Valery Shkarubo: ‘Nature bewitches me; it takes me captive’
Those with a tendency to ponder the human condition usually doubt everything. They ask themselves ‘Why?’ rather than accepting life’s lot. This is my passion and my curse, as it is for famous Belarusian painter Valery Shkarubo. He was keen to take up the interview, giving him the opportunity to explain his motivations. As we discover, his art rises about the desire to be popular or successful. His goal is to seek out the truth
Valery Shkarubo is a reputable and successful painter whose expensive figurative landscape paintings are ever in demand. He is most proud of taking part in the Venice art biennale, alongside his peers. “Important painters of the 20th century — such as Picasso and Chagall — took part in this biennale. “Belarus was represented for the first time in 110 years by myself and seven other painters; it was extremely prestigious. Thousands of people visited the exhibition in the centre of Venice,” he notes enthusiastically.
Every artist wishes to differ from others, being original. Have you chosen the same path?
I believe an artist shouldn’t have to aim for originality — either you have it or you don’t, it’s a waste of time to ponder the issue. You can’t become original just by thinking about it. I think originality as a goal in itself is wrong.
At the beginning of your artistic career, you were probably tempted — like many others — to copy famous artists…
Every fledgling artist passes through this path. When I was young, I had models I aspired to — such as famous Belarusian artist Vitold Bialynitsky-Birulia, American Andrew Wyeth and Russian Alexey Gritsai. These masters were, and still are, unrivalled for me. Many of my works resembled their style. Later, I realised that you could spend your whole life copying other artists and looking at the world with their eyes, so I decided to try and imagine that mine was the only art. There would be just me and the environment — nothing more. Naturally, it was an abstract idea but such an idyll does exist — in nature. Now, I don’t feel pressured to follow any artistic school.
Valery’s main theme is the Belarusian countryside. He continues to search for the truth, exploring it at every opportunity. Landscapes are born from loneliness, in the quietness of his studio after long consideration. There are no people in his landscapes, creating an additional mystique and giving a surreal atmosphere.
When did you achieve your own unique style?
About 15 years ago, at least five years after my graduation from the Art Institute. My teachers influenced me greatly of course; students’ works often resemble their teachers’. It took me five years after leaving the Institute before I found myself — I was searching for my own individuality. I was initially creating abstract pictures, as we were taught that this was modern. I was also interested in formal composition but, later, everything resumed its natural course. Six or seven years after graduation, I started my own serious work.
You now work exclusively with landscapes. Where do you find depth in nature?
Your question already has its answer. I see the greatest depth in landscapes — as in nothing else. I cannot find this in still life or portraits. I cannot make a still life deep in its essence — unlike a landscape. It’s important to think of what lies beyond the canvas rather than what is plainly depicted. It’s important to feel it. An artist’s suffering must be evident, with all thoughts and feelings included. This is easiest in a landscape. A landscape for me is a mystery and a secret of nature — it is the major component of art.
Valery’s personality was formed not in the pursuit of originality or the outrageous but through a gradual search for his ‘ego’. His singularity is the result of his creative self-cultivation, his constant and consistent comprehension of his own media, which suits his character. He has ‘erased the slave’ in himself, which desired to copy other masters.
Can you explain why landscapes have displaced other genres for you?
Probably because landscapes are the most philosophical for me — simultaneously the simplest and the most complicated. Almost every artist creates landscapes — in every age. Many people believe it’s an easy genre but I’m convinced this simplicity houses a depth which I, personally, have only just begun to understand. It is a mystery for me. I see mystery and depth in landscapes — as in no other genre.
They attract you.
Shkarubo’s landscapes are a medium for self-expression and self-knowledge. They enable him to convey his ideas, images and feelings, forming his own notion of art.
Which images are most common in your works? Do you merely depict what you see or do you portray impressions? Can you explain — are you a realist or a dreamer?
I’m probably more of a realist. Realistic art is far-reaching; the longer we live the better we realise that it has no boundaries. The pictures of Zaborov are filled with realism. In 2003, in France, I got to know Belarusian painter Boris Zaborov.
The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs called Valery with news of a letter from Boris Zaborov, from France. Extracts are below:
‘Valery, after I looked through the catalogues you presented to me, I wanted to write you a letter. Probably, my words will help you to understand the correctness of your choice and the uniqueness in each of us. However, few people realise it and often go away without realising their ‘ego’. You have, which is a rare privilege. Believe me and keep this precious quality. Your world of feelings, with its simple and unsophisticated frankness, will help you to look at your surroundings unambiguously, which is crucial. The only force which can help a contemporary painter resist temptation is attachment to his moral core. I wish you courage on this path’.
What inspires you to begin?
I invent an image of what I wish to see before going into the countryside. The objects I see serve as my plot and guide but plot is not a priority for me. It’s important to reflect my mood rather than to merely paint what is seen. I search for what I need. It’s unimportant what I depict, as is the season and time. The image in my brain is key; I search for elements in nature to reveal it — a part of the sky or forest. All my landscapes are collective, as there are no such places in nature — I invent them. I work until I achieve the desired result. It takes a long time and much suffering to create a picture.
Would you like to influence audiences with your art?
I think not. Art, perhaps, has another purpose. I’d like people to experience my feelings and thoughts from the time of painting the picture. Moreover, it’s difficult to influence or educate.
Don’t you think about influencing the audience?
No. A painter can’t aspire to this; it would be fake.
Do you depict the Belarusian countryside in your works?
You travel to many other places. How do they compare and which affects you most? Do you find beautiful sights everywhere?
I’ve visited many places and countries and have seen exotic sights and landscapes. I’ve made sketches in almost every country. However, the most successful are those which resemble Belarus somehow. It sometimes happens that nature is so beautiful that there is no place for an artist — a copy would be adequate for people to admire. Belarusian landscapes tend to be reserved but I love them for their understated glory. They have more complicate colours and I feel they belong to me.
Are you philosophical in your works?
I’m always thinking as I work, about eternal themes; this could be considered as philosophy. In 99 per cent of cases, I choose to paint the countryside — which endures forever, in the past, present and future. I try not to paint temporary things — which come and go — as they are not interesting for me. The saying ‘life is short while art is eternal’ has truth in it. I want people to feel this eternity when looking on my pictures.
Fragments from Boris Zaborov’s letter to Valery Shkarubo:
‘Literary tricks in the names of pictures are inadequate. Your works don’t need such titles; they protest against them. ‘Sad Twilight’ is a poor title for a painting of a snow-covered scene. Titles should reflect the emotional force of a picture. Your world perception should dictate the title — as in ‘The Road’, which evokes a host of thoughts, feelings and emotions, stimulating the imagination and a range of geographical, philosophical and mystical fantasies. Your road dissolves in the mist, full of inexplicable sadness. It fades into the distance, bringing to mind our own psyche’.
Do you add your imagination to real landscapes?
Yes, I’m always inventing. I’m not trying to make exact copies — like photographs; this would be meaningless. You need to demonstrate your vision through art. Last year, we organised an open air show featuring 60 artists. Each depicted the same landscape, with varying results. Everyone had their own style, which is how it should be. If we produced an exact replica of what the eye sees, there would be no need for artists. Only individuality is valued in art — it is either present or not.
Fragments of a letter from Boris Zaborov to Valery Shkarubo:
‘I will repeat that you shouldn’t confirm your love with words. Declare it with your expressiveness as a painter’.
You often depict a road…
A road symbolises movement; movement is life. Thousands of people have travelled the road — all with their own feelings. They’ve all seen this landscape and I’m depicting that which has been seen by thousands. It has infinite depth.
Is this a symbol of life?
Yes, you could paint roads all your life as an artist. I’ll continue painting them.
In what ways do you feel close to nature?
Nature bewitches me; it takes me captive. Landscapes greatly influence us. I feel unfettered only in my studio, when I’m alone.
What are your artistic plans?
The crisis seems to have resulted in fewer exhibitions being organised, which is no bad thing. Beforehand, I had many shows at home and abroad, which can be distracting. With fewer events ahead, I have more time for painting. I’m now working calmly and feel comfortable.
It appears that the crisis is good for you.
True. I work in my studio every day, to bring new levels of insight to my landscapes. I’m not trying to expand their scope, e.g. to include mountains. I’m striving to show our Belarusian landscapes rather as writers endeavour to penetrate the human psyche.