Labyrinth of creative acquaintances
[b]Walking through the halls of the National Art Museum of Belarus, we can penetrate deeply into the wonderful world of pictorial art, however remote in time[/b]Even an experienced traveller can lose themselves, let alone a novice, so it’s better to rely on a guide. Let’s take an imaginary tour of the country’s main treasury of culture: the National Art Museum of Belarus. However, I won’t overload you with too many facts. The museum is rich in artworks of both national and international importance. It’s impossible to see everything in one trip, of course, so we’ll just view a small selection of items. No doubt, you’ll want to return another time, to enjoy its exhibition premieres.
Even an experienced traveller can lose themselves, let alone a novice, so it’s better to rely on a guide. Let’s take an imaginary tour of the country’s main treasury of culture: the National Art Museum of Belarus. However, I won’t overload you with too many facts. The museum is rich in artworks of both national and international importance. It’s impossible to see everything in one trip, of course, so we’ll just view a small selection of items. No doubt, you’ll want to return another time, to enjoy its exhibition premieres.
On show at the moment is a picture dedicated to the 140th anniversary of the birth of Ferdynand Ruszczyc (1870-1936). This landscape painter, graphical artist, set designer and teacher left his legacy on the arts and cultural life of Belarus, Poland and Lithuania. Moreover, he was acknow-ledged throughout Russia and Europe. Ferdynand Ruszczyc was born to a noble family in 1870, on his family estate of Bogdanov in Oshmyany district of Vilnya province (now, Bogdanovo village in Volozhin district of Minsk region). He spent his childhood and teenage years at a local classical gymnasium, graduating in 1890 with a gold medal. Simultaneously, he took painting lessons from artist Kuzma Yermakov. Later, Ruszczyc trained at St. Petersburg’s Academy of Arts, taught first by Ivan Shishkin. From 1895, Ruszczyc studied at Arkhip Kuindzhi’s studio, known for nurturing a whole constellation of talented pupils: Arkady Rylov, Nicholas Roerich, Vilhelms Purvītis and Konstantin Vrublevsky.
In 1897, the young painter successfully joined the diploma exhibition, with his Spring bought by famous Russian collector Pavel Tretyakov, for his personal collection. Another collector — Savva Morozov — bought his Mill in Winter, enabling Ferdynand to travel through Western Europe. Over a period of two months, he visited Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland and Italy.
The blossoming of Ruszczyc’s creative career is connected with his return to his family estate, after graduating from the Academy. The years he spent in Bogdanov are considered to be the most fruitful of his career. In 1898, Ruszczyc began to work on one of his most prominent canvases, Earth, now held by the National Museum in Warsaw. Many other wonderful pictures, such as Last Snow, Ballad, Krewa Castle, Mill, Vileika Banks and Forest Stream, were created during those years, celebrating the beauty of Belarusian nature.
His Near the Catholic Church: Sunday, on show at the National Art Museum of Belarus, was also created in Bogdanov in 1899. The artist painted the local church many times, depicting it from various angles. St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church is a wonderful example of Belarusian wooden architecture from the second half of the 17th century. Unfortunately, it burnt down during WWII. Jan Bułhak, Ruszczyc’s friend, took photos of the beautiful building. Ruszczyc’s painting shows a warm spring day uniting earth, people and heaven. A bright blue sky sends warm sunbeams across the church, creating an atmosphere of love and delight. The ancient narthex appears to grow from the soil, with the crooked figures of old women entering its doorway, witnessed by the ancient church. Old men stand quietly some distance away, observing the wonder of returned spring and awakening nature.
Ruszczyc’s canvases were exhibited many times in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Warsaw, Vilnya and Paris. In 1921, he was awarded the National Order of the Legion of Honour for his contribution to culture and critics noted his exceptional talent as a colourist. Contemporary art historians have deservedly called him a ‘master of four elements’.
Alongside success in monumental painting, Ruszczyc became known as a brilliant set designer and book and magazine illustrator, while designing medals, banners, theatrical costumes and playbills. Vilnya’s cultural life in the 1910-1920s would not have been the same without Ruszczyc; his contribution was huge. Moreover, our fellow countryman chaired the Commission for the Protection of Ancient Monuments. He travelled throughout Belarus, sketching our ancient castles and ruins.
Ruszczyc is also remembered as a wonderful teacher, having taught at the Fine Arts School in Warsaw and at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakуw. He helped revive Vilnya University before dying on October 30th, 1936, in Bogdanov. He is buried at the local cemetery.
Today, his pictures grace museums in Poland, Lithuania and Russia, as well as European and American collections, including those held by private individuals. Belarus owns only one canvas by Ferdynand Ruszczyc but it is worthily displayed at the National Art Museum of Belarus; how could it be otherwise?
Thinking of 19th-early 20th century Russian pictorial art, the National Art Museum of Belarus is consi-dered to be the richest treasury of works by Russian artists, showcasing many world famous masters. Undoubtedly, the exhibition on show at the moment is wonderfully diverse.
Genre painting has long been mistrusted by art critics. In 1863, young Russian artists, headed by Ivan Kramskoy, broke with St. Petersburg’s Academy of Art in the ‘Revolt of Fourteen’; they fought for their right to independently choose their themes and for the acknowledgement of genre painting. “Aren’t genre painters artists?” one rebel asked of the Head of the Academy, Fiodor Bruni. Their confidence in genre painting was vividly proven by the subsequent development of Russian art. In the 18th century, genre works were a rare exception but they became a leading trend from the mid-19th century.
Genre painting fulfils a very important function in art, realistically portraying everyday life, allowing us to ponder our lives and view them from ‘outside’. Many Russian genre painters preferred topical issues, making ordinary people their major characters, through whom the artists speak. This explains why genre painting usually blossoms during times of change, when less advantaged citizens take their destiny into their own hands.
Undoubtedly, the exhibition is inte-resting, with Russian genre painting from the late 19th-early 20th century surprising us in its breadth. It tackles the most substantial aspects of our lives, exploring not only the idea of the Russian village and ‘peasant’ issues, but life in cities and the army, exploring the psyche of the most humble men to officials and the intelligentsia. The legacy and traditions of Alexey Venetsianov’s idealistic painting are vividly felt in many works from the early to mid 19th century: Fiodor Baikov’s Peasant Yard, Lavr Plakhov’s Old Man and a Girl and Alexey Korzukhin’s Father’s Directions. Later Russian painters quickly moved to a sharply critical view of reality, bringing unprecedented tension into genre painting, while adding a clearly aggressive, even offensive, character: Pavel Yakovlev’s After Hail Damage (1894); Klavdy Lebedev’s Poor (1905); Karl Lemoch’s Inconsolable Grief (1900s) and Fiodor Bukhgolts’s Unemployment: Grief (1906).
Some offer a softer tonality in portraying social reality: Nikolay Nevrev’s Confession (late 1860s-early 1870s); Vasily Maximov’s Children Playing as Adults (1874) and Karl Lemoch’s Hide-and-Seek (1879). Works by Vladimir Makovsky — Doctor’s Waiting Room (1869), Hair Cutting: Volzhsky Figaro (1897) and Interview (1903) — are characterised by soft humour and delicate psychology. With distinguished gestures and poses and expressive faces, Makovsky created a whole gallery of clearly depicted social characters. The genre painters of the 1880-1890s aimed to reveal a person’s character and individual psychology by showing them in everyday situations: Nikolay Kasatkin (Organ-grinder, 1881); Konstantin Makovsky (The Blind, 1880s); Firs Zhuravlev (At Penman’s, 1889); and Nikolay Nevrev (Proposal, late 1880s-early 1890s).
Plots and literary narratives are another feature of this period, only discontinued towards the turn of the century, when artists of the new generation began to focus on lyrical interpretations, primarily accentuating landscapes. Works by Alexey Stepanov (Cranes Are Flying, 1891), Nikolay Dubovsky (Rainbow, 1892), Nikolay Bogdanov-Belsky (At Ferriage, 1915), Sergey Svetoslavsky (At the Watering Place), Semen Nikiforov (Trade Fair, 1910), Stepan Kolesnikov (Genre Scene, 1910s) and Alexander Moravov (Men, 1910s) delight us with their beautiful use of colour and light. Their free, original compositions are evidence of their fresh outlook.
Undoubtedly, the turn of the 19th-20th century and the first decades of the 20th century were a time of great change for Russia (to which a considerable part of contemporary Belarus was joined). The traditions of the past, formed over centuries, were being cast aside, replaced by a new social scene, as the artists felt acutely. Many tried to capture this spirit while showing nostalgia for what was being left behind. Boris Kustodiev’s love for the patriarchal merchant world of the Russian provinces is evident; Bathers (1917) and Scene at the Window (1921) are notable for their enhanced detail and unique combination of idealism and irony. Andrey Ryabushkin enjoyed a similarly cheerful view of Russian life, with national identity at the forefront of his works (What Kvas!, 1892). The excitement of living was explored by Abram Arkhipov in his powerful canvases (Young Peasant Woman in Red, 1925 and Smiling Young Girl, 1920s) which celebrate the spirit, physical and moral health of the nation.
Works by Nikolay Kuznetsov (Cafй in the Evening. Riga Seaside, 1913) and Alexander Moravov’s Good Read (1913-1914) show us the city and the world of the intelligentsia in an elevated, poetic fashion. Iosif Braza’s Recollection (1901) stands out in its delicate artistry, previously unknown in genre painting.
The exhibition is fascinating and richly diverse, giving us a true sense of fulfilment. Now, our cup is full and no more is needed. We have much to ponder and return to in our memories. Peruse these photo illustrations, dear readers, to see the artistic wealth on show. No doubt, we’ll return to the museum another time, for more enchanting moments. To view all that it has to offer, you’d perhaps need a whole year. The museum boasts so many wonderful exhibits, created by talented masters.
By Victor Kharkov