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In the Happy Idiom of Vibrant Light and Colour

One can hardly expect a man of 85 to look 30 years younger but what did come as a surprise, was the lucidity of mind and excellent memory of the octogenarian who paid a visit to the Welcome to Ukraine office. One cannot help being impressed by the richness of detail provided when one hears stories that go back in time many decades. Anybody at such an age and with a good memory is an interesting person to meet and talk to, and if that person also happens to be a painter of well deserved high reputation, the interest is heightened manifold. Meeting and talking to Valentyn Bernadsky was an exhilarating experience.

Valentyn Bernadsky is a painter who envisioned and evolved a shimmering, naturalistic style that captured the immediate, transitory appearance of his subjects. At the same time, the artist’s pictorial statements carry a message that tells a story of the artist’s attitude to life and to the times he happened to have lived in. He distrusted the false rhetoric and pathetic fallacies of “socialist realism” propaganda painting and yet was quite acceptable to the Soviet authorities in charge of art. However, it is a very telling fact that Bernadsky’s art continued to have an appeal long past the collapse of communism and its dogmas. His paintings sell well at art auctions in the west and this only confirms the success of Bernadsky’s long artistic career.

Valentyn Bernadsky was born in the village of Ozeryane, in the land of Chernihivshchyna, Ukraine, in 1917. His father was a priest, and with the militantly atheistic Bolsheviks seizing power, the times were not auspicious for making career in anything if your father was a clergyman. However, no matter how hard the times were — end of WWI, civil war, economic collapse, red terror — all the six children in the Bernadsky family found their way into the world of the performing visual arts. The priest was an accomplished musician, and his children learnt to play musical instruments at an early age. In fact, it was their musical skills that helped them survive the terrible 1930s. Their father in prison, the family travelled across the length and breadth of Ukraine giving concerts. Their repertoire was checked and approved by the secret police agents and every concert was to begin with the revolutionary song “International”. The itinerant children’s orchestra played folk songs and pieces of classical music. The devastating famine of 1933 killed millions but the Bernadsky family survived thanks to their musical itinerancy.

Valentyn Bernadsky showed an aptitude for drawing and painting at an early age. One of his elder brothers who also had an artistic talent helped the boy to learn the basic skills. Once, in a house of a village the family travelled through, Valentyn discovered a book on art which contained reproductions of paintings by Aleksey Aisner, an artist from St Petersburg (then Leningrad). There was the painter’s address in the book as well, and Valentyn wrote Aisner a letter asking a permission to send some of his paintings for the artist to pass his judgment on them. The permission was granted — and the artist was very much impressed. In fact, he invited Valentyn to come over to St Petersburg and enroll as a student at an art school. Valentyn lived in Aisner’s apartment for some time, meeting the artist’s friends — painters and musicians, the cream of the then Leningrad artistic society. Aisner helped Valentyn to master the skills of a painter, and his friends introduced the young man to sublime aspects of culture. Incidentally, Valentyn slept on the sofa on which, it was known, the great nineteenth-century writer Fedor Dostoyevsky used to sit and listen to music.

Valentyn was expelled from the art school far having concealed the fact that his father was a priest and for providing “false information” by stating that his father’s occupation was that of a village teacher. Valentyn returned to Ukraine and later joined two of his brothers in the northern city of Murmansk on an inlet of the Barents Sea. After working there for some time, Valentyn went back to Leningrad and tried his luck again, applying for admission to the Arts Academy. To his surprise, not only was he enrolled but also given “the Stalin’s scholarship” for “excellence of his art.” A year later, he found himself, together with the rest of the city, cut off from the rest of the world by the German armies which had laid siege to Leningrad. Two years of “the Blockade” as it came to be popularly referred to, were a most trying and tragic experience, with hundreds of thousands of people trapped in a giant city with hardly any means of subsistence. Lack of food, severe winters and German shellings and bombings took the terrifying death toll.

The Germans were eventually forced to lift the siege under heavy pressure from the Red Army, and the Academy and its professors and students were evacuated to the warm city of Samarkand in Central Asia. Bernadsky was drafted into the army, and after a short course of studies at a military school, was sent to the front. The fate again proved to be merciful to him — after surviving the great famine, purges of the 1930s and the Blockade, Bernadsky came out physically unscathed from the war experience. He was readmitted to the Academy. Boris Ioganson, one of the best students of the outstanding Russian painter of the early twentieth century Konstantin Korovin discovered Bernadsky’s prodigious talent and let him join his elite workshop. Ioganson was a follower of the traditions established half a century earlier by another classic of Russian art, Ilya Repin: the close observation of nature, interactions of colours and importance of balance in composition and colour schemes being the most important features.

Upon his graduation, Bernadsky was sent by the Academy to work as a teacher at the newly founded school of the fine arts in the city of Symferopol, Crimea. With other members of the faculty being graduates of the prestigious art schools of Leningrad and Moscow, the Symferopol School soon became a leading art institution in the Crimea. Bernadsky’s teaching lasted until the end of the fifties. After he was elected member of the Union of Artists, the artist devoted himself entirely to creative work. He collected awards, prizes and honorary titles, showing his works regularly at collective and one-man exhibitions, both in Ukraine and abroad. Bernadsky’s paintings have made their way into museums and private collections of his native country and also of several countries of Europe, America and Japan.

The Crimea has been Bernadsky’s main source of inspiration ever since he arrived there in the early nineteen fifties. He discovered the warmth of the land, the enigmatic attraction of the sea, the human condition in the ways both new to him and unfamiliar. The change Bernadsky’s art went through must have been similar to that in the art of Vincent van Gogh after his arrival in Arles, France. Bernadsky explored the coast and the countryside, painting landscapes and portraits of the simple people close to earth as he himself had been in his childhood. He chose to depict the sunny side of life probably because in his own life he saw so much hardship and misery. He was sincere in his choice which happened to coincide with the then prevalent concepts of “socialist realism.” Bernadsky’s art does not carry the stamp of artificiality of showing people “happy in the communist paradise.” His gardens, seascapes, nudes and still lifes are full of vibrant light and colour. Recognizing the influence of realism as it was passed down to later generations of artists by such Russian “Impressionists” as Serov, Repin and Grabar, Bernadsky did not shun the idiom of the French poetic depiction of Cezanne, Pissaro and Sisley either. The Ukrainian artist allowed sensitivity to toy with light touches of bright colours vigorously applied. In some paintings, bare canvas breaks through, appearing here and there. His paintings often have a sketchy, light appearance, but at the same time they are detailed enough, with the details never preventing an agreeable freshness to emanate from the paintings.

The artist was also interested in historic subject matter. To create works with a historical background, he carried out extensive documentary research which focused on the personalities and motivations of the protagonists in this or that event the artist wanted to depict. He made many sketches, studies and drawings, some of which are now to be found in museums and private collections. The painter was a successful artist under the Soviet regime, and in contrast to many of his fellow artists, has prospered under the new political and economic conditions as well. The success of his paintings at the Drouot Auctions in Paris has demonstrated the universal appeal of his paintings.

When asked how the life of a painter in the present-day Ukraine differed from what it had been in the Soviet times, the artist said: “Financially, for many painters it’s tough, but we have gained the most important condition for creativity — freedom. Now it is artists themselves who chose what to create, in which manner and for who, rather than the tyrannical regime prescribing what, how and for who.”

Myroslava Barchuk

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