Artist Alexey Zinchuk knows about the 1941-1945 war first hand, belonging to the generation which had to survive those troubled years. Naturally, his path to art has been more circuitous than that of many of his colleagues
He was born in the Belarusian-Ukrainian Polesie village of Bratalov in Zhitomir District, where he spent the first twelve years of his life. There, he met the fascist occupation. After liberation, the strong teenager was sent near to the front, as a subsidiary service soldier — digging trenches and creating models of military equipment to disorient German pilots. They often used horses to bring food to soldiers at the front, as it was impossible to drive, and the wounded were brought to the rear in the same fashion.
“Roads in Ukraine were so muddy in spring that nothing short of a tank could get through,” recollects Mr. Zinchuk. “We had to use horses. I have a picture called Front Roads.”
The military topic is vividly portrayed in his works, in portraits of grey-haired front-line soldiers. “Front Roads” reflects reality, of which the artist is well aware, having walked many kilometres of military roads during those severe years. Military columns, going into the core of war, are depicted in the background, while a cart of wounded soldiers moves in the opposite direction, placed in the forefront. Near a horse there stands its colt, symbolising new life.
What was unique about that time? You’ve chosen to dedicate your work to our Great Patriotic War Victory for a reason...
Famous historical personality Marshall Georgy Zhukov has always interested me. When my elder brother was serving in the cavalry in Minsk, in the 1920s, Zhukov arrived and my elder brother came to know him well. He told me much about him and the idea of painting on the theme of the Victory came to me.
This work is very symbolic, isn’t it?
Yes, its topic is interlinked with religious motifs. Marshall Zhukov acts as George the Victorious.
After the war, Mr. Zinchuk had no desire to stay in the village, so moved to Minsk, staying with his elder sister. He studied at the aeroclub and was then called up for military service in the army. He served in the air force as a pilot and parachutist and, in 1953, was sent to Korea to train others at service aerodromes. There, he surprised himself by starting to draw. He returned to Minsk with a strong desire to study pictorial art.
“I was involved in art even before starting my studies,” notes Mr. Zinchuk. “I’d been a self-taught painter for a long time. When I served in the army, I used to paint to order; they wanted me to stay longer in the army but I decided that I lacked knowledge and wanted to study.”
He again came to Minsk after demobilisation, attending evening classes. He’d only reached fourth grade when war had broken out. He finished school with excellent marks and received an unconditional offer from the Architectural-Construction Technical School. In his third year, he transferred to the Art Training School, where he studied for five years while working at Minsk’s Watch Plant as the chief artist.
I thought that I was too old to study further and that art school would be enough for me. However, the Rector of Minsk’s Theatre and Art Institute, Pavel Maslennikov, told me, when we defended our papers, that I needed to continue my studies. I graduated from the Institute’s prestigious Monumental Department, where I was taught by such artists as Gavriil Vashchenko, Alexander Kishchenko and Mai Dantsig. I was on friendly terms with them and they taught me a great deal. We were almost the same age, Mai Dantsig was even one or two years younger than me and Gavriil Vashchenko was one year older.
My first work project after graduating was a stained-glass window for the exhibition complex in Minsk. My second stained-glass window was made for the Institute of Automation, containing mosaic elements. Both were collective projects. I also implemented a range of projects independently in Molodechno and painted the lobby of Rodina Cinema; it still exists. My number of state orders then fell off and I shifted to easel painting to keep my hand in.
He is in his studio almost every day, including weekends and holidays.
I enjoy the process and constantly exhibit my works. Recently, I’ve had a personal exhibition every five years: when I was 70, 75 and 80 years old. I also plan an exhibition for my 85th anniversary. Many of my works are kept abroad.
Which topics attracted you over the years and gave you most pleasure?
I used to paint portraits of front-line soldiers and heroes of the Soviet Union. Veteran Basov was Chief of Security at the Watch Plant and told me a great deal about the Dnieper River crossing. They had to spend a month in the tank, as they were blocked by the Germans and couldn’t leave. They were bombed and raked with gunfire by the Germans, but they survived. Later, Basov was awarded the title of Hero. I still create portraits of veterans and donate these to them after exhibitions. The topic of war and Victory will be present in my artworks forever.
How would you characterise those who experienced the war? What is in their soul to distinguish them from their contemporaries?
When I served in the army, front-line soldiers heartily welcomed us. They treated us as if we were their children and shared their combat ration. After the war, the generation gap widened.
Was it difficult during those military years?
Yes. Firstly, there was no salt, sugar or kerosene. We had to get these somehow so I learnt how to make needles to earn money. I took a nail, straightened it, cut its head, flattened one side and thinned down the dint with another nail until a hole was formed. It took approximately a week to make a needle. We disassembled shells for the powder and I was lucky; I disassembled many shells, but, thank God, remained alive. Everyone was hungry so, in summer, we ate leaves if they weren’t too bitter. Linden leaves were very good, alongside those of fan-hen and nettle. My father died at the beginning of the war, so I was alone. I stayed with various relatives for quite a while.
You have many portraits at the studio depicting young people. Why does the younger generation interest you?
Each person possesses something unique. For example, this is a picture of an artist called Svetlana; I’ve captured her passion for her work. Sometimes, I see an interesting character while driving or something touches my inner world and I wish to capture the moment. When you’re drawing, it’s as if you’re communicating with someone.
What are your next creative plans?
It’s difficult to make plans. You should just work and keep exploring. Keep up with the latest trends, rather than lagging behind others, and note how society is developing. You want to be at the epicentre of events. I still want to draw what I like and what is beautiful to me. I’m preparing for an exhibition within the next three years… so still have plenty of time. It will showcase still-life works, landscapes and portraits. Everything comes from life.
The experienced master retains his own style, and is creating works today which differ from those of the past. Personalities allure him, making him reflect, but he is also keen on still-life painting, which he finds relaxing. He likes to experiment, combining images with associations and recollections from the past. Moreover, he has taught for 40 years. In the early 1970s, Mr. Zinchuk took a position at Minsk’s Art School, which boasted a unique creative atmosphere.
Each of his courses and almost every group had pupils of school age, alongside adults — who were inspired to study after army service or having worked for some time. There have been many enthusiastic and talented young boys and girls among his students, all working to an exceptional level. In his forty years of teaching, Mr. Zinchuk has managed to raise a large number of promising painters. He can confidently say, “I am immediately engaged in the development of our national artistic school, where each can reveal their individuality.” According to Mr. Zinchuk, only this path brings success.
At present, Mr. Zinchuk is the youngest veteran in the Belarusian Union of Artists. His path to the future leads on from his recollections of his young military years. He has a great deal to remember, spending much time in front of his easel with a clean canvas. There is so much to capture. He connects contemporary life with the bygone age.
By Victor Mihailov
Paths leading to future
[b]Artist Alexey Zinchuk knows about the 1941-1945 war first hand, belonging to the generation which had to survive those troubled years. Naturally, his path to art has been more circuitous than that of many of his colleagues [/b]He was born in the Belarusian-Ukrainian Polesie village of Bratalov in Zhitomir District, where he spent the first twelve years of his life. There, he met the fascist occupation. After liberation, the strong teenager was sent near to the front, as a subsidiary service soldier — digging trenches and creating models of military equipment to disorient German pilots. They often used horses to bring food to soldiers at the front, as it was impossible to drive, and the wounded were brought to the rear in the same fashion.“Roads in Ukraine were so muddy in spring that nothing short of a tank could get through,” recollects Mr. Zinchuk. “We had to use horses. I have a picture called Front Roads.”