Pop Art in Animation Behind the Iron Curtain

The Estonian Example

Andreas Trossek
In this essay, Andreas Trossek, an art historian and critic, writes about psychedelic animation from Estonia.
Estonia, Art History, Film Studies, Pop Art, Animation, Psychedelic Art, Post-Soviet Studies, Baltic Studies, Tallinnfilm; Goskino.


Pop… Pop? Pop!

How to mix art with animation

In conclusion

Further reading



Suggested Citation


When the Second World War ended, Estonians found themselves on the 'wrong side' of the Iron Curtain, no longer part of the free world. Surprisingly enough, however, we can talk about a number of psychedelic Pop Art influenced animated films made in the 1970s in Tallinn.

At that time Tallinnfilm was the main republic cinema production studio of the Estonian SSR, both funded and ideologically controlled by Goskino, the USSR State Committee for Cinematography. Throughout the 1970s, a generation of Estonian neo-avant-garde artists, who were influenced, among other things, by Pop Art (and also by The Beatles' famous Yellow Submarine animated feature from 1968), were actively engaged in the process of making hand-drawn animated films.

Although artists such as Aili Vint (b. 1941), Leonhard Lapin (1947–2022), Sirje Runge (b. 1950), Ando Keskküla (1950–2008), Rein Tammik (b. 1947) and Priit Pärn (b. 1946) and also the background artist Kaarel Kurismaa (b. 1939) need no introduction in Estonia today, their first youth culture oriented experimentations in the field of animation have often been overlooked. However, it is clear that quite a few animations from the 1970s rightly belong to the art historical framework of Soviet Estonian Pop Art, or 'Soviet Pop' as this localised version of Pop Art is often referred to.

Pop… Pop? Pop!

In the 1990s, when local art historians were finally able to attempt writing an honest and de-Sovietised art history, the positive characteristics of 'Pop-likeness' emerged in their texts about post-war Estonian art. This enabled the presentation of some Soviet-era artworks as atypical, situating them in opposition to the dominant paradigm of Socialist realism. In retrospect, the key members of the artist groups ANK '64 (Tõnis Vint (1942–2019), Aili Vint (b. 1941), Jüri Arrak (1936–2022), Malle Leis (1940–2017) et al.), Visarid (Kaljo Põllu (1934–2010), Rein Tammik et al.) and SOUP '69 (Ando Keskküla, Andres Tolts (1949–2014), Leonhard Lapin et al.) could be considered to be both the importers and modifiers of many major trends in 20th century art, such as Pop Art, Op Art and Conceptualism, which in the 1960s and 1970s when they were young art academy graduates represented ideologically disapproved 'Western tendencies' within the cultural apparatuses of the Soviet Union.

Quite a few of those young artists were also connected with Tallinnfilm's cartoon animation unit, which was established in 1971 under the leadership of Rein Raamat (b. 1931), a professional portrait painter himself. It can even be suggested that hand-drawn animation became sort of a problem-free 'test site' for those artistic ideas that could not be fulfilled in the public/official art arena of the Estonian SSR. As a relatively peripheral field of cultural production, animation functioned as a new and empty niche, which stood both between and outside the official hierarchies of 'high art' (i.e., Soviet Socialist realism). Pop-flavoured and at times psychedelic imagery did not cause too many problems with cinema authorities, problems that would have been inevitable in the case of a public art exhibition.

As a result, instead of official exhibition spaces, a significant number of individual aesthetic programmes loaded with Pop imagery and colourful, psychedelic vibes were in fact successfully presented publicly, although in a rather peculiar medium – in animation films that were officially targeted at children. These new and weird films were screened in local cinemas and later occasionally shown on television, embedding themselves into the minds of many children… and also art-loving young adults.

How to mix art with animation

In 1972, Rein Raamat, a former feature film production designer at the Tallinnfilm studio (and who, by the way, had also been engaged in the process of making the first Estonian puppet film in 1958, Elbert Tuganov's (1920–2007) Little Peter's Dream), directed his first hand-drawn animated film. It was called The Water Carrier (1972). However, making humorous cartoons mostly for children was not exactly Raamat’s long-term goal. He had a painter's diploma himself, and the studio’s third animated release, titled The Flight (1973), featured trendy background art with Op and Pop references by the young painter Aili Vint (a member of ANK ´64).

Still from The Flight (1973). Image courtesy of Tallinnfilm / Estonian Film Archive.

The film’s soundtrack was created by Rein Rannap (b. 1953), a founder of the legendary Estonian rock group Ruja, and in hindsight, The Flight could indeed be interpreted as a music video or an abstract promotional clip. It was as close as one could get to 'yellow-submarine-sque' aesthetics in the Soviet Union at that time. The film proved to be successful, receiving an international festival award from Zagreb, and Raamat continued the pattern of hiring young ambitious artists in order to achieve a contemporary, up-to-date visual effect.

Raamat's next film, Colour-Bird (1974), was by contrast somewhat of a failure in the eyes of the film authorities in Tallinn because the artist-architect Leonhard Lapin (a member of SOUP '69) and his then-wife Sirje Lapin (now Runge) were more concerned with the rare possibility of exhibiting the aesthetics of Pop Art, rather than actually illustrating the film’s narrative. However, due to Raamat's crafty diplomacy, the film was approved in Moscow without problems – Estonian animation by then had simply acquired a good reputation. The rocking soundtrack was once again delivered by Rein Rannap.

Still from Colour-Bird (1974). Image courtesy of Tallinnfilm / Estonian Film Archive.

To this day, it remains a powerful testament to the fact that the hippie generation artists made no compromises – the result is schizophrenic to its core, falling between the categories of an experimental 'underground' art film and an educational short targeted at toddlers (teaching them primary colours). Colour-Bird was undoubtedly one of the most powerful manifestations of Pop Art aesthetics within the public space of the Estonian SSR in the early 1970s.

Raamat turned to less visually experimental solutions with the cartoons The Gothamites (1974) and A Romper (1975), which are noteworthy for their morally ambivalent types drawn up by Priit Pärn, already a celebrated caricaturist who subsequently gained widespread international recognition in the world of animation. The background colours were by Kaarel Kurismaa, a pioneer of Estonian kinetic and sound art.

The new 'Pop Art paradigm' was continued in the directorial works of Ando Keskküla (also a member of SOUP '69), at the time a well-known young 'metaphysical realist' in official artistic circles whose paintings truly brought Hyperrealism or Photorealism to the Estonian SSR. A Pop Art influenced design by Rein Tammik (a member of Visarid) was openly expressed in Keskküla's The Story of the Bunny (1975), whereas Rabbit (1976) was visually a much more mechanically 'colder' mixture of Pop Art, Hyperrealism, and photography.

Still from The Story of the Bunny (1975). Image courtesy of Tallinnfilm / Estonian Film Archive.

The music in the first film was once again composed by Rein Rannap, while the soundtrack for the second film was by Lepo Sumera (1950–2000), whose symphonic approach at the end of the film sounds rather psychedelic. In The Story of the Bunny, animated and documentary footage were fused together, so at the end, the imagery 'jumps' from a cartoonish style into a photographic register. In Rabbit, rotoscoping (the process of creating animated sequences by tracing over live-action footage frame by frame) was used. Thus we can suggest that as a director, Keskküla was interested in the same effect that attracted him to (Hyperrealist) painting: a system in which the imaginary and the real were put into a conflicting situation.