Motif of blossoming apple tree
[b]Belarusian artist Mikhail Rogalevich leaves his trace on national pictorial art[/b]Without exaggeration, the image of an apple tree was the starting point for Mikhail Rogalevich’s creativity — becoming known as his motif across dozens of artworks. Blossoming gardens and fresh views of apple trees in blossom fill his soul with the spirit of awakening spring and spiritual relaxation. His life was difficult and largely tragic, featuring recognition and honour for some time before being undeservedly forgotten. Mikhail enjoyed a perfect family life however, finding happiness, support and spiritual calm. Those close to him supported his work and helped him in realising his many creative plans.
Since his death, museums, institutions and collectors have been purchasing hundreds of his canvases and graphic pieces, leaving his huge, airy studio (which he received only after retirement) suddenly empty and cold. It once had almost no room due to the abundance of pictures…
His artistic legacy is well established, with over a hundred pieces acquired by a bank. A colourful booklet is being published showing his artistry while the new Museum of Modern Fine Arts has promised to allocate a whole floor to Rogalevich’s works — of which he could hardly have dreamed in his lifetime. His talent and contribution to national culture are at last recognised.
His first personal exhibition, dedicated to his 50th birthday, was hosted by Minsk’s Palace of Arts in 1983; it was an unexpected event — a revelation to many. Over a hundred paintings and almost the same number of graphic works (only part of his artistic achievements) filled two floors of the country’s largest exhibition site. His images and colours were full of energy, like intellectual ‘fireworks’; emotions, deep sense and feelings harmonised to reveal this talented artist to his countrymen.
Little was written on the eve of this exhibition, since his works failed to follow the traditions of socialistic realism. Stereotypical assessments found him lacking. However, society’s mood was shifting, with the same Palace of Arts hosting a display of Belarusian decorated carpets, alongside personal exhibitions by artists Piotr Sergievich and Mikhail Sevruk. The legacy of great personalities of national history and culture — Mikolay Gusovsky, Frantsisk Skorina, and others — was being rethought. Traditional folk holidays — Kupalie and Kolyady — had become widespread, with the focus primarily on Belarusian identification as an independent nation.
At that time, Mr. Rogalevich received worthy support, with his works touring Mogilev, Molodechno, Gomel and Vitebsk after Minsk. Iskusstvo Belarusi (Art of Belarus) magazine responded to the exhibition with several critical articles. Moreover, Maladost magazine, alongside Literatura and Iskusstvo (Literature and Art) weekly also published delightful reviews. His well-received works were at last recognised for their talent: a breath of fresh air for the artist. His art was unusual in its purity and openness, offering an honest opinion to audiences and a simple attitude towards life. From the 1960s, Mikhail Rogalevich tried not to miss a single Republican exhibition, taking part in each — sometimes with the whole range of his pictures.
His inspiration came largely from his own life. He worked eight hours daily as an artist-designer, creating his own works in his free time, so had no time to travel into the countryside. He drew whatever was close by, drawing on personal feelings and impressions. His images are certainly strong, arousing the emotions of all who look upon them. He was the first in Belarusian art to explore Stalin’s oppressive regime: Stagnation (1965), Violence (1965) and Navala (1976) describe the de-kulakisation of his family and the arrest of his father and brother. He also created a series of works dedicated to the hardships and sufferings of his mother — a true requiem: We Were Arrested Together with Mother (1965), Difficult Years (1978), Mother in a Remote Land (1980) and Recollections (1985). She was three times arrested after the arrest of his father and uncle, and failed to return home.
His other enduring theme is that of the rural dweller uprooted from village to city, carrying their ‘luggage’ of customs, traditions and world outlook. Of course, this was taken from his personal experience and reflected a social phenomenon of the time.
The intense industrial growth of Belarus during the second half of the 20th century brought labourers in from the villages to work in factories. However, their customs could not be changed quickly, having been formed over centuries. Naturally, Mr. Rogalevich did not forget his roots, bringing his folk customs to life via artistic activity.
The topic of family dominates his work, looking at the whole spectrum — including the less ‘glamorous’ aspects of life. His truthfulness and the power of his feelings are reinforced by creative maturity and professionalism, giving dignity to his works, as is fitting.
Mr. Rogalevich also explored the theme of love: Anton and Anna (1978) and Birthday (1985). The joys of his early family home are seen in Autumn (1980) and Gathering Apples (1982), which pay homage to family life. Having been orphaned as a child, he felt especially sharply the preciousness of family, defending family values as the greatest treasure.
Using various storylines, he outlines the ways in which urban life draws on the folk customs of those from the villages, revealing the unique beauty in the decoration of Belarusian homes. His distinctive personal symbols include a rushnik towel embroidered with red horses at its edges (his only possession inherited from his parents). The image is first seen in his diploma paper, Otvedki — a traditional custom celebrating first childbirth (1964), placed in the foreground as a family relic owned by the newborn’s father. It features again in Young Family (1978) and Autumn (1980) — symbolising spiritual legacy in its repeating depiction across several works.
Mr. Rogalevich also gives us the image of a hard-working woman time and again. It is an important accent of his art, showing self-sufficiency: Belarusian (1976) and The Present (1998). It penetrates his theme of family, showing respect and adoration for the dignity of working women: The Hostess (1966), Evening (1968), Morning (1975) and I Will Go to Harvest (1984). This becomes evident when looking at his graphic works, which include a series of drawings: ‘the one who sews’, ‘the one who knits’, ‘the one who washes’, ‘the one who cooks’, ‘the one who harvests’ and so on. Each is a virtuoso drawing, giving us a clearly distinguished character through powerful strokes and use of light and shade.
We see that his works are the tip of the iceberg of Mr. Rogalevich’s colossal creative potential. He presents the figure, movement and harmony of women in their eternal occupations, or elevates them to monumental magnificence (Memory, 1974). He sometimes gives the fictional characteristics of goddesses from ancient mythology who ‘spun the threads of life’ or ‘solemnly ran their fingers over the beads of time’ (On a Festive Evening, 1979; and Cranberry, 1983). He shows us something sacred and deeply hidden in womankind — truly worthy of glorifying. This is his greatest creative heritage.
The image of a working woman, the keeper of family life, long dominated his creativity. However, he gradually began to shift his focus to women as symbols of magnificence, stressing their divine creation. His idealisation continued for many years, with echoes of Botticelli and Modigliani. In fact, his main muses were his wife, daughter and mother. His most idealised female forms are found in Anton and Anna (1978), Tree of Life (about those in love) and What a Wonderful World (1974-1977), where he gives us a girl floating above the ground with a flower in her hand. His Birthday — or Love (1985) also deserves special attention, as his female form has an ethereal quality; we can only imagine that this represents his mother, who died in Stalin’s camps when he was still but a child. He draws her portrait many times, like an icon, using his single small photo (which survived by a miracle from her passport) as his inspiration. The young woman with beautiful curly hair is Anna Rogalevich-Alenskaya.
In this way, a series of portraits appeared, entitled My Mother (1968-1972), followed by My Mother in a Remote Land (1980) and Recollections (1985). Their high drama is balanced by charming use of colour and poetic form. Recollections is filled with bright metaphors, which continue through later works, including a rosebush of purple-red blooms. Its sharp thorns make us think of insufferable pain — that within his memory and that of the whole nation. There were so many losses during war for each
Mikhail Rogalevich had no desire to sell his pictures, viewing them as his children. He made exceptions only for Belarusian national museums, on the provision that a duplicate was made for him each time.
To earn his living, he worked as an artist-designer at the National Academy of Sciences’ Physics Institute, until retirement. He had his own study, in which he kept most of his pictures, hanging the others in lobbies and corridors. Others working there were his grateful audience.
In his free time, Rogalevich created portraits of ordinary research officers and famous professors and academicians; many have been on display at Republican group and personal exhibitions, with some purchased by museums. They are unique in showing the artist’s view of scientific figures as ordinary people, with the same anxieties and concerns as everyone. However, he also invests them with spiritual beauty beyond Earthly achievements. They are the most valuable of his works because of their phenomenal originality.
His images show those close to him (and himself) against the background of nature. Of course, most of Rogalevich’s art is autobiographical, as one title suggests: About Time and Myself (1992). We see the bank of a tumultuous river, with one tree moving away from the others, finding itself perilously close to the edge; its roots and trunk hang in the air, yet a neighbouring tree holds it by the branches, which are entwined, as if embracing. Even thunderstorms disappear, with a patch of clear sky sparkling between them. It is a metaphor for hesitation between the sky and the Earth, between death and life, in which we must search for support, primarily spiritual. We must ‘wait until clear skies appear’.
During times of trouble, it’s thought that art takes a backseat, yet Rogalevich’s exhibition at Minsk’s Palace of Arts is always full of visitors: painters and architects, as well as students and doctors of science, in addition to ordinary workers. Foreign languages are heard, showing that his art touches the most sacred part of all human souls, regardless of nationality.
It is part of the Belarusian psyche to yearn towards spiritual purity and elevation, eternal adoration of the beauty of life and the dignity of humanity. The artist suffered so much in his life yet retained his faith in people, exploring this via his true talent.
By Vasily Tikhomirov