Leonid Shchemelev: Teaching good
[b]It’s always vital to be able to share professional and life experience, even in the delicate sphere of art. People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev believes that there are many ways in which we can share our creativity. Of course, many know of this prominent master, as his legacy is huge. He has vividly and clearly realised himself[/b]Shchemelev’s creativity enables us to see incredible beauty in our landscapes and diversity in our environment, as well as dignity and nobility in human nature. His art is fascinating in its natural simplicity, having charm and beauty; his works are natural in every sense. Today, he is widely known as a master of contemporary Belarusian art, having been awarded the title of People’s Artist and laureate of the State Award of the Republic of Belarus.
Shchemelev’s creativity enables us to see incredible beauty in our landscapes and diversity in our environment, as well as dignity and nobility in human nature. His art is fascinating in its natural simplicity, having charm and beauty; his works are natural in every sense. Today, he is widely known as a master of contemporary Belarusian art, having been awarded the title of People’s Artist and laureate of the State Award of the Republic of Belarus. He has received the prestigious Frantsisk Skorina Medal and has enjoyed dozens of personal exhibitions at home and abroad, while taking part in international artistic forums. His pieces have been acquired by museums and galleries across the globe, as well as by private collectors in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, the USA, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Iran and Israel.
Here, we focus on Leonid Shchemelev as an artist whose professional experience has enriched the development of Belarusian pictorial culture. He is a master who has influenced the creativity of modern Belarusian painters in so many ways. Our conversation at his studio was dedicated to this topic.
To what degree does the professional and creative growth of a young painter depend on their teacher?
Teachers should treat young artists sincerely. I see teachers as having an understanding of high culture, although they don’t need to be great painters themselves. They do need to understand the essence of art in order to help their pupils’ progress. Art is produced only by the most able.
Do you speak from experience?
Of course. I’m not speculating; I know this for sure. I always yearned to teach but it’s now too late, as it requires much effort. I once taught at a school for talented children and then at an art school, which I loved, but I left to pursue my own creativity. I really wanted to work at the Institute, but the feeling wasn’t reciprocated.
Surely, not every painter can become a teacher. Much depends on their cultural and intellectual experience and ability to pass on knowledge.
You’re right. It’s the only possible approach towards teaching art. A painter can’t just take the place of a teacher; they need to have an endless desire to teach. Pedagogic activity ties together our country and its culture. A teacher is like a creator, always opening something to reveal what lies beneath.
When a pupil breaks away from their teacher, it’s like breaking the past from the present. French pictorial art seems to have lost much because of this.
You’re right that France has lost many of its traditions. French painters used to demonstrate love for their homeland through their art, encapsulating the spirit of all things. Their work now lacks this element.
You’re thinking back ten, twenty or forty years ago, when a creative community existed. Does its passing concern you?
Perhaps… I was born and raised in Vitebsk, so was brought up with interesting painters from childhood. I gained a great deal from attending Vitebsk’s school, where gifted people taught us. The Metallist Club held exhibitions and encouraged discussions, as I well remember. Of course, this influenced my choice of profession and my attitude. After the Great Patriotic War, I entered Vitebsk’s Art School, taught by the wonderful Lev Leitman. It was an interesting period, when the horrors and fears of war could be shaken off and you could take delight in some other occupation. Mr. Leitman was very interesting as a teacher, bringing you into his inner circle of understanding.
Other teachers were good and bad and I finally left in 1952, entering university in 1953. There, I began to understand the nature of pictorial work within Belarus and the former Soviet Union. My teacher, Vitaly Tsvirko, became an integral part of his pupils’ lives. I felt close to him, finding him very interesting; his teaching was enlightening. The most vital lesson I received from him was to respect my brush and paints. Moreover, I learnt to respect artists worldwide.
Tsvirko was not only an interesting teacher. In 1955, an exhibition at the Dresden Gallery in Moscow attracted thousands of people from all over the Soviet Union. You had to queue for several days to see it. Mr. Tsvirko organised our trip to this exhibition, allowing us to spend several days viewing free of charge. We had great respect for his efforts on our behalf. It’s difficult to imagine this situation today. We need our conversation about art to be broader, as society can’t grow without progressive understanding of this sphere.
You still come to your studio to work every day. To what degree are your current works contemporary and what elements from the past inspire you? You combine the past and the present, don’t you?
Art has its own attitude towards the world: what has been and what is. For example, I’m working on the 1812 war, when France attacked Russia, trying to perceive those events in a new way. Historical moments need to be understood; it’s at the core of everything. However, I’m also a contemporary person, more concerned about the present than the past. The past and future can be viewed in the light of modernity. I’m keen on modern art, although my gallery in Minsk has a picture of Napoleon. It’s like a slice of the past and the present at the same time — today’s understanding of the past. Modern citizens’ perception of the world is significant. Art opens the door to a joyful tomorrow; it has always been so — even in ancient times. Ancient Greek artworks, which are unique, are delightful. Artists of that time depicted the world in a fascinating manner. However, it’s important to see the world more progressively, in its development. This will bring more benefit.
You’re visited by foreign guests. How do they perceive your works?
I’ve been visited by French, Turkish and American guests. I felt that they were aware of the national language and perceptions. Recently, three young girls arrived from France and, remarkably, their attitude towards art was identical to ours. They saw life through an understanding of themselves. Their respect for the mastery of paints and colour reveals their attitude towards their country. Many people want to see what an artist produces but I’m eager to see joyful creativity and to see how they reveal the essence of life. If a person feels the pulse of life, it’s always interesting.
From the autobiography of People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev:
I was lucky. I was born in Vitebsk — a city of painters. In my childhood, I was surrounded by lovers of painting. They were amateurs, yet I learnt about colour, canvases and the aroma of fresh paint early on. The Dvina River was nearby and it’s still sacred to me. My impressions from childhood are connected with the delights of winter skiing, summer joys on the bank of the Dvina River, trips to my granny’s village and, of course, cinema.
All were interrupted by the war. In 1941, I went to the front, as everyone did. In 1943, I was badly wounded, near Mozyr. Later, I returned to the front after being released from hospital, fighting for Belarus’ liberation. I experienced difficult times during that terrible war. However, fate saved me and I began to study at Minsk’s Art School. I then worked as a teacher and, finally, entered the Art Institute in Minsk. I was lucky again in becoming a pupil of Vitaly Tsvirko. Being a prominent artist and teacher, he gave me the opportunity to see the world as I now understand it. I took to heart my first creative failures but soon began to exhibit at various exhibitions in Minsk, Moscow and elsewhere. Today, as ever, I work and rejoice at the successes of my children and grandchildren. The life of an artist is the best created by God, in my view. My delight at the world, full of wonderful paradoxes, expressed through joyful creativity, makes me happy.
Your teacher, Vitaly Tsvirko, preferred to avoid public appearances; his paintings spoke louder than his words. Which category of artists do you belong to?
I belong to those who love their profession and, if necessary, can express themselves simply in common language. Of course, I don’t study my own creativity or that of others. However, I do have a lot to say about Vitaly Tsvirko, as I am both grateful to him and admire him as an artist and as a person. When you study long and hard, you have many teachers. However, only one fundamentally guides you down your long and difficult road towards becoming an artist, helping you appreciate your own role in art and your degree of responsibility.
Vitaly Tsvirko was such a teacher for me. Being a great painter, he was able to give lessons in professional mastery, as well as sharing his human kindness and love for nature, which he felt sharply.
Maybe this is why landscapes and the moods of nature prevail in your works?
I have few ‘pure’ landscapes among my works; I tend to use landscapes for the composition’s background, with people or animals in the foreground. These complement and revive the landscape, while being logically connected with it, creating a picture. I’m searching for an accurate portrayal of life rather than seeking to explore a theme. I try to show my audience life itself and don’t invent anything.
How do you view the days when social realism ruled?
Talented masters always find ways to realise their creativity, making true masterpieces. One of the greatest drawbacks of social realism was the way that privileges, knowledge and posts were unfairly distributed. Of course, a painter’s own personality had a role to play in whether they succumbed to temptation; not everyone became infected with the disease. I find it difficult to say how many pictures I dedicated to the historical-revolutionary theme, as such works aren’t limited to showing the act of shooting people. Sometimes, a single face can show the fate of a whole generation.
Judging by your biography, you’ve toured a great deal of the Soviet Union, as well as Europe and Asia. What did you gain from these trips as an artist and for what were you searching?
I toured a lot — mostly through the former Soviet Union’s fifteen republics. Only the Far East remains. I also toured elsewhere; each trip resulted in a vast amount of artistic material. The most precious aspect was the chance to compare my new experiences with my knowledge of Belarus. I wanted to dedicate most of my pieces to Belarus and was keen to understand what ‘nourishes’ the creativity of outstanding artists in the USSR and abroad. What brings them popularity?
Do you know what I found? I realised the enduring truth that professional art grows, nourishes and blossoms only on its native soil, borne from folk culture and traditions. A painter can only achieve remarkable heights if they focus on what makes them unique, becoming well-known at home and achieving global recognition (becoming ‘supranational’). Artists should present their own perception of their native legacy as pan-European art.
You’ve said that you received the opportunity to compare and contrast your homeland with what you experienced abroad. How does Belarus differ from other states and how might it appear to someone newly arrived?
The first thing that should strike everyone is Belarus’ countryside; the land is covered in pure, spring-fed lakes and a network of small and large rivers crossing its length and breadth. These ensure that nature remains fresh and lush. You can’t help but notice. Our nature doesn’t fade; it only changes colour depending on the season, remaining vivid. The rich greenery of spring and summer is replaced by the wonderful shades of autumn: both solemn and cheerful. In winter, white snow and frost lace the trees irresistibly. Our nature is unique. It’s never tired, outworn from the Sun or clutched from severe frosts; it’s always live and fresh. This may explain why there are so many landscape painters among Belarusian artists.
You also have many portraits of those dear to you among your works.
Like all artists, I choose to paint what I love, for my own enjoyment. I love those close to me, so draw them with pleasure. I create portraits of those close to me in spirit and convictions with no less pleasure. In my opinion, they are good as they are.
I’ve seen your still-life paintings at many art exhibitions over the years. You have several here in the studio; they’re bright, emotional and beautiful, as are most of your works. Aren’t you embarrassed by the word ‘beautiful’ — recently used by critics in the same manner as ‘pretty’ and ‘with public appeal’?
I believe that beauty is a feature and function of art. It’s said that ‘beauty will save the world’ so why should we treat it negatively? Any work of art should be primarily beautiful, being created by an artist. Nature is beautiful and good, being filled with colour. Without this palette, life would be a desert. A good painter once said that we should learn from nature, emulating it to create true art. Folk art reveres beauty. It can never be incorrect to imitate what is beautiful in nature.
How do you manage to stay positive in these difficult times?
It’s always difficult to be an artist. I’ve experienced obstacles and losses and suffering, having lived through the challenging post-war years. These hardened me for my whole life. Today presents no difficulties for me compared to the past. Others still need my art, and I’m happy for it to bring joy, being displayed at exhibitions and in books. As long as people are alive, they’ll desire the beautiful, spiritual and perfect — under even the most difficult conditions. They are the characters of my works and I believe in them.
By Viktor Mikhailov