Pictures as facts from the country’s biography

‘Art of Sovereign Belarus’ exhibition at National Art Museum reveals features of domestic art development against legacy of traditions and modernity, as well as artistic succession and experimental searches
The sovereignty gained by the Republic of Belarus in 1991 launched a new stage in the development of our national art culture. Years of independence have brought significant change to society and culture, launching a process of rapid modernisation, and the realisation of intellectual and creative potential in art and culture.

The opportunity for free creative expression, beyond ideology and censorship, has allowed unprecedented innovation. Meanwhile, our socio-cultural transformation has marked a transition from unified socialist realism and aesthetic conception to diversity of artistic ideas, movements, genres, forms and individual styles.

The visual art of this period reflects the fundamental spiritual and moral challenges of modernity, interpreting key elements within the public conscience, forming new trends. We have been exploring our national identity within the context of Belarusian culture.

Research has resulted in new fin­dings, informing gaps in our national history and ethnography. The artists of independent Belarus are eager to preserve the traditions of Belarusian antiquity, their artworks often accentuating our cultural roots. Inspired by ethno-cultural traditions, folk customs and fable heritage, they give us new interpretation of folk holidays, legends, tales and parables.

The works of Nikolay Seleshchuk, Zoya Litvinova, Nikolay Bushchik, Va­sily Kostyuchenko, Vladimir Kozhukh and Sergey Timokhov combine various ethno-cultural elements: traditional signs and symbols enter the context of contemporary art, coexisting with avant-garde expressive techniques and principles, offering new, modern interpretations. The ‘Art of Sovereign Belaru’s exhibition at the country’s main museum reminds us of these trends.

The exhibition didn’t leave visitors, especially the youth, untouched

Belarusian artists’ have helped promote preservation of our traditions through historical themes and motifs, many of which are undeservedly forgotten from our cultural heritage, despite having touched generations. These are the main art trends of our independent Belarus. Mikhail Savitsky, Lev Gumilevsky, Ivan Misko, Svetlana Gorbunova and Alexander Chigrin often portray historical figures and symbolic events from the past, while Mikhail Basalyga, Vladimir Basalyga and Vladimir Savich refer to magnificent historical victories, significant events for the nation and le­gends about glorious heroes. Meanwhile, Vladimir Tovstik and Georgy Sitnitsa enliven famous architectural monuments and historical images using an intricate postmodern labyrinth of thought.

The search for new spiritual foundations for the development of society has brought about the revival of religious themes in Belarusian painting, attracting older artists (such People’s Artists of Belarus Mikhail Savitsky and Gavriil Vashchenko) and ‘new wave’ artists (such as Natalia Zaloznaya and Igor Tishin). The general scope of Belarusian art goes beyond historical themes and national revival rends, including the avant-garde, with strong local traditions. For many Belarusian artists, our avant-garde heritage is a key influence, with abstract forms prevalent in the work of Anatoly Kuznetsov, Zoya Litvinova, Sergey Kiryushchenko and Galina Gorovaya.

Undoubtedly, since independence, we’ve introduced new meaning into all art forms: sculpture, graphics, and decorative and applied arts, as well as painting. Many of the exhibited authors explore historical figures and archaic motifs, combining traditional and innovative forms to express our cultural identity.

A common opinion among Belarusian painters is that Vitaly Tsvirko was and continues to be an unrivalled master of landscape. The creativity of this master is a true phenomenon in Belarus’ artistic culture which divided the existence of the landscape genre in the domestic pictorial art into ‘before’ Tsvirko and the way it’s currently developing.

Vitaly Tsvirko is rightfully consi­dered to be an innovator and a pathfinder in creating a special type of lyrical landscape — previously unknown in Belarusian art. It is the genre of landscape where Vitaly Tsvirko has revealed the best sides of his gift, the character of Belarusian nature and his philosophical contemplations. He was able to catch the most important in each motif which comprised its essence; however, he skilfully generalised his live and bright impressions with contemporary figurative devices. The artist has created epic canvases which have become classical pieces of Belarusian painting. External signs of time are almost always absent in Vitaly Tsvirko’s works. Meanwhile, the graphic structure of his pictures, originality of compositional solutions, powerful colours and expressive strokes completely correspond to the spirit of the epoch in which the maestro lived and created.

By his creativity this outstanding painter primarily laid the traditions of contemporary Belarusian landscape painting. Being a bright, talented and active person, Vitaly Tsvirko has brilliantly revealed himself as a teacher by bringing up a whole range of pupils, many of whom later made their unique contribution into the development of domestic art.

Probably, the school of Belarusian painting wouldn’t have formed in the form it now has without Vitaly Tsvirko. Among his numerous pupils he especially distinguished Leonid Shchemelev, Dmitry Aleinik, Boris Arakcheev, Nikolay Kazakevich, Georgy Poplavsky and Ivan Rei — those who later have also made bright names for themselves.

“He was passionate about everything,” recollects Mr. Shchemelev.” In late 1950s, 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 (a while group of students from Minsk) to spend several days in Moscow viewing free of charge. We had great respect for his efforts on our behalf.”

The roots of Vitaly Tsvirko’s creati­vity lead to the distant time of his youth spent in Gomel Region. The charm of rural paints, as well as poetic and melodious motifs of nature, has left an imprint in the young boy’s heart. The post-revolutionary village, where life was busting and where young people were trying to realise their dreams, has opened the road for Vitaly Tsvirko into an alluring and unknown world of art. His fancy for painting has led the would-be painter into Vitebsk Art College which he finished in 1932. In 1935, he took part in the artistic exhibition in Moscow and his success there resulted in his entering the Moscow State Academy Art Institute (named after Surikov). At present, Vitaly Tsvirko’s works are kept at the National Art Museum of Belarus, the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and other museums of the Russian Federation, as well as in the collections of the Belarusian Union of Artists, the Modern Fine Arts Museum in Minsk, the Belarusian State Museum of the Great Patriotic War History, local museums in Belarus, alongside private collections in our country and abroad. The collection of the National Art Museum is one of the largest, boasting 156 works by Vitaly Tsvirko.

Actually, Leonid 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.

Leonid Shchemelev is 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.

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 artist 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 visiting 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.

Undoubtedly, the pictorial art of Belarus is a dynamically developing system in which traditional types and innovation forms supplement each other and brightly express the features of cultural identity. Probably, this is the reason why there’s no dominating stylistic trend. We see examples of classical realism and geometrical abstraction, impressionism and expressionism, across sculpture and canvases. Contemporary Belarusian art has many faces.

The exhibition provides a unique opportunity to become acquainted with the work of artists across various generations and demonstrating diverse techniques, whether classical or experimental. They address our values, seeking to express their love for Belarus through art. Among them are M. Savitsky, G. Vashchenko, V. Gromyko, P. Maslenikov, A. Kishchenko, M. Dantsig, V. Stelmashonok, and A. Baranovsky, not to mention Presidential scholarship holders O. Melnik-Malakhova and R. Sustov (awarded by the Special Fund of the President of the Republic of Belarus for the Support of Talented Youth). The exhibited pieces are original and unique, yet united in embracing our country’s independence, with its rich historical legacy and eye to the future.

By Veniamin Mikheev

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