Ten Centuries of Art in Belarus is an exhibition unprecedented in scale. Hosted by the National Art Museum, it presents works by Valery Shkarubo, among those by other modern Belarusian artists. Mr. Shkarubo has his own original, creative style and pictorial manner, as well as his own subtle philosophy. He recently gained the title of Honoured Worker of Arts of Belarus: a high mark of respect for his professionalism and cultural achievements.
I’ve known Valery Shkarubo for some time. He’s charming, modest, and frank in his judgements. He rarely makes categorical statements, as if unwilling to pronounce on the world. Visiting his studio, I find it cosy, being full of his pictures. They hang on the walls alongside those of colleagues he admires. My last visit was just after Valery had received his high title and I couldn’t help provoking him, to see if his manner might have changed.
Did anything change for you on hearing of your Honoured Worker of Arts title?
Life has not changed in any discernible way and I don’t think it ever will do. Artists need to work independently, and quietly, regardless of outward recognition and whatever the weather. Your soul should always be ready to work, being driven by inner motivation, rather than a desire to satisfy another.
Do you feel any burden of responsibility from the title?
Such titles are like ‘moral compensation’ to an artist. Anyone working in any sphere may deserve to gain recognition, but those in creative professionals especially so. Without awards, titles and privileges, there would be only financial reward for work. It’s not a good idea to be motivated solely by a desire for money. Rich artists are not generally the best, since money is not the wisest judge of merit.
During the early years of Pere-stroika, many in Belarus and Russia called for past titles to be revoked. Fortunately, such debate soon died down. We cannot live by bread alone — or part of us would die, and society would suffer.
How do you view your title?
It is a great honour and brings responsibility. I like to believe that such titles are true recognition of merit: an award from the state, but also an award to art itself. Titles inspire patriotism, which is also valuable: it makes me an artist-citizen of Belarus. This title is very important to me: even, the most important thing.
Do you ever think of retiring, now that you’ve received your honoured title?
On the contrary, I feel deeply inspired to create even more, feeling a serious responsibility to my country.
What are you working on at the moment?
As always, I’m working on a landscape. It’s the genre I find simplest and most challenging. Many do view it as an easy genre, which can be true superficially. However, I treat it seriously, giving deep consideration to every nuance. I wish to show the complexity of the human soul: our mood, condition, depth, philosophy and ‘national’ spirit. All this can be shown through landscape painting and it’s an inexhaustible theme. The more I work on a landscape, the more I feel that there is so much more to explore. I didn’t feel this way about it early in my career; gradually, over the years, I’ve realised that I have many thoughts to express. Meanwhile, I have no idea how I’ll have time to achieve everything!
Perfection can never be achieved, so how do you relate to ‘perfection’ as an artist?
We always aim for perfection — from first creating a sketch, to trying up to ten designs in the studio. Each effort is better than the last. It’s only when you believe that you can do no more with an image that it’s ‘ideal’: at least for that moment. After some time, you begin to see errors. It’s just the way of life; there’s nothing to be done.
You tend to explore simple plots: nature, trees and rippling water…
It’s almost impossible to convey what I’m seeking. I do paint nature, but all my landscapes are invented, inspired by what I’ve seen: a cloud, a house and grass. I’m trying to create a certain mood but it’s hard for me to judge whether I’m successful. I try to treat my work seriously, so I do hear people comment that my canvases can be rather sombre, lacking optimism. While I’m painting, deeply serious thoughts enter my head — even philosophical thoughts. They aren’t thoughts which bring about a cheerful landscape! I like painting evening light, since it seems to me to be the most thought-provoking time of day. An artist doesn’t just copy nature; he creates a reflection with his brush. I think my reflections are most true when portrayed in a sad, grey environment.
You are among those modern artists featured at the Ten Centuries of Art in Belarus exhibition. Do you view this as a great honour?
Certainly, it’s extremely prestigious. Very few artists are represented and it’s a huge honour to enter this narrow circle. Maybe, it’s even undeserved and there are artists better than me not in the exhibition. This is my opinion but I’m not among the organisers. I was asked to exhibit my work and I certainly find this recognition delightful.
What is your estimation of Belarusian art?
We have much to show and I’m sure could have filled a far greater space. It’s quite cramped here. If we had three times the space, we’d be able to show the full richness of Belarusian art. We could fill the whole museum were it possible.
Do certain images dominate your landscapes? Forests or roads for example?
All revolve around the idea of our Motherland. That’s all. Our Belarus is seen in its roads and trees, the water, fields, woods and so on. All are Belarus. The most important thing is to paint from your soul the images within yourself. It’s not my style to be artificial.
Which symbols do you return to?
It’s possible to create a road to symbolise all our roads. As long as it strikes you as genuine, it’s fine.
Do you plan a personal exhibition soon?
Perhaps in four years’ time. Meanwhile, I need to work.
You’ve enjoyed exhibitions earlier.
I’ve had several in Minsk — and abroad.
Each time has distinctive features. Is today an inspiring time for artists?
We are inspired by our inner world, rather than by external events. This is true for me at least. Maybe some artists need to be shaken-up or impressed by a spectacular event: something grand. I don’t need that at all; in fact, it’s a hindrance. My perception of life is tranquil. I don’t need events to inspire my creativity.
Do you have favourite works?
I’ve worked long and hard on some, returning to them as favourites, until something satisfactory in terms of perfection appeared. They are small in number and I don’t want to part with them.
You have many works by other artists in your studio. What made you choose them?
Purely my personal preference: they give me pleasure to look at them. They aren’t a collection but all are landscapes — which are close to my heart.
You paint Belarus’ countryside. If you had been born elsewhere, do you think you would have been inspired to become an artist in the same way?
I’ve travelled abroad, always drawing — but these don’t tend to become paintings, remaining as sketches. A huge distance separates the two: in time and effort. You can only paint when your soul has been touched; otherwise, you simply create a picture with little depth. When I painted in Russia, I tried to find places similar to Belarus: locations close spiritually. In Japan, China, Italy or Austria, there aren’t any places like ours. Of course, it’s interesting to see new places, with local colour, since this allows us to look at Belarus with fresh eyes, considering our landscape more deeply. I’ve painted a great deal across the UK, which is beautiful — but not ours.
Are your origins vital to your work?
Certainly; I cannot do without them.
Your works are sold in Belarus and abroad. What attracts buyers do you think?
I’ve painted scenery abroad: mountains and seas - in China and Italy. Foreigners coming to Belarus aren’t interested in such works, wishing only to see those depicting our Belarusian countryside. I’ve shown Chinese visitors my paintings of their mountains and they laugh, asking only to see paintings of Belarus. Our national art is valuable and gives us a place in global art.
Landscapes are the ultimate genre in which to present Belarusian national art. Gavriil Vashchenko used to say that how you paint isn’t important; rather, you should portray your native land — your place of birth, where you grew up. As I grow older, the more I’m convinced that he was correct. I have no desire to travel abroad anymore, in search of other experiences. It may be my age but I’m content to remain in Belarus, living and painting here and holding my exhibitions here. I just want to be at home: for work, creativity and exhibitions. I’m not against the occasional trip - to see something new or to hold a small exhibition — but my life cannot revolve around that. I need to be in one place: my homeland.
Is recognition important for an artist?
It’s vital that an artist does not become too focused on winning titles or awards, since this can affect your creativity. You need to feel free. There are three stages or ‘degrees’ of recognition: from colleagues, from the state and from the public. It’s a rare privilege when all coincide: when your colleagues respect you, when you have public popularity, and when the state recognises you. Often, only one of the three exists. It’s important not to aspire to any of these; just see what comes.
Valery Shkarubo’s biography. Born in December, 1957, in the city of Borisov, in the Minsk Region, he graduated from the Belarusian Theatrical-Artistic Institute (now the Belarusian Academy of Arts). In 1989, he became a member of the Union of Artists of Belarus. In 2002, he received the State Award for Literature, Arts and Architecture — for his Eternal series. In 2008 he was awarded with Francysk Skorina Medal.
Valery Shkarubo is a recognised artist. He is a landscape painter and philosopher and views his participation in the Venice Biennale (together with a small group of artists) as the high point of his career, not including the newly launched Ten Centuries of Art of Belarus exhibition.
He notes that all great artists of the 20th century — including Picasso and Chagall — viewed taking part in this biennale as an honour. “Seven artists joined me in taking part, representing Belarus for the first time in 110 years. It was most prestigious, being held in the very centre of Venice, visited by thousands of people,” he recollects with delight.
Early in your career, like others, were you tempted to copy the style of well-known artists?
Every novice starts like this. When I was young, I looked up to certain fine arts legends and wanted to imitate them: Belarusian Byalynitsky-Birulya, American Andrew Wyeth and Russian Gritsai. They remain unsurpassed in my eyes. I created many works similar in style to theirs but I soon understood that I couldn’t continue imitating, looking at the world with their eyes. I decided to clear my mind and imagine that no other art existed: only nature and I. These days, I’m uninfluenced by any art school.
When did you find your own, original style?
Probably, about 20 years ago: no less than five years after graduating from the art institute. While studying, your teachers strongly influence you; student works are always a reflection of what their teachers convey to them. After graduating, I spent five years finding my own path. I began by painting abstract works, which we were taught were fashionable and modern. I then engaged in formal composition and, finally, after six or seven years, I began work seriously.
Do you work entirely in the landscape genre? What deep essence is it that you see in nature?
Your question already contains the answer: in landscape, as in no other genre, I see depth. I don’t see this in still-life works or portraits. I cannot paint still-life works with deep essence, but I can do so with landscapes. It does not matter what is depicted on canvas, but what stands behind. It is necessary to feel something: the suffering and concerns of the artist should be visible on canvas. You can express all this in a landscape, which is a riddle, or sacrament of nature. It is the most important thing that can be in art.
My individuality came not in the pursuit of originality or shocking behaviour, but in my gradual and intelligent search for myself and for the expression of my interpretation of the world, in my own way. Step by step, I removed myself from being a slave to imitation.
Are there any other genres in which you could work?
Probably, but landscape is the most philosophical genre. Almost all artists paint landscapes. It has always been so. Many consider landscape to be an easy genre. Within apparent simplicity is depth; I’m only starting to comprehend this riddle. Unlike any other genre, I see mystery and depth.
Landscapes are my means of self-expression and self-comprehension. I can show a world of ideas, images and feelings.
How do images come to you?
When I begin a landscape, I create an image in advance: a full picture in my mind of everything I want to include. I visualise the whole plot needed to convey a certain mood and condition. I search for what I need and, in truth, the season, time of the day and actual elements are secondary. The image in my head is what I’m aiming for.
Would you like to teach others?
I think not. I would like people to feel everything that I felt when I painted a work but influencing and educating others is too difficult.
From your travels, how does the countryside abroad compare with here?
I’ve visited a lot of places and have travelled across various countries — some exotic. I’ve seen many landscapes, and have sketched almost everywhere. However, the most successful drawings were those in which I saw something similar to Belarus. Sometimes, nature is so beautiful that there’s little for an artist to do but copy what they see. Our countryside is less dazzling: more reserved. I like it more though, as it’s thoughtful, with subtlety of palette.
Do you philosophise in your works?
When you work, you always reflect: on the eternal and complex. I tend to always paint nature: that which exists today, existed before and will continue to exist when we are gone. I try not to paint temporary things, as they lack interest for me. I agree with the phrase ‘life is short, art is eternal’. I want to leave an eternal legacy.
You often depict roads.
This is because they symbolise movement and movement infers life. Thousands walk along or drive on roads daily, each with their own worries. In painting a road, I create something with which everyone can relate; it draws us in, making us ponder infinity.
So roads symbolise life?
Yes. Moreover, they will always have relevance. You can paint them forever.
How do you feel when you are in the countryside?
Nature bewitches me. I feel as if it has a real presence, captivating me. Everyone reacts strongly to a wonderful landscape. However, it’s when I’m alone in my studio, without even the radio, that I feel most at ease.
By Viktor Mikhailov
Inspired lyrist of homeland
<img class="imgl" alt="" src="http://www.belarus-magazine.by/belen/data/upimages/2009/0001-009-397.jpg">[b]Ten Centuries of Art in Belarus is an exhibition unprecedented in scale. Hosted by the National Art Museum, it presents works by Valery Shkarubo, among those by other modern Belarusian artists. Mr. Shkarubo has his own original, creative style and pictorial manner, as well as his own subtle philosophy. He recently gained the title of Honoured Worker of Arts of Belarus: a high mark of respect for his professionalism and cultural achievements.[/b]