscow. An Estonian non-conformist painter, they studied at Higher Art School Pallas (1945-1948) but were arrested in 1949 in Tallinn together with a group of fellow students, and sent to a prison camp for six years in Karaganda. In March 1956, released from prison, they moved to their wife’s hometown of Moscow where they became one of the key artists of the Moscow unofficial, underground art movement. Sooster incorporated motifs from Estonian epics, including eggs, junipers and fish. Sooster was found dead in their Moscow studio in 1970, to this day the cause of death remains mysterious.
The eventful and prolific output of Ülo Sooster was only halted by the artist’s premature passing in 1970 at the age of 46. Mirroring the political upheavals of the second half of the 20th century in the Baltic States and the wider Soviet Union, Sooster stands out as a figure characterised by defiance and insistence on their artistic enquiry throughout the Soviet political turbulences. Captivated by surrealism during their studies at the Tartu Art College in the years immediately after the second world war, it proved to be a lifelong inspiration. Their studies were, however, abruptly cut short in 1949 when they were arrested and subsequently imprisoned in Karlag, the Karaganda Corrective Labour Camp, one of the largest systems of Gulag labour camps located in the steppe of modern day Kazakhstan. A large proportion of Karlag inmates were political prisoners whose free labour under Stalinism facilitated the rapid industrialisation of the Karaganda Coal Basin.
Allegedly, Sooster was, together with their fellow students, sentenced to ten years in Karlag for planning a trip to France, which was misinterpreted as an attempt to hijack an airplane. Paris was an obvious destination for young artists in the immediate postwar years, especially in the year following the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme organised by André Breton and Marcel Duchamp at Galerie Maeght in 1947. The Surrealist drawing (1955) thus testifies both to the limited material at hand and limitless imagination under the conditions of the labour camp nearly six thousand kilometres from the bohemian cafés of the Parisian Left Bank. The political thaw initialed by Nikita Khrushchev after Stalin’s death eventually put an end to Sooster’s imprisonment in 1956 when they were released and rehabilitated. Upon their release they briefly returned to Estonia and maintained lively contact with the artistic community there even after their move to Moscow the following year.
Relocation to Moscow heralded new possibilities for Sooster, now in their early thirties, not least in terms of painting, which had barely been feasible under the regime of the labour camp, and to which the painting Lips (1964) testifies. Uncannily sensual and threatening at the same time, the (genital) lips are ambiguously deformed as if in convulsion, through violence, pleasure, or perhaps both. Sooster’s Moscow period represented a somewhat eclectic style of experimentation, and Sooster quickly integrated themself into Moscow’s underground scene and intellectual milieu. Since 1960, Sooster shared a studio on Sretensky Boulevard with Ilya Kabakov, who later dedicated a monograph to Sooster, eventually published in 1996 in the US. Later, Sooster acquired their own studio in the same street, which gave name to the so-called Sretensky Boulevard Group, associated with Soviet nonconformist art. Artist studios were at the time the only uncensored venues for exchanging ideas and exhibiting works, especially after Khrushchev’s thaw reached its aesthetic limits at the Manezh exhibition hall in 1962 in an exhibition organised for the 30th anniversary of the Moscow Section of the Union of Soviet Artists, in which Sooster also participated. As a skilled draftsman, much like other nonconformist artists, Sooster took up illustration as a means of living, and treated it equally as seriously as their painting, working for the Knowledge publishing house from 1959 and illustrating over eighty books ranging from children’s books to popular science and science fiction.