People’s Artiste of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev is confident that art always reflects the spirit of the nation
Every time when I meet People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shсhemelev, I reproach myself for not having taken along a dictaphone, since our conversation is always fascinating and I feel as if I mustn’t miss anything. He shares details of his life and creativity, but also gives opinions on today’s world. Over his lifetime, he’s seen a great deal, having lived through the war and having travelled widely across the breadth of the Soviet Union, meeting interesting people from the Far North, Far East and Central Asia. Where he was inspired, he sketched their portraits or painted - on cardboard and canvas. He has quite a collection of such large canvases, which I’ve seen more than once.
Every month or two, I want to see his works again and chat more. My most recent interview brought me into contact with his daughter, who happened to answer the phone. Her pleasant voice called him over gently and I discovered that he’d been in hospital for three weeks. I felt rather guilty at not having known. I asked how he was feeling and was delighted to hear that he’s back on good form, already working again, although accompanied daily — by his daughter Lyudmila on this occasion.
I asked for us to meet, expecting that it might not be convenient, but he urged me to come the following week, asking me to call on Saturday, at 10am, to confirm. It was Thursday at the time. I called as requested, but at 10.30am, still anxious that I might be pestering inappropriately and worrying that he may be resting, but his first response was to ask why I was late in phoning!
He told me to come to his workshop in two hours and so, having asked again if it was convenient, and still a little nervous, I visited Leonid Dmitrievich. He opened the door himself and I thought he looked unchanged, but for carrying two canes.
“They help me get about,” he explained, welcoming me in.
His walls are still covered in pictures and works sit on easels. One canvas, yet to be begun, gleamed with the whiteness of primer.
“I’m not painting yet, as it’s hard to stand,” he admitted. He told me that he’d met an interesting fellow patient — a writer — with whom he was still in contact, and praised his hospital stay. “They’ve treated me and now I need to rest for a while; time will tell but I’ve been asked to give an exhibition, so I’m being kept busy.”
He asked about the news and then touched upon the cultural theme, showing his usual sincerity.
I switched on the dictaphone:
“Art cannot exist alone, being best connected with the country and society. Nothing develops independently. There are many artists, but few who can express the spirit of the nation, its culture and national trends. It was so yesterday and remains true today and will be so tomorrow. Everything can be learnt through art. Without meaning, pictures are empty vessels.
The Soviet period was interesting for its graphic culture. Huge exhibitions were held in Moscow, gathering artists from across Europe. In your magazine, the reader can enjoy articles on many subjects: not just politics. Nothing can exist without the expression of the spirit of nation; without creativity, nothing can exist.”
Should art follow life, or should art be a guide for life?
It’s very difficult to display the great variety of life. Art has always been at the forefront of mankind’s development. 3000 years ago, Greek and Roman art was to the fore. Later, Russia had such icon painters such as Rublev, whose works represented the spirit of Russia, in its unique beauty. All this is highly valued. Art reflected the time and looked a little towards the future.
From Leonid Shchemelev’s book, Paints and Rhythms of Time:
In the spring of 1952, Leonid Shchemelev met Sergey Katkov, who was a well-known children’s teacher and artist of the time. He offered Shchemelev a job teaching at the Studio of Fine Arts at Minsk’s Palace of Pioneers, where he had begun working with children before the war. ‘Why not try?’ thought Leonid and agreed. Moreover, it was the last year of his studies in college and the future was uncertain. In the past, in 1951, he’d gained some teaching experience, having taught drawing and drafting at a school, but he did not stay long.
At the request of the Palace of Pioneers, Minsk Art College provided the following character reference for 5th year student Shchemelev Leonid: ‘Shchemelev Leonid Dmitrievich, born in 1923, non-party, from a family of workers. He entered Minsk State Art College in 1947. Has good progress in special and general educational subjects. During his college studies, he has proven himself an undisciplined student, gaining penalties for violation of public order. He has not participated in the public life of the college.’
However, the Palace of Pioneers trusted the word of S. Katkov, who gave an excellent verbal recommendation of Shchemelev, and simply ignored the second part of the character reference. After all, at that time (Stalin was living) ‘active social activity’ was valued almost higher than an artist’s talent!
Shchemelev plunged into a new field of activity. His creative dialogue with children opened a new vista: first of all, deep respect for teaching as a science, with its techniques, allowing us to show children the world in all its beauty and magnificence.
Mr. Shchemelev emphasises, “It was a time when I realised that fine art culture goes beyond the simple desire of an adult to teach a child to draw. It is the ability to teach children understanding, including the reason for drawing and personal motivation, and what attracts us in this motley world of reality and imagination: how children, according to their age, are inspired by subjects or phenomena, being driven to immediately embody these on paper. I prized our creative trips across the USSR, where children could see and ‘feel alive’ not from books and adult stories but visually, with their own eyes and heart. When I worked at the Palace, I realised that teaching could become the second important occupation of my life, after painting of course. At that time, it was all I could think of, although I refrained from sharing these thoughts with anyone...”
Painter Valentina Sventokhov-skaya says:“I recollect with trepidation the Fine Arts Studio at the Palace of Pioneers, which was directed by Leonid Dmitrievich. His studio classes were fascinating for us young boys and girls, opening a new and unfamiliar world: that of art. Certainly, teaching should be inspired from life; accordingly, during the summer holidays, Shchemelev took us to paint outside, under his guidance. He always drew nearby and besides teaching us to ‘blend paints’, showed us how to make a fire, and cook soup and porridge on it.
He taught us values and opened our eyes to the world, resplendent in multi-coloured shades on sunny days or in thinner tints during gloomy weather.
I’m very grateful to him not only for those months of studio studies, but for all the following decades, which brought us closer in our common artistic space. For six years, from 1968, side by side, we taught at the Republican Music and Fine Arts Boarding School, where he proved himself an excellent teacher. The main thing that I’ve learnt from Shchemelev is that whatever difficulties may arise in life, we must pursue our desires. This is art; don’t live in the clouds but find the most beautiful of what lies around you, in your immediate environment. Life is generous to those who bear their misfortunes bravely. He always taught pupils this and gave his all for them...
It’s true that Shchemelev always wanted to work with young people and, then and later, they surrounded him — like bees in a hive.”
Our conversation in the studio:
Shchemelev: Art is a complex process of man’s attitude towards beauty and to its essence. It is very interesting. Certainly, there are artists who see the world differently: probably not in the same way as some officials. However, art is not ipsation. An artist sees the world their way and expresses the essence of this world. I never hear or read that we do not need art. Our life is impossible without it.
Belarus, undoubtedly, has its own culture and respect for cultural heritage. I’ve participated in exhibitions since the 1960s, although very few people realise. My works were reproduced and sent to the UK and USA; it’s necessary to propagandise art.
Do you feel that people have an interest in art?
If I didn’t feel this, we wouldn’t be chatting about it. Many are keen to buy my works, but it really isn’t necessary to do so; you can simply look and discuss. People come from all corners of Belarus and I tell them the same as I’m telling you: art is an integral part of our education, capturing the essence of all that’s beautiful and best. Art used to be taught like other subjects, such as mathematics. This was not with the purpose making all pupils artists, but to encourage taste, knowledge and understanding of the aesthetic: skills useful in all walks of life. If the head of a company lacks such appreciation, it will reflect in their work. Think of Greek sculptures and how perfectly they were made. That artistic school is now lost and, sadly, many works are made without knowledge of art. In visiting me in my workshop and viewing my exhibitions, you become multi-sided. This is the purpose of art; it brings culture.
Interesting facts from Leonid Shchemelev’s life, heard from him at various times:
One year before graduation, in the fifth year, I had to choose my diploma thesis. I didn’t think for long. Certainly, it would be a picture of a rural wedding. There were certain reasons. Once, in winter, I was returning to Minsk from Vitebsk, where I had been to see my mother. I then decided to go to Bogushevsk to visit my aunt Anya, who lived there at that time, and was invited to a rural wedding. As is usual in Belarus, it was a noisy affair, filled with toasts, feasting, national songs and dancing. However, the first day of the cheerful holiday ended with a fight, broken windows, broken stools and benches and people beaten and battered.
I spent the night and slept soundly but was woken at dawn by a teenager inviting me to join them for another drink — to cure any hangover I might have. I said, ‘Are you kidding!’ I was surprised, expecting the police to be around after yesterday’s fight. However, the lad answered that everything was fine.
In fact, everyone was sitting at the table as proper as can be. Someone had a picturesque black eye and others had their head or hand bandaged but the whole atmosphere was warm and friendly — as if nothing had happened. People laughed, smiled, joked, and presented toasts to the bridal couple. I felt as if I was in a national mystery, where the world was eternally festive and filled with vigour. This special spiritual concentration of people, and their festive disposition, despite recent explosions of emotion, produced good feelings and sincere reconciliation.
On the same day, I went to another wedding and, as is traditional, the bride was ‘kidnapped’ by her friends. They blocked the street in order to collect money for her ransom. I imagined how beautiful it would be to see horses parti-cipating, but there was only one horse. One horse was not enough for my future graduation picture, so I drew two.
Basically, all my material was taken from life. Previously, I had little experience of depicting weddings. As a 3rd year student I had tried to show a rural wedding procession on the move in winter but the picture wasn’t well-received. After graduation from the Institute, I wanted to present it at an exhibition, but the members of the exhibition committee shrugged their shoulders saying, ‘Well, Leonid Dmitrievich, everything in your picture rushes and rushes... but where and what for — is not known...’ Only two people, who were not artists, supported my work: young literary critic Vladimir Gnilomedov and writer Mikhas Streltsov.
Vitaly Konstantinovich Tsvirko became director of the Minsk Theatre and Art Institute in 1958 and, while he was getting to grips with the labyrinths of administration, his diploma students were entrusted to an assistant in the painting department: Vladimir Stelmashonok — a recent graduate of the I. E. Repin State Academic Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. I showed him my first sketches of ‘Wedding’ and, given the go-ahead, began to develop the variations on the plot, to achieve optimal effect. One of my initial sketches, in colour (the largest side of which was one and a half metres), I gave to my friend, Boris Markov, a 3rd year student in the sculpture department. Then, I found out that Yelena Vasilievna Aladova, the Director of our Art Museum, wanted to buy the picture. It was too late by then, as I could not take back the gift. After all that, the examination board unanimously ‘failed’ my defence of my graduation thesis ‘Wedding’.
From Leonid Shchemelev’s book Paints and Rhythms of Time:
The situation was saved by Boris Ioganson who, on hearing the opinion of the commission members, gave his own assessment and focused on the author’s original approach in depicting the rural mood of festivity. He outlined the most successful (from his point of view) solutions and the members of the commission unanimously agreed, hanging down their heads. Shaking hands with Leonid, Mr. Ioganson said: ‘Don’t worry. It’s not the assessment that makes anyone a painter; it’s rather your attitude towards art and life over all…’
Those young people who were present in the hall burst into a storm of applause. One young man, Sasha Puteiko, came out of the crowd with a huge bouquet of chrysanthemums and roses — a student of the art school and one of Leonid Shchemelev’s pupils. Members of the commission even half stood, trying to guess for whom this luxurious bouquet was intended: Ioganson, Tsvirko?
The flowers were given to Leonid Shchemelev, which greatly embarrassed the judges. Meanwhile, the applause in honour of the person who, at first sight, had suffered such a fiasco continued on and on. It was impossible to stop the youngsters so nobody even tried. These young people were broadcasting, as if through the media, their psycho-energetic cosmos of opposition to ‘adults’!
In this respect, we may recollect the fates of Isaac Levitan and Konstantin Korovin. The wonderful diploma paper of Levitan, presented at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, wasn’t awarded a Big Silver Medal. Finishing his studies in 1883, he didn’t even receive the title of ‘classroom artist’ but a diploma designating that he was a teacher of drawing (calligraphy). When, in 1886, Korovin finished the same school, the pedagogical council also held back the title of ‘classroom artist’, making him ‘non-classroom’: having only the right to teach at a drawing school. Paradoxically, during this period of the late 1880s, he created a series of pictures destined to occupy a prominent place in the history of Russian art.
These days, when everything is so flamboyant at exhibitions and everything is allowed, when the public can no longer be surprised by anything, it’s impossible to imagine the devastating effect of the ‘Wedding’. This may have something to do with its figurative and expressive shortcomings, especially when compared to the works of his peers, but it highlighted the excessive seriousness of the other graduates’ paintings. The picture seemed strange in its integrity, being unusually personal. It penetrated not with exclamatory pathos but with lyrical intonations. The canvas seemed absolutely alien from the usual works, which were strictly ranked and regulated by thematic canons.
Today, it’s easy to see why Shchemelev’s success was built upwards from his ‘Wedding’; this work, rejected by high-brow authorities, was a success among young people, who viewed it as a bright example of its time, because Shchemelev was being bold and impudent, in a juvenile manner, confirming his own ideal. This made him unrivalled in popularity among young circles.
Our conversation in the studio:
Shchemelev: I held an exhibition in February, dedicated to my 90th birthday. It was a big affair, and included some works being sent to Baranovichi, where they’ve been on display for a month. Some stayed in Minsk, while several later went on to St. Petersburg, and remain there.
Until now, no museum has bought a single canvas; nor has the Union of Artists. Of course, like all artists, I have to live somehow, buying paints, canvases and subframes and paying for the studio. The Ministry of Culture should help artists more and remember issues of concern to painters. Moreover, we need to keep in mind what is most interesting in art and to what degree works reveal the world in an interesting manner. It’s vital.
Interesting facts from Leonid Shchemelev’s life, heard at various times:
In 1962, the ‘Wedding’ diploma work again came to light. It’s almost a detective story, which deserves to be discussed. A small group of friends were socialising: myself among them, and graphic artist Yuri Zaitsev — a pupil of the Stroganov College of Arts, who had just arrived from Moscow. We were wandering along the avenue and dropped into a shop located ‘under the clocks’, buying a couple of bottles of red wine. We began thinking where to go to drink them. One of our number, an administrative manager at the Young Spectator’s Theatre, suggested going to the theatre production workshop, saying that we could spend a couple of hours in a rather cultural way. The theatre was situated nearby and the key was in his pocket. Nobody would bother us so that was decided. As soon as we had laid our simple picnic on a bench, I saw something long and rectangular in the depths of the gloomy and dirty room, covered with a big piece of canvas. One corner of the artistic frame was visible beneath the cloth, as was one edge of the canvas.
I was extremely surprised to uncover this unusual thing and see my own diploma paper: ‘Wedding’. How could his picture — the property of the Institute — find its way into this room of stuff and dirt? The administrative manager snorted, saying that someone had brought it long ago and simply thrown it without explanation.
One thing was clear: the picture couldn’t leave the Institute without the knowledge of the rector’s office (in 1960, Pavel Maslennikov became Rector, after Tsvirko’s directorship). Clearly, they had wanted to get rid of it. As the picture wasn’t registered as belonging to the theatre by any document, the ‘host’ of the room suggested that I take it if I wished to do so — in return for a bottle of ‘Moskovskaya’. Without delay, Leonid collected money for two bottles. However, the question was where to place such a huge picture. The idea came immediately that the Art Museum, located nearby, would be best. Yelena Aladova quickly settled everything and advised me on how to proceed.
We took the picture, in its heavy frame, into the courtyard and, without hurry, walked to the museum, turning from Engels Street into Karl Marx Street. It was Tuesday — a day-off for the museum — but the director was there, as always. I told Aladova the essence of our business and he shrugged his shoulders: ‘I don’t know what to do with the picture now. It will be a pity if it disappears…’
Aladova didn’t think long, saying: ‘Leonid Dmitrievich, don’t worry. First of all, don’t say anything about the picture to anyone. Secondly, ask your friends to remove this bulky frame from the sub-frame and take it away. I will take care of everything else…’
A couple of months later, unexpectedly, Aladova drew out an honorary payment to me for the painting: around 700 Roubles. I used the money to buy construction materials, including a truck of slag for foundations and, with the help of my father-in-law, built a studio in the courtyard of the house in Rabkorovskaya Street: a small shed of 18sq.m. I installed a potbelly stove with a pipe leading out the window, allowing me to work in winter.
Our conversation in the studio:
Is lack of cultural education felt nowadays?
Teaching is vital. Once, a teacher brought pupils to the studio. I spoke to them but all were silent. I asked them what they liked but they didn’t answer. Only one responded while the rest remained silent, not knowing what to say. It was good that they had been brought to me, and this should be done more often.
A painter becomes more confident on feeling the interest of society, feeling that they create not only for themselves but for other people and for the country where they were born and brought up. These days, many live for the moment: eating, sleeping and going to work. Previously, times were hard. From 1947-1949, people had nothing to eat for days but there was a goal. Moreover, teachers were interesting and much older than their pupils, boasting huge experience. They were not great masters but they taught efficiently and it was interesting. Many passed away without leaving any scientific works but they did leave wonderful memories, which is extremely important.
Art isn’t an exclusive occupation for the few; art is for everyone. Why hang a landscape on your wall? People need to think. The same concerns cinema, which is a great shaping force on society. Some films are a real legacy. Think of ‘Battleship Potemkin’. It’s short but has great power. This is the essence of true art and many such films have been made.
Have you always been concerned or is this a recent passion for you?
Of course, I’ve developed in fits and starts, like everyone. I saw much after the war and took a fancy for something but my approach towards pictorial culture remained true. I create art to reflect my understanding of people. You can make a beautiful portrait but it may be unsuccessful in artistic terms. Serov painted Shalyapin: as displayed in the Tretyakov Gallery. It’s as big as my studio wall — some 3 metres. It’s unique in depicting both the person and personality.
I’d like to see artists give interviews more often, since my own opinions are just some of many. You may agree or disagree. Art is supposed to inspire debate. We have a population of around 10 million and 1,200 painters. If we are all engaged in abstract art, what would people see on visiting the exhibition halls? It’s a real issue.
Our conversation could go on for some time, but I remember that the great man has been recently signed out of hospital. I’m convinced that it’s not my last conversation with this People’s Artiste of Belarus. Our interviews will always be fascinating.
By Viktor Mikhailov
Personal passion guides me
[b]People’s Artiste of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev is confident that art always reflects the spirit of the nation[/b]Every time when I meet People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shсhemelev, I reproach myself for not having taken along a dictaphone, since our conversation is always fascinating and I feel as if I mustn’t miss anything. He shares details of his life and creativity, but also gives opinions on today’s world. Over his lifetime, he’s seen a great deal, having lived through the war and having travelled widely across the breadth of the Soviet Union, meeting interesting people from the Far North, Far East and Central Asia. Where he was inspired, he sketched their portraits or painted - on cardboard and canvas. He has quite a collection of such large canvases, which I’ve seen more than once.