Posted: 18.05.2023 14:08:00

Heavenly gifts

In memory of People’s Artist Vladimir Stelmashonok

Passing through Minsk, anyone, even those who are not at all interested in painting, will certainly come across the works of Vladimir Stelmashonok. Even just going down the subway. The People’s Artist of the BSSR was a member of the team of authors who designed the Victory Square and Moskovskaya stations: he created a mosaic on Moskovskaya, and a stained-glass window on Victory Square... The writer’s house on Frunze Street (and today it is a haven for Belarusian writers) was also designed by Stelmashonok, he was generally attracted to literature and poetry all his life like a magnet. The poetic lines of Kupala and Kolas in his thinking were intricately intertwined with embroidered stitches of folk ornaments — this became his trademark, personal concept, something that no one had done before him, and few could repeat and inevitably compete in skill and talent with the original.

Lenin with Youth. Vkhutemas. 1921 (1967)
Vladimir Stelmashonok was the first who seriously and consciously began the origination of the Belarusian pantheon of creators. At the time when the famous Word about Belarus was created, this almost iconic style, in which there was so much from Russian icon painting, from the images of Andrei Rublev, Dionysius and Theophanes the Greek, produced the effect of an exploding bomb. It was new. It was unusual. Nobody did that before. Against the background of the whitest, brightly patterned woven towels, there were dark faces, like on ancient icons, showed through: Euphrosyne of Polotsk, Kirill of Turov, Francysk Skorina, Symon Budny, Pyotr Mstislavets, Frantishek Bogushevich, Aloiza Pashkevich, Maksim Bogdanovich, Yakub Kolas, Yanka Kupala, Tishka Gartny, Vladislav Golubok... Stelmashonok depicted them, the saints, printers, poets all together — the guardians of the Belarusian land. And the painted towels — these protective covers — frame their images in the same way as they framed the village iconostasis with embroidered linen fabrics. 
Portrait of Yakub Kolas (1967)
It was the unity of folk culture with high poetry, holiness with enlightenment that inspired the artist all his life. All this splashed out far beyond the scope of socialist realism, breaking any restrictions, but after all, a true master cannot be limited by any canons and styles.
Vladimir Stelmashonok was born in Minsk in 1928, but he considered himself a villager, and his small homeland was the tiny village of Khimnoe near Osipovichi. His parents were from peasants, the revolution gave them the opportunity to study — and they gnawed at the granite of science at the workers’ faculty, eventually becoming excellent doctors. And the little son was brought up in the wild: either in a village in the Mstislav District with one grandfather, or in Khimny with a second. It was here that he first showed his interest in the visual arts. Here Vladimir mastered the usual village crafts and until the end of his life he himself created intricate and unusual wooden frames for his works. Portraits of relatives and villagers, more than once depicted his grandfather’s hut, carefully reproducing images of childhood on canvas. 
Like many Belarusian masters, he studied in Leningrad — this Mecca of artists of the 20th century. First, Mukhinka, where he was admitted to the faculty of artistic woodworking, then the former Tauride School, where he learned the intricacies of scenography, and, finally, the famous Repinka, its painting faculty.
Portrait of Grigory Shirma (1968)
After spending more than ten years in Leningrad, Vladimir Stelmashonok got ready and returned to his homeland. In Minsk, he took up teaching, joined the Union of Artists of the BSSR, got involved in work — participated in republican, all-Union and foreign exhibitions.
As a decorator, Stelmashonok had no equal. But the portrait of Yakub Kolas brought real loud glory to him as an artist — the very famous half-length, where Pesnyar is depicted in a shirt open on his chest, against the background of eared bread... Not everyone appreciated Pesnyar in such a simple guise.
And a simple, self-made rustic frame, for which he was also reproached (why there is no richer frame!), is perceived quite differently over the years: as an integral part of the portrait, the final touch applied by the master already without the help of paints and brushes. Well, sometimes it takes years and decades for a simple viewer to comprehend the master’s intention.
A textbook depiction of the folklorist and conductor Grigory Shirma, the writer Maksim Goretsky, an appeal to the heroes of Kolas... Stelmashonok was a magnificent portraitist — in his own special way, like a folk icon painter, putting all the simplicity and fullness of his feelings into the created image. As well as the schedule was excellent, although this side of his work is known to few. Created a great variety of landscapes of Minsk. Many images captured something that you cannot find today even in archival photographs: the artist loved his native city and returned to it from everywhere, no matter how he was persuaded to stay.
People’s Commissars of the BSSR (1971)

Stelmashonok in the plein-air — it was an attraction and a theatre for everyone who happened to be nearby. He was not just a master, in his creative passion and rapture of what he loved, he also looked exactly the way a real artist should look in the eyes of ordinary people. Wherever he paints, a crowd of onlookers gathered around, fascinated by how his brush flies, how recognisable images of the surroundings appear from under it. 
He never lived the life of a private person — he did not allow himself to shut himself up in a studio, to settle in his own cosy little world, because he was highly ideological in his very essence.
Self-portrait (1993)
Without hesitation, he took on a serious burden: he was twice elected chairman of the Union of Artists, he was a deputy of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR and chairman of the Committee of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on Culture. Together with Dmitry Likhachev, he developed a law on culture, according to which great attention was to be paid to aesthetic education and decoration of the urban environment. And in 1991, when the Soviet Union was cracking at the seams, Vladimir Stelmashonok without hesitation laid the keys to his Moscow deputy apartment on the table, leaving himself only a party card (whereas the majority did exactly the opposite), and again, as many times before, he returned to Minsk: what was happening before his eyes with the country was incompatible with the concept of conscience, which he carried through his whole life.
Oh, they called him many times and tried to get him abroad! In the American city of Trenton, they even awarded the title of honorary citizen in the hope that this magnificent master will be tempted and stay with them forever. 
It was possible to settle down wonderfully, forgetting about any troubles and leaving behind the Motherland, which is entering the peak. But he once again turned around — and flew to Minsk, purposeful and faithful, like a bird, which from any of the warmest and most beautiful lands always returns to its native nest. And if the nest is destroyed, build it again. 
‘Fool’, whispered those who all their lives have been looking for how to get better. And he took and gave his kin Osipovichi an art gallery and dozens of his works. In general, he gave it easily — greed, this common human ailment, bypassed him. However, birds are far from human vices: they have wings, love for their chicks and fidelity to nests, and they don’t need more... 

By Irina Ovsepyan