Talent has no borders
[b]Belarus and Hungary view artist Piotr Yavich as their own[/b]The Artistic School in Vitebsk in the early 20th century earned the city global recognition, with Marc Chagall as its most famous pupil. Of course, many unique artists lived and worked in Vitebsk, including Piotr Yavich, who was taught by Chagall’s teacher: Yudel Pen. Yavich (who died five years ago) is now known as one of the most talented Belarusian painters. Most of his works remain in Vitebsk yet some are found in private collections in the UK, Italy, Germany, the USA, Israel and Japan. Hungary, where the artist was born, will never forget Yavich, viewing him as their own.
The Artistic School in Vitebsk in the early 20th century earned the city global recognition, with Marc Chagall as its most famous pupil. Of course, many unique artists lived and worked in Vitebsk, including Piotr Yavich, who was taught by Chagall’s teacher: Yudel Pen. Yavich (who died five years ago) is now known as one of the most talented Belarusian painters. Most of his works remain in Vitebsk yet some are found in private collections in the UK, Italy, Germany, the USA, Israel and Japan. Hungary, where the artist was born, will never forget Yavich, viewing him as their own.
Chance or fate
Yavich was named Ishtvan at birth. His father — who lived in Vitebsk — served in the army during WWI and was taken captive by Austrian-Hungarian soldiers. In Hungary, he met his future wife and, in 1918, their son was born in the city of Tцrцkszentmiklуs. When the family returned to Vitebsk in 1926, the future artist received a new name. The short version of Ishtvan is Pishta and his Vitebsk teachers interpreted this as Piotr. As a result, Yavich was renamed.
He became Yudel Pen’s pupil by chance, as the famous teacher needed to translate an article from a Hungarian magazine and was aware of Yavich senior’s knowledge of Hungarian. After the work was done, Pen offered to teach Piotr drawing in thanks.
On wave of historical truth
Not long ago, Vitebsk’s Art Museum hosted an exhibition dedicated to Yavich’s 95th birthday, showcasing over 20 pictures donated by the artist to the museum during his lifetime. These works feature the city and its famous personalities, in addition to ordinary workers and theatrical actors. Yavich’s huge work, entitled Workers’ Demonstration in Vitebsk in 1905 is among his most impressive. Olga Akunevich, who heads the Art Museum, believes it to be unique, saying, “The city landscape is painted from life, yet with characters depicted against the background of the Resurrection Cathedral and St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church. The latter was actually demolished during the Soviet anti-religious campaign, so did not exist in the 1950s,” she explains.
Yavich is widely praised for his portraiture, and the Art Museum keeps a gallery of his portraits, which feature various partisan commanders from the Great Patriotic War. Two stand out: Alexey Danukalov and Minay Shmyrev. The former, young and reckless, with a hussar moustache, is steeped in romantic legends. Yavich probably painted Danukalov from a photo yet knew Shmyrev personally. In his picture, the commander is depicted as an old man who has survived huge personal tragedy.
Many of his pictures were created to fulfil state orders as, according to Ms. Akunevich, was usual for socialistic realism. “In the Soviet 1960-1970s, artists earned their bread by producing copies of famous pictures on historical and political themes,” she notes.
Pictures for the soul
Yavich’s grandson — Piotr (named after his famous grandfather) — does not view the artist as a mere representative of socialistic realism. “My grandfather primarily continued the traditions of Yudel Pen, who was educated at the St. Petersburg Arts Academy. They both represented the classical school of painting — as did Rembrandt, Repin and Kramskoy. Such art is eternal: ever valued and appreciated by conservative Europe. My grandfather was a perfect portraitist but also drew still-life works in the Dutch style. His fruit and vegetables look so real you can almost smell their aroma surrounding the canvas. Did artists of socialistic realism create such pictures?” he wonders.
In his childhood, young Piotr was taught by his illustrious grandfather but now runs a construction business, rather than pursuing art. He lives in Vitebsk — in the home once owned by Yavich, whose canvases decorate the walls. There are around 300: all drawn to please his soul. They depict moonlit nights (resembling the works of Kuindzhi) and vases of field flowers, portraits of his daughter Yelena, grandson Piotr and other family members, and landscapes of river islets, autumn parkland and lakes. All are inspired by places which truly exist either in Vitebsk or in the Vitebsk Region. In addition, some works depict the Caucuses and Crimea — experimentally drawn in impressionistic style. Despite some tempting offers, the Yavich family have no intention of selling these pictures. Piotr tells us, “I’d love to open a private gallery in Vitebsk, showing my grandfather’s works. I’ve consulted architects, who say that such a gallery could be built in the house in which I’m
Vitebsk —Tцrцkszentmiklуs: far and near
One of the canvases hanging in Piotr’s house depicts a road leading to a red-bricked Roman Catholic church. At first sight, it appears to be located in a town in the Vitebsk Region — such as Miory, Glubokoe or Verkhnedvinsk. In fact, the church is in Tцrцkszentmiklуs: the city in which the artist was born. His grandson visited St. Ishtvan’s Roman Catholic Church, where the great artist was baptised, two years ago. Piotr explains, “Our distant relatives live in Hungary. On visiting, I met people who knew my grandfather well; some even have his pictures. In the 1980s and 1990s, my grandfather often visited to organise shows. I was also pleased to see his pictures hanging in the museum director’s room in the city of Szolnok (the administrative centre of the area in which Tцrцkszentmiklуs is situated).”
Not long ago, a Balaton collector — Mr. Duris — contacted young Piotr, having bought a work by his famous grandfather online. He sought relatives of the master, to confirm the work’s authenticity; of course, the manner of drawing and signature spoke for themselves.
Piotr is also friendly with several Hungarian diplomats, among them Consul Laszlo Horvath, with whom he has agreed to open a show in Budapest. Piotr explains that few Belarusian expats live in Hungary — countable only on fingers. “Interestingly, among them is this famous and talented man,” smiles Piotr. “Laszlo believes that the exhibition in Hungary may help develop cultural ties between our two countries.”
The young businessman dreams of opening such a show but admits that time and money are required, alongside permission form the Ministry of Culture, to allow pictures to travel to Hungary on his own mini-bus. However, within the next year or two, the event may be organised.
Pen, who tragically died in 1937, received a memorial service at Vitebsk’s Art Museum, as did Piotr Yavich in 2008. Pen dreamt of becoming a People’s Artist but was only ever awarded a title invented just for him: ‘Honoured Jewish Artist of the Vitebsk Region’. Yavich was never conferred with any title but those who knew him recollect that he was never bothered by such matters, being dedicated solely to his art.
By Sergey Golesnik