Wonderful symbols of times past

National Art Museum showcases unique exhibition featuring artistic diversity of first director

By Victor Mikhailov

Nikolay Mikholap headed Minsk’s State Picture Gallery from 1939 to 1941, becoming the first Director of the National Art Museum of Belarus. Seven years ago, art lovers saw with their own eyes that, apart from being a skilful administrator, he was also a talented ceramicist and an industrial designer. Even now, residents and guests of Minsk, Vitebsk, Gomel and many other Belarusian cities daily see examples of Mr. Mikholap’s work, with no idea of their author. Lamp poles — installed in central streets — are decorated with ‘aprons’ designed by him, while his lamps and vases — inspired by Slutsk sash motifs — are a tribute to the Belarusian culture which he embraced all his life.

Seven years ago, an exhibition showcasing Mr. Mikholap’s artistic legacy was organised. This year, the master would have celebrated his 125th birthday and, to mark this date, the National Art Museum has decided to represent Mr. Mikholap as a ceramicist and a photographer. The exhibition reveals many new, previously unknown, facets of his artistic personality.
The showcased ceramics reflect the evolution of Mr. Mikholap’s form and style. His early works (Fish vase 1914) were inspired by eastern motifs and, from the 1940s, he began using floral and national motifs on his vases, cups and dippers: Bulba (Potato) and Vasilek (Cornflower).

Mr. Mikholap’s photographic interest followed on from that of his family, who took many shots in the years before WWII; sadly, few photos have survived from those early times. They were made on glass plates, featuring scenes from family life and some fine art pieces. On returning to Minsk from evacuation, in 1944, the master devoted much time to photographing the destroyed city and animals in the Belovezhskaya Pushcha. He took many pictures depicting the country’s flora — such as potatoes and flax, which are now kept (alongside films) in several packages.

The present show unveils the city of the past, which we never see in reality. Several hundred photos present us with rare documentary evidence. The best are an example of true artistic black-and-white photography, with carefully chosen compositions: unusual angles, lyrical feelings and expressive light and shadow combinations. All arouse admiration — for their theme, delicate graphic features and mood.

No doubt, panoramic pictures of Minsk, Grodno and Mir Castle are impressive, as are rare photos of city buildings and architectural details (such as grids, balconies and houses). Mr. Mikholap managed to capture moments of life from post-war cities, which were being rapidly built anew, changing every day. We feel the mood of past years, seeing cities and people from the past, giving us an expressive and convincing historical truth.

Mr. Mikholap was clearly full of curiosity for the world, although his theme was largely urban. His attention to the smallest detail, taking dozens of photos to inform his ceramic decorations, is helping modern restorers return our city streets to their former ‘faces’.

The exhibition showcases about a hundred photos taken between 1945 and 1956, featuring post-war Minsk and cities which Mr. Mikholap visited as part of Union of Architects’ expeditions. They are kept by the Museum of Ancient Belarusian Culture (at the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Arts, Ethnography and Folklore) and in his heirs’ family archives. They are wonderful symbols of the past…

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