Painters of Vitebsk

Artist – a magician, a big heart. It retrieves beauty finds freshness in all subordinates element.

Marc Chagall

Vitebsk Regional Library

Named After V. I. Lenin




The history of the association of Vitebsk painters into creative communities has its own peculiarities and particularities. It came out brightly and sonorously in the first half of the 20th century – the golden age of creative communities all over the artistic world. In 1919 the painter Kazimir Malevich along with his students from the Free State Art Studios of Vitebsk created a community that initially got the abbreviation POSNOVIS (for «Posledovateli Novogo Iskusstva» or «The Adherents of New Art»). But in February, 1920 the acronym was changed to the UNOVIS («Utverditely Novogo Iskusstva» or «Assertors of New Art»). The activity of this internationally renowned community continued until 1922 when Kazimir Malevich moved to Petrograd. It went down in history as an outstanding example of creative cohesion of like-minded people who directed their activities to setting up a creative experiment and searching new ways in the art.

The example of another idealistic platform of the integration of artists was the All-Belarusian Association of Artists, created in early 1927. It was established by the art subdivision of the Institute of Belarusian Culture which had a branch in Vitebsk. The purpose of the consolidation of artistic efforts within that association was to promote Belarusian art «national in form and proletarian in substance». The important task of the association was to help the Narkompros (i.e. People's Commissariat for Education) of BSSR organize exhibitions and set artistic education in the Republic. However, the members of the All-Belarusian Association of Artists were split apart because they adhered to different social positions and aesthetic principles. In 1930, as the consequence of such a division, some of the artists left the organization to found a brand new association – «ROKHB» (i.e. «Revolutionary Association of Artists of Belarus»). Shortly after the foundation of the ROKHB, a branch of that association got underway in Vitebsk. However, a year after the organization was criticized at the All-Belarusian Conference of Artists for «sliding into bourgeois art» and «underestimating realistic traditions» and like other associations in the Soviet Union, it was obliged to cease its activities by the CP Central Committee decree from April 23, 1932. That sad chapter in the history of Soviet art, including the Belarusian one, was the introduction to the foundation of an artistic organization of painters which status, functions and objectives were outlined by the state. However, the Union of Soviet Artists of BSSR, the organization that had been initially set up by the totalitarian system to have a full-fledged control over the art, managed to write its own story of the existence which became very unlike to the original concepts of Soviet ideologues. But still, the principles of «classism, party character and nationality» which underpinned the Union's activities, had a negative impact on the destiny and work of many of its members. And we remember it very well.It is pleasant to note that former students of well-known Vitebsk Art School actively contributed to the foundation of the Union of Artists of Belarus (Union of Artists of the BSSR). Their organizational and artistic activities laid foundation for the creative Union of Artists in our country and contributed to the formation of its regional subdivisions.

At the First Congress of Artists of BSSR in December, 1938, there were already discussions about the foundation of regional organizations. But the war that erupted in a few years hampered that initiative. Thus, the Vitebsk branch of the Union of Artists of the BSSR was founded only in 1944. And in 1949 the painter Peter Yavich was authorized to establish in Vitebsk region a freestanding subdivision which lately became the regional organization of the Union of Artists of the BSSR.

More than 50 years have passed since these times, since when the number of artists in Vitebsk was close to zero. Over the years the artistic union has come a long way which barely could be fit in a few simple book pages. This is indeed a glorious history of the development of art in Vitebsk land. And the central characters of that history were not only landmark events, remarkable exhibitions, artistic evenings and plein-airs but also the artists whose selfless work determined the development of visual art, enhanced artistic traditions of the past to various degrees and established the new ones. Many of these artists still are – thank God! – with us, and their sincerity, their obsession and their very lives which have been entirely devoted to art encourage the further generations. We can be proud not only of the legacy left by the artists of Vitebsk Art School in the early 20th century but of the artistic achievements of our contemporaries as well.

Today the Union of Artists has faced drastic changes even if we compare it with its recent history. The evolution of market and its status as a private association have drastically hindered the implementation of a number of the artistic initiatives of the Union of Artists of Belarus. Nevertheless we can't help but notice the positiveness that the modern times brought with them. The pressure that the Union had once put on an artistic personality was long gone, and the notion of a friendship based on certain advantages and prerogatives disappeared as well. Even the artistic competitiveness between the members of the Union got a more natural character. But whatever the changes were, they failed to downplay this minimum of value that the Union of Artists has given to the country after more than 60 years of its existence.

Today the Union of Artists of Belarus is a voluntary public association bringing together Belarusian artists and fine art experts. This is through the active efforts of the Union's friends that the visual art of Vitebsk became one of the most popular branches of art. This is the region that hosts numerous plein airs named after Chagall, Malevich, Drozdovich, Khrutskiy, Repin. This is the city where various events and festivals take place, the city that organizes Chagall Readings every year.

The Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus has more members than any other regional branch of that organization. It consolidates artists from Vitebsk, Polotsk, Novopolotsk, Orsha, Sharkovshchina, Glubokoe and other cities and towns. Among its members are artists of different nationalities – Belarusians and Ukrainians, Russians and Jews, Armenians and Azerbaijanians – graduates of different art institutions. However, it seems that the majority of its members are graduated from the Art and Graphic Faculty of Vitebsk State University (named after P.M. Masherov), the Belarusian State Academy of Arts and the Faculty of Design of Vitebsk State Technological University. The activities of the members of the Union of Artists of Belarus vary from traditional forms of pictorial art, graphic art, sculpture and applied art to the most implausible forms of art promulgation, aesthetic transformation of the environment, design of interior, exhibitions and public events, creation of special art objects, organization of artistic events, happenings and performances. It's impossible so far to bind Vitebsk Pictorial Art by some conventional limits.


The members of the Vitebsk branch of the Belarusian Union of Artists


One of the distinguishing features of Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus is the foundation of «Square», an informal artistic association, in 1987.

In 1990 the «Line», a private gallery of Alexander Konovalov, saw the day and became the meeting place for Polotsk artists. A year after another artistic association - «Orshitsa» - was created with the help of the members of Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus. The exhibitions organized by «Orshitsa» have been held since 1991, bringing together painters from all the corners of Belarus. At various times the Vitebsk artists G. Falei, N. Lisovskaya, V. Shylko, V. Vasyliev and the Orsha artists A. Juravlev, A. Maryshev, B. Ivanov have showcased their paintings at these exhibitions.

In 1995 the representatives of the graphic subdivision created the «Vitebsk Watercolor Painting» society which primary goals were to protect artistic legacy of Vitebsk aquarellists, to set up a campaign in support of the history and traditions of Vitebsk School of Watercolor Painting and to help young Vitebsk talents. The society consisted of artists who worked largely with watercolors in various touches and styles. Vitebsk Watercolor Painting earned authority and renown thanks to the active artistic and exhibitional work of such masters as F. Gumen, I. Stolyarov, V. Raltsevich, G, Shootov, V. Lukyanov, V. Lyakhovich, L. Voronova, M. Levkovich, A. Karpan, I. Shkuratov, N, Dranenko, V. Napreyenko, E. Ponomarenko, V. Ivanov, A. Shiyenok, V. Shappo, O. Kostogryz, A. Falei and others. The society «Vitebsk Watercolor Painting» has organized and has taken part in artistic exhibitions in Belarus and abroad – in Germany, Russia, France, Latvia etc. A true festival of watercolors, the biennale «Watercolor Community», became a logical extension of the activities of the «Vitebsk Watercolor Painting» society. That festival gives a good opportunity for watercolorists from Belarus or any other country to display and exhibit their new paintings.

Today the Union of Artists of Belarus consolidates schools of pictorial art, graphics, applied and decorative art, sections of sculpture and art criticism, including the «Vitebsk Watercolor Painting» society and «Orshitsa». Apart from that several artists from Vitebsk or Vitebsk oblast are members of republican or international associations such as «Pogonya», «Sunny Square» etc.

In numerous works created by members of the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus and displayed at exhibitions, one can see a large variety of styles and themes, a wide range of pictorial or graphic frames of mind and the most unbelievable variations of styles and art techniques. It is easy to notice an intentional innovation expressed by the artists of the Union of Artists of Belarus in their works along with steadily development of specific traditions in realistic art as well as in non-figurative art. Though the tradition is far from establishing a continuous relay of generations, artistic styles or manners. The tradition comes up as an internal implication embodied in a figurative and stylistic frame of art, as a cumulative creative experience of many generations of artists born in Vitebsk. Theodor W. Adorno, the famous German philosopher and the author of numerous works on the development of art, said that it is impossible to believe in anything only because it exists, but again, nothing can be completely buried only because it was left in the past. Tradition needs to be preserved because it is the only way the eternal existence of any artistic heritage, including the innovative one, can be reached.

However, Belarusian fine art experts believe that the distinctive features of Vitebsk art movement are manifested not only in the works of the «Vitebsk Watercolor Painting» society but in the art of Vitebsk tapestry artists as well. Among them are N. Lisovskaya, S. Vrublevskaya, S. Barankovskaya, T. Lisitsa, G. Faley, E. Yasnova, T. Rudenko, Y. Rudenko and others. These artists occasionally exhibit their works made in different textile techniques.
V. Vasiliyev, A. Maley, A. Dosugev and V. Nikolaev more than once have demonstrated their interesting and original searches in art of objects. Yet, art of objects is not the unique tendency of Vitebsk artists. Performance, happening, installation, Land Art and many other forms of art that were popular in the 20th century still are the object of interest of Vitebsk artists.

The spirit of innovation remains strong among Vitebsk painters as they continue their experiments with color and shape. Work in the most various picturesque and plastic styles give an opportunity to use your own light perception. Artistic and high-profile works of P. Yavich, E. Krasovskiy and V. Tikhonenko are exhibited along with spectacular decorative compositions of O. Skovorodko or free, picturesque, plastic and figurative improvisations of L. Medvedskiy, A. Konovalov, V. Shilko, V. Juravleva, A. Kravchenko and others. The viewers are attracted by the musical picturesqueness of canvases of A. Chmil, poetic character of still lifes of V. Mikhailovski, ethnographic pecularity and picturesqueness of paintings of V. Kruk, irony of O. Kroshkin, surrealistic and mysterious images of V. Medvedtskiy, philosophical paintings of V. Lukjanenko and mythological themes of A. Izoitko. The emotions of V. Volnov, spiritual immensity of Y. Zuev, free expression of N. Taranda, erotic feelings of N. Dundin, complexity of themes of V. Schastniy are no less impressive. Every one of the mentioned artists is an interesting and extraordinary personality in the context of Belarusian art.

There are many truly original masters among Vitebsk graphic artists. It is easy to notice in their works the parallels to the well-known European graphic art schools along with the development of traditions of Belarusian graphic art. Such features can be found in easel graphic works of G. Kiselev, A. Ilyanov and B. Lalyko, monotyping of L. Antimonov, linocuts of G. Klikushyn, pastels of V. Shamshur, metaphysical painting of P. Kirilyn, metaphorical pictures of V. Chukin, refined portraits of I. Moguchaya, astonishing calligraphic drawings of M. Kruglikova, romantic compositions of T. Berezovskaya and S. Pryvada, impressive works of A. Dukhovnikov and highly artistic drawings of I. Lisitsa...

L. Organov, A. Gvozdikov, I. Kazak, V. Moguchiy, L. Tarabuko, A. Torosyan and many other sculptors have expressed their artistic potential not only through numerous monumental plastic arts objects in Vitebsk, Polotsk, Novopolotsk and Orsha but also through various easel works which occasionally can be found at different exhibitions. Even though it seems that today there is no room for unlimited experimentation in plastic arts, the compositions made by Vitebsk sculptors still draw the attention of viewers and fine art experts.

The art works of Vitebsk ceramists M. Bychkovskiy, V. Kovalchuk and L. Kovalchuk are noted for their high quality, excellence and distinctive authors' techniques, the same as the precise plastic art works of Y. Rudenko.

Actually, among the friends of the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus there are a lot of artists who work in the most various genres and styles, and there is no way to list all these styles here. But that does not mean that they are forgotten, we have a huge respect for them and their work. We still remember those artists who represented Vitebsk Oblast at all kind of exhibitions and art galleries at their time and who chose to leave the country for one or another reason. Vitebsk land can be proud of the fact that truly gifted and ingenious artists including S. Timohov, V. Raspopov, A. Pushkin, O. Ladisov and B. Khesin once worked here.

We do not forget the artists who passed away but whose names still glorify our land throughout their works. We will never forget the names of painters O. Orlov, I. Boboedov, I. Borovskiy, M. Glushko, V. Dezhits, A. Denisiev, A. Korzhenevskiy, V. Kukharev, M. Mikhailov, A. Nekrasov, A. Tolkach, E. Yasvin, graphic artists L. Voronova, V. Durov, B. Kuzmichyov, sculptor V. Golubev, fine art expert G. Lebedev, master of the theatre E. Nikolaev, arts and crafts artists M. Rybalkina and N. Schastnaya.

As before the activities of the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus are focused on the participation at international, republican and regional exhibitions and plein airs and the organization of personal and group exhibitions. It is necessary to notice its another important and remarkable task – many friends of the Union of Artists of Belarus work in art universities and secondary art schools. For many years G. Klikushyn, I. Stolyarov, F. Gumen, L. Antimonov, V. Lebedko, V. Lyakhovich, A. Nekrasov, O. Orlov and A. Kovalyov have been professors at Vitebsk State Pedagogical Institute, including. To this day the Art and Graphic Department of Vitebsk State Pedagogical Institute works successfully with the artists N. Gugnin, A. Karpan, O. Kostogryz, M. Levkovich, I. Lisitsa, V. Nesterenko, M. Tsybulsky, A. Chmil, V. Shamshur and I. Shkuratov.

M. Rybalkina, A. Nekrasov, V. Nikolaev has considerably contributed to the establishment of the Design Department at Vitebsk State Technological University in 1975 and the training of specialists in art. Today the artists G. Vasilyeva, V. Vasilyev, A. Falei, G. Falei, N. Lisovskaya, S. Vrublevskaya and L. Tarabuko work there.

At different times the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus was led by famous artists and painters – P. Yavich, A. Tolkach, E. Nikolaev, A. Solovyev, F. Gumen, G. Shutov, A. Ilyinov, A. Gvozdikov, O. Skovorodko, V. Ivanov, V. Shylko and N. Dranenko. Every one of them made his own particular effort to expand the influence of the Union on public life in the region. Currently the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus is chaired by S. Barankovskaya.
Currently, the Union of Artists of Belarus has more than just the functions of a simple trade union. New times call for the Union of Artists of Belarus to become an organization that exists for an artist and protect his interests. But such an organization requests responsibility and commitment of every of its members. A lot of them have their own vision of further development of the association and, sometimes, these views do not fit with the basic principles of the organization. It is not a big problem. Nevertheless it is crucial that these alternative views do not hamper the development of the artistic association. Being simply «in opposition» to a public association does not make any sense.

One last thing. It would be unfair to talk about Vitebsk art and remain confined only to the activities of the members of the Union of Artists of Belarus. Among Vitebsk artists there are a lot of talented artists who have never belonged to any artistic union or association. They do it for many reasons, including the ideological ones. The majority of the members of the Union of Artists of Belarus respects and understands their position. There is more – the direction of the organization is ready to establish a positive way of cooperation with artists who are the pride of Vitebsk land along with the members of the Union. Without their art works, mostly displayed at personal exhibitions, the picture of the evolution of art in Vitebsk land will never be completed.

The Union of Artists of Belarus... Maybe one day the time would come up with a new type of association and institutional organization for artists. The history shows that an artistic association is not a long-lasting formation. However, to this day young artists strain after the Union of Artists of Belarus and show interest to its activity. The existence of a youth association within the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus is the best proof of this interest. It is a natural thing, because, probably, the one thing that draws attention to any association of artists is the priority of professional mastership which remains the most precise indicator of the artistic qualities of any art work, the most unbiased judge in the history of art. Professional competence together with reverential respect for traditions and the history of Vitebsk Art School determine today the further prospects of the Vitebsk Regional Organization of the Union of Artists of Belarus and create a cornerstone for the next artistic association.

Mikhail Tsybulsky,
Ph.D. in History of Arts



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