Grigory Sitnitsa reflects upon the personality of an artist, his creative essence and place in society and the role of the Belarusian Union of Artists
Let’s talk about the activity of the Belarusian Union of Arts. What are its goals and priorities?
We’re a public association, governed by a mission statement: to create, preserve and promote Belarusian fine arts. This is exactly what we do. We also help creative people to fulfil their potential, giving assistance in the form of material aid and in solving organisational issues.
Isn’t the Union rather old-fashioned? Why do we need it?
Our Union hasn’t outlived its usefulness, as we’ve moved with the times. We no longer harbour any ideological content and try to correspond to contemporary conditions, meet the needs of modern life. Firstly, we reflect society’s artistic and creative needs. Taking into account these requirements, we sometimes have to defend our corporate interests as well. Life is constantly presenting us with new challenges.
Over the past two years, Belarus has hosted numerous arts exhibitions, particularly in the capital. Obviously, the Union can take credit for this. What guides you in organising such events?
First of all, exhibitions are just part of our routine. However, you are right in noticing that we’re organising far more of them these days. It’s a trend which has become more visible in recent years. I don’t want to be too modest so would dare to say that this is largely owing to the efforts of today’s management. Together with Vladimir Savich and Sergey Timokhov, I’ve decided to head the Union. We want to inspire creativity — which we feel has stagnated to some degree. We’ve decided to sacrifice our own creative freedom to make this happen. I believe we’ve achieved a great deal, not only in terms of the number of exhibitions, but also in terms of their quality. We’ve initiated an annual biennale in painting, graphic art and sculpture and have begun arranging international exhibitions, more actively inviting our neighbours from abroad. We’re currently preparing an exhibition of Ukrainian artists; this follows one entitled ‘Together’, which we organised a while back, involving domestic and foreign artists. We pay a lot of attention to open air events and are organising far more personal exhibitions — which we see as our primary task.
When Vladimir Savich [Chairman of the Belarusian Union of Artists — author] was grounding his election campaign, the first word in his programme was ‘creativity’. With all the opportunities that life gives an artist, he should always be guided by creativity. As long as we manage the Union, we’ll never give up on our mission to drive forward the creative process.
To what extent has the Union succeeded in preserving the continuity of creative generations? Are young people striving to join or do you hear them question the need for a union?
First of all, I believe both personally and as a leader of the Union that preserving the continuity of generations is of paramount importance. When this continuity is broken, we often see large problems: both professional and ethical. I’m sure that the ethical aspect of creativity is of no less significance than the professional. Naturally, the continuity of generations should exist. It’s true that the Union is more popular among older members, because they have known it all their lives and helped found this organisation. Today, the Union helps them where possible, including giving material aid. We support many of our elderly artists, pay for their studios. Interestingly, there are a great many young artists up and coming. We’ve significantly increased the level of professional qualifications needed for admittance to the Belarusian Union of Artists. For junior membership, you need to have had at least five national exhibitions (held by the Belarusian Union of Artists, with a jury). For final admittance to the Union, you should have taken part in ten national exhibitions, in additional to all others. Our aim is to somewhat limit the number of our members, to admit only the most prominent professionals. There is a constant flow of applications, but we accept only a few. Young artists don’t ask ‘Why do I need membership?’. They see that the Union arranges interesting events and covers exhibition costs. It’s worth mentioning that we don’t ask for state funding; rather, we pay for ourselves. Of course, we receive some state support. We pay lower rents for our premises and organise joint campaigns with the Culture Ministry. I may boast without any hesitation that, soon after commencing our work, in a three month period, we tripled the Union budget. The aid given to artists has increased six-fold. There is much to be proud of. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that we have no problems but we are tackling them. Young people realise that friendship with the Union is a professional approach. It signifies that you have been recognised by your colleagues — which counts for more than a mere diploma.
Today, many Belarusian artists work independently. Are they seen as a loss to the Union or do you just accept that they have their own lifestyle?
I welcome all manifestations of the arts within our Union and beyond. Many friends of the Union, including myself, live individual creative lives. I’ve arranged numerous personal exhibitions upon own initiative, quite apart from the Union. However, I always emphasise my Union membership. Most artists take part in private exhibitions and open air events outside the Union. Events organised by non-Union-members are also welcomed, but I can’t mention any significant achievements there. I can hardly quote any bright arts event which takes place outside the Union. Perhaps, I’ve missed one, but I do try to follow everything that’s happening quite diligently! When we encounter any budding young artists, we welcome them. Of course, I believe they are better off within the Union. It’s been many years since there’s been creative dictatorship associated with the Union.
Does the Union limit the freedom of artists in any way? Perhaps there are some general rules which restrict creative initiative?
There have been absolutely no limitations for a very long while. I understand where this question comes from. When we look back to the remote 1950-60s, ideological restrictions existed which primarily guided style. If an artist wanted to explore some publically significant topic, he couldn’t use a cubist style, for instance. It was obvious. Think of Israel Basov, Olgerd Malishevsky, Nikolay Tarasikov, Victor Sakhnenko, Leonid Shchemelev and Mai Dantsig. They were the most prominent individuals of their time, capable of showing their full potential. When I mentioned the 1960s, I meant the early years; from the mid 1960s, this fixed control over artists reduced steadily.
By the early 1980s, I was being impressed by bright youth exhibitions. At that time, it was much easier to gain recognition against a background of traditional art works. Most of these were unusual in themselves; it wasn’t difficult for young artists to become noticed. They were considered interesting. I viewed them as innovative and extraordinary and strived to be like them. I can assure you that I’ve never witnessed any ‘diktat’ and can’t recall any example of the Union limiting my creative freedom. I’ve only ever been limited by myself, by my own conscience. I believe in art being personal. I would never allow myself to do anything, however beautiful, which would contradict my fundamental moral values. Every artist should have a certain self-restraint, just as any civilised person should; there is a threshold that should not be passed. As far as the Union is concerned, we never limit initiative. In fact, we try to inspire young artists. This year, we organised a youth exhibition. Opening the event, I hoped to see more daring. I wanted to see the unexpected but I was disappointed. This is why I compare the present days with the early 1980s. It turns out that it was much easier to be dazzling against a background of academic art.
In the Union, we expect our artists to be more experimental, to look at world trends and enlighten themselves intellectually. The intellectual development of an artist is a separate conversation. Even the most skilled professional is limited in their world outlook if they are ignorant of modern theatre, classical and contemporary music and classical literature. To my greatest regret, I often talk to colleagues and realise that they haven’t read a single book recently. You understand that they’re unlikely to create anything significant. In my view, knowledge is the basis of creativity.
The life of the creative community must be quite different from what it was ten or twenty years ago. What has been lost and what has been acquired in these decades?
Naturally, time passes and so does the creative process, which is deeply connected to social and political processes that are part of our everyday life. We are tied to life — you can’t close yourself away in your studio to create something. In recent decades, we’ve seen losses and acquisitions. Losses are mainly felt in academic education. We’re doing our best; I mention myself because I taught in the College of Art for 20 years. We’re trying to preserve the old academic school since, without it, we won’t achieve any serious creative results. You don’t have to strictly adhere to an academic style and, after graduating, you can do whatever you like. However, when I see a drawn line, I can easily say whether it was drawn by a professional or by an amateur. Anyone who thinks that an abstract image hides the absence of good teaching is sadly mistaken. It’s obvious to me: when Anatoly Kuznetsov [a Belarusian vanguard painter with a good academic education] creates an abstract work, I know immediately that it’s been done by a master. I could cite many others. When I see an abstract work created by an untrained hand, it’s quite obvious — although the artist may honestly believe that he has compensated for his lack of skills.
Many young people think that a computer can do everything for them, but this is naпve and far from the truth. A computer can create an outer effect, but it cannot convey emotion. It cannot make my mistake or repeat my sorrow. Today, I may be in a good mood; tomorrow, I may feel differently. I may make a mistake, but this brings a certain emotional note into my work. A computer cannot do this, no matter how you strive. A computer cannot create poems of genius or compose music like Mozart or Stravinsky. One of our losses is our reluctance to study as we did, which required 15 years of education. However, we’ve gained open borders, the Internet and the ability to travel to any exhibition taking place worldwide. All are tremendous opportunities. At the same time, they are a double-edge sword.
In travelling the world, it’s easy to be led into believing that you should conform to world trends. I don’t deny the benefits of innovation in art; I welcome new ideas and techniques. However, I believe art should be highly professional and ethical while showing some national characteristics. When I attend, for instance, the graphics triennale in Polish Krakуw, I see that the Germans create the same kind of works as the Czechs, who are the same as the Koreans. I recollect the words of Boris Zaborov [our prominent artist who lives in Paris]. He said that the modern vanguard is like water spread on glass: from Lisbon to Vladivostok, water spreads in the same way. I understand the sense of these words. I’d much prefer to be able to see difference in art from Japan, France or elsewhere. The fact that each is different appeals to me. I remember Soviet exhibitions in Moscow where you could easily tell which nationality had created each work: some by Lithuanians and others by Latvians. They lived in the same region but were cardinally different. The same was true of Estonians, Belaru-sians, Armenians and Georgians…
You could immediately recognise their national art schools.
A significant advantage is our access to the wider world, to intellectual products and informational freedom. Simultaneously, a major disadvantage is that, when we don’t know how to use this product, we put on different masks. Only a sober mind and analytical world outlook can help an artist know their own mind. What is useful to me, destroys my creative spirit. Frequently, young people start by trying to be something different to what they really are. Of course, they have this right and freedom, but they don’t create anything which will last for eternity.
To what extent do you, as a member of the Union’s management, believe that you’ve achieved good results in recent years? In what have you failed and what are your plans for the future?
As one of the leaders of the Union, I think that we’ve achieved a lot, primarily in the field of preserving the Union as a creative structure. Before taking on the responsibilities of Union management, we saw that this establishment was on the verge of disappearing. Over recent years, we’ve almost eliminated this threat. The issue really isn’t pressing any more; in fact, our Union is dynamic. We’ve done so much materially, significantly increasing our resource base, repairing buildings and studios and rebuilding Minsk’s Palace of Arts. We’ve greatly improved living conditions for artists. A lot has been done, but even more is to come. Many tasks require large sums, which we’re fighting for. Also, new problems must be solved as they appear.
Today, Belarusian artists have more freedom in terms of their participation in foreign exhibitions. Do they strive to take part in as many exhibitions as possible?
People have different aims, but when an artist creates something, he should show it to the world: at the least to his colleagues but, ideally, to the entire planet. This is why the participation of Belarusian artists in foreign exhibitions is of paramount significance. I personally take part in many events and I realise that I’m representing not only Sitnitsa but all of Belarus. However private the artist’s project is, he is still perceived as a delegate of his native country and of its people. Everywhere, the nationality of the artist is emphasised. Naturally, any artistic initiative supporting the authority of our Union and of our country should be supported.
What is your personal attitude towards the participation of Belarusian painters in the Venice Biennale next year? What should their concept be and how important is it that Belarusian artists take part, as they do in other international exhibitions?
I’ll answer this with great pleasure. Naturally, Belarus should be present at the Venice Biennale. Besides Venice, we should participate in many other similar exhibitions: the Istanbul Biennale, Berlin’s World Forum, Krakуw’s Graphics Triennale — there are dozens worldwide. Not everybody understands what the Venice Biennale is. Many think that it’s like the Olympic Games for fine arts. It is at first glance, but not in reality. There are no fine arts in the traditional sense and no drawn pictures. For instance, you might see a pile of wood called ‘Composition No.12’. It’s a very interesting world forum that is today called ‘real’ art but I object to the term, because it assumes that ‘non-real’ art also exists. What is ‘non-real’? Surely, that which is ‘real’ is that which is interesting and popular. Is contemporary art in demand? Is it interesting and understandable to most people? Undoubtedly, this is not the case. We may call it the art of modern technologies and I don’t mean to automatically infer that I don’t accept it. However, there are many works that I don’t accept. At the Moscow Biennale, one artist was slashing an icon. In my view, it wasn’t art; it was barbarity…
We think that we’re wanted; that’s why we should go. However, I don’t agree that we should correspond to the format. I’m sure that the creative process lies outside any limitations; a format implies a standard. I must repeat that we should attend the biennale in Venice, since we should promote ourselves everywhere possible. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t feel bad that we don’t go to every event worldwide; there are ethical limitations. I’d never cut an icon or do anything else against my conscience but I’d like to see our art brought more up-to-date, making it interesting to the entire world. This doesn’t mean that we should turn into clowns or do something Satanic for the sake of attention.
Today, many artists are affected by having lost the national arts school. What can be done to preserve traditions in art in general, and in painting particularly?
What can be done? Teaching and explaining to young people by example. As an older artist, you are interesting to the young. I hope I was interesting for my students; I felt we had complete understanding. Those studying to become artists, or who have already earned their status follow the same rules. We should take care to preserve the national school, since it’s a school of professionalism. Anyone who believes in the redundancy of professionalism is sadly mistaken. No one would go to a non-professional dentist. We even choose from well-educated dentists. Why would we trust non-professionals in this field?
At the same time, I accept what we call ‘naпve’ or ‘folk art’. It lies beyond professional boundaries but often yields genius results. We know that such prominent painters as Van Gogh, Modigliani and Yazep Drozdovich never had an academic education. We don’t deny this but recognise their minority; 99 percent need education. This is why I strongly advocate preserving the school. At the same time, the school shouldn’t limit creative freedom or artistic development. We should teach an artistic outlook, encouraging an artistic intellect. Without these, even professional knowledge won’t help. Half of an artist’s work is down to professionalism and the remainder is intellectual development. The idea guides you in life, pushing you and keeping you awake. There are very few people today working for the sake of the idea, yet they exist. It is this group of individuals from whom I expect results. The artist lives in such people. Their will, character, ability to exert control and refuse the unnecessary combine with other factors to create an artist. Unfortunately, I know dozens of talented men who have failed to become real creators because one component was missing.
With all your public responsibilities, you must have little time left for creating your own art — yet you are an artist… a very good graphic artist. How do you manage to stay ‘artistically fit’? What are you working on today?
Undoubtedly, my public duties take much time and effort but, as long as I have power, I’ll never leave myself to rot. Sacrificing many other things, I keep my professionalism. Savich, Timokhov and I agreed that we’d work for the Union but also work at our studios. We take part in the most significant exhibitions since we must lead by example; we show creative activity. I really try to do my best.
Alongside graphic art, I’m interested in literature; I’ve already published some of my poetry and essays. I’ve earned two literary awards for the best publications of the year. I work everywhere I can, even on public transport. It’s my salvation. I’m very strict with myself. Afraid of ridicule, I didn’t publish my works until I turned forty; I was then persuaded by our famous poet Rygor Borodulin. Just after my first work was shown to the public, it was recognised as the best poetry publication of the year. Several years afterwards, I received the same accolade for a different edition. I am strict with myself since I don’t think you should present anything publicly that you’d be ashamed to put your name to. When I saw that well-recognised literary men were treating me as their colleague, I let myself show my works to a wider audience. I’ve never regretted it. I give many presentations, which I enjoy doing. Recently, I gave a speech in Slonim, where I was invited to the gymnasium to speak to around 200 people. Unfortunately, I can’t accept all invitations due to time constraints.
What is the creative credo of artist Grigory Sitnitsa?
My credo is to nurture professionalism, morals and national characteristics. These are the factors guiding me. It’s good when professionalism and ethical values meet commercial success, but it should never be the main goal. I try to balance these virtues and strive to subdue all my work to the idea. For me, the idea of Belarusian national art, of a national renaissance for Belarus, is sacred. My entire life and work is guided by it. So, it is also part of my creative credo.
What role does graphic art play in our modern world? Has it undergone any transformation?
Graphic art as a fine art is undoubtedly witnessing some change. It has certainly proven itself to be fully-fledged, significant and unique but, naturally, it is transforming. In the 1980s, we had engraving, lithography and drawing; today, the range has incomparably extended. It’s very difficult to define the line between graphics and painting. For instance, graphic artist Vladimir Savich is much more of a painter than many other painters. Eventually, he began oil canvas painting. I have acrylic works on canvas which I don’t see as paintings, although they follow the necessary criteria. I personally consider all of these works to be graphic art. Nowadays, the borders are vague. In my view, this is good, since it extends our scope. In a word, graphic art is still alive, growing and developing. We’ll soon see many interesting innovations.
What topics have you recently touched upon in your works?
Of course, I stick to topics which are in some way related to Belarusian histo-rical, ethnographic or folk artefacts. I’ve already mentioned how important this is for me. I’m looking for some underlying philosophical sense to life. I’ve created a large series, entitled ‘Walking along the Fence’, in which I’ve explored the idea that even a village fence can become a modern work of art. I limited myself, to keep it from becoming a landscape. It’s an educational, documentary product while symbolising the balance between reality and abstraction. I enjoyed playing with it. I have another series, ‘Subjective Reality’, which depicts huge baskets. It’s not a still-life though; rather, it has some metaphysical essence.
Two years ago, I arranged my own exhibition, entitled ‘Gaspoda: Subjective Reality’, at the National Art Museum. Later, I showed it in Gomel, at Rumyantsev-Paskevich Palace, then in Moscow. Its name was shown in Belarusian, because nobody could translate it. The word ‘gaspoda’ isn’t included in any dictionary and comes from works by Yakub Kolas [the Belarusian literary classic]. What is ‘gaspoda’? It is a mixture of such words as ‘gaspadarka’ (translated as ‘household’), ‘Gaspodz’ (‘God’), ‘gaspadar’ (‘landlord’) and ‘gaspadarka’ (‘hostess’). So, it means a place where a landlord lives with his family and with God in his heart. ‘Gaspoda’ is our universe on an earthly level and our country at a human level. It was impossible to translate. Even ‘subjective reality’ couldn’t be translated correctly as, in my version, it signified ‘the real essence of things’. This is why, when I draw a basket, I’m not creating a still-life but am trying to depict the cosmos hidden in a web of twigs.
Another large series of mine that I’ve exhibited is ‘Greek Salvation’, inspired by my trips to this country. The name ‘Greek Salvation’ signifies the salvation of eternal, antique, classical beauty. The rhythm of Greek columns and shadows repeats the rhythm of fences and their shadows. From an aesthetic point of view, a Belarusian village fence equals an antique column. It is a rather provocative thought, isn’t it? I’m not speaking in the historical sense, but in the aesthetic. I have my own ‘Belarusian Greece’. The Greeks have never drawn their country in such a style. I think it’s appropriate to try to adapt world culture to your national feeling.
Do you plan another exhibition soon?
I recently presented 62 of my works at Moscow’s Central House of Artists — the main exhibition site for Russia. Their information plates were shown in Belarusian, Russian and English. It was very interesting for our eastern neighbours and friends. I like it when people suddenly realise that our languages are actually quite different. We are unique as a nation — with our own language, culture and national shrines.
Last September, I exhibited at Vilnius’ Philharmonic Society — dedicated to the Days of Belarus in Lithuania. Now, I’m planning a personal exhibition in Bialystok and, perhaps, in Warsaw. Besides, in October last year, I took part in the International Arts Festival in Slovakia. This year, I intend to return again as a Belarusian artist.
What role does a creative person play in society? How interesting is today’s world for such people?
I believe that a creative person should be especially active. He should always be in the public eye, preserving his natural need to stay ‘current’. Today is a very interesting time for creativity. It is complicated, indeed, but every time is complicated. The creator should analyse, philosophically comprehending any epoch and manifesting it in his creative images. The most active participation in life is to create.
What does tomorrow hold for Belarusian artists?
It is a natural desire to see only good in the future. I hope that we’ll see our country, nation and art flourish. There is simply no other alternative: respect yourself or disappear. I would prefer not to disappear. I’d like to see the Belarusian nation on the Earth forever. With my colleagues, I’m working hard towards this goal.
By Victor Mikhaylov
“I interpret the reality...”
[b]Grigory Sitnitsa reflects upon the personality of an artist, his creative essence and place in society and the role of the Belarusian Union of Artists[/b][b]Let’s talk about the activity of the Belarusian Union of Arts. What are its goals and priorities? [/b]We’re a public association, governed by a mission statement: to create, preserve and promote Belarusian fine arts. This is exactly what we do. We also help creative people to fulfil their potential, giving assistance in the form of material aid and in solving organisational issues.