Culture / Development

One Country, Two Cultural Fields

Belarusian Art in the years 1921-1939

As a sovereign state, Belarus is a relatively new formation. It has existed since 1991, when the former Belarusian SSR was proclaimed an independent republic and adopted a new constitution. Throughout history, the territory of contemporary Belarus used to exist in a form of numerous separate princedoms (Kievan Rus, X – XII cc.), either as part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (XIII – XVI cc.) or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (XVI – XVIII cc.), experiencing annexation to the Russian Empire (which continued during the whole 19th century and ended with the infamous October Revolution in 1917) and finally becoming a Soviet republic, legally subordinate to the central Communist party apparatus in Moscow. The history of Belarus contains colourful controversial stories, but this particular one is dedicated to the first two decades of Soviet rule – the period of impetuous rise and despondent fall of Belarusian nationalism, the time of cultural and territorial separation enriching the history of Belarusian art through artistic phenomena.

The aforementioned separation is rooted in the Peace of Riga (1921), the Treaty that ended the Polish-Soviet war and drew the border, according to which the territory of West Belarus (Zachodniaja Bielaruś or Kresy Wschodnie as it is called in Belarusian and Polish historiographies respectively) was given to Poland. It became the turning point after which the territory of Belarus and, subsequently Belarusian cultural field was divided into two parts: BSSR and West Belarus. Art development in these territories carried on under utterly different conditions, without significant correlation.

In BSSR, social changes driven by the October revolution became a motivation ground for radical transformation of art language and lay the transition for new art forms. Communist utopia was at the basis of an entire social outlook of new state made artists, who began a quest for a type of art that will satisfy the eagerness for de/reconstruction. The BSSR period of 1921 – 1939 hence became an explosive mixture of all possible art innovations, which, unlike Western Europe, did not develop gradually. It was a time when academism for the sake of art was rejected and experiments were based on new painting semiotics.

The initial and principal BSSR art tendency was the break with mimesis, i.e. imitative representation of nature and the human being. The history of European art, in its most general format, tells us about its beginnings with the impressionists at the end of the 19th century, yet pre-revolutionary Belarus was strongly dominated by the influence of St. Petersburg’s Academy of Art and the Itinerants, who followed realistic concepts. An anticipation of impressionism is noticeable in the lyrical landscape style[1], but the so-called formalistic styles[2] came relatively late, as they got the fertile ground to develop after 1917. Nonetheless, newly emerging artistic freedom together with Belarusian national identity rise triggered quick results: the 1920s demonstrated radical change in the nature-painting relationship and conveyed a new interpretation to the artist-painting-viewer triangle.

One of the most remarkable paintings of the time is Vladimir Kudrevich’s Morning of Spring, the pointillist oil on canvas in pastose technique, based on the principle of mixing optical colours.1Vladimir Kudrevich. The Morning of Spring. 1924. Oil on canvas. The National Art Museum of Belarus.

The piece is a unique Kudrevich’s post-impressionistic expression, given that all the others were lost during the WWII or destroyed by the artist himself. The subject matter of the painting, the birch-tree grove, is deliberately unrealistic and does not dictate interpretations provoking the viewer to pass subjective judgments. A similar, albeit differently styled, approach is noticeable in Isaak Milchin’s Burial in a Town.

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Isaak Milchin. Burial in a Town. 1927. Oil on canvas. The National Art Museum of Belarus

This expressively dark painting, abstractly depicting a burial ceremony, is strongly characterized by an accentual contradiction between the title and the picture itself which, in turn, creates controversy and provokes the viewer question the subject matter. Supremacists, who proclaimed geometrical figures to be the pinnacle of art evolution, upheld the most exemplary rejection of mimesis. The movement was initiated by Kazimir Malevich and tool a quick spread in Belarus during his professorship at Vitebsk Art College (1919-1922).

 3Arkadiy Astapovich. Suprematic composition. 1920ies. Paper, application. The National Art Museum of Belarus.

Such style experiments continued until the 1930s, when ideological needs affirmed socialist realism and began the purposeful rooting out of all deviations from the newly born canon. Obvious stylistic differences arose between the 1920s and the 1930s, but the BSSR period of 1921 – 1939 is thematically homogeneous and unified. Leading thematic preferences either were neutral or spoke about a social rebuilding and renaissance of national culture.

Unlike BSSR, the art of West Belarus was not characterized by a development course. It existed under the policy of Polonization[3], operating spontaneously, without loudly expressing political ideas and outside the realm of structural units. Sometimes, this took quite an unexpected form as witnessed in Jazep Drozdovich’s cosmological painting series, describing life on Mars, Saturn, Venus and the Moon. Art history has failed to find a single comprehensive term for Drozdovich’s art. The most popular variants are surrealism, space fantasy, visionary art and space realism (quite amusing though entirely logical, considering the fact that at the beginning of the XX century the science considered all the planets inhabitable).

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Jazep Drozdovich. Trivezh the Mooncity. 1932-1933. Oil on canvas. The Academy of Sciences of Belarus.

Despite the fact that Drozdovich’s works became the result of his passionate ardour for astronomy, they share a strong irrational component. The artist studied science independently at the library of Vilnius University, without any foundation in Physics and Maths, and the peak of this hobby concurred with the marginalized period of Drozdovich’s life. In 1930, he was dismissed from his last stable job and spent the rest of life half-starving, making both ends meet through casual earnings. The subject matter of the cosmology series came to the artist in numerous somnambulistic dreams, after which he would document the visions in paintings and written records on the back side of canvases. The essence of the works, however, has nothing in common with space science fiction in its traditional form. It is impossible to miss the resemblance of Drozdovich’s cosmic landscapes to the landscape of the Earth and the shade of Eastern European folkloric style.

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Jazep Drozdovich. Over the Abyss. 1931. Oil on canvas. The National Art Museum of Belarus

The cultural centre of West Belarus was Vilnius, today’s capital of Lithuania, a historically multi-cultural city. At the beginning of the 20th century, its borders were quite different from current political map and the city was home to many Belarusians. The majority of artists were educated at Vilnius University, which closed in the 19th century by order of Tsar Nicholas I and was subsequently restored, under the name of Stefan Batory University (1919) by Jozef Pilsudski. The university equipped its students with traditional training in fine art but meanwhile (mostly due to the personal artistic views of Ferdynand Ruszczyc[4]) allowed enough freedom for self-expression. It brought up Oolish, Lithuanian and Belarusian artists of different artistic preferences and became alma-mater both for Piotr Sergievich, famous for its realistic portraits of national intelligentsia, and for Mikhail Sevruk, whose post-impressionistic works would focused on landscape, exploring the topic of the return to nature. His most famous, nearly proverbial of his works is The Harvest, characterized by compositional laconism and the simplicity of motives imparting philosophical meaning. The rhythm and dynamics of the poetic composition are rendered by means of circular lines, the compositional centre is a nursing mother, the long-standing symbol of fertility and an allusion to the Virgin Mary.7

Piotr Sergievich. The Portrait of Stanislav Glyakovsky the Priest. 1938. Oil on canvas

The Harvest was painted in 1937, almost at the end of cultural duality period. While BSSR artists and other intelligentsia suffered brutal political repressions, their west Belarusian colleagues were lucky to live relatively save lives. Unlike the 1930s in BSSR, the 1930s in West Belarus were not limited by canons and developed outside state ideology. The situation continued until 1939 when the Red Army crossed the Soviet-Polish border and joined West Belarus to BSSR. War cruelty and destructions, post-war social restoration, Stalinist dictatorship and time all blurred the differences and mixed two cultural fields, but the separation’s outcomes remain alive in social consciousness.8Mikhail Sevruk. The Harvest. 1937. Oil on canvas. The National Art Museum of Belarus.

Alina Strelkovskaia

[1] Lyrical landscape – the type of landscape striving to impart the emotional side of nature. Considered to be the anticipation of impressionism in Belarusian and Russian art history.

[2] Styles of modern and post-modern art experimenting with visual form, the so-called “-isms”.

[3] The policy of polish culture and language promotion and imposition at the territories inhabited by mainly non-Polish population.

[4] The Polish-Belarusian-Lithuanian painter, the first dean of Fine Art School of Vilnius University of Stefan Batory.

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