Striving to keep pace with time
[b]People's Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev pays no heed to age, continuing his creativity at 90. He spends every day at his studio, embracing his passion.[/b]Leonid Dmitrievich Shchemelev loves to welcome guests to his studio, where he gives them a tour of his life’s work. The walls are hung densely with his pictures, from floor to ceiling and in every corner: large and smaller canvases. It’s his own gallery, which reveals the whole span of his life’s creativity. He finds his way easily in this seeming disorder, where pictures move each time I visit. He enjoys changing their position regularly.Leonid’s mind is filled with plans and ideas. He comes to his studio every day, without fail. It’s hard to believe that he’s 90! Naturally, the master of modern Belarusian art has many anecdotes to share. He boasts the title of People's Artist and is a laureate of the State Prize, as well as holding the prestigious Frantsisk Skorina award. He’s enjoyed dozens of personal exhibitions at home and abroad, and has participated in various international art forums. His works have been purchased by many art museums and art galleries around the globe, as well as by private collectors in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, USA, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Iran and Israel.
Leonid Dmitrievich Shchemelev loves to welcome guests to his studio, where he gives them a tour of his life’s work. The walls are hung densely with his pictures, from floor to ceiling and in every corner: large and smaller canvases. It’s his own gallery, which reveals the whole span of his life’s creativity. He finds his way easily in this seeming disorder, where pictures move each time I visit. He enjoys changing their position regularly.
Leonid’s mind is filled with plans and ideas. He comes to his studio every day, without fail. It’s hard to believe that he’s 90! Naturally, the master of modern Belarusian art has many anecdotes to share. He boasts the title of People`s Artist and is a laureate of the State Prize, as well as holding the prestigious Frantsisk Skorina award. He’s enjoyed dozens of personal exhibitions at home and abroad, and has participated in various international art forums. His works have been purchased by many art museums and art galleries around the globe, as well as by private collectors in Belarus, Russia, Ukraine, USA, Canada, Italy, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, Iran and Israel.
Mr. Shchemelev also holds the Union State of Belarus and Russia award. At those times, the Russian artists Tkachyov brothers were bestowed with the same award. Perhaps, the jury liked the reassuringly creative manner of Mr. Shchemelev, besides his professional skills. The Tkachyov brothers were contemporaries of their Belarusian colleague, famous for reflecting past themes of labour and war time courage, and Mr. Shchemelev has always been their dear friend.
At one of his exhibitions, hosted by a Minsk gallery, the canvases were clearly filled with love for Belarus: landscapes and portraits, still life works and genre paintings, all painted with vitality. His extraordinary passion is complemented by a desire to work as much as possible and reflect the richness and diversity of life.
The window sills of the gallery hosting the exhibition were graced with vases of real flowers every day, harmonising with the bright still life works on show. Flowers on the window sills were similar to those on canvas, although the latter appeared brighter, burning with a more lively fire. Of course, the artist has the right to exaggerate and invent; this is what sets art apart from photography. Mr. Shchemelev proves time and again that he is not limited by the borders of creative thinking, being free to choose images and accents.
Mr. Shchemelev shows us his view of the world through colour and emotion. Although, in recent years, his colour palette has become less dominant, he retains the ability to find expressive pictorial solutions and convey his ideas convincingly.
The first paintings which brought Leonid Shchemelev success were dedicated to the war. He experienced this first hand aged 20, having been on the front line for four years. It left an indelible mark on his soul, inspiring his series of paintings on his ‘war generation’. Today, he explores other topics but explains, “War is death and human suffering. I like life, so paint on topics inspiring optimism and faith in the future — without war or turmoil.”
At the exhibition, works from the past decade were on show, exploring the Belarusian countryside, traditional folk festivals, and those who know how to enjoy life. A portrait of People’s Poet of Belarus Yakub Kolas was also depicted, with a firm, confident gaze into the distance. He is presented as a philosopher yet with an understanding for the common man. Meanwhile, his lyrical female portraits celebrate beauty and charm, with a touch of other-worldliness.
Mr. Shchemelev remains brimming with creativity, despite his grand age. His passion for art keeps the fire lit in his heart while his soul continues to bring forth every human emotion, without which art can only be hollow, as he has long ago learnt.
You paint every day. To what extent do your current works reflect today’s world and how much of the past do you bring to them? Do you connect the past and present?
Art holds a mirror to the world and all that is in it. I’m painting scenes from the war of 1812, when France attacked Russia, but can present the emotions with a modern perspective, so that they strike a chord today. I’m a modern man, so I’m more concerned with the present than with history. You can gain a better understanding of today’s issues by understanding the past.
I like modern art, although my studio gallery has a picture of Napoleon! I like to see a modern understanding of the past — a modern perspective. Art brings joy and delight, as it has done since ancient times. Ancient Greek art is worthy of admiration, as you can see the character and opinion of each artist. I think it’s important to see the world’s development though, since there’s more benefit in this.
From the autobiography of People`s Artist of Belarus L. Shchemelev:
I was lucky, being born in Vitebsk — a city of artists. I spent my childhood surrounded by art lovers, albeit amateur. I learnt about colour, canvases and the smell of fresh painted pictures early on. The Dvina River was nearby, which is still sacred to me. My most treasured childhood memories are of delightful winter skiing and playing on the banks of the Dvina in summer. There were trips to my grandmother’s village and, of course, films.
The war ended all that of course. In 1941, I left, like others, to fight., In 1943, during the liberation of Belarus under the town o Mozyr I was seriously wounded and sent to hospital. However, I recovered sufficiently to fight again. In short, I survived those terrible war years of the last century. Destiny saved me and I went to Minsk’s Art College. Later, I worked as a teacher and, finally, I entered the Art Institute in Minsk. I was lucky again, studying under Vitaly Konstantinovich Tsvirko — a wonderful artist and teacher, who opened my eyes to a new understanding of the world. I gradually overcame my early artistic failures and soon began to exhibit throughout Minsk, Moscow and abroad.
I still work hard and now enjoy the success of my children and grandchildren. My artist`s life is the best gift I’ve received from God: my admiration of the world and ability to depict its surprising paradoxes. Creating art brings me great happiness.
Your teacher, Vitaly Tsvirko, disliked public speaking but his paintings were more eloquent than words. How do you categorise yourself?
I’m among those who love their profession. I can describe my thoughts in words and can critique the works of others, although I’m not a professional in this sphere. When it comes to my teacher, Vitaly Konstantinovich Tsvirko, I have a great deal to say, as I gratefully admire him as an artist and as a person. When you’ve studied for a long time, you find that many teachers influence you. However, those who teach art can be the most influential, as they teach you so much about yourself. This allows you to grow as an artist, understanding your role and responsibilities. Mr. Tsvirko was such a teacher to me. Being a great artist, he passed on more than professional skills. He showed me humanity and love for the countryside — both of which he felt strongly himself.
Is this why pictures of nature dominate your canvases, in various states and moods?
I have few ‘pure’ landscapes as most use some pictorial construction or portray action. My characters not only complement and enliven the landscape, but are intrinsically connected to their environment. I don’t create plots but I do work on a theme, striving to reveal it to my viewer. I paint life rather than fantasy.
You travelled a lot deal across the USSR, visiting Europe and Asia. How did they influence you as an artist and for what were you searching? What did you want to understand?
I travelled a great deal, especially in Soviet times, seeing all fifteen republics. I’ve been abroad many times and always returned with vast amounts of artistic material. More importantly, I was able to compare art in each place, striving to understand what feeds the creativity of each famous artist (in the USSR and abroad). I realised the obvious: art is nurtured by folk art, culture and traditions. You can only reach the ultimate peak of success, at home or internationally, if you are true to this idea, processing that which is unique and special. In the end, you can present it to the world in a way which is universally recognisable.
So, you had the opportunity to compare sights with those of your homeland. How does Belarus differ and what do you think visitors notice most on arriving here for the first time?
Primarily, our countryside, as Belarus is covered in a whole system of pure spring lakes and a network of large and small rivers. These nourish nature, keeping colours fresh and juicy; it can’t be ignored. Colours don’t fade, they simply change with the seasons, remaining vivid. The rich green of spring and summer flowers is replaced by the amazing shades and tones of autumn. The transition is seamless and filled with majesty. Winter then takes over, with its purity and white snow. Our lace-frosted trees are like nothing else. Our countryside never looks weary. It is always alive and fresh. This may be why Belarus has always had so many wonderful landscape-painters.
From Mr. Shchemelev’s autobiography:
Of course, I worked a great deal outside to create my landscapes — not only in my studio. The whole Soviet Union was my studio, as I travelled physically, spiritually and mentally. I took my sketchbook and album to almost every Soviet republic — geographically and in my imagination. I visited the Great North and the South, studying in central Russia and in the Baltic States, in Ukraine, the Caucasus, in Central Asia and, of course, in my native Belarus.
I also visited a number of countries in Europe and the Far East, including Hungary, Poland, Yugoslavia, Greece, France, Germany, Spain, Austria and Vietnam. I gave exhibitions, including personal exhibitions in various cities across Belarus, Russia and Germany. My paintings have been on display in dozens of foreign countries and have been acquired by the largest museums and galleries around the world. In this sense, it’s a sin to complain about Fate.
A personal exhibition is a creative test for any artist. About a year ago, in one of the capital’s exclusive galleries, Mr. Shchemelev presented My Family. It featured mainly portraits, which revealed far more than a simple photograph might do. The canvases showed those closest people to the artist: his children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and wife Svetlana. One shows them all gathered together but most are individual portraits. They span the years, providing a family chronology; some date from half a century ago. The early works differ from those created in his later years, showing how his maturity has changed his style.
Mr. Shchemelev has always been faithful to his professional credo, painting that which appears important or interesting to him. In fact, his choices have not always brought him praise but he kept to his chosen path and, in the end, has received the recognition he deserves, being famous and popular.
Even today, his outspoken views on art and its role in society do not always please officials. He asserts that artists need more state support, and mentioned this again at the opening of his most recent exhibition. He cares not for himself, having all that might ever need, but speaks for his fellow artists, whose conditions are often constrained.
The influence of art is not to be underestimated. One middle-aged man at the launch noted that his own son seemed to only be interested in computer games until his attention was caught by one of Mr. Shchemelev’s paintings in his home, depicting a white horse (his oft used symbol of luck, hope and determination). The work so touched the young man that he began painting himself, asking his parents to finance his new hobby. They readily agreed of course. The painting now hangs in his own room.
At the opening of the exhibition, several speeches were given in the artist’s honour and I could not resist adding my own thoughts, believing that my long acquaintance with Leonid Shchemelev gave me the right to speak. I noted his dedication, working without respite, despite his age. His spacious studio is so full of paintings that there is no space left on the walls, obliging him to rotate works regularly. Surrounded by his treasured ‘children’ he begins work at his easel. They are like his family!
Portraits of people hang alongside your landscapes…
Like any artist, I paint what pleases and impresses me. I love those close to me, so I paint them with pleasure. With equal pleasure, I create portraits of those who are close to me in spirit or conviction. In my opinion, they are good as they are.
Over the years, I’ve attended your exhibitions, seeing your still life works, which I think are among your most bright, emotional and beautiful. Are you content for the word ‘beautiful’ to be applied to your art or do you find it too trivial?
I think that beauty is a necessary quality for art. Think of the famous line: ‘beauty will save the world’. Why should I be displeased? All art should be beautiful, having been created by an artist. Paintings should be especially so, being so colourful. Landscapes are naturally beautiful, being filled with colour; without this, we’d see only a desert. As one artist said: ‘Learn from nature and create real art’. Folk art draws on all which is beautiful; it’s a formula which can never fail.
Do you think today is a difficult time for artists?
It has always been difficult for artists but I endured the tough war years and those that followed. I’ve always had to overcome something, be deprived of something or suffer something. My life has steeled me for anything, so I don’t find our modern world too difficult. It was once much harder. My art still has purpose: making others happy at exhibitions. When times are hard, people appreciate art and beauty all the more, seeking the spiritual and perfect. Art gives us affirmation that we are alive.
From Mr. Shchemelev’s autobiography:
Feelings are everything. If you can embody feelings as concepts, you’re a philosopher; if you embody them as images, you’re an artist. Painters, like poets, live through their works. Despite walking on Earth, we can rise to the sublime through our thoughts. I think there’s a boundary that shouldn’t be crossed — in art and poetry.
I try not to distort the purity of nature, believing that good art reflects our spiritual life, the artist`s personal view of the world, the universe, the past and the present. We give our own artistic evaluation and nothing more. This is my mission, so I’m a very balanced artist, seeking that which is reasonable, kind and joyful. This pursuit brings me great happiness.
Mr. Shchemelev does not seek popularity; it comes of its own accord, as a result of his talent. He happily shares his works with his audience, which is diverse in itself. He truly was born to be a People’s Artist — by vocation.
Mr. Shchemelev’s kaleidoscope of colour and shades brings alive his world of images and characters, which portray the past and his hopes for the future. He conveys his impressions with skill, giving us not just beauty but an understanding of life’s rich palette.
Mr. Shchemelev is interesting to listen to, being sincere in his views and unafraid of speaking his mind. He always has something to say: about art, the role of the artist or the national component of art…
Is creativity influenced by its age?
Hugely; artists have always paid attention to their society and time. The change of authority and collapse of the Soviet Union had an impact on us although our national culture and its vision did not fall apart. We enjoy a union of thoughts and views. I look at Belarusian art and notice with optimism that many artists identify themselves with national culture, inspired by our emotions and troubles. Everyone sees life differently but, as a Belarusian, I notice this.
Do you think foreign art lovers are intrigued by Belarusian art?
They notice the unique national aspects. French and Italian guests have visited my studio to buy works and chat about their understanding of my pictures. They were interesting and their view of our art was original. They didn’t just see the old-fashioned elements of Soviet art, whereby we were forced to produce a certain theme or style. They saw my own personal expression and my vision of our culture.
Do you think recognition is best shown through the purchase of paintings or through critique? How would you describe your works?
I tend to paint modern works: contemporary portraits and landscapes. However, I’m also interested in historical moments, having painted Napoleon, Alexander Pushkin and events related to the last war. Foremost, I’m attracted to contemporary reality. It’s good to know about history, but it’s interesting to show how people live now and their attitude to the world today. In short, I want to emphasise that time plays a great role in art.
Are you concerned about preserving the traditions of Belarusian art?
It’s vital to the development of society and the artistic environment. If all art around the world were identical it would lose its interest. Belarusian artists should be interesting in America by displaying national colour and spirit. We can promote knowledge of Belarus in this way.
When I exhibited in Moscow, I did not always receive approval, although even high officials accepted my works. You need to express a spirit or a mood: the essence, for example, of Belarusian nature. It helps to see how other nations portray similar themes and to note their differences.
From Mr. Shchemelev’s autobiography:
Today, as always, I work hard and gain strength from creativity, colour and the rhythm of time. I’m inspired by family and the moral support of friends and, of course, by the amazing beauty and tenderness of my native Belarus. I feel empowered by its heroic and long suffering history and its faith in its great future.
Is today a favourable time for creativity?
For me — yes. I’m already at an age where I can say more than I do, so I can be critical. However, I think others find it difficult. Artists are individualists but must compromise, following the dictates of their own heart. It’s not easy. Art is inspired by living but requires dedication and reasonable judgement.
Have you changed your style or manner in the course of your career? If so, how can you explain this?
Manner, taste and style change as we grow older. Fundamentally, I have one style, doing what I can in the way I know how.
What is your philosophy as an artist?
I find the world and its people interesting. I’ve visited many countries, painting abroad, but always paint best on coming home, with great inspiration! This is normal for anyone who loves their homeland.
Do you want to inspire deep thought from audiences or simply be admired?
Delight lasts but a moment while art which provokes thought endures. All artists are philosophers to some extent.
People’s Artist of Belarus Leonid Shchemelev presents us with the opportunity to consider the unique beauty of our native land, and to see the diversity of the world around us, feeling the grace and dignity of the individual. His simple, unpretentious plots are charismatic in their natural beauty and spirituality.
By Victor Mikhailov