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Transformations in Belarusian Art (the end of XX century)

By Hanna Kuzmich.

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev was elected a Secretary General of the Communist Party of USSR. In the history of the greatest state his relatively short period of ruling (1985-1991) is associated with the words “perestroika”, “glasnost” and “democracy”. After being in the state of lethargy for some decades, people were given a chance to discuss topical issues legally and openly, not just with close friends. Policy line head for the changes, gave hopes for economic and life quality reformation. Today historians often turn to this period to compare bad and good aspects of the process and its role in the history of the USSR. Very often we can meet general opinions, but there is one common point of view: in 1980s-19190s most historical facts were restored, cultural heritage was recovered, cultural figures, who were earlier under the ideological ban, were legitimated. One of the prominent Russian artists, Ivan Lubennikov defined the situation as “upside down”. As the words “informal art” had no sense, actual arts (sprang from soviet underground) were becoming popular and creativity was given an unbelievable opportunity for self-expression. These changes certainly influenced Belarusian art. In general the situation in art could be called as multy-vectorial. Realism was the basic vector, it involved celebrated artists as well as young artists who had academic education. Modern time provided anyone with opportunity to show their many-sided talents, which generally exceeded the limits. Fresh time gave a chance to deal with new issues, to find new ways of communication with audience.

Ethnic identity has got an important role at art at that time. The works of Eugenie Zaytsev and Arlen Kashkurevich, Vladimir Tovstik and Aleksey Marochkin are notable for turning to ethnic culture, historic events and figures (which wasn’t appreciated later). One of the legendary artists of Belarus – Gavriil Vashchenko painted “Battle of Grunwald” (1985), created a number of portraits, among them are the Duke Vitovt, Euphrosyne of Polotsk, the chancellor of the Great Dutchy of Lithuania – Lew Sapieha.

The Chernobyl disaster in 1985 (April 26) made everyone think about the results of technological progress and affected greatly the artists’ attitude to the humans. They tended to think more about the role of a man in surrounding world rather than depicting him as a conqueror of the world, as the life of the succeeding generations will depend on their ancestors’ influence on the environment. Academician of Art Mikhail Sovitsky sharply reflected the tragedy of the disaster in his artworks (his series of paintings have a common name “Chernobyl (Black Pain)” (1986-1989). A painful homesick for lost native land and thinking of technological and moral apocalypse were the main themes brought in the paintings of the following authors: Gavriil Vashchenko, who was born in Bragin region (his works “Running”, “Strontium”, “Over the Pripyat”, “Chernobyl requiem”); Georgiy Poplavsky, the tragedy was shown in his pictures (“Chernobyl. The leafless trees” 1987), Leonid Shchemelev, Viktor Shmatov; Ivan Andrasyuk and Vladimir Losev who represented their concern about the future of the human beings in their posters (1989-1990).

It should be noted that the works of poster designers are rather curious. Among the artists who worked in this field you can find the whole generation of talented authors, they are Vladimir Tsesler, Sergey Voychenko, Andrew Shelyutto, Dmitry Sursky, Mikhail Anempodistov, Alexander Novozhylov, Jurij Torrev etc. Having been influenced by the conceptualism, they formed their own style which had distinctive features: topicality, acuity and expressiveness in art effects. The alliance of Vladimir Tsesler and Sergey Voytchenko turned out to be very successful, it resulted into the following artworks: “From year of peace to war-free world” (1986), “War brings people…” (1988), “Afghan” (1989).

In the late 1980s the process of state-confessional democratization started. Religious liberty, officially proclaimed in early ages of the Soviet regime, had at last become real. As a result the religious theme became legal and the artists could tell about Christian values, God, morals and morality with the help of art.

This theme took serious dimension in the works of Alexander Isachev. He started with meeting avant-garde artists in Leningrad 1973-1977 (St. Petersburg now). The artist participated in some collective exhibitions. When he came back to his native town Rechitsa (Gomel region, Belarus) and turning to the practices of old masters based on glazing he created his own style. Bible and mythological stories became fundamental in his paintings. For a long time his works were not appreciated in official art circle. It was in 1987 when his official personal exhibition was held. And in some days after the opening of the exhibition he died. Alexander was just 32. One of the bystanders shares the emotions the exhibition aroused, “it wasn’t typical for dominant soviet ideology”, and the way it influenced his further life. Soon he was christened in church painted by Alexander Isachev.

Finding a personal style became the main task for the most artists. They tried to undertake it basing on the principles of traditional Russian and foreign art of 1900-1920s as well as on the West European art of that time. Unique images which ran through the personal life perception, complex techniques which were the result of experiments, vivid author’s style are typical for the following painters: Alexander Kishchenko and Ninel Shchastnaya, Nicolay Seleshchuk and Zoya Litvinova, Sergey Timohov and Svetlana Kotkova.

The conception of art exhibitions changed greatly, they turned into real performances and the atmosphere was in priority. Not only exhibition halls of art galleries and museums were the places for their organization, but also the halls of cinemas, libraries, educational institutions, studios and even garages.

It’s evident that the changes in public attitude and reversal of usual stereotype couldn’t run in a moment. New ideas different from stable opinions about what is “good” or “bad” had to demonstrate their right to be existed. It was easier to prove it joining into groups rather than struggling alone. And it was exactly the audience thirst for alter art that helped the artists to make their striving true. Late 1980s and early 1990s is the period when a lot of official and unofficial art unions and groups appeared. They were formed basing on the common views and ideas about means of art.

In 1985 seven painters who were the graduates of the Academy of Art (Nicolay Seleshchuk, Viktor Olshevsky, Felix Yanushkevich, Vladimir Savich, Vladimir Tovstik, Valeriy Slauk and Alexander Ksendzov) organized the exhibition “Painting. Drawing. 1985”. It took two stories in Research Institute in Masherov avenue (Minsk). This event drew a wide response. It was for the first time when the art rated by the competent artists as “unworthy of the audience attention”, was shown in public and drew a large amount of visitors. The general committee of the Union of artists reacted immediately and gave the group a reprimand “… for nationalistic sabbath with anti-soviet deviation”. In a week the reprimand was remitted, in a three year period the exhibition with the same participants was held. In 1989, after their third exhibition, the artists registered their group as a public organization “Academy”.

The idea of national renovation served a criterion for the artistic union “Pogonya”, formed in 1990. It included the artists from different cities of the republic, who represented different styles but were socially active. The work of Ales Marochkin, Evgeniy Shatokhin, Oleg Karpovich , Ales Pushkin and other artists of the union biased on the past and present historic events of the country as well as on the social and ecological problems. Their works were notable for actuality, sturdiness and bitterness.

Opposed to “Pogonya”, “Nemiga-17” group consisted of the artists who had the common idea of art de-ideologization, rebirth and continuity with 1920’s colour traditions policy. The delicate design of colour position, new plastic and individual style hunting are the first-priority in the works of Sergey Kiryushchenko, Leonid Hobotov, Nicolay Bushchik, Zoya Litvinova, Anatoly Kuznetsov and other members of the group. In 1986 after been refused to exhibit some of their works at the Palace of Arts, the group showed their works in a studio belonged to Sergey Kiryushchenko, it was on the 17-th floor of a building in Nemiga street. That’s why the group had such a name. The exhibition was a great success among their colleagues and the intellectuals of Minsk and in a year it was shown again at the Palace of Arts. Later the members of the group held more than 10 serious exhibitions and in 2003 ended in a project at the State Tretyakov gallery.

The greatest number of such groups and unions appeared among the avant-garde artists for example: “Format”, “Galina”, “Pluralis”, “Kvdrat (square)”, “Komikon”, “Belarusian climate” etc. An alternative, underground and illegal art world which existed in 1970s- early 1980s got a chance to communicate openly with people. The members of the groups both introduced their works and educated the audience as they let people learn the traditions of Russian avant-garde art and the tendency of modern foreign art. Igor Kashkurevich and Ludmila Rusova who were the founders of “Pluralis” group first arranged the meetings at their cottage and later at “Christofor” theater. Their art alliance played a great role in realization of such projects as “Art studio”, “Kazimir riviving”(1989), “Kazimir Malevich-110” (1989), “Here we are”. Among the key figures who represented Belarusian avant-garde we can name: Alexey Zhdanov, Artur Klinov, Olga Sazykina, Vladimir Lappo, Vitaliy Kalgin (Bismark). The artists combined traditional forms of art: painting, drawing, sculpture, installations and performances with different actions which created a new atmosphere at the exhibitions and a new world where ordinary people could draw into. For example “Panorama” exhibition which was held in an abandoned house next to the Cathedral in Nemiga street. Here exactly the actions were held, the opinions were actively shared, the artists acted not just as creators but they became the parts of their works.

It should be observed that the transformations in Belarusian Art concerned not only Minsk artists. The events taking place in regional and district centers were interesting and meaningful too.

The Vitebsk avant-garde art of 1970-80s is associated with the names of such people as Alexander Solovjev, Oleg Orlov, Leonid Antimonov. They created “Kvadrat (square)” group in 1978. Alexander Dosuzhev, Valerij Schastny, Nicolay Dundin, Alexander Slepov, Valeriy Chukin, Tatiana and Yuri Rudenko, Victor Shilko, Victor Mikhaylovsky with their leader Alexander Maley turned to the legacy of the creative UNOVIS group ,which was founded by Kazimir Malevich in 1919. The first exhibition named “Experiment” was held by the members of this group in 1988. This event was dedicated to 110th Malevich anniversary and was organized as an exhibition and action. It integrated the artists from the group with the painters from Minsk and St. Petersburg. The activity of “Kvadrat” group resulted in holding I-st and II-nd International open air “Malevich. UNOVIS. Today” (1994, 1996)

In 1987 Galina Vasilyeva, Vasiliy Vasilyev, Alexander Konovalov and Oleg Ladisov, the painters from Polotsk, united and formed “463” group. They paid their attention to the influence of colour rhythm on emotional and intellectual spheres of life, they concentrated on the problem of psychological understanding of colour, they concerned about making up a symbolic system of emotional expression. It was in 1989 when the group in association with Vitebsk artists Alexander Solovyev and Oleg Orlov held the first full-sized exhibition of intuitive art.

The members of art union “Orshitsa” had the common art credo. The union appeared in Orsha and united Boris Ivanov, Anatoliy Maryshev, Alexander and Gennadiy Faley, Anatiliy Zhuravlev and Victor Shilko.

The group “Extinct world” was organized in 1988 in Bobruisk. In an interview Tikhon Abramov, the author and leader of the group, gave the following idea of the members personality: “They are all different, but it’s a common idea that makes them an ensemble. They want to arrange a party, a show to cheer up. I’m for the diversity of ideas, stories and forms.” The first avant-garde exhibition took place in Bobruisk in 1992. Eugene Almaev in “Chronicles of “Extinct world” shares his thought about it: “The attendees first met a long vertical poster which contained thirty names of the participants. Above it there was one more smaller poster which had an ambiguous inscription: “Not everyone here is of them. Not all of them are here.” The people drew the curtain back and found themselves in an infinite and transformed room. A sterile parallelepiped shape of the room turned into measureless brushes of savage selva. Ropes looking like lianas crossed everywhere in different directions. The ropes had various hanging domestic things, which all lost their utility within the context of the exhibition. Plastic bags with scobs precipitated their filling like waterfalls. The realization of up and down was lost, the only reference points were golden jar tops which were nailed to the floor and guided the attendees from one work to another.

Paralleled worlds, mysterious images, philosophical thoughts and bright fantasies, shown with the help of images and symbols, metaphors, allegories, colour and forms-all these typical for Ivan Popov, Sergey Kovrigo, Ivan Firtsak, Adrey Ohlopkov who organized a group “Nirvana”. It was in Gomel in 1994.

Even this brief review of the events in Belarusian art life in the late 1980, early 1990s can prove the fact that Perestroika in Belarusian art brought the transformations in creative work of Belarusian artists and the changes in mind of the audience. After been given enough freedom in subjective self-expression, some of the artists, who had already been honored, took the risky experiments, some of them like an avant-garde artist Vladimir Akulov and a modernist Vasily Pochitsky (dr. Klein), in the end of 1980s just took their first steps in art. Their creativity mostly developed into an art of a high quality and as a result was appreciated and known out of Belarus. They represent a contemporary art of the country, and besides they are a benchmark for the young painters.

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