Conversation with rector in low season

[b]Two years ago, we described you in our magazine as a well-known person in the art world. Since then, much has happened, including in your professional career. Can you summarise the major events of these two years?[/b]Of course, first of all, I’d like to highlight that my status and position has changed. I was interviewed then as pro-rector of the Academy of Arts. In 2010, I became rector. This has been a major change in my life. When I gave the interview, we chatted about training for the Venice Biennale. It took place a year ago but it remains fresh in my memory, as it affected my internal strategy. I also became a grandfather. Of course, this is not related to my professional career, but it affects me as a person. I think I’ve become softer. My purely human status has changed.
Two years ago, we described you in our magazine as a well-known person in the art world. Since then, much has happened, including in your professional career. Can you summarise the major events of these two years?
Of course, first of all, I’d like to highlight that my status and position has changed. I was interviewed then as pro-rector of the Academy of Arts. In 2010, I became rector. This has been a major change in my life. When I gave the interview, we chatted about training for the Venice Biennale. It took place a year ago but it remains fresh in my memory, as it affected my internal strategy. I also became a grandfather. Of course, this is not related to my professional career, but it affects me as a person. I think I’ve become softer. My purely human status has changed.
We meet at a time when you were extremely busy with final exams and entrance applications. How did these go and what experience have you gained?
Graduation is the most significant time for the Academy, though we also have Academy Day, New Year and other holidays. Naturally, we mark our success by the bestowing of degrees — the first qualification of our future actors, artists, film makers, designers, and art and theatre experts. Analysis of final exams is important for us and helps us form future strategies and plans. Last year, we saw wonderful works, such as a painting on the ceiling of the briefing hall at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Whose work was that?
That of former student Olga Melnik-Malakhova; last year, she graduated from the Academy. It was her personal degree work — the painting of this ceiling. It is very difficult technically and in its style, being in the realistic manner. She showed good academic knowledge of drawing, colour and composition. This year, I’d like to highlight the degree work of graphic artist Maria Zhelyazka. We always have excellent graduation works and, this year, have a unique event: the graduation of film directors under People`s Artist of Belarus Alexander Yefremov. There are five graduates, whose works have been compiled in a single anthology which we hope to screen at the Minsk ‘Listapad’ International Film Festival. I’ve watched them all very carefully and can say that they are likely to appeal to a wide audience.
Over the past two years, we’ve significantly increased our students’ opportunity to visit festivals and seminars, and to take part in internships. I’ve seen this affect results: the degree and yearly works. Our international exchange is now particularly active with the Russian Federation: with the educational institutions of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Just a week ago, we signed an agreement with the Centre for Contemporary Art in Nizhny Novgorod. This includes exchange and training programmes and lectures.
The entrance campaign is crucial to the life of any educational institution. We choose people through creative competition anonymously (they have multidigit codes), knowing nothing else about them. However, it’s difficult to look beyond those numbers and understand the person behind each work. We are selecting those who’ll become part of Belarusian culture in five or six years, if they study successfully. They are tomorrow’s professional actors, designers, artists, directors, cinematographers, playwrights and art experts. The entrance campaign is a time of extreme care, with additional responsibility placed on all staff to observe equal rights of entrance for alumni.
We use the Academy website in a friendly way to explain everything to applicants, to prevent them from making mistakes. We want them to understand the formats of drawing and painting (including which paint to use — water based or oil). It’s a complex mechanism of allowing everyone to show their abilities and talent without hindrance. Of course, it’s important to objectively evaluate their works against a whole range of criteria. In a ten-point system, each point has its own settings: all this should be taken into account.
Our small number of appeals shows that, this year, we did well in creating appropriate conditions for applicants. As always, there were independent members on the commission (who don’t work at the Academy or at specialised secondary schools). There were also representatives of the State Commission for Control over Examination Courses. Accordingly, we saw no serious complaints. More often, we heard thanks from students for making everything so clear. Sometimes, they turn to the Appeals Committee not to re-evaluate their mark, but to receive an expert opinion; they want to hear the opinion of those with vast working experience.
We’re now analysing the statistical data of the current entrance exams. I’m delighted that state places are occupied. The competition was pretty decent, with four applicants for each place. The average competition for some specialities is 5-7 applicants per place but this was even higher in Soviet times. Acting and directing saw huge competition. Our demographic situation is now different and applicants have more universities to choose from too. Foremost, I’m grateful to my team for conducting the entrance process appropriately.
It’s interesting to hear your observations on who applies to the Academy of Arts. What level of preparation do they show and are they usually convinced of their choice? Do they understand that true hard work is required?
This is a good question — crucial in many respects, as the future depends on them making a conscious choice. It’s difficult to say whether applicants are making the right decision from looking only at their entrance application but it’s clearer with actors, since they perform in front of the Commission, demonstrating singing, movement, mime and reading. Meanwhile, designers and artists perform anonymously, so members of the Commission have no idea even if they are judging a boy or girl, let alone anything else about their appearance. The Commission can’t talk to applicants about their understanding of the world or ask if they want to be an artist. We ask them later, when they are accepted. I think that, in terms of Academy development, these questions are important. In art, people’s talents develop at different rates, as it’s a very complicated process. One’s talent may be evident at 25 while another may not mature until they are 40. In the face of such complexity, it’s easy to make mistakes. This is why interviewing is the most important element.
Some enter at random but experience shows that there are few such people; most view entering the Academy as a serious philosophical step, since the profession of artist can be hard. There is so much international competition and materials are costly. You need to be a manager, and operate your own PR-department and sales department at the same time. I’m convinced that the vast majority of applicants come to us fully aware of the challenges ahead, making a well-considered decision.
Just as actors need to rehearse and directors need to have a forceful personality, sculptors need the strength to lift huge weights independently. You may be able to produce ‘contemporary’ art but physical and mental labour is essential to the creative process. Violinists play on stage after rehearsing privately; similarly, artists need to improve their skills in the studio. I hope that most of those entering the Academy have made a conscious choice. We have a low dropout rate from poor progress. Few become disillusioned regarding the profession as everyone understands that making the right choice is crucial to ensure success. Those who have made a mistake are detected very early on.
The next five years will show what this year’s applicants are capable of. It’s probably more useful to talk about our graduates. We lack enough good directors, actors and artists and, of course, it takes years for graduates to become experienced masters! However, can you tell where people have studied by looking at their technique?
Looking back in history, the Impressionists were criticised for lack of professional training; this was a common feeling in the early 20th century. Naturally, the strong traditions of a particular school create professionalism but not necessarily innovation. The latter is important, in architecture as well as in sculpture and monumental art; nothing exists in isolation, each influencing the other, ever changing. If books design changes, then printing art changes, its capabilities extending. The Internet has influenced book and computer graphics. Everything is changing. We cannot freeze in the Renaissance, Baroque or Social Realism style. Conditions change with time, which should be taken into account.
Glass apartments require different forms of decorative art while traditional ‘stick on’ bookplates are being replaced by other graphics. Graduates of the Architectural Department don’t suddenly design a bridge over the Mississippi or the Hwang Ho. They have to work their way up. The same is true for young artists and directors. Russian director Fiodor Bondarchuk has just shot a new 3D film but he is a mature master. Young people have a zest for living but they need experience too. Whether your talent is in music, theatre, sports or raising a family, you can look forward to a lifetime of learning. Graduates are shining stars but they are also only just beginning on their journey.
It does happen that some graduates never go on to achieve a true career, peaking with their graduation ‘masterpiece’. The ceiling painting at the MFA is a particular work of genius but I hope it won’t be her last. Development is crucial to the educational process. We have a networked community of creative professionals; they support one another and spur each other on through healthy competition. They represent Belarusian culture, glorifying our achievements through these artistic forms. Their work can also have economic application. The public needs art and culture; who among us doesn’t enjoy going to the theatre or cinema? Our modern world is infinitely creative, so the incentive to work, the inner desire for development, is one of the most important educational objectives.
What can I say about the professional training of young people? There is no single recipe. Even within the same profession, courses vary. Applicants also come to us with varying levels of education, depending on where they’ve gone to school. Even schools change, with the coming and going of staff. Gender can also play its part. Interestingly, we’ve noticed that those who are self-taught can be just as skilful as those who’ve attended specialised secondary schools. They can also be more individual in their approach. We’re seeing a trend that those who haven’t studied at art school can show good results — even in complex visual arts.
Has the methodology of teaching changed at the Academy or is it just the same as 15-20 years ago? Should teaching reflect contemporary trends in art?
The principle position of the Academy is to retain its creative professionalism via basic academic foundations. It`s easy to lose these — and lose your reputation at the same time. We have no desire to emulate some European institutions, which appear anonymous, with no sense of identity. It’s better to be known as being too conservative than to be faceless. We are conservative in the best sense.
We are pleased with the level of entrants at the Academy and are always employing new young teachers, who are happy to dedicate themselves to teaching, with no view to forming a reputation beyond. We aren’t turning the Academy into a monastery and don’t prevent students from experimenting with contemporary art. We regularly host exhibitions by foreign artists, in addition to those by our students and teachers. We give lectures on art history which detail the most recent trends in art and design as we believe that our students should be armed with knowledge. Teachers are also encouraged to try their hand at modern, conceptual art forms.
Our foundations remain in academic traditions though. With pride, I can say that we have never existed merely to create ‘trade’ graduates. We may be accused of being conservative but we are the Academy! We encourage debate on paths of artistic development and host various conferences. We publish collections, invite guest professionals and are open to discussing ideas with students, so there is a spirit of philosophical musing. We are part of the world around us, with a true desire to understand our place in global art but, above all, we are proud that we are the Academy!
I think that your attitude towards innovation in teaching is positive but you remain defensive of your academic principles.
I believe that it’s incorrect to ask what is innovative about today’s art since art is intrinsically creative and, thereby, innovative. There is no sense in repeating anything in art. It needs to keep changing. I believe that innovation is currently appearing through the use of different materials and tools: eco-friendly acrylic paints rather than oils and entirely different brushes from the ones we used in the 1970s. We have new materials, new canvases, new stretchers and new easels. It’s become the norm for artists to use computer technology but we must retain the essence of our professionalism through academic skills.
Foremost, I believe in the traditions created centuries ago since, in my opinion, mankind remains largely unchanged. Our clothes and, perhaps, our manners have altered but our attitudes towards good and evil remain constant. The art of the 16th century is still relevant in many respects today. For me, art has enduring relevance, without end.
Young people are always open to being influenced, especially when it comes to creative freedom. Countries which once boasted strong visual arts traditions — such as Italy, France and Germany — now lack a sense of classical realism in painting. They seem to have forgotten how to paint in the academic style. We still can, thanks to the legacy of previous generations. How are you managing to preserve our traditional skills and are you anxious for the future?
There is anxiety but it`s not a disaster. I can name many young artists working in a realistic manner. One of our young teachers, a graduate from last year called Anton Vyrva, springs to mind. He has a wonderful realistic method. We have a letter of thanks from the Ambassador of Belarus to China for the donation of one of Anton’s original works; he was able to give it to the Chinese as a gift. Probably, we shouldn’t compare art in Italy, Germany or France with that of Belarus; during the 20th century, as we were developing our art school, material and cultural values were being destroyed. This has influenced a great deal. We lack a great number of 18th, 19th and early 20th century classical works in our public buildings and galleries while some other countries have masterpieces in the smallest of district museums. Of course, WW2 left Belarus plundered of its treasures, including its architecture and, decorative arts. The Cross of Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya was stolen, among other priceless works.
Our young people’s interest in figurative art may be due to their lack of familiarity with ancient works. They are fascinated by what the West takes for granted. They desire to create things of beauty, using a range of styles: impressionism, symbolism, expressionism and currents of neo-primitivism. Surrealism in Belarusian art appeared in the 1970s-1980s, after it had already faded from fashion in Europe. I think we’ll long remain interested not only in form but in human emotions (the sphere of figurative art). In 1991, we found ourselves in a new state and began to live in it with a different outlook, as well as different living conditions.
We don’t need to paint a person; simply portray an everyday Wednesday and this will tell you all you need to know — like the portrait of Dantsig in the Great Patriotic War, which simply shows the things which are part of his life. Students are interested in new forms but I don’t think interest in full-scale, realistic art will ever fade completely. I see no reason for this.
We should also take into consideration the market situation. I visit many modern exhibitions and, even, supervise some projects; many of the works on show have no market in Belarus, where people seek skilfully made works, whether pictorial, graphic or sculptural. We shouldn’t forget that artists have to feed their families. The market does not always suit us, so we are trying to adjust to it and would love to shape it to our benefit. Buyers are bombarded with information, which influences them, changing their tastes and attitudes. I don’t see anything deplorable; rather, it is fascinating.
You supervise various international art projects. Are our Belarusian artists successful?
I believe that the participation of Belarusian artists in the Venice Biennale was very successful. We were at the heart of world events; our stand was in the centre of the Biennale exhibition. The work of Konstantin Kostyuchenko could be seen from all angles. In addition, we didn’t receive a single negative review in the foreign press. Unfortunately, unlike some other stands, we failed to show examples from 200-300 artists. The art world is huge, with many exhibitions: in Moscow, Kiev, Berlin, Istanbul and elsewhere. However, in Venice, next to the other pavilions, neither I nor my colleagues had any feeling of provincialism. We joined in philosophical, conceptual discussions.
We also predicted the choice of the Biennale chief supervisor, who showed ‘The Last Supper’ by Veronese Tintoretto (1592-1594); we showed Artur Klinov’s ‘Last Supper’. This was unexpected. We also presented a film directed by Denis Skvortsov — an artist and director by education; he began his film as a student and finished it especially for the Venice Biennale.
Everyone who took part was inspired in some way.
I know that Minsk is to host a major exhibition of contemporary art and you are involved. Can you tell us about it?
I’m involved by virtue of my office as rector of the Academy, which is taking part in the First Minsk Triennial of Contemporary Art. Victor Alshevsky is the Chief Commissioner of the event, which is being hosted by the Contemporary Art Centre — which he heads. He is an initiator of the idea and heads the preparation for the exposition. However, I have no idea what kind of art they intend to present. I don’t interfere in the work of the Commissioner, although we discuss some matters. I help where necessary and express my opinion.
The Academy will have a pavilion at the exhibition, showing its best works; we’ll present images rather than techniques.
We tend to assume that contemporary art must be avant-garde or abstract but this isn’t always the case is it? We have modern examples of realistic works. Should we take a longer view regarding today’s artists?
I don’t like to analyse contemporary works created within the past year. I believe we need to reflect after a period of five, ten, fifteen or twenty years. Some exhibitions show 17th century works, which still have modern day relevance. In Kassel, I saw the works of Sophia Kulik, a wonderful French artist of Polish origin. Self-portraits by Rembrandt were moved to make room for hers — a 21st century artist. This showed that modern works can exist alongside fine arts in museum environments; the public accepts this. The nature of modern art still inspires debate. Works created in the last three days may seem uninteresting right now but they may appeal more in the future. Modern art is that which inspires interest now.
Do you have time to paint yourself? What are you currently working on?
It is surprising but I have time. My position here has remained unchanged over the last two years. I believe that, as rector, I need to remain artistically active, since creativity is at the heart of the Academy. The teaching process is designed to promote the creation of artworks; you won’t see great results simply through theoretical learning. If I have a spare minute, half an hour or a day off, I go to my studio. Less than a month ago, I held a personal photography exhibition in Bern (Switzerland). I make time for work where none seems to exist; I don’t know how, but I can’t imagine my life without art.
Are you planning any new art projects? Your 20th Century Belarusian Book Art is very interesting, dealing with early publishing experience in Belarus.
I find the study of art to be hugely creative, although it has its own laws. I have a manuscript that I prepared even before I wrote my book about book illustrations: ‘Belarusian Fine Art of the 1980-90s’. I want to complete it and the text is almost ready. I need to collect illustrations, having used mostly my personal archive material so far. At the time, most art experts were interested in informal art, since official art was already well documented. Portraits, still life works and photography lack wider presentation so I want to explore them.
I have other plans too. The theoretical understanding of visual culture in Belarus in the second half of the 20th century is a topic which interests me; the second half of the 20th century was an intense, dynamic period, which will continue influencing art for many decades. I’d like to publish some unofficial, archive data, which is yet to be noticed by researchers.

By Viktor Mikhailov
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