Sincere views of Vasily Sumarev
[b]Honoured Artist of Belarus Vasily Sumarev was born in 1938 in Minsk. As a schoolboy, he attended the art studio at the Minsk Railway School, headed by painter Victor Versotsky. In 1959, he graduated from the Minsk Art School and entered the Belarusian State Theatre and Art Institute (Belarusian State Academy of Arts) in the painting department. His years of study coincided with a favourable period of development for Belarusian art, when bold ambitions and experimentalism reigned. His graduation painting, Raftsmen (1965), reflected his desire to explore the expressive classic Soviet ‘severe style’.[/b]
To understand the origins of Vasily Sumarev’s creativity, we need to travel back in time forty years, visiting him in his studio, where it is now quiet. In days gone by, it was filled with the laughter and high spirits of children, who painted, sculpted, made prints and wove tapestries on homemade looms. Collective creativity reigned. It’s difficult to imagine Mr. Sumarev working in such a lively atmosphere.
Since childhood, ever since he can remember, he has created art works. Early on, he helped his father and brother with carpentry. He then attended the children’s art studio at the railway school, before studying at the Minsk Art School and, then, at the painting department of the Belarusian Theatre and Art Institute, from where he graduated in 1965.
These years of study coincided with an interesting period in Belarusian art, when a new, post-war generation of young artists brought a spirit of daring and a search for truth, defying traditions. Mikhail Savitsky, Georgy Vashchenko, Algerd Malishevsky, Georgy Poplavsky and Boris Zaborov entered the scene, questioning old ways and opening new doors. Each exhibition caused a storm of controversy, capturing the imagination of students and young teachers alike, helping them become friends and colleagues.
Mr. Sumarev’s formative years were surrounded by this environment, shaping his fine art skills, his artistic taste and his very views on life and art. He found his own path, while learning from Mr. Konchalovsky the importance of fully experiencing life, its pleasures and rich colours. Through Kustodiev, he came to an understanding of the cultural importance of national origins and became fond of the Primitivist artists. After that, a major moment in everyone’s biography came, when it is necessary to think over the well-learnt paradigmatic notions and the formation of one’s own positions starts.
There comes a time in everyone’s life when we question all that we have been told or have read and form our own opinions. In fact, Mr. Sumarev distinguished himself as an original artist from his very first works: Raftsmen — his graduation painting — was exhibited at the All-Union Review of Creative Works by Art University Graduates.
This was followed, in 1966, by his first series of independent works, inspired by travels to Leningrad and Karelia — Urban Landscape, Northern Village, Pit and Chemical Plant — which went on show at a national exhibition of works by young Belarusian artists. Chemical Plant was then selected for the All-Union Exhibition of Young Artists. These works were greatly expressive, full of colour and shape, finding their summit in Chemical Plant, which showed the harsh features of an industrial building, painted in cold gradations of emerald-blue, black and white, with sharp angles of buildings reflected in the mirrored surface of the river. Meanwhile, pipes rear up close to one another, as if ready to burst, bringing tension to the composition. We are alienated yet fascinated. A state of alienation, which is specific for this landscape, is gradually changed with a sense of lyricism and personal connection towards what is happening. These qualities are gradually becoming more common for his creative works.
In Frost (1966) gloomy shades recede gradually, creating a newly awoken frosty morning, when everything is cloaked in mist and a sense of the unreal, yet is already permeated with the rhythms of the coming day and the warmth of human presence. Small figures in the foreground and silvered trees beyond create an encircling feeling, drawing us closer into Sumarev’s world, which seems to acquire several dimensions. Reality and dreams merge, coloured with childhood memories and lingering
echoes of the past.
Mr. Sumarev’s portrayal of his hometown, in TPP-2, coincided with the 900th anniversary of Minsk, showing the city in all its diversity, combining architectural images from different eras and fragments of nature, as seen from his windows and on walks to his studio or city centre. We see the house where Mr. Sumarev was born and raised, alongside ordinary suburban people and their everyday concerns, depicted with amazing warmth. He gives us the familiar from an unexpected point of view, intriguing us to look closer. Minsk’s sites transform into a new plastic composition, where familiar details — seen from unexpected points of view and from unusual angles — intrigue viewers. His works are rather like old engravings of city views, framed with particular scenes.
A sharp sight, observation, the immediacy of impression from what he saw in life and an increased interest to traditions, issues of stylistics, rethinking of the experience gained at the institute, and the search for own painting style — all is entwined in the works of Mr. Sumarev, determining the variety of his creative aspirations. He combines sharp insight and observation with fresh and vivid immediacy, created in his own style. At first glance, we might imagine that his art developed in one direction but this is far from true. His early attempts on the civic theme timidly echo the ‘severe style’ of early 1960s monumentalism: The Letter, The Return and The Rundown. However, almost at the same time, Mr. Sumarev created a series of paintings in various genres, with interesting interpretations, combining landscape and household patterns in a single composition, with definite plot — as seen in Frost and TPP-2. His use of folk art suits his ‘micro-world’ of stylised images and ‘miniaturisation’, where details are painted meticulously, including human gestures and facial expressions to create lifelike characters.
One series of scenes features a city square, with buses, shop signs and a queue at a kiosk. Called Sunday, it sparkles with rainbow colours, high spirits and light. In Merry Winter in Loshitsa, we see festivities painted with boundless imagination and almost childlike candour. The colour palette is quite musical, while his reverence conveys the feeling of a winter fairy tale, populated with children who resemble tin soldiers.
His love for children and sincere belief that every child has an artist inside them colours his works, which also display a naive charm, extravaganza of colour and courage in combining the unusual. Perhaps, only professional perfectionism and a sense of humour protect him from deliberate Primitivism. It would be easy for him to fall into thematic works — such as we see in his Physical Culture and Sport or Always on the Lookout, which seem to be created half-playfully. The same deliberateness is felt in his vividly orange Hot Day. Training Firefighters (early 1970s) with its fiery red trucks and human figures before an urban background of smoke. We see slogans on buildings and a courting couple by a fountain, as well as a fussy old woman taking her goat into a courtyard. It’s like a fairy tale, where real life slows and we watch from above, distanced. The perspective structure of Sumarev’s compositions with consistently high horizon makes it possible to disclose the maximum possible area of observation and populate it to the uttermost while also to view the space as conventional environment. This technique is evident in The Day Awakens, where silver tones sparkle like precious metal. Conventionalism of the space is emphasised here with very refined, almost silver colour, sparkling as a precious metal. His New Year Soon to Arrive presents the colourful kaleidoscope of a market fair, dominated by crimsons, yellows and blue shades; a carousel spins around a huge tree, with its interlaced branches and flocks of birds. He captures specific details, while keeping each within its place in the overall composition.
A lot of scenes, episodes and plots do not violate the integrity of the experience. With all the ‘verbosity’ of the works Mr. Sumarev remains an interesting and thoughtful interlocutor. It’s impossible to be bored by his works, where detail and plot tell a clear and credible story. The sense of ‘looking within’ a slice of the life of others is enduringly fascinating, allowing us to return to his works again and again with the same excitement.
My House (1970) — a large-scale work — has been exhibited many times, with popularity, and is currently housed by the Tashkent Museum of Art. At the request of the Ministry of Culture of Belarus, Vasily Sumarev has made a copy, placing it in his own carved wooden frame. Part of the diverse panorama of Soviet art from the 1970s, its bird’s eye view of Minsk depicts a red, two-story wooden house at the centre: the home in which the artist was born and raised, close to the railway. He shows us the world of his childhood with optimism, since neighbours look out from the windows, celebrating a wedding. Others are drying fish; in the street, painting characters are talking, doing exercises, reading a book. World of home is full of details of everyday life, remembered by the eye of the artist in childhood. The painter skips all sad and pathetic that is stored in memory, and shows us the purity of the children’s hopes, aspirations and warming with soul’s warmth attention to seniors.
My House truly captures his essence as an artist, showing how life comprises a multitude of simultaneous events. His stylised folk art reflects that which lives in his heart. It is no reaction to what is considered fashionable; it is the most appropriate style for his memories. My House is a ‘family photo’, depicting relatives and neighbours, memorable episodes and feelings from childhood, adolescence and youth. These form a panorama of life, set against a background of new town building, helicopters and rushing trains... Against this drama, the merry red house sails through the years, like a fabulous ship. Once, it seemed huge and sunlit — as depicted in the painting — filled with glowing colours and wide-open windows. It hosted weddings, the reading of books, the drying of carp and other scenes of everyday life.
The artist repeatedly returns to his favourite subject, looking closely at what is happening in ‘his’ house. He focuses in, providing a close-up of a single window in The Wedding: created two years after My House. His desire to highlight the window with the wedding as an independent composition is significant, showing his need to move towards portraiture, giving a more thorough evocation of the inhabitants of the house. His Still Life with Laska — created the same year — shows us inside the house, with household objects representing their owners. One window is open wide to the sunny world while another is closed off from prying eyes, filled with crumpled newspaper. A table is half covered with a white cloth, on which stands a cup and empty milk bottle with a flower; underneath, is a flop-eared mongrel, Laska. The other half of the table has a cutting board and meat grinder with blood-red meat.
Mr. Sumarev combines simplicity with gravity, inspiring us to think. Two of his works, painted at different times and on different topics, are good examples. One is devoted to war and the other to the Revolution: October. Its sharp form and colour, symbolic structure, shifts of perspective and energetic angles transform the city into a globe, surrounded by beautiful demonstrations. Again, we look down from above. It is as if years and distance give monumental scale, despite the small size of the canvas. Mr. Sumarev’s hand in the work is obvious.
Panorama of events can be seen from a height, as if through years and distance that gives the painting a monumental scale, despite its small size.
A symbolic generalisation, to which Mr. Sumarev moves in this picture and that may seem not very typical for his style yet peculiar for the artist’s worldview, Sumarev’s intonation is felt in it, as well as the particular imaginative vision that characterises all his creative works.
At the time, Mr. Sumarev was impressed by the first capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Novogrudok, drawing inspiration from this historic region of Belarus. His Tale of Novogrudok (1976) presents a romantic, moonlit hillside landscape, featuring the ruins of an old castle, giving a sense of legend. Meanwhile, My Mother’s Land is one of the clearest examples of traditional, epic landscape painting in 1970s Belarusian painting. We see his deep respect for nature (he loved to paint outside) and the traditions of the school. His landscapes are worth special mention, being so vividly alive, with an emotional narrative and, often, clear plot. In Sumarev’s landscapes, spatial environment — simulated with the colour — becomes a habitat scene of novels, when different beginnings co-exist on one canvas either in harmony or in contrast — colour and graphic, emotional and narrative. Sometimes, the plot motif, brought into the landscape, becomes a component of the plastic composition.
Five Minutes of Rest combines various styles, giving us emotional and philosophical insight. It lacks his usual composition and plot, using an impressionistic interpretation of colour and vague forms, reminding us of memories of war. Meanwhile, his still life works are interesting in imbuing household items with a deeper metaphorical impact. His Blue Still Life, Eastern shows a decorative glass and tray; we cannot help but wonder to whom they belong. He achieves results significantly beyond the narrow scope of his experiment and plays with trends and styles without any clear schedule of evolution. He revives particular genres repeatedly — sometimes with a touch of humour or naivety, sometimes a little harsh, but always sincere and open-minded.
Honoured Artist of Belarus Vasily Sumarev holds many state awards, including his recent Order of Frantsisk Skorina. He is also a laureate of the rare ‘Friend of Children’ award, for his many years of work with gifted children. Immediately after graduating from university, Mr. Sumarev became head of one of the most famous children’s art studios, at Minsk’s Textile Workers’ Palace of Culture. No doubt, his work with children over so many years shaped his own creativity.
You’ve always striven to do something for children, without being paid.
Once for a year, I’ve designed paintings at the two children’s cafes in Minsk’s Gorky Park: countertops and wall art. The city authorities asked me what I’d like to be paid but I refused the offer, saying that I didn’t need to make money from children. They smiled and promised to call, so I admitted that I didn’t have a phone. The next day, the phone was installed. In 1989, I was nominated for the Republican ‘Friend of Children’ award. I’d previously visited a home for disabled children in the Ivatsevichi District, where I met a boy who needed dentures. He’d entered an electricity transformer vault and burned his hands. I promised that, if I got the award, I’d give the prize money to the child, and kept my word.
If it’s no secret, how much did you receive?
A thousand Roubles: a large sum at that time. We, artists, earned good money then, although that is hardly relevant. I’ve always remembered the golden words: ‘always do your best by others’. This is my guiding principle in life.
Mr. Sumarev believes that his years of work in his studio have been the best of his life, giving him spiritual fulfilment. His My World depicts him among many students creating their first ‘masterpieces’. A swallow flies into the room through the open window; of course, swallows are messengers of hope for young creators of beauty.
As to the recipe for artistic success, Mr. Sumarev is convinced that personal dedication is essential, alongside finding your own ‘voice’ and inspiration. He also believes that art should show our love for the world, enabling others to share our passionate visions.
From painting his famous My House, to his recent Fatherland, which decorates the interior of the new National Library of Belarus, more than 35 years have passed. His style is always recognisable in its use of poetic folk art and his intimate relationship with his characters and homeland. My House restores half-forgotten memories of early childhood, showing us the simple, everyday, peaceful life of his friends, relatives and neighbours. This he admires warmly and fondly.
Of Fatherland, Mr. Sumarev says, “Each age has its memorable cultural characters. The city of Novogrudok is one such: a legendary symbol for Belarusian people. When, 30 years ago, I saw this city for the first time, with its Castle Hill and the ruins of a 13th century castle, I was seized by such excitement that I couldn’t paint this miracle. Since then, I’ve depicted Novogrudok many times, at various times of year. I painted Fatherland for the library to show my emotional relationship with the history of my native country, which endures today. History moves forward, bringing good people into the world: kind, generous, funny, sometimes sad, hardworking and courageous. I tend to show my contemporaries in a fun, sparkling, festive atmosphere: at weddings, sporting competitions and other such events, and in lively scenes. I never paint definite locations, creating a generalised image of our homeland, with everlasting spiritual continuity and nostalgia.
By Victor Mikhailov