Posted: 06.12.2023 18:10:00

Invincible life

In memory of People’s Artist Leonid Shchemelev

He never depicted the war in a picturesque, ceremonial and elegantly heroic manner, just as he did not paint battle scenes, although Leonid Shchemelev, first an infantryman, then a cavalryman, had more than enough of them during the war years. Not fully understood for many years, he received real recognition and the title of People’s Artist in his late adulthood. And then he worked tirelessly for decades, coming to the workshop until his last days. Almost the same age as the century — some three years were not enough for him to reach the century mark! — in the history of Belarusian culture, Shchemelev stands on a par with the era, which, even if it was not kind to him, the artist himself, summing up the results, noted with satisfaction: he lived the way he wanted. He managed to say everything he wanted, he managed to do it. He managed to breathe fill of the bittersweet air of existence.

 Leonid  Shchemelev  oleg karpovich

Leonid Dmitrievich Shchemelev was born in 1923 in Vitebsk — at that time it was like being born in the famous Parisian La Ruche: artists lived nearby all along the street. The first encounter with art took place at a fair, where, in the lean interwar period, his mother took things to sell or exchange for food. There, amid the bustle and hubbub of people, on the fence were hung ‘malyavankas’ — pieces of painted fabric that were hung on the walls for beauty and to escape the cold and dampness, marked with the naive brushes of amateur painters and the intoxicating smell of fresh paint: a bright, happy world of strange flowers and animals. The future artist received his first parting words from Yehuda Pen — the elderly master looked at the drawings and said that he needed to study.
Everything would probably have come true easily and joyfully, but war happened. In June 1941, Leonid Shchemelev’s mother had a terrible dream: as if the entire sky over Vitebsk was covered by terrible black birds. And already on June 23rd, the defenceless city was shelled by German air bombs.
His father, a former non-commissioned officer in the tsarist army, went to a recruiting station — he left as part of a railway battalion, unarmed, with a skinny soldier’s bag over his shoulders. He promised: wait, I’ll be back soon. With these words, he disappeared into the smoke of war — one of the unknown soldiers, the memory of whom was frozen in grey obelisks at mass graves. 
Young Leonid, his mother and pregnant sister managed to leave as the last echelon in a crowd of confused refugees; they came under bombing near Rudnya, then the survivors buried the dead and bandaged the wounded with whatever they had to. For a month, under constant air raids, the family, transferring from one evacuation train to another, reached Moscow, from where they could go deep into the rear. During the evacuation, he worked at a defence plant that produced fragmentation grenades: he helped the front as best he could, waiting for the moment when he himself was finally drafted into the army.
General Lev Dovator, 1975
In December 1941, Shchemelev was finally mobilised and sent to sergeant school. He survived the battles on the Kursk Bulge and crossed the Dnieper River and Pripyat River under heavy fire during the famous Chernigov-Pripyat operation. The roads of war brought him to his native land, which he cleared of invaders. He was seriously wounded in the arm in the battle near Mozyr, and in the hospital he met a dashing cavalryman who began the war in the cavalry of the legendary Lev Dovator. Shchemelev, who loved horses since childhood, wrote a letter directly from his hospital room asking for a transfer to the cavalry — it was allowed. The end of the war found him in the Ukrainian Cossack Corps: guard sergeant Shchemelev was one of those who drove out Bandera’s executioners and accomplices of the fascists from the forest caches. 
In 1947, he entered the Minsk Art School; front-line soldiers were then accepted without any questions. Then — to the newly created Belarusian Theatre and Art Institute, where his real studies began. He was lucky, and seriously lucky: he became a student of the national artist Vitaly Tsvirko, a delicate, intelligent, caring mentor. Shchemelev was already 36 years old when he graduated, his diploma canvas Wedding, today a textbook, was torn to pieces by the defence commission — for the overly bright and non-academic colours, the horses literally tearing from the canvas, as well as for the fact that the Soviet wedding cannot be like this... The intercession of Tsvirko, who was then the rector, did not help, but an influential Moscow guest was found who defended the artist. Perhaps his front-line past also played a role, which could not be ignored; one way or another, he was given a humiliating 3 grade and was still allowed to graduate.
For many years he received criticism from his contemporaries: either for excessive harshness and an excess of trench truth in his depiction of the Great Patriotic War, or, on the contrary, for a flourishing riot of colours, or for ‘formalism’, when a painter unlike anyone else again became a target for slander. In 1967, the Belarusian exhibition committee did not allow his painting My Birth to go to the All-Union Exhibition in Moscow, just as they did not allow Mikhail Savitsky’s Partisan Madonna — the view of the war of these two creators seemed too strange and unusual. And only the kind guardian angel Alena Aladava, director of the National Art Museum of Belarus, ensured that the paintings went to the exhibition and received their well-deserved triumph, becoming icons of the ‘severe style’.

My birth, 1967

For Shchemelev, the war was not at all the one shown in the movies — when, as the writer Yuri German aptly put it in his time, ‘not a war, 
but a sight for sore eyes, if only I could fight for a century: cleanly, well-fed, and the commander was the head, but the fascists — exclusively dead’. 
The war that he heard about years after the last shots had died down was completely different: in it, 18-year-old boys (how many of them passed through his department while serving in the infantry!) died, sometimes without having time to fire a single shot.
And yet, the main thing for Leonid Shchemelev was the understanding: life always defeats death. 
That is why immersion in the depths of memory was replaced by a hymn to happiness, the ability to breathe and feel, a feeling of the preciousness and uniqueness of every moment on this earth. This life, rising up against death, all-conquering, full of jubilation, broke through in his broad flying strokes, in colours that were not in the limited palette of exemplary and sad functionaries from art.

Hard Years (Militia), 1964

Real recognition for Shchemelev began only in the 1980s, when the bureaucratic quagmire around art gradually dried up. In 1982, the 59-year-old master received the State Prize of the BSSR for the cycle My Land, Minsk Region, a year later — the title of People’s Artist. In the 1990-2000s, his talent reached the peak of its heyday — at a time when most people reach old age, manage to drink and write ten times, run into a dead end and waste all their creative capital, he creates easily and with pleasure, plunging into experiments and searches, then entering into a roll call with Marc Chagall, then going into memories.

As if in a dream, 1995

Leonid Shchemelev’s paintings live within the walls of the National Art Museum, a gallery named after him, which he himself actually founded, donating several dozen canvases to the state; they are stored in the Tretyakov Gallery and in the collections of other famous galleries on the planet. Thin-legged, long-maned horses race on his canvases; his paintings are inhabited and inhabited by the artist’s loved ones — his beloved wife, children and household members, pets.
And he portrayed himself more than once — young, fit, full of vitality, ringing like a string... As if, having crossed the earthly boundary, he galloped into the endless sky.

  By Irina Ovsepyan