Difficult to be a centaur, when around you are only people
National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus is hosting Vitebsk Centaur exhibition of paintings and graphics by Sergey Kukhto
Exhibition by Vitebsk painter Sergey Kukhto at the National Art Museum has become a great revelation for spectators
Born in 1959, Sergey Kukhto died just after his 40th birthday, in 1999. His legacy remains, currently on show at the National Art Museum. Recollecting his childhood and sources of inspiration, Mr. Kukhto wrote: ‘I remember my mother and I once standing near the window as she drew a foal. It was painted so well that it seemed as if it were just about to jump onto its long legs. I was delighted’.
Later, while at school, he was very fond of travelling. He would leave his schoolbag at home and wander through the old city and Vitebsk’s ravines. He dreamt of becoming an artist and, by the age of 15, had a thick folder of paintings: most of horses.
In late 1970s, Mr. Kukhto wrote: ‘I want to paint a centaur with my face and body’. Thus began his affinity with the classic centaur, called by Jorge Luis Borges ‘the most harmonious creature in fantastic zoology’ in his Book of Imaginary Beings. Kukhto’s canvases showed proud Napoleon, ironic Harlequin, and the Slavic half-horse Polkan — all as centaurs.
He desired to explore conflict through the centaur, connecting man’s power (the image of the horse) with great human spirit. His centaurs differ from those of classical mythology, being expressly individual, like Sergey. His canvases display no wild sensuality, mad eroticism, ostentatious athletic muscles or popular ‘fantasy’ styling. His are simply ideals: modern centaurs. Yet, they retain some mystery.
Kukhto was most productive in the last seven years of his life, sometimes repeating plots, although interpreted differently. He did not create duplicates but often returned to themes he found exciting, in a whole series of pictures.
The mythological world created by Sergey Kukhto was far from ‘antique’ bringing new sense to the mythological. Despite his free interpretation, his images retain sanctity, having depth. He was inspired by John Updike’s The Centaur, in which past and present are mysteriously interwoven.
In his Centaur, and later in Harlequin with Wooden Sword and At the End of Winter, Sergey portrayed his centaur dressed as age-old Harlequin, wearing a bright pattern of diamonds and cocked, bi-corne hat — once popular among European, Russian and, even, American late 18th century soldiers. It emphasises special status, as explored by Paul Cézanne and Pablo Picasso in their works. Some of Kukhto’s centaurs wear their hat at a jaunty angle, as if underlining that their owner is part of the imperial retinue.
Sergey resettled his centaurs from the Greek mountains and forests to Vitebsk’s hills between the rivers Vitba, Dvina and Luchesa. He shows the expressive Slavic Polkan (the half man-horse from folk mythology) first in a cocked hat and sweater and then in a winter sheepskin coat and ear-flapped fur hat, staring wistfully into the distance, hunting, resting and listening to birds. We feel his restraint, and the powerful centaur call, against a background of deep and silent snow.
Kukhto’s centaur is a wanderer, with open spaces before him. In several pictures, the artist shows us the town hall and background fragments of Vitebsk buildings. The loneliness of the centaur is obvious, but a female-companion often appears nearby.
The artist’s first personal exhibition took place just one year after his death, featuring about 30 canvases held at that time in private collections: most were on public display for the first time. In the centre of the memorial exhibition, one easel bore his last, incomplete work — later named With Blok (1999). Mr. Kukhto had planned to present it at the next republican exhibition, in Minsk. The work, now on show at the National Art Museum, is a real epitaph, in which every element has meaning. The centaur is a self-portrait, with raised coat collar. He gazes into the distance, his right hand confidently in his pocket. On his back rides his daughter, clasping a bouquet of orange-yellow maple leaves to her chest.
One of distinctive feature of Kukhto’s works is his meticulous attention to detail — almost to the extent of creating an illusion. These canvases cannot be represented fully in a photograph. One guest wrote in the visitors’ book: ‘It is very difficult to be a centaur, when around you are only people’. We have the sense that Sergey lived his life apart from others, always slightly separate.
Today, most of his works are held abroad: in Holland, the USA, Israel, Russia, and the Czech Republic. Unfortunately, Belarusian museums have just a handful of his unusual canvases.
By Victor Mikhailov