Leonid Dudarenko’s Code
Aged 80, famous Minsk artist Leonid Dudarenko is still creative and active.
Leonid is known for his sincerity and honesty and for his passion for his work, which depicts the real world: city streets, northern fishermen, doctors and family members. He enters the psyche of each person whose portrait he captures.
Having received his professional education at Minsk’s Art College and at the Belarusian State Theatre and Art Institute, he showed his creative independence rather early. From 1967, Leonid often took business trips, visiting Mongolia, Turkmenia, Yakutia, Karelia, Georgia, Afghanistan, and the Far East of the Soviet Union. These journeys inspired many of his best landscape and portrait works. He chatted with people, soliciting details for his heroes.
Dudarenko focused on landscapes, using various decorative, and formal, compositions, with realistic portrayals of rocks, hills, ports and old buildings. His cityscapes, particularly, have strong themes and identities. In some, we hear the remote echoes of post-impressionism and cubism.
Certainly, works touching upon modern global problems take an important place in his creativity: Epilogue (1988) and It Shouldn’t Happen (1986) combine images of the world, harmony and dead earth, after an imagined catastrophe.
Mr. Dudarenko is a many-sided artist who long ago established himself as a master of conceptual art, landscapes, portraits and still-life works. A high quality of professional education and knowledge gave him the chance to show himself as an artist with originality: in life and in his understanding of art.
Dudarenko is a vivid artist, with a deeply patriotic streak, applying traditional methods from the national school of painting, while also bravely experimenting and using innovative approaches. Having learnt from his teachers and colleagues, during his education and through independent research, he has a prolific portfolio across various genres and themes. Original picturesque language, perfected techniques and pleasing composition are characteristic to each of his works.
Spirituality and figurative truth are ever present, at the heart of his creativity; they allow him creative individuality, without bending to modern trends. Leonid`s creativity is inspired by Belarusian landscapes, taking him often outside of his studio, and to participation in international open-airs.
Mr. Dudarenko’s numerous canvases are stored in museums across Belarus, as well as in domestic and foreign private collections and galleries. The original World of Master has his own philosophy and vision.
How did you come to be an artist? What inspired you?
I was born in Molodechno: a small town near Minsk at the time. My childhood fell during the war years; in 1941, when the Great Patriotic War began, I was just 9 years old. My father died at the front and my house was burnt. I had to help my mother in order to survive. Those were hard times but, in 1945, my mother managed to send me to Art College. Certainly, it was very difficult but I was lucky; right after the war, an art studio opened in Molodechno, created by a very talented artist (sadly, I cannot recollect his name). He taught me the foundations of art, and everything necessary for my development. He was a true Master: as an artist, and as a teacher. I gained a place at Art College despite receiving a `2` for maths, as I had the highest mark for painting.
Sometimes, an artist seeks fame, such as Malevich painting his Black Square His technique has been much copied but I believe that realism in painting continues to be the basis of Belarusian artists’ creativity. I was once keen on abstract art, wanting to look at the world in a new way. However, my mother asked me whom I was painting for. I answered that I wanted to bring pleasure to others and make them take notice, but she asserted that they wouldn’t understand my intention. I began thinking and, with age, understood that I needed to return to realism, in order to touch peoples’ souls and my own. An artist shouldn’t be indifferent to the world.
I have a whole series of pictures on the theme of ‘Atomic War’: about the possible third world war, which might have occurred in the time of Nikita Khrushchev. We were very close. I have a lot of pictures on this theme. I also have a series on our attitude towards life and nature. Pictures are supposed to speak for an artist, so they shouldn’t need too much explanation; they speak for themselves. Audiences can always discern good work. When a picture is indifferent, you ignore it, since it doesn’t captivate you. It’s an empty space. Certain art is designed only to decorate homes, being pleasing to the eye rather than having deeper meaning. It isn’t true art. It may be beautiful but art should arrest people, forcing them to think about life’s purpose, and their personal path and identity. This is the true goal of art.
You’ve travelled much and seen much. Did you ever try to depict a real place or person during your creative business trips? Or did you prefer figurative generalisations?
I had to travel across the whole former Soviet Union. Hundreds of nationalities lived within it and, interestingly, each nationality had its own flavour, distinguished not only by language and appearance but by attitude to life, nature, and everything. It was very interesting. I have a whole series of portraits of people of different nationalities. It was very interesting to paint a person who had not seen a TV-set, or other modern devices. What wonderful dialogue we had! What beauty there was; we went to the arctic circle, where no one had ever set foot. It was very interesting. When we discussed whether to go to Paris or the Far North, I always wanted to go where there was no civilisation. I’ve been so very lucky that I’ve travelled so much, seen much and created much. If I’d gone somewhere and painted nothing, it would have been a wasted journey.
When was your peak of creativity? How did it begin, and do you still feel inspired?
Artists draw upon life, their surroundings and, even, the state system. In order to create, it’s necessary to have strong energy. Sometimes, when you work on a picture, you become utterly exhausted, burning with inspiration inside. I can’t work for more than four hours at a time for this reason. The best situation is probably when an artist`s physical and intellectual abilities meet. Once you reach my age, over 80, your brain understands everything but you lack your old energy levels. The desire is there but you lack the physical capacity.
Today’s young guys are very lucky, learning from an early age; by 25, they’re already mature, able to paint good pictures. You have most energy until you’re about 35, so you can achieve a great deal if you have the technical expertise. Artists can paint into old age but they tend to have their pupils’ assistance, lacking the endurance. The ‘Old Masters’ had a whole school of pupils helping them, as so much physical work was needed. I remember Vitaly Tsvirko, the People’s Artist of Belarus, putting paint in jars and asking his pupils to paint the sky and the earth. He’d then find it easier to overlay his picture.
It takes a lot of energy to prepare the basic canvas, and much time. It seems easy, just requiring brush strokes, but it takes hours upon hours. The strongest artists are those who don’t waste time in their youth. By the time you are older it may be too late.
Describe the characteristics of the Belarusian school of painting.
It developed during Soviet days. In 1918, Belarus became a republic: part of the USSR. Marc Chagall studied at Vitebsk Art College and we may say that all Belarusian painting began in Vitebsk. Many of our artists graduated from there and entered the St. Petersburg Academy. At the end of the 19th century, and in the early 20th century, the Belarusian school of painting gained a strong identity, based on a realistic approach.
We had a large collection of paintings from the Radziwiłł family but, during the Fascist occupation, in the Second World War, the Germans took all the best works from the National Art Gallery. Now, their location is unknown. When we created the museum, after the war, works were brought from afar. Now, we have our own academy and our own school. Of course, we’re influenced by western directions, and have conditional works departing from realism, but I think that, if you have grown up in this land, you cannot help but glorify it and its people, rather than use abstract forms.
How much do you value your works? Do you leave them quietly in your studio or are you glad for them to be on display in someone’s collection? What is your attitude towards all that you have painted?
I’m very serious about my work. It’s like parting with my own children! If a canvas has turned out well, I try to retain it. All the same, life forces me to give pictures to somebody. Almost all our museums have examples of my work. In order to live, it is necessary to earn a living, so I have to sell some works. I don’t give my works to just anyone though; they should reside in collections, being created to be seen. Naturally, if nobody sees them, you remain in obscurity. I paint a lot but only sell canvases if I need the money. I manage to keep hold of quite a few.
Do you paint more works for yourself or do you aim to create for others?
I paint the things that interest me, that appeal to me. Therefore a lot of people don`t need these pictures. I paint what excites me. Painting `to order` is a problem for me. I almost never do so, as it`s quite alien to me; I find it very difficult.
Are you interested in our land as an artist? Do you find lofty themes here?
Belarus is rich in nature and landscapes. When Ukrainian artists came to me last autumn, I took them to Logoisk District, near Minsk. They declared that it was like Switzerland! We have many beautiful places. I hate stark landscapes; Belarus has hills, woods and lakes. I mostly paint in late autumn, early spring and winter, when the snow lies beautifully on the earth. Belarusian landscapes are very beautiful. In summer, I always went to the north of the USSR, so never painted our summer landscapes, tending to do so in autumn or spring. I was absent in summer.
Many Belarusian artists’ works, including yours, have been taken abroad, remaining in European collections. Should we regret this? Or is it normal for them to find homes abroad?
I don’t know of any country without my works; they are in China and in Mongolia. I had an exhibition in Japan. In Moscow, the Japanese wanted to buy all my canvases. It’s great to know that your works hang in America, the UK and Italy: to know that Belarusian art is popular there. Many collectors denote the works as being by Belarusian artists, instead of simply giving someone’s surname. It’s important to specify nationality.
When such collectors come to Belarus, they don’t just search randomly; they know the style of art here, having seen our works. The Ministry of Culture often organises exhibitions abroad, including for my works. Collectors regularly buy canvases.
The only thing is that I’m not financially minded, for which my wife scolds me. When I was in Germany, I gave one work as a gift, which delighted the man, as if I had given him a million Dollars. People in the West appreciate art more than they do here, where people are content to simply hang a photo on the wall. They don’t feel the need for real art. We need to promote fine art.
Do you have advice for today’s young artists?
It is useless to give advice to the young. They think themselves cleverer than the older generation. It has always been the tragedy of the young to feel that they already know everything. The task of our teachers is not only to teach the young fine arts but to teach them how to live.
Russian writer Maxim Gorky said that he sometimes called himself an artist, since an artist is a creator and must live for something. Artists should set goals; the young just want to sell their pictures! In order to do so, they have to become commercial, selling the kind of works bought in the West. Young people start with this interest. Why would they want to create a canvas which might just sit in the corner for a year! Young artists make works they think they can sell. It’s good if you’re talented and I do see studios with such works. Someone will buy them but here is the tragedy. Artists from the West used to come to me, asking how I made a living. I said that I lived for creativity. They said that capitalism made it impossible to live only for creativity. You can’t live by art alone, if you lack a factory, shop or plot of land on which to grow food. Creativity needs external funding. Young people know they need money, which is a tragedy.
Is it essential for artists to have talent, or can hard work and practise bring the same result?
We have many who are truly gifted. Ilya Repin married in old age, when he no longer cared whether he would sell his works. If artists are independent, being able to devote themselves to art, they can be successful. Talent helps and money will come, eventually. In order to become famous, you need to produce a great deal. You then reap dividends. Picasso was almost starving in his younger years; our artists want everything and all at once. It cannot be so; you need to wait a little, and work. At some point, people will recognise that you are worthy of attention.
Sometimes, an artist is talented, works a great deal, but lacks promotion. The state is interested in talented people but we can only discern talent if it finds expression through several works. Very few gain such success in the first years of working, usually proving their worth later in life.
Did you ever doubt the wisdom of following the path of an artist? Did you consider another?
No, I don’t feel that my life has been wasted. I just wish that I’d created more canvases. I began at the age of 33, with many distractions, being engaged in public work. I chaired artistic councils and exhibition committees, which took much of my time. People`s Artist of Belarus Mikhail Savitsky went to his studio at 8am and left at 6pm, as is necessary. It’s not wise to take on too much, as I did. I could have left a bigger legacy.
Have you endured creative failures?
The process sometimes goes easily, and sometimes not. Gifted artist Nikolay Seleshchuk, whose studio is near mine, threw out a canvas stretcher because he thought it was bad luck. He’d used it twice and neither piece had come out as he hoped. It happens sometimes, depending on your mood. If you arrive at your studio in a grumpy mood, without enthusiasm, it’s a challenge. I tend to put on music, read a book, and then try to focus. You start to persuade yourself that you’re feeling better. Honoré de Balzac asked to be tied to a chair so that he wouldn’t be able to abandon his painting; sometimes, it’s the most difficult thing: to force yourself.
Does it help to remember past successes?
Certainly. I’ve had times when I’ve had nothing to eat but, when you create something good, you feel good.
Is it difficult to work without enthusiasm?
It’s impossible. You must have inspiration; you can’t work on autopilot. You need emotion.
Who is an artist?
Sometimes, when I travel, people refer an ‘artist’ to me, who paints posters or banners. It’s a misuse of the term: an artist is a creator. The act of picking up a brush does not make you an artist. You need to be creative: a writer, a composer or a musician can be an artist. Many can paint; most of us can to some degree. Years ago, children were more commonly taught to play musical instruments, to paint, and to study literature. Many engaged in painting pictures but they were not artists.
By Victor Mikhailov