Space and time of Vladimir Prokoptsov

[b]The National Art Museum Director, Vladimir Prokoptsov, is 60 this year; President Alexander Lukashenko has congratulated him personally. Marking his birthday, and the 15th anniversary of his directorship, Mr. Prokoptsov has exhibited a series of his paintings, which confirm him as a friend of art. [/b]His life has many angles, since he heads the museum and continues to paint. We might think it's impossible to do the two, but he is adamant that these activities work well together.
The National Art Museum Director, Vladimir Prokoptsov, is 60 this year; President Alexander Lukashenko has congratulated him personally. Marking his birthday, and the 15th anniversary of his directorship, Mr. Prokoptsov has exhibited a series of his paintings, which confirm him as a friend of art.
His life has many angles, since he heads the museum and continues to paint. We might think it`s impossible to do the two, but he is adamant that these activities work well together.

What drew you to visual art?
To begin with, I liked drawing at school. We didn’t have a Pioneer House in our village so I drew from magazines. At school, I painted wallpaper and so on. I bought paints myself and began feeling that I’d like to become an artist. My father wanted me to become an agronomist though, viewing artistry as a futile profession, while being an agronomist was serious. Being from a village, it was understandable. My mother was a teacher at elementary school and, on the whole, supported me.
I wanted to enter Minsk’s Arts and Theatre University (now the Belarusian State Academy of Arts), but I didn’t gain passing scores, lacking the training of children from Minsk, who attended art schools. I was from a village. So, I applied for the art-pictorial faculty of Vitebsk Pedagogical University and was accepted. I have no regrets, as I received an extensive education and the atmosphere of Vitebsk influenced me greatly. It’s an extremely attractive town, while Minsk is a megapolis, which lacks the artistic atmosphere of Vitebsk. It surely influences all its students.
We all wanted to be famous, so we attended every class, including those in the evening and at the weekends. We were self-motivated, needing no external encouragement, and were each intent on finding our niche. Students from villages worked especially hard, as they knew they lagged behind in knowledge. By our third year we had caught up with and, even, left behind those students initially considered exemplary. Our studies inspired our desire to create.
In fact, you can’t simply approach a canvas and create a work of art. You need to feel energy flowing through you. There are different cultural layers — first, second and third — and the same is true of canvas painting. Some excel in one medium alone — such as watercolour — but I’m grateful to Vitebsk for giving me broad experience. I feel nervous excitement each time I visit, although various buildings have changed location.
Where today’s ‘Slavianski Bazaar’ is held, there was once Pen’s Studio and Vitebsk State University’s Pharmaceutical Department. The atmosphere is the same as ever though. My ‘Vitebsk at Night’ shows how I feel about it.
Of all the artistic associations, I think the Vitebsk Artists Association is the best, having more members and being more active than those in Grodno, Brest and Gomel.
Like musicians, who need to play daily to keep their talent, artists should paint daily. Graduating from University does not make you a great artist. You need to work every day.
Study needs to be followed by daily commitment, to rise in your profession.
Artists are most stimulated when they are dissatisfied and feeling perturbed. Of course, some remain forever in obscurity while others might work unknown for years before exploding onto the public scene, finally impressing others.
I took a postgraduate course at the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, to broaden my artistic horizons. It showed me the art of concentration. As I’m now a museum director, I can no longer paint from dawn until night but it’s a good job for me, as I’m self-sufficient: my education in fine arts enables me to speak with any artist or, even, with the director of the Louvre, as an equal. I feel that I’m in the right place. I couldn’t become, say, the Minister of Cultural Affairs or the Prime Minister but my current occupation suits me. I enjoy working in the museum and I love my studio. I can switch from administrative work to artistic. I ‘swim’ in colour and listen to Pavarotti.
As a master of fine arts, I pay attention to our national culture. During the Year of Books in Belarus, last year, we launched our ‘Famous Belarusian Artists’ series, for which I wrote two editions: about Belonicky-Berulia and about Stanislav Zhukovsky. Next, I’m planning an edition on Ferdynand Ruszczyc. Next year, we’ll hold an exhibition using works on loan from museums in Poland and Ukraine. We’re awaiting a picture of Ruszczyc — ‘Near Catholic Church’. I’d like to create a book about this artist for the exhibition too.
In a word, I’m self-motivated and very proud of my work, in which I feel comfortable. I like to learn from others, looking at how other artists are arranging their works; I like to learn from other museum directors, seeing how they arrange lighting or how they paint the walls. The walls in our museum were grey while those of the Tretyakov Gallery are green so we made ours green also.

It’s understandable that it wasn’t initially your dream to become a museum director. It requires a lot of time, so is painting now just a hobby?
It’s a serious job. If you wish to call yourself an artist, exhibiting paintings, you have to be serious. I understand all the responsibility. If, as a director, you also call yourself an artist, your colleagues will offer criticism. Since you manage them, they feel entitled to give their opinion on your work. It’s a game that must be played. If art were only a hobby to me, I’d simply paint for myself. However, it’s more than a hobby. I lack enough time, since I can’t paint from dawn until night as a free artist, only using the early mornings and evenings, weekends and holidays.
Of course, only a handful of artists create one genius painting and go down in history for their talent. It usually takes many works to achieve acclaim, even though your ‘hundred’ paintings may not all be significant. You can paint just one or two annually and achieve acclaim, as long as they are able to touch people’s hearts. If other artists call them perfect, you have your answer. It’s important to me to receive professional approval as well as public popularity. It’s part of my path to self-perfection.
It might seem strange for me to ‘switch’ between being an artist and a museum director but I benefit from both. In fact, my background will open doors to me sitting on expert commissions later.
This is my second exhibition at the National Modern Fine Arts Museum, and my works have been exhibited at the Commonwealth of Artists. I’ve exhibited one or two paintings at other exhibitions.

Is it important to convey your personal feelings in a picture?
Of course; what other reason is there? You’d just be wasting paint! I’m currently working on a painting entitled ‘Vitebsk Night’ and am trying to bring my energy into the picture. Vitebsk has mystery to it, like the Da Vinci Code. It exerts an enduring attraction that will always excite me. My Motherland is the other topic of which I can never tire. My next painting is going to be called ‘My Home’.

What keeps you painting: your personal feelings, your ability to draw, experience, or everything taken together?
Of course, everything together; feelings cannot always be sustained and, without experience, there is no professionalism. Training helps you to produce a professional picture. However, every artist approaches an empty canvas with trepidation. There’s also an element of luck involved; sometimes, you might complete a work within a day or two but it can take much longer; I’ve been working on some for ten years. My ‘Vitebsk Dreams about Paris’ featured a young lady on the Moon, scattering cornflowers over Vitebsk. I came back to it after a few years and realised that there was something incorrect. I decided that the cornflowers looked too ‘literary’ so I repainted the picture with the girl throwing an armful of stars into the sky. This seemed more appropriately philosophical. Some pictures I repaint despite never exhibiting them, so my enduring interest is a combination of feeling, energy and professionalism.

Does your lack of time impact on your creativity?
Yes; absolutely. What I did earlier and what I do now are completely different in feeling, rhythm and philosophy. I like some on my past works, such as ‘Present Indefinite’, which I painted in 1997, when Satanists set fire to Zaslavl church and the roof fell in. I used English on purpose for the title. It hangs now in my office and I feel that it never dates. I have no desire to change anything about it. God forbid that a tsunami might happen tomorrow, or some other cataclysm. People used to say that man is lord of nature but perhaps nature takes revenge, with the help of storms and snowfall in summer. ‘Present Indefinite’ envisions such a troubled future.

Why does the style of your pictures vary?
It depends on my mood and desire to experiment. I used to combine realism with impressionism but my recent pictures are more decorative. It probably comes with age and experience. I have a different mental outlook and ‘rhythm’ today; it’s as if I’m in a chariot and cannot stop. I give my feelings away on the canvas; it’s something I think all artists need to do and shouldn’t be ashamed of.

Is each work individual or do you have an enduring motif?
Of course, each picture is individual. When I paint something, I immediately come up with a name. Let’s say I intend to paint a lily, night or the dawn; first of all, I think about the philosophy of the name. To evoke mystery, you should use understatement and paint things in a manner other than realistic: clouds should be green or not at all. I steer clear of the obvious unless I’m painting a straightforward still life work. Even then, you can take various approaches, deciding whether to give your table legs and what colour to paint your apples. You can make them red: more red than any apple normally would be… Every artist has their own philosophy and style.

Do you court public recognition?
Of course; all artists, actors, poets and writers want to be recognised for their talent. It’s been so since man first picked up a piece of coal and began to paint on a rock, seeking admiration from his compatriots. I don’t believe artists who say they don’t desire glory; I think we’re all ambitious. Of course, by nature, artists are individualists. Although poets and artists work alone, they dream of recognition. As a museum director, I want the museum to be the best in Belarus. In addition, I want to achieve something as an artist. This is natural; were it not so, how would we ever progress? Of course, there are various types of ‘glory’; one is achieved through labour while the other is cheap. Time is a great judge.
I know a story about Minsk’s Surganov Street art studio. If it had ever exhibited every Belarusian artist in alphabetical order, there would be more than a thousand represented: the first would be Alshevsky and the last Yanushkevich. However, the only one who’d be pleased by this approach would be Alshevsky! Nobody wants to be in second place.

Are works by Belarusian artists interesting to foreign audiences?
Yes; of course. In fact, the Belarusian school, especially the realist school of our older generation, is rated highly. Europe lacks such a level today. Sadly, we lack an art market which can support auctions. I’d like to see something in Vitebsk: the place permeated by the smell of paint since the times of Chagall and Malevich. Why do we have so many casinos and so few art galleries? We want to be a European capital and we certainly have the perfect geographical position. Our cities are well-groomed. We lack a Pavarotti but we have gorgeous artworks so why shouldn’t we take a leading role in the art market; especially when we have such traditions as Chagall and Malevich?

When starting a canvas, do you have a theme in mind in advance or does this evolve?
I invent a plot and title beforehand; in fact, the title guides everything, outlining the sense and philosophy of my work. It influences me hugely. My personal ‘birthday’ exhibition is entitled ‘Strings of Space and Time’. My strings are tense — as I’m an artist and a director. Space covers everything around me: my 60th birthday and the 15th anniversary of my directorship. My early works differ from those of today, as I’m changing all the time — from romantic visions to realism.

Many of your artistic associations are connected with the land where you were born. I know you’ve drawn a series of pictures devoted to your homeland…
Not long ago, I painted ‘Holiday Still-Life’. Rushniks (hand-woven napkins) and ornaments are symbolic of village life and I decided to devote my work to those living in my native village. I’ll probably draw it in a larger size one day.

Should a museum try to guide visitors’ taste?
It’s essential. A museum should not operate without an aim: its mission is education and teaching. It’s an educational centre. Our museum is becoming more active, branching out. We recently showcased an exhibition entitled ‘Portraits of Grand Duchy of Lithuania Rulers’, gathering pictures from three Ukrainian museums, as well as our own. We organised a round table discussion with specialists and several major concerts, featuring Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian and Belarusian groups. An exhibition does not need to be limited to art works; it can continue its theme along different avenues, for the pleasure of children and adults.
Our museum has received a lot of funding to modernise its halls and raise salaries, with the aim of guiding public taste. A museum must act ‘aggressively’, in the best sense, being three steps ahead — especially in our modern time of globalisation. Visitors should be enticed, through lectures and excursions. I’m convinced that museums are educational; no other purpose is needed.

Do you hope to see museum infrastructure develop?
Of course; the President is keen on the idea of a museum quarter and, from 2014, much will be invested in restoration. Money has been allocated to design buildings and I hope our museum quarter will be complete within five years.

What will be its major function?
We’ll spread our collections and will create infrastructure. At present, our museum, sadly, lacks a fine cafй; we’d like to seat at least 100 and bring in specialised equipment to our Karl Marx Street address. We also lack a museum shop, in which to sell literature. I’ve visited many European museums and, on entering a 200sq.m shop, you find a wide range of books, albums, souvenirs (bearing the museum logo), decorations and so on. In fact, such souvenirs can account for around 40 percent of a museum’s profit! We’ll definitely enjoy all these in future; I’d love to see this happen. No one should leave the museum without a souvenir: a modest fridge magnet for children or a $50 illustrated album for a tourist. We’d need such editions in at least three languages: Russian, Belarusian and English. I’d also like to see more Russians visiting to us. We could sell reproduction prints of works by Pen or Chagall — or copies of icons. This is actually a ‘must’ for the museum. Accordingly, the major mission of our quarter is to create an atmosphere where people wish to stay all day: from 11am to 7pm. They could take a break at a cafй or sit on a bench in an inner courtyard, taking the air, then return to see another exhibition. It’s my ideal situation, which I’ll do my best to see come to life. Importantly, our top leaders are being supportive.

You don’t shy away from drawing on foreign experience.
When going to a foreign state and visiting a local museum, I focus not on the pictures but on the way they’re fixed to the walls. I look with the eyes of an executive manager, paying attention to flooring and lighting. Pictures are secondary.

In your 15 years of directorship, have you seen modern visitors become more demanding and knowledgable?
Of course. We have the Internet now, so people can take a virtual tour of the Tretyakov Gallery or some other museum. Modern art lovers can take a two-hour trip on a Belavia plane to Paris, to see the Mona Lisa. Nothing can surprise us now. Audiences are true gourmands of art: demanding and sophisticated. We need to be ready for this, keeping up with today’s technologies, exhibition styles, methods and staff training. It’s a global issue so I, as museum director, cannot remain idle. I keep my staff on tenterhooks — although some may dislike this.
In the 1960-1970s, the museum was a safe harbour; now, it must earn money, as well as promoting the country’s image and organising international projects. Our visitors wish to see a Marc Chagall show or a Tretyakov Gallery exhibition. Moreover, museum staff should know foreign languages. In a word, the museum format needs expansion.

Are you ‘fighting’ for visitors?
We fight for every visitor. Only interesting exhibitions and programmes attract visitors so an ideal modern museum is a large cultural industry — like Hollywood.

[bIt must be difficult to manage such a ‘mechanism’? [/b]
It’s not simple; it’s a huge responsibility. The museum is our country’s ‘calling card’. I’m always telling my staff that — sooner or later — new people will replace us. The museum should not remain idle; it must work and, accordingly, I bear huge responsibility, as its head. I feel and understand all this; unsurprisingly, I’ve gone grey early!

Is a museum director a manager or an academic?
Everything together. I can hardly imagine a manager — rather than a painter or art critic — as a National Art Museum director. Can you imagine an economist heading the Hermitage or the Tretyakov Gallery? I personally cannot. Of course, these museums have their own managers but must be headed by a specialist. A manager should head an agricultural factory. If I had chosen an agricultural path, I’d have become an agronomist and a farm head. However, I chose a different path — becoming a museum director who is universal: I’m a manager, an economist and an art critic. This is especially topical for such a huge museum as ours. Artists come to the director to discuss shows and other aspects. As an economist, what would I be able to say to People’s Artist Georgy Vashchenko? We’d lack common points, failing to understand each other. This is why I have no shame in continuing to learn something new.

What criteria are applied in assessing the value of paintings bought by the museum?
We don’t purchase independently: a special council does this for us (regarding modern painters). If an item were to be bought from abroad — such as a Slutsk sash (which we lack) we’d have to show that it was destined for a particular exhibition. However, the final decision is made jointly. A contest is usually organised for especially valuable artefacts. Generally, the museum community — headed by its director — dictates policy; with this in mind, a director must be an expert either in tenders or in pictures.

Do you suffer from a split personality: director Prokoptsov and artist Prokoptsov?
I enjoy complete harmony, as the former supplements the latter. I did experience a split personality when working for the Council of Ministers, as I seldom took part in exhibitions. Back in the 1980-1990s, state officials were not encouraged to display their works alongside those of artists. I feel very comfortable now.

In heading the museum, you’ve arranged many foreign shows. Do you plan to exhibit the National Art Museum’s rich collections abroad?
We have such plans and have already exhibited Khrutsky’s pictures in Vilnius — as part of the artist’s 200th birthday celebrations. At present, we’re working on a joint project with the Vatican, taking our Belarusian Orthodox and Catholic icons there. Of course, such events need insurance. In autumn, we’ll take items from Neman glassworks to St. Petersburg’s Glass Museum. We liaise with provincial museums but have problems with central museums: the larger an exhibition, the more money is needed.

Putting financial and organisational issues aside, which global masterpieces would you love to buy for your museum?
At present, we’re negotiating for a Rembrandt and a Titian project (with the Ukrainians and Poles). We’re also ready to host a Picasso show (costing around $140,000).

Which artefacts would the museum be able to buy?
To make a purchase is a challenge, as this requires a great deal money. If I had money, I would not ‘hunt’ for a Rembrandt or Picasso; I’d rather buy a Chagall and works by the Parisian school artists. Actually, our possession of two pictures by Chagall and two by Genin is progress. These artists are widely exhibited in leadings museums worldwide — but not in their homeland. I’d remedy this if I had the chance…

What is ‘true art’?
It’s life. No life is possible without art. Fine arts make people spiritually wealthier, kinder and more harmonious. There is a set of cultural values which resemble behavioural norms (like letting the elderly go through a doorway first and respecting women). Why did ancient people draw on walls? Even then, they were observing the stars in the sky and were eager to reproduce them. In the morning, the stars disappeared but a handsome hunter or a scene from primeval life was painted on a wall. All these drawings are worthy of admiration. They are our heritage, with museum value.

By Victor Mikhailov
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