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Oleksandr Ivakhnenko and his lyrical art
Oleksandr Ivakhnenko's paintings have their own inimitable style, lyrical, unhurried, poetical. These qualities came in handy when the painter was working at the illustrations for the poems of Taras Shevchenko.
Most of us have stored in our memories books that we read in childhood or in adolescence, the books that stand out among all others that we have read. It is difficult to say why some books are retained by the memory while others, though seemingly no less interesting, fade away and are lost in the dimness of time. My childhood is long gone but I’ve preserved warm and stirring images of my father, of my quiet room, and of a book on the table with delightful and charming illustrations which became associated for me with the gentle world of my childhood. The book on the table was Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zacharovana Desna (The Enchanted Desna River). I found the illustrations as enchanting as the book itself. I forgot the name of the illustrator, or maybe I even did not know it, simple-heartedly assuming they were as natural part of the story as the words themselves. It was many years later that I discovered that the book had been illustrated by Oleksandr Ivakhnenko, Shevchenko prize laureate, who, among other books, also made wonderful illustrations for Shevchenko’s poems. I also made another discovery — all the books designed and illustrated by Ivakhnenko, look so different, as though they are works of various artists. Still more exiting it was to actually meet the artist Ivakhnenko and talk to him. What follows is a condensation of several conversations I, Lesya HRYHORYIVA, had with the artist.
I really don’t know why my books look so different… If an artist wants to express himself through illustrations, all his books will look the same, regardless of who their authors are. But if an artist wants to find through his art a more or less adequate reflection of the very essence of the writings he illustrates, then each book illustrated by him will look different. The closer you get to this essence, to the emotional core of your author, the more his illustration will fit the general spirit of the book. The early-twentieth century Russian painter Vrubel painted a picture and made some drawings which were inspired by a poem, Demon, by the nineteenth-century Russian poet Lermontov, and the picture and the drawings became the quintessential Demon. It was as though the painter became a co-author, and I don’t think anybody will risk illustrating Lermontov’s Demon again. In the history of art there were very few cases when the artist produced pictures or drawings congenial with the prose works or poems they illustrated, or were inspired by. Every book requires an approach which will be different from any other taken when designs and illustrations were made for other books. And it is so difficult to move from one book to another after you’ve found the right style! I think my first artistic revelation came to me when I was working at the illustrations for Shevchenko’s works. I looked for something in his works which would be particularly close to my heart. I sought to render the inner life and rhythms of his poems, and the result of my search was so inspiring that it gave me an impetus for further work….
I moved on to easel painting, and then even did some murals in Kaniv, the town where Shevchenko is buried. I chose the type of perspective, called “reverse,” rather than the linear perspectival system. This “reverse” perspective was used in the medieval icons and paintings. When you look, say, at a photograph or a picture with the linear perspective, illusions of perceptual volume and space are created by the observations that objects appear to the eye to shrink and parallel lines and planes to converge to infinitely distant vanishing points as they recede in space from the viewer. In a picture in which “the reverse” perspective was used, the vanishing point is the eye of the onlooker, and thus he is directly involved in “interactive” perception of what is depicted in the picture. In addition to this “reverse” perspective, I treat the shapes and forms rather arbitrarily. In one of my pictures, you see what, at first glance, may seem to be a meandering path, but at the same time it can be a long and narrow rushnyk (traditional Ukrainian embroidered towel). In other words, I try to put more meanings than one into familiar things. Some things I paint are simplified and stylized, others are painted in a very detailed manner. It is our subconscious that seeks answers to questions I put into my pictures.
At one point in my career I got so involved in easel painting that I refused offers from publishers to design and illustrate books… Incidentally, it was at the time when I was working at illustrations for Shevchenko that I made another of my important discoveries — I discovered black-and-white graphics was not enough for me — I wanted colour, and I went into painting. It was a breakthrough situation for me, a turning point. Before that I had worked only as a graphic artist — etchings, engravings, pen drawings; I had graduated from the graphics department of the Kyiv Art Institute, I had been trained as a graphics artist, I had learned the skill of a graphics artist — and then suddenly a U-turn. When the Publishing House Veselka commissioned me to do illustrations for a book called Sadok vyshnevy kolo haty (The Cherry Orchard by the House) I produced my illustrations in full colour. That’s how I surrendered to colour — out of which I could not climb… But we often come back to what we started from. Now I want to go back to black-and-white illustrations… I’ve got a dream to produce illustrations for… No, I won’t tell you, it may bring bad luck if I let out the secret now…
Oleksandr Ivakhnenko does not like to talk about his work — he is of the opinion that artists should paint and draw rather than talk, and a talking artist is a suspicious thing. “Let others speak about my work if they care.” The artist puts all of himself into his work, “let’s leave it to the people who look at my works to figure out for themselves what they see in it, or what they make out of it.”
It’s such a torture for me to give names to my pictures. A name simplifies the picture it is attached to, it gives you a direction, makes your thoughts follow this direction… and thus robs you of a possibility to seek and find your own meanings. Do I have favourite images which often occur in my pictures? Probably yes — but if I said which, I’d feel I put some restrictions on your perception, again give directions. All right, female images probably are among my favourites. Plus symbols that come all by themselves — empty nests, black soil, red sun. But I do not know why they come and what meaning should be put into them. All depends on the mood — and, of course, on the general idea of the picture, the colour scheme may play a role. My own works that I like best? Probably the ones that I’ve painted recently. I feel pain parting with my works. If there were more of them, I’d not probably take it so hard to see them go. I work for a long time on each picture, sometimes for several months. I come back to some of the pictures, and introduce some changes, or just touch here and there, a year or two after the picture is finished... With some pictures, things go fast and the brushes just dance on the canvas, but with others the work proceeds very slow. I keep reworking, changing things but nothing seems to come out right. Something inside me is dissatisfied and demands I do this and try that…
Yes, when I was awarded the Shevchenko prize, it felt nice, of course, but at the same time I felt I had been given an additional responsibility. These prizes — they make you feel you must deliver all the time, you must keep the level of your work always so high. And it’s a great responsibility. When you work, because you just can’t help painting, it’s one thing. They do not pay much attention to you, and you do what you want to do, and even if a painting does not turn out right, you’re not too upset. But with the prizes — it becomes different. After being awarded the prize, I took such great pains to do my absolute best creating every painting, making sure everything is exactly the way it should be. And if it was not — I hid the picture for no one to see it. No artist can produce all of his paintings at one and the same high level. Some are better, and some are worse. But if you try to get every little detail in your picture absolutely right, if you proceed too cautiously, it begins to backfire, to stifle your creative drive… The artist should feel free, unrestrained, to create as his whims take him… Anyway, that’s the way I feel. I don’t know whether it’s right or wrong. Or rather, it’s the way I used to feel and think. Now I feel and think a little different, but there were times when it would torment me…
Oleksandr Ivakhnenko hails from the land of Chernihivshchyna; he went to elementary school in the village of Manzhosivka. There were no artists in his family, or among his known ancestors, but he began to show aptitude for drawing and painting at an early age. “It must have been a God’s gift… I remember what a great impression an artist, the first real, living artist I had ever seen, made on me. He came to our village to do some sketches. I couldn’t help coming closer and taking a better look — all those paints, brushes, the wonderful smell of the freshly applied paint, tiny mounds of paint on the palette, and the picture in which I could easily recognize my own village! It was fantastic!” It was a ground-breaking discovery for the boy — you could paint the world as you see it, not just copy things from postcards or photographs. When Oleksandr learnt that there was an art school in Kyiv, he wanted to go and get enrolled, but he was only eleven, in the fourth grade of elementary school, and his parents were reluctant to let him go all the way to Kyiv and sit for the exams. But next year he did go and was admitted to the fifth grade.
I think I was lucky to have good teachers. Art schools should train the skills, and let artists choose their way in art themselves. Even if a particular teacher is a great artist himself, he should not press his pupils into accepting his views, his philosophy of art and of life, his style. I think it’s very difficult for teachers like that to restrain themselves, and I was lucky in the sense that my teachers knew how to do it. The formation of an artist is a very intricate process and you should proceed very carefully. Schools should provide knowledge and skills, and the artists themselves should take care of the rest.
There were years that I look upon as crossed out from my creative life, wasted years. Upon graduation, because of the then Soviet system of making the graduates work “where the state will see fit,” I found myself working at a factory designing and creating propaganda stands, painting slogans, that sort of thing. Then I was drafted into the army, and after I was released from the service, then again I had to work at a factory. I lived in a dormitory, and every day, after dinner, I painted something just not to lose my skills and keep artistic spirit up. Sometimes, I’d stay up until three o’clock in the morning, painting. And at eight o’clock I had to be back to work. I drove myself so hard that one day the light in my eyes faded, like it happens in the movie theatre before the film begins, and I fainted. In hospital, they diagnosed extreme fatigue. But burning the candle at both ends and burning the midnight oil helped me preserve my skills of an artist.
I like working in the quiet of my studio, with no one around. I hate being bothered and when an unexpected guest knocks at my door when I’m at work I don’t open. I make many sketches before I get down to the picture. It does not mean I come to the canvas knowing all the details, but the basic idea is already formed… I like warm, sunny colours, but, of course, I do not consciously limit myself to them. There are so many colours but which will be chosen for a particular picture depends on so many things. Sometimes, I can visualize which colours I’ll need for the picture but when I actually start working at it, I discover that I need something different, and then I go in a different direction. Something entirely new is born, entirely different from what I thought I had found in the sketches. There’s some magic in the process of creativity…
I find Ivakhnenko’s pictures to be windows into the Ukrainian soul. There is poignancy and light in the images that he creates.
In recent years, he exhibited his works only at a few exhibitions, but his paintings and drawings can be found in many museums and private collections in several countries of the world: in the National Art Museum of Ukraine; in the Taras Shevchenko museums in Kyiv and in Kaniv; in Ukraine’s National Museum of Literature; in Ukraine’s Museum of Books; in the Ukrainian Eparchial Museum in Stamford, USA; in museums of Bratislava (Slovakia), Ivano-Frankivsk, Cherkasy, Khmelnytsky and Uzhgorod (Ukraine); and in private collections in Great Britain, the USA, Canada, Japan, Germany and Russia.
I’m not working with exhibitions in mind. To show your works at an exhibition means that you are prepared to show something new, and I am not prepared… not yet. Besides, these days, showing your works at exhibitions involves a lot of expenses. I don’t have that much money, so I have to look for someone who would be able to support me financially. I don’t know how to do it, how to find such people or companies. And when exhibitions do get held, not too many people come to see them. You have to promote your own art…
In Ivakhnenko’s works Ukraine often appears in the image of a beautiful woman. In one of his recent pictures we see the reflections of the sunrays on the water from a nimbus around the head of a mother with child. The mood this picture creates is typical of the entire oeuvre of Oleksandr Ivakhnenko — celebration of beauty and light, of the native land with all its rich colours and poetry.