Master class by Eduard Astafiev

[b]Famous Belarusian sculptor thinks of himself as a happy person[/b]Eduard Astafiev is 68 but looks much younger, perhaps because of his active lifestyle, being involved in sport. His bicycle, which he prefers to any other type of transport, is always on hand at his studio. Moreover, he loves his work. Today, he is one of the nation’s most prominent sculptors. We chat about his creativity and the essence of his profession.
Famous Belarusian sculptor thinks of himself as a happy person
Eduard Astafiev is 68 but looks much younger, perhaps because of his active lifestyle, being involved in sport. His bicycle, which he prefers to any other type of transport, is always on hand at his studio. Moreover, he loves his work. Today, he is one of the nation’s most prominent sculptors. We chat about his creativity and the essence of his profession.
How did you become a sculptor… consciously or accidentally?
Like all children, I was keen on drawing. Then, someone suggested that I copy something. I began doing so and became interested in caricatures. Life was rather difficult in the 1950s, especially as I was brought up without a father: my parents divorced while I was still young. I wasn’t very focused, so others stepped in to push me. However, I did love drawing.
I later discovered a studio at the Theatre and Arts Institute in Minsk, where famous teachers taught. I managed to attend for one year before going into the army. I also spent two and a half years working at a factory before joining the military. I have no idea how I managed to work and study simultaneously (finishing the tenth form) while also attending a studio and going out dancing.
After returning from the army, I again worked and applied for the Institute’s Design Department. I wasn’t accepted but it may have been to my advantage, as I then became interested in sculpture. I was advised to put on an exhibition at the Officers’ House and entered the Institute’s Sculpture Department, learning from outstanding teachers such as Alexey Glebov and Andrey Bembel — both People’s Artistes of Belarus and great masters. I learnt so much from them. At the same time, I was studying at the Institute (now, an Academy). My colleagues had already finished college, while I had little experience. Taking my entrance exams, I didn’t even know how to make a ‘skeleton’ for a sculpture. After graduating from the Institute, I was sent to Vitebsk, keen to start from the bottom and work my way upwards.
I later moved to Minsk, as my family lived here. At first, I wasn’t given anything very responsible to do at the artistic factory but, after some time, when they saw my skills, I was given orders for serious monumental artworks. Each project was long-term, sometimes taking years to complete. It’s an intense process from design to completion. I took every order, since I needed to support myself and my daughter. We lived like students.
Did you gain fulfilment through monumental sculpture?
If that was true, I’d have retired! Of course, I continue to realise my potential with each year that passes.
Every artist has certain works which are especially close to their heart. The monument to Frantsisk Skorina is such for Mr. Astafiev.
Many sculptors and painters worldwide have dedicated their works to the first Belarusian book printer and enlightener Frantsisk Skorina. One of Rafael’s frescoes depicts a man similar to Skorina’s self-portrait, as published in the Bible he later released. It’s quite possible, as researchers say, that Skorina met the great painter, alongside contemporaries such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
The streets of many Belarusian cities are graced with monuments to Skorina, as are cities abroad. However, the sculpture of the Belarusian enlightener in Prague, where he began his publishing activity, is most notable. According to some historians, Skorina’s grave is also located in Prague and the ashes of his son also rest there.
Famous sculptor Eduard Astafiev was entrusted to commemorate the memory of the Belarusian enlightener in the Czech capital. Jointly with architect Yuri Kazakov, they visited Prague and agreed the site for the monument with local authorities. The 2.5m metal sculpture shows him with the first Bible in his hands, welcoming guests to the Czech capital in the public garden of the Old Town, just a few steps from the National Library. Curiously, according to Mr. Astafiev, five centuries ago, young Skorina used to work as a gardener in that exact spot. The sculpture has become a landmark for the history of two cities and for the artist himself.
Eduard Astafiev was born in Russia to a Russian father and Belarusian mother. His father — Boris Vasilievich — went to the front in 1942, when his son was just two weeks old. Leading a penal battalion, the chance of returning was slim, yet he did survive, coming home on crutches. Accordingly, the theme of war is close to Mr. Astafiev, who has created a sculpture to his father’s memory. Boris Vasilievich’s last surviving medal is ‘frozen’ in a granite piece, creating an eternal memory of an ordinary soldier’s merits and of the Great Victory.
Mr. Astafiev has created dozens of monuments and memorials in Belarus, dedicated to war. One honours prisoners of the death camp, sited at the cement factory in Mogilev Region’s Krichev. During the war years, the invaders tried to restore cement manufacture at the enterprise, fencing the surrounding area with barbed wire. A strongly guarded concentrated camp opened, where 18,000 people met their death.
Among its prisoners were Moscow soldiers taken captive in 1941: Alexander Okaemov, the first performer of Orlenok (Eaglet) song on All-Union Radio, and Gennady Luzenin, the Chief Choirmaster of the Moscow Philharmonic. They managed to contact Krichev’s underground partisan unit, for which Hitler’s soldiers tortured them. However, they refused to reveal any information and were eventually taken before a firing squad. Okaemov sang Orlenok song as he faced his death and the last words of his friend Gennady Luzenin were: ‘Farewell, life! Farewell, Homeland!’ The heroes were awarded ‘For Courage’ medals posthumously, with streets in Krichev named in their honour. A monument stands on the site of their execution.
The sculptor dedicated many works to the memory of Belarusian figures of history and culture, as well as heroes of war. Enough exist to create a whole gallery devoted to our fellow countrymen. The sculptor’s cherished dream is to make a sculptural composition of 12 portraits — like the Bible’s 12 apostles. These would depict Frantsisk Skorina, Yevfrosiniya Polotskaya, Kirill Turovsky, Kastus Kalinovsky and other Belarusian legends.
Eduard is always pleased to take part in open air workshops held in small Belarusian towns. He believes that this is a wonderful tradition, where new friends can be met and new discoveries made, inspiring further artworks which can be left to local residents. His monument to the founder of Svetlogorsk — merchant Shatile — was unveiled to mark the town’s 45th anniversary. Moreover, due to Mr. Astafiev, Svetlogorsk has become the first in Gomel Region to have a monument to its founder. Mr.Astafiev has left a ‘Dubochak’ sculpture in Grodno Region’s district centre of Ostrovets, which is called by local residents a ‘small Ostrovets resident’.
Mr. Astafiev underlines that he is interested in life in all its manifestations — as becomes obvious on viewing his exhibition at the Museum of Belarusian Literary History. Although it contains only a portion of his works, it shows much about his personality. Most are made from bronze, steel or glass, with a few from iron, a fragment of stone or a mirror. Each piece encourages us to ponder the great and heroic or simply to smile at life’s delights. The tragic and comic come hand in hand in Mr. Astafiev’s works.
Sculpture is so creative, as well as being labour-intensive. Has this ever produced obstacles?
No. When you feel an idea and your efforts bear fruit, it’s easy to smooth over any difficulties. When you succeed, you receive moral satisfaction. Of course, it’s physically difficult to work with stone; you need to wear a mask and glasses. However, the results make everything worthwhile.
Are you inspired by others’ ideas or are most of your works your own views on modernity?
Everything depends on whether a piece has been ordered or whether it’s my own creative work for an exhibition. If I receive an order, the theme is already determined. Five years ago, I was asked to create a monument to Roman Shatila, who lived in Shatilki village in 1560, on his own estate. The settlement later became Svetlogorsk, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Of course, the theme is interesting and I enjoyed working on it, researching costumes. I visited the theatre to speak to the chief director and spent a lot of time in the library, learning about the clothes and weapons of that time. The monument was unveiled in Svetlogorsk in 2006.
The town hosts open air sculpting workshops, so it boasts a great many works. It’s a pleasant place to visit, being surrounded by the forest, and the sculptures give the town its own identity. It’s a very cultural place, which reveres hand-made arts; I have a great many pleasant recollections connected with Svetlogorsk. So far, I’ve taken part in three open air forums there.
Your studio is filled with sculptures. What are your favourite themes?
Many of my works are connected with female images. Of course, sculpture requires a special approach. You need to prepare your workplace and ensure the right lighting. Back in the Soviet times, there were thematic exhibitions dedicated to sport, labour and agriculture, for which I made works. About 25 of my pieces are held by Belarusian museums, and I’ve made a similar number of memorial plaques, which are found in Minsk and other Belarusian cities. Recently, my memorial plaque to General Morkovkin was unveiled. He set up a border detachment in Smorgon (after the Republic of Belarus was established) and was then Minister of Border Troops.
Do you prefer realism when portraying people?
I studied the great masters of realism in the 1960s and early 1970s, so I understand their school. At that time, stylised, formal works were unwelcome; even now, I like to show real faces and figures. I aim for realism down to the smallest detail — even a beautifully tied knot, created in bronze or marble. Each piece requires its own approach and solutions.
What characterises the Belarusian school of sculpture? Can we be proud of our achievements in this sphere?
I think we can, as we’ve enjoyed the skills of great masters, especially in the post-war period. They set the tone in sculpture: Grubbe, Zair Azgur and Glebov. Years ago, I toured our Soviet republics, as well as visiting Italy, Poland, the Czech Republic, Georgia, Armenia, Moldova and Ukraine: each has its own school. The Baltic States boast their own approach while Belarusians capture amazing facial expressions. Alongside interesting architectural forms, this makes our sculptors instantly recognisable. Many monuments were created after WWII, when the tragedy of what had happened couldn’t be reflected fully on canvas. I believe Belarus possesses its own sculptural school.
Why is participation in exhibitions important?
It gives me the opportunity to show my creativity and my own concerns. Art is only self-expression through artistic images. I’m an individual, so I have my own perception of the world and my own way of portraying it. I see myself as a happy person, as I love my work. I can embody my ideas in metal and in other materials, bringing my essence to people.
Are you interested in others’ reactions to your works?
I have no desire to court popularity. I just live my own life and reflect my thoughts. We have artistic councils, where professional opinions regarding one’s works are expressed. I’m obliged to listen of course. These are the opinions of specialists, but I don’t really listen to the opinions of ordinary people.
What are you currently working on and what are your creative plans? Do you have any fresh ideas?
It’s no good letting yourself become stagnant. I’m currently preparing for an exhibition and have further promising plans.
What advice would you give young sculptors?
The wise Chinese advise us to embrace change and they are probably right. Crucial moments change our human interrelations and art. In the Soviet times, even young artists were given commissions; now, young sculptors have to find orders themselves. It’s very hard for them. I’d advise them to be confident in their strengths and remain optimistic.
What’s your creative ethos and what guides you?
Professionalism and honesty… don’t be afraid to redraft your work and don’t make anything you’d be ashamed of showing to others. Sculpture endures for centuries, so my works will be scrutinised by generations ahead. We should make sure that we’re proud of our works, and that our conscience is clear.

By Viktor Mikhailov
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