Vasily Yasyuk celebrates 30 years of creativity and teaching
The hero of the day celebrated his double anniversary quietly with relatives, friends and colleagues, at one of the capital’s first in galleries.
I’ve met Vasily Yasyuk more than once and our interviews have always been fascinating. His views on the world are endlessly thought provoking. While being known as a master of portraits, he also works in other genres – with a romantic bent. He is known as a skilful restorer, having painted the interior of the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow, and his pictures are found in state and private collections in Belarus, Russia, Poland, the USA, Italy and Germany, Spain and France.
Prof. Yasyuk’s professional work was first mentioned in Literature and Art newspaper: it remains a souvenir in his home. The professor of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts tells us, “The most important thing for an artist is to feel a picture: its colour and composition. If there is no direction, the picture won’t go well.”
Many of his works are created ‘a la prima’: in one sitting – as Repin and Korovin often worked. Prof. Yasyuk is mentioned in books on the history of Western European art for this technique. His Christmas Still-Life, created in a single day, is so popular in Germany that most homes boast a copy; millions were printed, alongside reproductions of works by Chagall and Kandinsky.
In fact, sacks of cement brought him into the world of art. Coming from a large family, without a father, paints and brushes were beyond his means, so he worked hard, helping unload cargo. His savings then brought him to Minsk, where he gained entry to the College of Art, and the Theatre and Art Institute (today`s Academy). Vasily graduated with honours and was offered a teaching post by two departments: painting and drawing. He worked alongside some of Belarus’ most talented artists - his own teachers: Danzig and Gromyko. He continued teaching there for many years, even after becoming the director of Glebovka Art College. Today’s Academy Rector is a former student of Prof. Yasyuk.
His dedication endures, bringing many hours at his easel. He sometimes exhibits and sells his works, and is always happy to share his creative knowledge: his experience accumulated through the years. Vasily here tells us his views on the place of Belarusian painting in world art.
How would you describe Belarusian fine arts today?
As ever, they are traditional and realistic. The traditions founded by our oldest artists - Marc Chagall, Yudel Pen, Natan Voronov and Alexander Mozalev – are now embodied by such People`s Artists of Belarus as Mikhail Savitsky, Vasil Sharangovich and Leonid Shchemelev. All are inspired by our classical art, connected with nature and people. At the Academy, students often ask me my thoughts on the influence of western culture. I say that western art tends to be more abstract but originates from our realism. There is a separate art school but it is less original than our Russian and Belarusian fine arts. We’ve kept our traditions, working with nature and wildlife. I agree that exhibitions of repetitions on the same theme can be dull. Sadly, few artists graduating from our Academy can produce multi-figured compositions; it’s rather disturbing. After all, in realism, we can see abstraction. Artists should remember that people only buy their works if they appeal to them; you can’t deceive someone’s personal taste. Of course, do work on themes that interest you.
I am concerned by the influence of the Internet on art, although we do have some good artists who draw on traditional art legacy to create something new. They give us harmonious synthesis and a high level of professionalism, keeping our traditions and inspiring development in our national art. I think that our school is strong enough to support a high level.
As a teacher at the Academy of Arts, you promote realism in Belarusian painting.
Our syllabus includes landscape work, with students spending three hours daily on painting – as was conducted through the 19th and 20th century, in France, Belarus and Russia. It is obligatory; even well-known abstract artists learnt such traditional drawing and painting.
Do you ever worry that the younger generation will set aside formal art?
Yes – especially on visiting exhibitions and seeing so many monotonous, grey canvases. They spend six years learning to paint landscapes and then paint monochrome abstractions! On travelling abroad, I see interest in our traditional arts, although the fashion for formal composition is fading. I’m convinced that synthesis is needed in art. Artists should feel this in their soul. If you don’t ground your work in reality, it has no soul.
What are artists painting these days?
I’ve never ‘betrayed’ myself, having always been inspired by my native Belarus. My Academy graduation work was called ‘Edge of the Fatherland’. I now have a huge series on Ivan Kupala’s Day [a national Belarusian custom]. My ‘Kupala Night’ features about 40 figures. I have various other figurative works and I believe these show me at my full potential. If you have a good grasp of drawing, you can paint a beautiful picture – even in abstract art.
What inspires your creativity – besides the traditions of the Belarusian school?
Tradition is at the foundation, with modern trends, naturally, influencing my works. Those I created three decades ago are perceived differently today. Where we once spent a year creating a single multi-figured composition, a theme can become old-fashioned within a year. Times are changing ever more quickly and work needs to reflect current thinking. I bring bright optimism to my works, which are alive with colour. Life may bring trouble and hard times but I see the best in everything; I think it’s the right attitude for an artist. I like to paint blossoming spring; an artist’s eyes should pick out the violent colours of reviving nature. Life is beautiful – so we should perceive it so. There’s nothing wrong with idealisation and choosing to see beauty in the world.
There is a place for abstract art, undoubtedly – but I maintain that artists need to perceive with their soul. Where there is sincerity, works remain worthy of attention, despite the passing of time and various trends: even 20-30 years later.
You often travel to Europe. What do such trips give you?
My travels bring me into contact with trends in modern art. In the 18th century, a great many Russian artists travelled to Italy to work and stayed on. Travel expands your inner world and inspires new ideas. At the same time, you perceive your own country with greater emotion and nostalgia. Vladimir Mulyavin’s song lyrics state: ‘In order to understand your darling Belarus, it is necessary to visit different edges`. This is very true; on visiting the West, you want to return as quickly as possible. It’s undeniable. You become convinced that everything you’re doing is correct. Your use of colour, palette, ideas and understanding become enriched, although your roots remain. All the rest changes, giving you a huge creative charge.
Do you find your own works beautiful?
Of course I do: they are alive and interesting. It’s not just my opinion but that of the many collectors who buy my works. In Germany, 100,000 copies of my works were released; people were fascinated and bought them – not just because they were ‘pretty’.
Your works are based on Belarusian landscapes and people’s lives. You’re an international figure but your works have great local flavour.
When I was in Germany for my exhibition, visitors told me that, although I wasn’t a German artist, they liked my works. I can feel Belarusian, Polish or German. The Belarusian school is based on traditions and we have great creative potential – as becomes clear at international exhibitions. An artist should have a clear idea of their own national identity, while being able to analyse world trends.
Is today an interesting time in which to be an artist? Is it favourable?
I graduated from the Academy of Arts in 1983, so I remember Soviet days. On graduating, I immediately received a state order. Now, artists have fewer options and, in order to earn a wage, often forsake some of their true creativity.
How important are figurative images?
Looking at Belarusian art in the early 20th century, we think of Malevich and Chagall. Figurative composition is essential, although it can be combined with other elements.
Should an artist be a dreamer, looking to the future, or should they reflect on the present and past?
In reflecting on the present, you always look forward. Art differs from all else in being a step ahead, understanding everything. True art always looks ahead.
Will Belarusian art maintain its traditions?
As long as the Academy of Arts exists, our traditions will remain. Meanwhile, the more widespread art becomes, the faster the soil will yield fruit. We lack enough traditional fine artists, although our art always stands out at exhibitions and competitions. We have preserved the traditions of realism.
Changes come though?
Art should build on traditions, since it cannot exist without them. There should be interrelation between the old and new; sadly, this is becoming lost in Belarusian art. We must preserve our traditional school, to keep Belarusian art alive. I’m convinced of it. The same is true of Russian ballet, which nobody can surpass.
How do those abroad judge works by our artists?
As I’ve already said, my works and those of some of our greatest artists sold a million copies in Germany. Is this not recognition? Having my efforts stand alongside those of Chagall and Kandinsky is the greatest recognition. However, in order to reach new heights, we need to make world level contacts. Our traditions are strong, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t hold an international position, if we are promoted.
How can we encourage young painters to draw on their national traditions?
Young people need state support in the form of small orders.
How can we promote integration of modern trends and old traditions?
At the Academy, our professors – with 30 years of experience – promote this idea. We work with students, explaining the connection between modern art and what has gone before.
Where is the Belarusian school manifested in your works?
Besides painting the theme of Kupala’s Day I keep the spirit of our traditions. At the same time, I employ a wide, free manner, unlike anyone else. Artists need individuality and the opportunity to express themselves freely. You develop this over your long career. However, never forget your soul, or you’ll lose the essence of art. An artist`s soul finds expression through art.
Was it interesting to start teaching immediately on graduating?
It was interesting to remain in my sphere. Students always have new ideas and a fresh outlook, which can surprise you with its boldness. As the years pass, you can lose this.
Does the school of Belarusian painting still exist?
I think so: traditions remain in painting, graphics and sculpture, handed down from our oldest artist-teachers: Savitsky, Gromyko, Vashchenko and Sharangovich. They and their followers laid the foundations for the traditional school, with our young artists picking up the baton.
Isn’t this really the school of Soviet art?
Maybe, so – but it has retained a realistic, classical direction, attaining the highest level. Our niche is ensured; we have a place in the West and elsewhere, differing in orientation to Soviet art. Our young artists are also introducing new directions, and are influenced by world art, being exhibited in Germany and France with regularity. All Europe knows them, which is inspiring. Naturally, within a school, there can be diversity. Plain posters and air-brushed pictures are often ‘dead’, simply stating fact rather than inspiring any heartfelt reaction. Meanwhile, art arouses emotions.
Belarusian artists are arousing interest in the West but is this actually necessary?
Art should know no borders and exist outside of politics: it’s vital. Artists can be ambitious, seeking global recognition – as enjoyed today by Chagall, Malevich and Kandinsky: all of the Belarusian school. We should aim for world renown, taking part in joint exhibitions and open-air contests: the more the better. There should be healthy competition. Art will speak for itself where it has substance. That which is bad will sink to the bottom, being irrelevant and unsought after.
You’ve expressed your views concerning painting and art. How do you define your own creativity?
A professional artist should be able to provide for their family. Their freedom to create artworks exists within the boundaries of their need for popular appeal, creating what is sought after.
Which genres do you prefer?
I liked the ‘Kupalle’ series and the series of portraits of famous people, as well as the most recent works I created, which are uninhibited and life-affirming landscapes, portraits and still life works. They are a counterbalance to anything gloomy. Art should bring pleasure and lift the spirits; it’s my credo.
You can switch off a TV set but not a picture. You choose something that appeals to you and it’s constantly before your eyes – like a member of the family. I like it when my works are in good hands.
Are you an artist of the Belarusian school?
Our Belarusian school has its own appearance and differs even from those across other Post-Soviet republics. Each successful Belarusian artist has their own style but, importantly, they must keep a sense of their own soul – as I do when I paint in Germany. An artist cannot do without their soul.
An artist realises their potential through work – so it must be a distraction to take part in open-air contests and exhibitions. Is it better to remain in your studio, ever working?
Certainly, you need to work as much as possible but, to do so effectively, you need to keep your eyes open to the world and its trends, looking beyond your inner self. World art is developing rapidly and the Internet allows us to share a great deal. True art is born from communication - with nature and people, from all nations. This enriches us spiritually, and is reflected in our creativity.
At each personal exhibition, you see yourself as outsiders do and it allows you to reappraise yourself. In Germany, in 1990, we participated in an exhibition of about 50 artists, which brought home some of our weaknesses. I realised that we needed to open our eyes to the novelty of new trends. It can be hard to change your approach but dialogue is extremely important for an artist.
Which exhibitions or open-airs remain in your memory as interesting?
When you go abroad, everything is interesting. New impressions are formed and you start seeing your country differently: loving it more desperately.
I remember an open-air contest in Polish Mazury, as it was from there that we watched the international Eurovision song contest. Everyone applauded the Belarusians performing, which was a wonderful surprise. Our colleagues wanted to support us. It was amazing evidence of the way in which communication, through art, brings people together, enriching us. We didn’t feel that we were from different countries; we were part of a small world united by art. I’m convinced that true art has no borders.
We should invite artists to Belarus more often, since it would also help the tourist business. We have such beautiful places to visit and who better to appreciate them than artists. We could have a small joint exhibition in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha.
You visit Europe, and especially Germany, a great deal. From your experience, what do you think people expect from artists there?
Foremost, they expect skill; this is what allows us to compete with any artist worldwide. They also seek novel ideas. The traditions we maintain are often lost elsewhere – especially the tradition of figurative work. Our Academy of Arts has preserved its classical understanding of drawing, painting and nature, while the Dusseldorf Academy has lost it. We are known in the West for our figurative art and our landscapes, as well as our high workmanship.
The experience of our foreign colleagues, of course, helps us. Where we may have spent a month on a canvas in the 1990s, we now take just a few days. We’ve adopted a sense of freedom and a more uninhibited manner, thanks to Western influences. As long as there is a strong central direction and theme, all is well. Even small canvases can be fascinating, if they have depth. No matter how long you spend on a canvas – an hour, a year or ten years – it will be empty unless it has deeper meaning. You may paint a beautiful autumn landscape with apples, but it needs to inspire thoughts of more than just apples. It’s something that many Western artists forget.
What is the difference between a painter and an artist and which are you?
I am, of course, an artist; after that, I am a painter and a professor of the Academy of Arts. A true artist is like a director while a painter is an actor. Imagine a film boasting a magnificent cast but lacking a director: it would fail. To be an artist, you must have vision beyond what is before you.
Tell us more.
In giving a picture direction, we imbue it with multiple meanings and depth. It may be a landscape but each element within it will exist separately, drawing the eye; in addition, the canvas will inspire a certain mood. This is what I tell my students. If they don’t have this vision by their 5th year, it will never come and they will never become an artist: only a master painter. You could study for 20 years without becoming an artist, always remaining amateur. Of course, good artists also have their own style. Why is it that just three strokes by Picasso or Matisse are considered art? Because they are directors: true artists.
What unites your pictures?
Those who understand art can identify my works in a moment, because I have my own style, which is impossible to copy. Even the best artist cannot make a 100 percent copy of any work. It is not enough to simply paint a landscape; you need to make each brushstroke with the same force and with the same mood as the original artist. It’s impossible.
What else is important?
An artist should have a broad outlook rather than being confined to their own world. Travel, to see how others work. Study and accept new knowledge. Last year, I was in Hanoi and, feeling a little bored, I bought canvases and found a place in the centre of the city, where I began to paint. The Vietnamese were at once interested and a crowd soon gathered, including a television crew and reporters. It was a real event for them. They liked my style so much that the local Academy of Arts at once bought the work and exhibited it in the main hall.
How does true art differ from kitsch?
Folk art has different rules to fine art. While a true artist should express their soul, and their deepest emotions on canvas, they should also love their country and roots, with a firm concept of their native land.
Vasily Yasyuk is preparing for his 60th birthday. He promises to introduce a wide anthology of his works: from the graduation works which remain in his workshop to those kept in private collections.
By Viktor Mikhailov
30 + 30
<img class="imgr" alt="" src="http://www.belarus-magazine.by/belen/data/upimages/2009/0001-009-426.jpg">[b]Vasily Yasyuk celebrates 30 years of creativity and teaching[/b]<br />The hero of the day celebrated his double anniversary quietly with relatives, friends and colleagues, at one of the capital’s first in galleries.<br />I’ve met Vasily Yasyuk more than once and our interviews have always been fascinating. His views on the world are endlessly thought provoking. While being known as a master of portraits, he also works in other genres – with a romantic bent. He is known as a skilful restorer, having painted the interior of the Belarusian Embassy in Moscow, and his pictures are found in state and private collections in Belarus, Russia, Poland, the USA, Italy and Germany, Spain and France.