Leonid Shchemelev’s palette of the soul

Famous Belarusian artist speculates on time, artistry and responsibility in art
As is usually said in such cases — he has everything, including fame and recognition. Leonid Shchemelev has also received much attention from the state — having been awarded the title of ‘People’s Artist’ for his achievements. He is the only person to have a personal art gallery in the capital but Leonid never rests on his laurels. At 86, he spends almost every day at his studio, painting pictures which inspire and perfectly demonstrate his mastery.
With certainty, Mr. Shchemelev is not only a leader of the Belarusian pictorial arts in the past three decades but one of the brightest representatives of national culture. His artistry is well known far beyond Belarus. However, he never searches out popularity. Rather, fame finds him as a result of his huge talent. His audiences know him for his bright and thoughtful works and his artistry is well accepted by people from all walks of life. Truly, he is an artist of the people — not only in title but in his mission and vocation.
Shchemelev’s art gives us a kaleidoscope of contrasts and colours. Each of his works is a new world of images and characters while, simultaneously, he looks to the past and the future. Being a true master, he has the talent to give his ideas form. His work goes beyond the frames of a picture; it helps us to fully apprehend life’s palette.
Last year, the National Art Museum hosted this State Award laureate’s major exhibition of pictorial and graphic pieces — The Artist and Time — dedicated to his 85th jubilee. The show revealed the artistic soul of the artist perfectly.
Leonid Shchemelev is interesting to chat to, being straightforward in his assertions and sincere in his views. The artist has much to share with Belarus magazine readers, from his views on artistry, to the place of an artist and the national role of art.
How do you manage to reveal your personal feelings via your work?
Personal perceptions are difficult to disclose. Intuition is needed to express oneself in art. An artist showcases whatever is close to them, welcomed by their soul. An artist’s personal feelings are rooted in this. His art is not always accepted unambiguously by society. However, time passes and his piercing views become valuable.
It’s important to remember that an artist’s reflections may differ greatly from those commonly seen in life. Meanwhile, taciturnity does not presuppose lack of talent. Experience — even subjective — is needed for us to see the world through the same eyes as the artist. However, even here, the path to understanding is long. As you pass through life, you subconsciously notice certain objects: some you like and others you don’t. An artist’s originality aims to draw this attention. We shouldn’t make judgments on whether a piece is good or bad; an objective approach is needed. Contemplate, compare and listen to others’ opinions. Art is more than drawing; technical skill is not enough. Sometimes, people fail to see what a talented artist is conveying. Collective exhibitions are subjective, showcasing pieces by several artists. Also, even the most interesting artist — who can influence society — can fail to fully reveal themselves if only one of their works is exhibited.
Standing by an easel, what inspires you… your feelings, experience, thoughts or your ability to paint?
The ability to draw is important — as it presupposes training and knowledge. We might make mistakes but we know what we want to achieve. Usually, on starting, your thoughts concentrate and the result becomes interesting. However, the final result may not match your plans. Time influences an artist’s views and the pace of his thoughts. There are more people interested in art now than previously; you might not think so, but most of us are interested in the same way that we are enthusiastic about music and cinema. Of course, such interest is not always expert; we need to understand how to value art. This issue has always existed.
Do you see yourself as a Belarusian artist? Or is art international?
I don’t know about international art; it may exist but it would be such a mess! There is much misunderstanding about where artists live, their social milieu and how they behave. National interests are most important to me. Thank God, we have a vision of national culture and art. I’ve always wanted to portray this in my art and I’m striving to show national ideas from the past and present. If I paint war, I make sure it relates to today’s life. Peaceful times depicting people and landscapes should have a national flavour, I think. Those who buy a picture should know where it originates from. This helps us understand its meaning and its place in European civilisation.
How does Belarusian pictorial art differ from that of the world or Europe?
Our artists differ in their colourful vision and their themes: man and life; man and nature. Rather than copying others, they seek to express themselves. They look to the future and think of how their art will be perceived. This is very important. Our older generation sometimes think young artists are superficial in their depictions of modern life. This worries me.
Does time influence art?
Yes, hugely. Artists have always paid special attention to society and their time. The change of power following the USSR’s collapse has influenced us. Our views on national culture are strong, with a clear identity for Belarusian art. I’m pleased to say that many artists identify themselves with our national culture, linking their artistry to modern day anxieties. Of course, there are some exceptions; we all view life in our own way. However, I’m a Belarusian and accept this whole-heartedly.
To what extent do you think Belarusian artists’ works are interesting to foreigners?
The interest of foreigners in our national culture seems obvious; at my studio, I’m visited by French and Italians. Some buy pictures while sharing their understanding of what is depicted. They are interesting people. Their views on our art are unique — though obsolete. We used to belong to the Soviet Union, always following instructions. Now, we are free to do as we please. As for me, I continue drawing — as ever. Space and culture are interlinked in Belarus.
Is an artist’s recognition evident via sales or media critique?
Recognition is complicated. Pictures may be bought but an artist must still progress. Recognition is of great significance in our modern understanding of art. Firstly, a piece must be accepted by the state so that its creator can be supported. Works can then be offered to the public, so they come to know you. I’m convinced that state support is important for an artist’s development. Money is needed to work, and premises are needed to host exhibitions. We need places to showcase our art.
What are your themes?
I make mostly modern works — portraits and landscapes. However, I’m also interested in the past; I often penetrate historical moments, such as those relating to Napoleon, Pushkin and WW2. I’m mostly attracted by a modern outlook and modern reality. We shouldn’t saturate people with the war theme, although we should know our history. It’s also interesting to explore our modern anxieties; time plays a huge role in art.
Should works be attractive or is this contrived?
I think beautiful things are never contrived. Beauty is cultivated and must stand the test of time, environment and public opinion. An artist may not be attractive in their own age but, after time passes, they can become modern and recognised. Art is a delicate and complicated notion. Assertion is development. Little assertion leads to little development. This does not mean that artists aren’t satisfied by how they are treated by others; they are rather unsatisfied by society’s apathy — including towards art. Society must have its own assertions towards the value of art; they should attribute it with greater significance than artists.
Are you worried about the preservation of Belarusian artistic traditions?
I think this is the most important side of art development. Art becomes uninteresting when artists (anywhere in the world) are omnivorous. Belarusian artists should be interesting for Americans — among others — owing to their national colour, national understanding and national spirit. Artists should be teaching the public about Belarus — it’s important. Moreover, it’s always interesting when an expressed national culture exists. We need to cultivate our own national staff — including officials working with culture. For example, the works I created for Moscow exhibitions were not approved previously but, later, even top officials accepted them. Many of my works are kept in Moscow. We must express the spirit of the time — not just draw but unveil the core e.g. of Belarusian nature. It’s vital to be literate and understand how artistic pieces are perceived by other nations. Art must be international in perception — only then does it become interesting.
What characterises our modern Belarusian art? Is it soaring or developing stage by stage?
The latter — art never develops quickly. Moreover, our society has changed and artists feel their mission is more complicated than before. There are many problems.
Is the present time favourable to art?
For me, it is. I’m already at the age when I can talk more than do. This is why I can be critical. For me, conditions are normal now, but — for many — it’s not an easy job. Artists are individualistic; everyone adapts as they can. There is no a guiding origin here. Art needs to penetrate life; we should be interested in it and understand it — avoiding an amateur approach. Reasonable assessment is necessary. Much needs to be done to achieve a proper view of art. No doubt, art has always existed and will continue to exist — to some extent. It’s important that the state and society accept it but it’s not easy.
Do you prefer art which reflects reality or that which brings different associations?
I’m not judging all forms of art. I speak of pictorial art, since I can speak from experience. I think reality and associations are quite compatible.
What are the main principles of the Belarusian art school at present?
The school must have a national foundation — this is the core. It’s necessary to feel our national culture.
For whom are you drawing?
For society, rather than for myself — even when painting a self-portrait. I create for those who surround me.
How many works have you created?
I don’t know exactly, as I’ve been working for a long time. I always wanted to create something, so I became an artist. I was merely working and my works were purchased. The Belarusian museum owns over 50 of them. The Belarusian Artists’ Union owns some more. My works are kept in many places but most are showcased in Minsk, Vitebsk and Gomel.
What does the Shchemelev Gallery mean to you?
A great deal. It’s a place where people can get acquainted with my works.
What has your birthplace of Vitebsk given to you?
Vitebsk has given me more than I could have expected and more than I knew. As a child, I wanted to enter art college — though I didn’t understand the meaning of such a decision. The war began and I was concentrating on surviving for six and a half years. In 1947, when I left the army, I accidentally read in a newspaper that an art college was opening in Minsk…
Your style and manner have changed during your lifetime. How can you explain this?
Our manner, taste and handwriting change as we grow I’ve never taken a break — rather, I’m ever testing myself. However, the essence of my work remains unchanged. I always do what I’m able to.
What is your philosophy?
I respond to those who surround me. The world is interesting to me — it is our Belarusian world. I’ve worked in many countries but, on returning home, I began drawing with even greater inspiration. We all feel this way about our homeland.
Do you define the theme of your works?
I don’t have a theme. Of course, I know what I wish to draw. I try to depict what comes to mind.
Are you familiar with artistic failure?
Of course. I’ve had artistic failures and nothing has been easy. A man is formed by luck and failure; the latter strengthens his will and shapes his attitude towards people.
Do you want audiences to speculate about your pictures or do you wish them to simply admire?
Reflection is vital. Admiration is of minor consequence. Reflection must take place — people must think. Every artist is a philosopher to some extent.
Is the theme of rural life close to you?
I was born in the city. However, in my childhood, Vitebsk was a large village for me. I saw ordinary men and nature. This was enough for me to feel close to the land.
You lived through the war but the war theme has failed to become your major inspiration…
In 1943, I was severely wounded and stopped thinking about whether I would become an artist. However, I continued drawing. The negation of war is natural for all of us. I was not interested in the war theme. After the war, new life began.
How do you treat awards?
Military awards play their role; however, civil awards are also important — it’s pleasant when your artistry is recognised. The same could be said of titles. I was the second young-generation representative to receive the ‘People’s Artist’ title.
You’ve been recently proposed for the Union State Award…
I don’t think much about it; I have no time — I need to work.

By Victor Mikhailov
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