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Peacefulness rather than violence in Oleksandr Melnyk’s paintings
“Rebellion against the never-ending, primeval oppression of doom… rebellion even without expecting to end it, even with the sole purpose of breaking through to the light of hope — it’s all what I’m yearning for. We must reintroduce the ideals and values of humanness and humanity, we must work for a better future. Only then we’ll have the right to be called truly human….”
From the diaries of Oleksandr Melnyk
The latest exhibition of Oleksandr Melnyk’s works was held at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy. The exhibition was called Nadiya (Hope) and in the opinion of this 54-year old artist from Kyiv the name does reflect the general tenor of his art. The themes of his recent creations are connected, in various degrees, with his views of what should give us hope in this imperfect world.
There is definitely a sad note to many of Melnyk’s creations, but it is a serene sadness, whose melody is well measured and well balanced. The grace of the human figures in his paintings is supported by the soft, refined colour schemes. His paintings could be compared to peaceful legends which tell in gentle words the stories of our lives and of our history and of our hopes.
“I like peacefulness to reign in my pictures,” says Melnyk. “I don’t like violence or horrors, though I am myself in a constant state of anxiety. Sometimes, I have nightmares, particularly after I’ve heard bad news. Once I told a friend of mine about these nightmares and he began to encourage me to paint them, saying they would be something fantastic. But I can’t do that. I don’t want to put my anxiety, my bitterness into my paintings. These feelings will stay with me but my art must be free of them — it’ll be serene and unperturbed. There’s too much aggression and turmoil in the world, if you ask me. Some of the painters do bring a lot of these things into their paintings to heighten the impact of their work. Or in this way they reflect the state the world is in today. Some time ago, I wanted to do a painting devoted to the terrible famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine. It took me quite some time to figure out in which manner I would present this tragedy. I felt I just could not put emaciated people, living skeletons dying of hunger into my picture, and I found a different way. I painted a group of women who are slowly walking into nowhere, carrying gifts — but there is no one to give those gifts to. In the background you can see a dead village, like a grave, and the shape of a cross in the sky.”
Flowers, real and fantastic, make frequent appearances in Melnyk’s paintings. Flowers fill the space; flowers seem to nod their blooms rhythmically in time with the steps of girls who carry them; flowers gently touch the faces. The painter admits he loves flowers, particularly “the sharp ones” — his name for dahlias.
“These flowers come from reminiscences of yesteryears. Once, on Easter, I was in the Carpathians. I found myself high in the mountains, very early in the morning, so early in fact that the sun had not risen yet. I was with a group of the locals. We went down the slope through the dense fog to the nearby church, the locals wearing keptaryky — sort of woollen vests — embroidered in bright colours. The fog was so thick that we could hardly see things several feet away, much less the River Cheremosh down in the valley. The people I was with carried baskets with Easter eggs and Easter cakes to be blessed by the priest, and brightly coloured flowers. There was something eerie in the scene — the fog, the procession of people, the spots of bright colours on their dress, and in the flowers, still brighter. Later, when the fog had lifted, the flowers were put at the graves at the local cemetery together with the lit candles. It was an amazing sight — the flames of candles and the flowers on the bright green grass. In the evening, when the sun was going down — I could see its disk disappearing behind the church — we sat on the grass to share an Easter dinner. The sun painted everything gold… and I painted stylized flowers to render my impressions of that day, my Easter mood — the fog at the break of day; the lush, green grass with the wondrously coloured and shaped flowers on it; and the golden eve — it was a triptych.
At one point I realized that I could render all kinds of moods or states of soul by using stylized flowers in my paintings. I’ve been painting these dahlias, these floral stars, for many years, and they come out as cheerful and sad, troubled and serene… they are so different. Once in a while I tell myself — enough of these flowers, but my hand seems to continue painting them all by itself. I keep seeing something new in them, all the time, and thanks to them I feel that I learn to better render my thoughts and my moods in my paintings…
They say that the painter must go through different phases in his art. Now I’m going back to what I started with, to the things I earned to master when I was young, to the things I was learning to do when a student. I graduated from the Art Institute of Kyiv, the studio of Tetyana Yablonska, a remarkable Ukrainian painter, back in 1974. I was supposed to be what was called a monumentalist, that is a painter who specializes in creating large-sized paintings, like wall-painting, for example. But there is something more to it than the actual size of painting — it’s an approach that matters, the way you handle your subjects. When I create a regular easel painting, I put into my canvases some elements of a monumentalist approach. For me, monumentalism is the way I treat and represent my flowers, for instance. It’s my style.”
Oleksandr Melnyk was born in a village in the land of Kyivshchyna. He is reluctant to talk about himself but speaks gladly and at length about his art. He has painted portraits of almost all his relatives — the painter believes in inspiration coming from the respect to his ancestors and relations, from his roots, from the history and culture of his native land.
“I began painting and drawing when I was quite little. My mother was a teacher of a village school. She spotted my interest in art and kept providing me with paper, crayons and paints. She would be pouring over the pads of her pupils, reading essays and tests, and grading them, and I would be drawing something. Such were my first lessons in art. I also remember that I was very much impressed by a landscape that hung on the wall over the desk in the house of my godfather. The landscape was painted by the local house painter who sort of dabbled in landscapes. It was signed “Melnyk” but he was no relation of mine, just a namesake. In fact, there were so many people in our village who were named Melnyk. That landscape I’m speaking about fascinated me — such a smooth surface, no brush strokes were visible. A blue vase, grapes, a water melon on the white table cloth — that’s all. A typical landscape of what is called primitive art. But so beautiful, and I envied the dauber. I wished I could paint a thing like that myself. I still think that landscape had a far-reaching influence upon me. It made me aware of art, of my desire to create, it suggested, even in its crude form, some aesthetical ideas…
Later, my family moved to Kyiv and I was taken to a children creativity-promotion centre. I attended painting and drawing classes conducted by Naum Ostashynsky. His approach to teaching art was all his own, non-standard, and I found his classes exciting. He focused on awakening creativity in us, he made us think in terms of art rather than just taught us how to draw a hand or a foot. He encouraged us to look into ourselves and seek images and render them on paper or canvas. He opened new worlds for us — the worlds that lived inside us. When I was in the ninth grade I decided I had to go to art school to get what is called proper academic training — I wanted to study at the Art Institute but without such academic training they would not take me.
At the entrance exams I did show enough aptitude and skill to be admitted, and I consider myself to be very lucky to have been allowed to join Yablonska’s studio. It was something that I wanted so much. I liked her art, her approach to painting as much as I disliked the concepts of easel painting then taught at the Institute. The approach was thoroughly Soviet, “socialist realism” it was called, but Yablonska’s art was different. Besides, I liked the idea of being a monumentalist — I wanted to create art that would be splashed over vast surfaces, I wanted it to be seen by many people all the time, rather than to create small-sized paintings tucked into corners.”
Melnyk’s works can be found in museums (National Art Museum of Ukraine; National History Museum; National Museum of Literature; National History and Ethnography Reserve in the town of Pereyaslav) and in private collections in Ukraine and abroad. Among his works are not only paintings but also monumental pieces such as stained glass compositions, mosaics, tapestry and murals. The artist participated in decorating the newly rebuilt Mykhaylivsky (Archangel Michael’s) Cathedral in Mykhaylivska Square in Kyiv and the Uspinnya Bohorydytsi (Assumption) Church in Podil, Kyiv.
In his art, Melnyk has passed through several stages, both in the sense of the technique used and in subjects and their interpretation. He has worked in many media and in many genres, but he has not determined which of these is his favourite. He is grateful for the opportunities given him to try himself in various fields of creative endeavour.
There was a time when he found himself jobless because he was put on a KGB blacklist, but with Ukraine regaining her independence, he had no problems with getting as many commissions as he could handle.
“I lived through a period of hard times. I was denied membership of the Union of Artists of Ukraine which was not only prestigious but also gave you a chance of keeping your head above water. Later I learned that before the voting was to take place, someone who mattered called someone on the committee on the phone and gave instructions, and as a result I did not get enough votes to be elected a member of the Union of Artists. I was left virtually jobless. I could not even officially exhibit my works. It was Mykhailo Sikorsky, curator of the Pereyaslav Historical and Ethnographic Reserve who came to my rescue. He was a fearless and dauntless person, and he invited me to come to Pereyaslav to take part in decorating museums. This job gave me some money to live on. And, of course, I went on painting — mostly for myself rather than for sale. I painted my mom’s vegetable garden, among other things, and all the flowers in her backyard. I did not have a studio and kept my paintings at a friend’s house, in the basement. It was damp there, and my paintings soon were covered with mildew…
I could not exhibit my works either. I’d have no permission for that even if I had enough money for the rent of the premises or knew the right people who could help in organizing it. With Ukraine’s independence, things radically changed. There’s no problem in exhibiting what you want. In the early 1990s, seven painters, me included, established The Brotherhood of Virtuous Alimpy — Alimpy was a medieval monk who is credited with starting a school of icon painting in the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra Monastery — and we staged at least five exhibitions annually. There was a great upsurge of creative activity. When there was not enough money for renting the premises for exhibitions, we would present the organizers with a couple of paintings instead. We did not advertise or promote those exhibitions in any way — we wanted to make our artistic statements, rather than just to achieve a commercial success. I’m planning to have a new exhibition of my works and I think I’ll call it Probudzhennya — Awakening. I don’t want to speak much about it though — artists are superstitious, you know — keep your fingers crossed! All I can say that some of the themes from my previous exhibition, Nadiya, will be present in the new one.”
“During an art class in school, the teacher asked the kids to paint pictures that would show what they imagined the 21st century would be like, and all the pupils, my daughter included, painted star war scenes. When she showed her picture to me, I said she’d better paint an imaginary botanical garden of the future, with fantastic flowers and imaginary plants. My daughter did that and took the new picture to school to show to the teacher, and when she looked at it, the teacher exclaimed: ‘Oh, that‘s the future I’d like to live in!’ ”
Oleksandr Melnyk was interviewed
by Lesya Hryhoryiva