Posted: 16.05.2024 17:10:51

Attracted to the sky

In memory of Pavel Maslenikov, People’s Artist of Belarus

Oleg Karpovich

Pavel Maslenikov is an iconic figure for Belarusian painting. It is not the halo of recognition surrounding the People’s Artist of Belarus, or even the galaxy of his countless students, or the creative dynasty he founded that makes his personality so outstanding, but the boundless love for life and his native land that permeated his entire being and was reflected in the landscapes painted by the master with amazing warmth and tenderness. His employment book contained only two entries throughout his entire life — the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre and the Belarusian State Theatre and Art Institute. Hundreds of his paintings are scattered around museums, though.

Pavel Maslenikov was born on February 1st, 1914 in Mogilev Region, in a family of sturdy peasants who had two more sons and a daughter. He knew since childhood what he wanted to do — to join the ranks of creative people, to become a musician, a writer or an artist and not just a layman observer. Since childhood, he felt the magic of his native Belarusian nature and was inspired by all natural phenomena that seemed mysterious and beautiful. 
He swallowed books, tried his hand at drawing, dreamed of playing the balalaika and begged his parents to buy him this musical instrument. However, such expensive purchases could not be made out of simple desire and although the family was not poor, his parents did not have spare money. So his father refused. Then Pavel made a balalaika himself using a plank, a piece of plywood, and a copper wire for strings, and thus tried to extract the music that fascinated him so much. One of the boy’s brightest childhood impressions was an excursion that the village teacher arranged for the class to the museum in Mogilev — a mesmerising place with paintings by Ilya Repin, Vasily Surikov, seascapes by Ivan Aivazovsky…
After finishing four classes in the village of Knyazhitsy, Pavel went to Mogilev where he continued his studies. This is how a ten-year-old child got an independent life. His parents rented a room for their son having paid the owners with potatoes. The rest was for Pavel to cope on his own, and he did well. He finished school, and when the question arose about continuing his education, he entered the Mogilev Pedagogical College and later studied at the literary faculty of the Mogilev State Pedagogical Institute. 
An overwhelming passion for painting was typical of Belarusians in those years. True, Marc Chagall and Kazimir Malevich had already left Vitebsk, but young people were still eager to attend the school the prominent artists had created. Pavel Maslenikov also went to Vitebsk. Upon graduation, he was hired as a scene designer at the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre of the BSSR, where famous Sergei Nikolayev — the future People’s Artist of Belarus — was the leading stage designer at that time. Nikolayev was one of the best-known masters of his trade, who laid the foundation of Belarusian stage design. Thus, two main passions of Pavel Maslenikov — painting and music — merged into one profession, and he forever acquired a special love for decorative and applied arts and not only for pure painting. In 1940, he was already trusted with independent design of theatrical productions. Trilby, the opera by composer Aleksandr Yurasovsky, became his debut. 
The happy course of life was interrupted by the 1941-1945 Great Patriotic War. It found Maslenikov during his vacation in the Caucasus, making it impossible to return to Belarus. The theatre was evacuated to Volga Region, and the young artist went off to war to defend his Homeland. Maslenikov fought on the Western and Northwestern Fronts, as well as participated in the Battle of Moscow as part of a special signal squadron. The fate favoured him and kept him safe. 
Maslenikov not only survived — he went through the entire war without a single wound, even when a shell hit the body of the car he was riding in with other soldiers. Most of them died or were injured, but Pavel, thrown back by the blast wave, survived and remained unharmed. 
He was lucky in one more aspect — he found his soulmate at the front, a signalwoman named Nina, originally from Penza, Russia. They met in Iran, on the border with Türkiye, where their detachment was redeployed. The artist brought his young wife to his native Belarus after demobilisation. 
Having returned to liberated Minsk and got off the train at the station, the artist saw sheer ruins instead of the beautiful and well-groomed capital of the country. It was only the Bolshoi Theatre that towered over the ruined city — damaged, but preserved... So he walked there, to his place of power.
The artist gave two decades of his life to the Bolshoi Theatre, having designed the stage for 16 operas and 7 ballets. He also happened to be a decorator at the Kupala Theatre. The classics of music and drama — Tosca by Puccini and Pagliacci by Leoncavallo, Lacmé by Delibes and Iolanthe by Gilbert and Sullivan, La Bayadère by Minkus and The Corsair by Verdi — blossomed and materialised thanks to his skilful hands. Stage design of national Belarusian performances occupies a special place in the master’s creative work — opera The Haunted Manor by Stanisław Moniuszko, ballet Nightingale by Mikhail Kroshner, opera Mikhas Podgorny by Yevgeny Tikotsky and opera Clear Dawn by Aleksei Turenkov, and more. While working in the theatre, Maslenikov did not neglect his studies. He graduated from the famous Ilya Repin Leningrad Institute for Painting, Sculpture and Architecture where he studied in absentia as an art expert, after which he embarked on postgraduate studies at the Institute of Literature of the BSSR Academy of Sciences.    

The Belarusian Land, 1973. By Pavel Maslenikov

In 1960, Maslenikov became rector of the Belarusian State Theatre and Art Institute (now the Belarusian State Academy of Arts), founded after the war. Back at that time, the university had only two faculties — theatre and art. He opened new departments and simultaneously solved economic issues, such as the construction of a dormitory and a new academic building, repairs and reconstructions, as well as was engaged in the creation of a boarding secondary school for music and fine arts (now the College of Arts named after Ivan Akhremchik). He was going around the Soviet Union looking for teachers, checking, persuading, proving…     
Already at an advanced age, Maslenikov set off on a journey through Altai alone. He got to Biysk by train, and then on foot. He occasionally stayed overnight at shepherds’ or slept in a tent without thinking about such trifles as hearty food or comfort, being just focused on how to capture and portray as much beauty of the amazing region as possible. He returned home emaciated, with overgrown hair, but brought with him 70 picturesque canvases that made up a single powerful Altai Cycle. India, Nepal, Egypt, Sweden, Finland, Italy and France, Ukraine, the Baltic States and Russia — the artist could be seen everywhere invariably wearing his black beret and a chunky knit sweater, with a Hemingway beard, and a sketchbook on his shoulder. 
“A person needs rest, spiritual renewal, purification... we need a quiet, cosy corner of nature...” Maslenikov believed in that. He travelled Belarus both on foot and by car to the most secluded and hidden corners, never ceasing to admire the beauty of his Homeland. He painted it at any time of the year, in love with his native land as a true romantic — from the changing seasons to the architectural beauties and panoramas of industrial life. 
The cycle of landscapes Around the Native Land, Ancient Minsk, Streets of Minsk, Rakov, Forest Thicket, Golden Autumn, Near Svisloch, Lonely Sail on the surface of the Minsk Sea — whatever you take, every painting conveys a long, loving look of a genuine artist.

Nepal. In the Foothills of the Himalayas, 1976. By Pavel Maslenikov

A generous gift

People’s Artist of Belarus Pavel Maslenikov left an extensive creative legacy. He presented about 140 of his paintings to the Mogilev Regional Art Museum as a gift. In the accompanying dedication, he wrote, ‘To my native Mogilev land, to my dear unforgettable parents, to wise and hardworking countrymen — with a profound reverence and filial gratitude’. By Decree of the President of Belarus, Aleksandr Lukashenko, dated January 22nd, 1996, the museum was named after the artist.
The coin (above) and the stamp (below) issued for the artist’s anniversaries

By Irina Ovsepyan