Through the prism of a smile

Exposition at National Art Museum reveals comic moments from 20th century Belarusian graphics

By Victor Mikhailov

Satire is similar to bell ringing: the sound is great even if a small hammer beats a huge bell — noted famous Belarusian literary satirist Kondrat Krapiva. Following the same train of thought, the National Art Museum’s exhibition (comprising about 70 graphical pieces from its collection) is original in theme and artistic expression. The works date from 1910 to the 1990s, with caricatures featuring largely, alongside other grotesque images and compositions. All sharply and convincingly reflect their age, showing the development of satire in Belarus’ fine arts.

The exhibition is part of celebrations for the 70th anniversary of Belarus’ major satirical magazine: Vozhyk (Hedgehog). Caricatures by such classical painters as Anatoly Volkov, Sergey Volkov, Yevgeny Gankin, Grigory Gromyko, Nikolay Gurlo, Victor Zhdan, Mark Zhitnitsky, Sergey Romanov, Valentin Tikhonovich, Askold Churkin and Leonard Churko are on show.
Satire has always acted as a powerful instrument to expose and laugh at the negative aspects of life, using the grotesque to arouse a reaction. We cannot help but form a personal reaction to each work. Satirical sketches analyse the international, political and cultural problems of the day, as well as the daily routine of the common man and his relations. It’s easy to see that some past themes remain topical while others are very much of their time — such as satire dealing with the Cold War, atheism and the peace movement. The success of the satirical genre has inspired artists to update their methods, turning away from stereotypes and traditional methods, creating artistic individuality. Artists’ unique style is more evident than ever.
The museum has a rich collection of ‘friendly travesty’, as seen from the show. This includes pencil drawings on small sheets of paper by Vilno artist Adam Ponyatovsky and large portraits by Mikhail Lisovsky — from 1910 onwards. On display also are works by Belarus’ literati from the 1960s. Some humorous works from the 1920s include drawings by unknown artists alongside those by Nikolay Malevich and talented Piotr Sergievich. Famous figures of science and culture are parodied, with artists holding a mirror to their time. Caricatures by Zenon Pavlovsky and Konstantin Kukso stand out in their individuality.

Without exaggeration, we can assert that Belarusian artists created their own unique school, applying various comic and satirical genres. The principles of grotesque and humour were developed by some in an original way; Sergey Voichenko and Vladimir Tsesler particularly stand out for their series of posters exploring cultural issues which were contemporary for their time.

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