Spiritual image of a tradition

[b]It’s always interesting to hear the views of a professional, since they tend to be more substantial than our own. Artist Vasily Yasyuk has spoken to us many times before, being known as a master of portraiture. In other genres, he prefers to romanticise reality, making it unique[/b] Vasily is also known as a skilful restorer; his interior painting at the Belarusian Embassy building in Moscow has been highly praised. His paintings grace state and private collections in Belarus, Russia, Poland, the USA, Italy, Germany, Spain and France. In addition to painting pictures, Mr. Yasyuk lectures. He’s been working for the Belarusian Arts Academy for 26 years and is an associate professor in rank. His post is professor and he has written several textbooks, including Drawing from Memory.
It’s always interesting to hear the views of a professional, since they tend to be more substantial than our own. Artist Vasily Yasyuk has spoken to us many times before, being known as a master of portraiture. In other genres, he prefers to romanticise reality, making it unique

Vasily is also known as a skilful restorer; his interior painting at the Belarusian Embassy building in Moscow has been highly praised. His paintings grace state and private collections in Belarus, Russia, Poland, the USA, Italy, Germany, Spain and France.
In addition to painting pictures, Mr. Yasyuk lectures. He’s been working for the Belarusian Arts Academy for 26 years and is an associate professor in rank. His post is professor and he has written several textbooks, including Drawing from Memory.
He spends several hours a day in front of his easel, and eagerly demonstrates his works to the public. Those appearing in someone’s collection have clearly stood out, attracting attention. His wealth of artistic experience and personal mastery enables Vasily to ably teach his students.
Mr. Yasyuk is always eager to talk about the place of modern pictorial art in the hierarchy of global artistry.

Which path is Belarusian pictorial art taking? I’m interested in your views as an artist…

As ever, the Belarusian pictorial arts are traditional — or traditionally realistic, I should say. They were established by artists such as Mark Chagall, Yudel Pen, Natan Voronov and Alexander Mozalev. Their followers, who are still working today, include People’s Artists of Belarus Mikhail Savitsky, Vasil Sharangovich and Leonid Shchemelev. They are driven by classical art, inspired by nature and people. Academy students often ask about my attitude to the influence of Western culture and I reply that it is abstract, although less original than Belarusian and Russian pictorial arts. It originates from our realism but, of course, the West also has its own artistic school. We have preserved our traditions — this is work with nature. I think you’d agree that, when you come to an exhibition and see so many variations on a theme, you can feel bored. Sadly, few artists nowadays are using the figurative in their works after graduating from our Academy. It’s rather alarming. Abstract works are an aspect of realism.
It’s important to understand that we, artists, work for audiences who can hardly be deceived. If someone likes a picture, they buy it. If not, they don’t. In a word, it’s important to make works that arouse interest. I’m worried about the influence of the Internet. However, we do have good artists who are inventing new variations on traditional art. As a result, a harmonious synthesis appears and a high level becomes evident. This, in turn, preserves our traditions and inspires further development of our national art. I believe our strong school helps support a worthy level in Belarusian art.

As an Arts Academy lecturer, you are promoting the realistic trend in Belarusian pictorial art. Evidently, you feel close to this trend. Do you try to inspire your students to feel the same?

Our academic curriculum presupposes work with nature. Every day, students draw for three hours, usually on the theme of nature. It’s a classical foundation which has existed for the past two centuries in France, Russia and Belarus. It’s an obligatory part of the students’ studies. All famous abstract painters have experienced this school of traditional drawing and pictorial painting.

Are you worried that young artists are turning to formal art?

Yes. I especially feel this at exhibitions, which can be grey and monotonous. It immediately arouses misunderstanding when an artist has been studying still life and landscapes for six years but then turns to abstract pictures. I often travel abroad and see interest in our traditional arts. The fashion for formal compositions is fading. I’m convinced that an artist must apply synthesis in art. They must feel it in their hearts and see it in those around them. When someone rises off the ground, they lose their soul.

What is the theme of modern artists? What is the focus of your works, for example?

I’ve never betrayed myself. I’ve been connected with Belarus since my studies at the Art College. My diploma paper at the Academy was also connected with it, entitled ‘Homeland’. I now have a serious series about Kupalle (a Belarusian folk festival) called ‘Kupalle Night.’ It embraces about 40 works, in addition to various figurative works. I think these make it possible to show myself in any direction — pictorial art and drawing. Additionally, new elements can be implemented. If someone is skilful in drawing, they can apply colours beautifully in abstract pieces.

Upon what is your art based, apart from following the traditions of the Belarusian school?

Traditions are the basis of my work. New elements connected to modern trends influence me as well. My works from 30 years ago are perceived differently today. Life dictates the speed of my drawing. Previously, we might spend 12 months making a multi-figured composition. Now, the theme could be obsolete within a year; times change quickly. Each work should reflect our modern age. I embrace the fact that my works are optimistic and bright, alive and full of colour. We all experience difficult times but I try to see the best in life. I believe it’s the artist’s duty. I love drawing spring blossoms. It’s important to see nature’s palette with an artist’s eyes. Really, life is wonderful. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t perceive it this way. Art has always endeavoured to idealise the world. Artists aim to bring beauty alive for their audience.
Of course, abstract art should exist. The trend should be supported, as long as the artist gives his soul. Time will show. If a work is good then it will be worthy of being exhibited in 20-30 years’ time.

You often tour abroad, Europe in particular. What do you gain from these trips?

They give me huge experience of modern art. In the 18th century, a colony of Russian artists lived and worked in Italy, though remained — and this should be stressed — Russian artists. Communication with the world of art enriches us with new ideas and gives artists a better feel for their own country. Mulyavin’s song tells us: ‘To understand our dear Belarus, we need to visit different lands’. This is really so. Whenever I visit the West, I long to return home. It convinces me that what I’m doing is right. I enrich my colours, palette, ideas and my apprehension of pictorial art and modern life. My roots remain, while everything else changes. This gives me a huge artistic charge.

Do you consider your works beautiful? Or is that inappropriate?

Why not? I think my works are beautiful, since they are alive and interesting. Others share my view, since many collectors buy my pieces. In Germany, a reproduction of my work has a circulation of 100,000. People won’t buy a picture unless they really love it.

You say your works are inspired by Belarus, its people and landscapes. However, all artists are international figures. Local characteristics always distinguish the true artist…

At my exhibition in Germany, I heard visitors saying: ‘We know you are not a German artist but we like your works’. It’s important that the nationality of the artist comes through in their work. The Belarusian school follows its own traditions. We have huge artistic potential and this comes across when we take part in international exhibitions. Our psyche is formed from global experience; however, our homeland remains evident in our art.

Are modern times inspiring to artists?

I graduated from the Arts Academy in 1983 and remember Soviet times well. After graduation, I immediately received a state order. These days, artists are inward looking, especially the young. They put true art aside in favour of their desire to earn money. Of course, state orders should be given not only to acknowledged masters but to young artists, to ensure art remains dynamic. It’s so important. I also believe that it’s vital to bring back scholarships for the best young artists, paying for three years of tuition.

What place does imagery occupy in your art? Are motifs necessary?

Of course. Malevich and Chagall are masters of early 20th century art, known for their unique style. All works need to have a modern feel and figurative composition; otherwise, they are no good.

Should an artist be a dreamer? Should they look into the future and try to reveal it? Or is it better to draw what has already occurred and is now taking place?

In drawing modern times, an artist always looks into the future. Art differs from everything else in being one step ahead of life. This is why it is unclear in some cases. This has always been the case. True art is always ahead of its time.

Shall Belarusian art preserve its school and traditions in the future?

I think this school and its traditions will continue to exist as long as the Arts Academy is open. The more we encourage art, the more fruit we’ll see. We have a large Artists’ Union, which boasts its own works. Our traditional fine arts have their own niche and have always stood out, winning prizes at contests and exhibitions. We’ve preserved the tradition of global realistic art.

Has Belarusian art changed in the past 30 or 50 years?

Art should continue its traditions, or nothing good will come. Strict succession and interrelation is needed. Belarusian art has somewhat lost the transition between the old and young generations. However, I’m convinced that it will live on if we preserve the school; I’m convinced this will happen. The Russian ballet is a good example; no one can do better.

How do you treat criticism from abroad? Do they appreciate the works of our artists?

As I’ve already said, my work (alongside others) has a mass market in Germany. This shows that it’s popular. Having my works hung alongside those of Chagall and Kandinsky says it all. However, to reach new summits, we need international contacts. We are stronger than others when it comes to traditional art. I’m convinced that we can stand with heads held high.
How can we keep youngsters interested in traditional art?
State support is vital for young artists; they need small orders.

What can be done to preserve the ties between tradition, school and modern life?

We, professors, promote this idea at the Academy — where we’ve been working for thirty years already. We work with students and explain the connection between modern art and that of the past.

How is the Belarusian school revealed in your works?

Not only in my ‘Kupalle’ series but in all my works, you see the spirit of traditions and gain understanding of the school. At the same time, I have a broad, free manner of painting — which has nothing in common with that of others. Individuality should always be present, whatever we draw. Freedom of drawing is necessary, reached via a long artistic path. However, at the core is our soul. If you draw abstract forms, then the essence of art is lost. Art is primarily the artist’s soul.

By Viktor Mikhaylov
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