Our countryman, Boris Zaborov, is one of the most famous artists in the world. He now lives in Paris but visited Minsk to participate in the opening ceremony of his personal exhibition at the National Art Museum of Belarus
As a world-known artist, galleries not only in Europe but worldwide are keen to hang his works. They sell for tens of thousands of euros today but there was a time when he was unrecognised. Boris Zaborov was born in Minsk, and grew up there, developing as a painter and graphic artist. He also mastered his skills in Leningrad and Moscow.
The easiest way to learn about Boris Zaborov is from the Internet, where a great number of his paintings are also available for viewing. Of course, we can’t appreciate their true beauty in this form, since the tones and shades disappear.
Mr. Zaborov sees painting as his vocation, though it was not always the case. His expressive illustrations appeared in Minsk in the 1960s and 1970s and did not go unnoticed but he does not highly rate the works of those years. However, even back then, they had their own, unique character.
Zaborov prefers to show his recent, Parisian period, although specific Parisian features are hard to recognise. His works are tied to their place of origin by invisible threads and, despite differences in genre, all his works on show in Minsk are united in theme and technique. Most are landscapes and portraits — or figure compositions — and bear simple titles, such as Old Woman Near the Window, Family Portrait, and Girl in the Space.
Nevertheless, he tackles grander themes and abstractions; each painting explicitly shows his personality. The deeply private character of his works is immediately apparent and they can even be viewed as self-portraits. Their primary purpose is not to portray the inhabitants of the past but, through a historical prism, to help us to view the past in a new way. What can be more attractive to an artist than his own personality? Zaborov is known for his large ego: ever shifting and developing.
In Paris, his new late development, as we must admit, occurred rapidly and without difficulty. This fact makes him distinct from those painters who were obliged to emigrate. Neither the sudden appearance of his Parisian influence nor his local artistic flavour interfered with his pan-European recognition.
Landscapes hold a prominent place in his repertoire, though his works do not bear traditional French landscape motifs. We see broken-backed huts, barns and squat granaries under bulky thatched roofs: Barn, 1995; Barn and Cart, 1997; and Barnyard, 2008. His impressions in the first half of the 1980s took him back to his youth, as they still do now, inspiring him to create images lost in time, explicit in every detail. These minutiae seem important but, in fact, only gain significance from the fact that they are not inspired by what he saw at the time. Rather, these images come from deep within his psyche.
Curiously, Zaborov’s landscapes exist separately from humankind, although they sometimes deign to co-exist with animals. In Horse (1983), the beautiful, four-legged creature stands still before breathtaking scenery. His white mane glows in the moonlight, almost mystically, while the landscape is filled with pale clouds and enigmatic darkness. We are transported to unforgettable impressions of childhood.
Boris also favours his Parisian period for its absorption of what went before; he wants to appear before his countrymen to best advantage, as he also desires to appear in France — his ‘third motherland’ after Belarus and Russia. Fortune took him from Minsk, through Leningrad, Moscow, and again through Minsk … before settling in Paris.
We are fascinated by colour: at the cinema, on television, and elsewhere. Even our newspapers are now published with colourful photos. The cult of colour is hardly surprising, since our world boasts the same palette. Of course, colour has always existed in art; those artists who prefer to work in monochrome are rare. In the first decades of its existence, cinematography was black and white. Later, the technology appeared, but was too expensive to use every time. Costs became equal, before it actually become more expensive to shoot in black and white. Recently, the trend has been to rerelease old reels of film with the addition of colour, although it seems to render them more trivial.
Against this background of modern culture, Zaborov’s distinction is founded in his sparse use of colour; sometimes, it’s completely absent. He knows well that some themes suit a lack of colour and, for the most part, drawing dominates. When colour is added, some of the power of his work can be lost.
Looking at faded old photos of nameless ancestors, it can be hard for us to feel any real connection, despite the obvious reality of the subject. We cannot help but compare such works to modern day photos: in magazines and on TV. These offer not only increased brightness and contrast but can catch a moment with immediacy impossible in any other format. Old-fashioned photography required excessively long exposure, with faces frozen in tense poses. They appear static and, hence, lose personality. Characters in old pictures tend not to arouse curiosity today, unless the subjects are celebrities. Perhaps you need to be an artist with a special talent to empathise with their distant lives. Certainly, we expect far more from our modern photographers, who are called upon to capture the essence of our personality.
For many years, Zaborov has been attracted by the personalities of his characters. Perhaps, they become simplified when he brings them onto canvas. He says, “From the moment I start filling the canvas with texture, it becomes more complicated. As I work, I break the picture into smaller elements. If I could logically complete this process, I’d achieve the ideal — the absence of image.”
Moving to France coincided with the artist’s growing interest in old photographs. After emigrating, this interest was supported not only by nostalgia for the country he had left behind but by an unexpected creativity that newly appeared, inspired by new temptations and hopes. He aimed to revive faded images, those shadows of forgotten ancestors.
Zaborov had already collected old photographs in Minsk; in Paris, he came across an album in his luggage and began to scrutinise each face. At that time, he didn’t need much money to enrich the collection and it wasn’t hard to find remarkable examples at flea markets and second-hand booksellers in Paris. Interesting studio materials were found in piles of nameless reprints and documents.
Old photographs from family albums attracted him almost hypnotically, as if they were engaging in conversation with the artist. Their imprint was transient, long since faded and, of course, they had never reflected any major aspect of history. Nevertheless, these images attracted Zaborov’s attention as an enticing visual stimulus. Photography as a fine art had been developing for almost 150 years.
Much in his painting depends on the context in which his figures exist. He usually places them within a mundane scenario although, occasionally, a heroic setting is chosen. This can add internal tension to the picture. In Double Portrait with Doll (1993), the characters are separate, facing apart; the central position is occupied by a doll. It appears out of place, sitting between an old man and an old woman: a metaphor for dissension and long lost youth.
Zaborov rejects polished finishes in favour of imperfection, choosing to include small ‘errors’ — such as occasional blobs of paint or, sometimes, a tear in the canvas. Such imperfections enhance the realism of the images, breathing life into the characters. The artist’s wisdom frees the underlying palette of colour.
Zaborov admits that we are ‘the most interesting, the most mysterious theme’ and that people are his eternal passion. His canvases accommodate each image, gaining increasing authority.
He has been living in France for the past 30 years. Over this time, it has gradually accepted him as an uninvited guest and has helped him to find his niche, acquiring the appropriate creative state. He has achieved his dream — the reason why he moved; he has become an artist as he always thought he would. Of course, the trip to Minsk is well considered. At the opening ceremony of his exhibition, he said, “I’m glad to be back. Belarus is my first Motherland’.
However, Zaborov admits that he was always attracted by the idea of a ‘citizen of the world’. He looks deeper at this concept, saying, “Everyone is free. If, for some reason, you choose another country in which to live and work, it is your inalienable right. What you shouldn’t do is to ignore your roots; a crown can grow only from its roots. I’m sure about this; my personal experience, and the fact that I’m here, prove it.”
All who love their Motherland have their personal view on it. Mr. Zaborov is no exception, giving us his intimate feelings towards Belarus. His perceptions become clear to anyone who endeavours to look into the sense of outward things, into the eternal, invisible ties which bind us to our relatives and the obvious essence of personal emotional experience.
Last year, I watched an interesting film at the National Art Museum, about Zaborov as an artist and his creative work, based on personal associations. The film depicted everyday scenes (in France), showing the ordinary happiness of human existence. It seemed, at first glance, to be both unusual and obvious, with a direct connection to the artist’s works, which are today displayed in the main museum of Belarus and which were also reproduced for the film. To a great extent, these paintings are the result of his nostalgic recollection of memories of himself, of his relatives and of his old surroundings. We see his first home depicted in these works. Mr. Zaborov donated Barnyard to the museum, saying, “Every year, I paint a barn on the outskirts of a field. I’d like to explain that barns are not of exceptional interest to me in themselves; rather, while I’m painting, I feel as if I’m walking to see what lies behind the barnyard. The barn is shrouded in mist but it’s true that Lake Naroch [the largest in Belarus — author] is behind, with the road to Kobylnik [the old name for the village of Naroch [and Postavy [a district centre of modern Belarus — author] to the right. I’ve known these places well since my youth.”
Undoubtedly, through many of his pictures, we see that Zaborov is nostalgic; it’s what sets him apart from other artists. This is why audiences are interested in him. It’s unlikely that the artist has made his characters to be purely aesthetically pleasing. After all, false sentiment is easily revealed. Zaborov’s works are interesting for their element of performance. Clearly, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence comprehends his talent, having chosen to buy his Self-portrait with a Model: their first piece of modern art in a century.
Last year, many people believed that it would be a great event for Belarus to hold an exhibition of Boris Zaborov’s works in his true homeland. It has happened and we cannot but feel that it meets with his own wishes. During his recent visits to Minsk, he has noticed many changes in the country, which certainly please him. He tells us, “I came out of the hotel to have a cup of coffee and saw young men sitting at tables using laptops. I realised that the whole world was open to them. It’s a sign of the future I think. I’m no politician, speaking only of my personal impressions, but I think Minsk is a true European city. It’s great.”
Nevertheless, the past is closer to him. Images of childhood and youth are usually present in Boris’ works, as he explains, “I perceive the past as the only reality. It is removed from us by time, but this allows us to view it objectively, while the present day is bustling and ephemeral. As for the future, we can only use our imagination. My memories feed my artistry. During my studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, and later, I worked with models — as artists used to do centuries ago. Today, my model is an old photograph. These two experiences allow me to speak of completely different working methods, alongside differing mental workloads.”
The philosophy of his creative cradle is apparent. We are invited to ponder the world of feelings, impressions and experience, reflecting on the past, and how it shapes us today. This is the true message of the artist’s works.
By Victor Mikhailov
Thanks to destiny
[b]Our countryman, Boris Zaborov, is one of the most famous artists in the world. He now lives in Paris but visited Minsk to participate in the opening ceremony of his personal exhibition at the National Art Museum of Belarus[/b]As a world-known artist, galleries not only in Europe but worldwide are keen to hang his works. They sell for tens of thousands of euros today but there was a time when he was unrecognised. Boris Zaborov was born in Minsk, and grew up there, developing as a painter and graphic artist. He also mastered his skills in Leningrad and Moscow.The easiest way to learn about Boris Zaborov is from the Internet, where a great number of his paintings are also available for viewing. Of course, we can’t appreciate their true beauty in this form, since the tones and shades disappear.