This year sees the celebration of the 130th anniversary of the birth of Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas. They were both outstanding writers and remain significant figures: symbols of the formation of our national identity. It is no wonder that their characters remain at the heart of Belarusian art and that their styles continue in popularity
Few artists, especially of the older generation, fail to touch upon the nature of patriotism, giving reference to the past and our revival from dark days. Such has been the influence of Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas that they transformed from people to idols. Inevitably, as time passes, events from our past take on greater resonance. Our current attitude towards our heritage brings a new note to the interpretation of Kolas and Kupala, whose lives are now viewed as being more complex than previously supposed. This allows us to interpret their works anew.
The great masters’ protagonists were always distinguished and easily recognisable, with strong characteristics: Kolas’ Lobanovich and, even, Kupala’s guslar player (with his vivid appearance and spirit which angrily rejects the money of a powerful prince). Sadly, too many characters today are two dimensional, lacking the ability to convince, shock or truly interest us. Their dialogue may be loaded with emotion but we only perceive their words as shallow slogans. Meanwhile, the covers of bestsellers usually feature leggy blondes and muscular heroes, with little reference to reality. Where are the powerful protagonists of the past?
Not long ago, Yanka Kupala’s museum in Minsk celebrated its 60th anniversary, opening a new exhibition which includes several unique items. The interior of the Hotel Moscow has been recreated — where Yanka Kupala’s dead body was found under mysterious circumstances in 1942: the door of room #414; part of the stairs; and the low stone parapet from which he fell. Many stories have sprung up but his death remains an unsolved mystery, exciting the imagination of literary critics and artists such as Yury Krupnenkov, with his Yanka Kupala. July 28th, 1942. The theme is novel in itself, while being challenging to depict. A man dies, but his works remain, revealing his story. Our ancestors tried to take these things with them to their mounds...
Some monuments to Yanka Kupala look like mounds, with his figure placed on top — as described in the poem Barrow. Architect Georgy Zaborsky suggested a similar monument to the poet as early as 1942, while sculptor Alexey Glebov later designed a monument dedicated to the poet’s 80th birthday with the same inspiration. Sadly, it was never implemented.
Zair Azgur is the foremost sculptor of Kupala and Kolas in Belarusian art. In 1924, he created the first sculptural portraits of Pesnyary, for Vitebsk museum. He describes his acquaintance with Yakub Kolas in his memoirs: ‘It was the first time I had seen a real poet, looking upon him as if upon a miracle.’
At their first meeting, Yakub Kolas read Zair Azgur his New Land. The sculptor stared attentively into his face, later writing: ‘It’s easy to chat with him. The poet reminds me a little of a peasant who has worked hard to gain everything he has. Accordingly, he is sullen and reflective, withdrawn into himself’.
Unfortunately, those first sculptures have not survived; we lack even sketches. Only photos of portraits created in 1939 by Azgur remain — prepared for the Decade of Belarusian Literature and Art in Moscow. However, even these radiate life. Azgur wrote: ‘I wanted to convey the movements of the poet’s soul, which I observed and which delighted me. This is exactly what is very difficult to show in a sculpture. Kupala’s calm nature hides a very sensitive soul, which reacts to everything. Those who know the poet can confirm this’. Of Yakub Kolas he wrote: ‘He posed for me with pleasure in 1928 and 1939’.
Of course, time has brought change to the artistic style of Zair Azgur; the impetuosity of his early works has become more rounded — as seen by the monument which stands in Yakub Kolas Square in Minsk. The severity and simplicity of the central figure is like that of a huge boulder, softened slightly by decorative sculptural groups on each side. Interestingly, he has placed it in the middle of water. The bronze plaque reads: ‘This lake, with saplings and birch trees planted around the monument, should speak of Belarus’ countryside — as I read of in Yakub Kolas’ works’. The figures would look even more organic were it not for the busy crossroads nearby.
The Belarusian Pesnyary have inspired many portraits over the years, including pictures of their homes. Most preferred Vyazynka, where by the 70th anniversary of Yanka Kupala’s birth was opened a museum. Artists even painted the friends and colleagues, with illustrated books being reprinted in various series: from academic anthologies to school editions. The theme was popular with recognised artists and students of the Theatre and Art Institute alike, each giving their own interpretation, although rarely intimate and soulful. Rather, they tended to be official and solemn. We don’t see individual people’s thoughts, doubts, dreams or hopes, but view each figure often as a ‘teacher of the nation’...
Only recently have we begun discussing Kupala’s tragic end. Few know of his aristocratic origins but these left their mark on the poet. His Nameless, penned in 1924, shows his depth of bitterness regarding the fate of his homeland, hidden behind light poetry. The heroes of the poem are unnamed — generalised as ‘we’. In The Eternal Song, Kupala’s first dramatic poem, the hero is simply denoted as a man, as in A Dream on the Mound. During the Halt gives us a mysterious stranger — although he reminds us of Kupala. Many writers revealing the Belarusian psyche showed their characters as lacking in egotism, calm and stoic. Yanka Kupala found such passiveness occasionally unsatisfactory, though he was Belarusian himself.
Modern young artists perhaps need to look at Yakub Kolas and Yanka Kupala not only as patriotic symbols but as ordinary people who yearned to promote their mother tongue and help their homeland — despite difficult circumstances. Some of the younger generation assert that it’s impossible for modern urbanites to imagine rural life and work, making it very difficult to empathise with such literature. However, if we read attentively, we can feel the poets’ real admiration for their native land.
Of course, a natural question arises as to how a modern artist should develop the Kolas-Kupala theme. Should they use precise ethnographic and historical details? Museum staff are keen to receive more art works showing stages of the lives of the poets, including portrayals of their native places. Sculptors Alexander Batvinenok and Alexander Chyrgyn used such detail in their image of Yakub Kolas, which stands outside the Kolas Museum. Similar techniques were used for Yakub Kolas’ Family by Grigory Tabolich, Yanka Kupala in Vilnius by Alexander Ksyandzov, and Yanka Kupala the Engineer by Vladimir Novak.
In fact, several of the poets’ literary works are yet to be explored by artists. Arlen Kashkurevich is now proposing illustrations to accompany the poem A Dream on the Mound and Mikhail Basalyga is keen to illustrate The Christmas Pudding. No doubt, each will bring their own interpretation.
Where artists seek to bring their own flavour to such works, the medium used can make a huge difference. Works of decorative and applied arts are particularly effective, while graphic works can give us unexpected figurative comparisons: as in Raisa Siplevich’s Kupala Song and the graphical triptych of Vladimir Savich.
The key to understanding the world of Pesnyary is its diversity of folk art, which is surprisingly lyrical and musical, inviting harmony. Artists, no less than musicians, actors and translators, need to feel the words of the great men’s poetry, in order to convey their style. They should empathise with their themes and images, and narrative, anecdotal technique. The best works are those which are honest about the creative destiny of our Belarusian legends.
By Vasily Kharitonov
[b]This year sees the celebration of the 130th anniversary of the birth of Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas. They were both outstanding writers and remain significant figures: symbols of the formation of our national identity. It is no wonder that their characters remain at the heart of Belarusian art and that their styles continue in popularity[/b]