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A genius who paints only what his soul tells him to

 

Art critics and historians are very keen on labeling and pigeonholing trends, movements and art of individual artists — realism, surrealism, non- figurativism, “blue period,” and so on.

Andriy HLAZOVY offers his own term for the art created by the Ukrainian artist Ivan Markchuk — marchukism, and goes on to explain why.

 

“Ivan Marchuk is an artist blessed with God’s Grace,
and it is probably why he keeps repeating,
‘I paint only what my soul tells me to.’
Like any other person with a rich inner world,
Marchuk is multifaceted and his art is so multifarious —
philosophical, poignant, lyrical, and very national…”

Victor Yushchenko, President of Ukraine

 

Almost every morning, on my way to work, I meet a gray-haired, bushy-mustached, long-haired man with an aura of grandeur about him. He has a stately bearing, he moves with dignity. He is an artist, and his studio is almost next door to where I live.

I know that he has created more than two thousand paintings, a great many of them masterpieces. He calls them “my children.” When he lived in America, he once in a while would come to Ukraine to “to talk with my children” and returned to those that stayed behind in New York “so that they would not feel abandoned.” He says that he wished he were like “that Indian god Shiva who had twenty arms and hands — then, probably, I would be able to paint all that is in my head and wants out.”

I find it a highly exhilarating experience to meet a living genius on the way to work. The genius has a name — Ivan Marchuk.

 

This year marks Ivan Marchuk’s forty years of creative work. He himself divides this span of creativity into three periods: “the period of unfreedom” — that is the time he lived under the soviet regime, to which he was very much hostile (and the regime reciprocated); ‘the emigration period” — that is eleven years when Marchuk lived in Australia and the USA; in his own words, he was trying to restore his creative potential “that had been sipping away for twenty years” under the soviets; but Marchuk was never able to feel himself at home in the west and he returned to Ukraine; and after his return, “the third period” began — the time of life and work in his much-beloved, independent Ukraine, “from the point of view of everyday life, not very comfortable, but my very native.”

This summer the biggest one-man exhibition of Marchuk’s works was held in Kyiv’s Ukrayinsky Dim Culture Centre. Practically every painting has something enigmatic and magnetic in it, all have their very own magic. The effect of hundreds of Marchuk’s paintings exhibited in one place is overwhelming.

Ivan Marchuk painted nine self-portraits, all of them in different styles and moods. There is an almost naturalistic self-portrait, and a surrealistic one (Dvichi narodzheny, or Born Twice; as a matter of fact, he did paint it twice), and a fairy-tale one, Napered zahlyadayuchy, or Looking into the Future.

“That’s me at the age of one hundred and fifty. When I sit for myself, I can do with myself whatever I please, I can fantasize in whatever manner I choose, I’m the sitter and I’m the painter, all rolled into one, I present myself the way I want to see myself or the way I wish I were…” They say the artist is going to paint his tenth self-portrait — it’s anybody’s guess in what style or in which mood. I wonder whether he knows it himself — I don’t think he does…

Among Marchuk’s oeuvres you can find landscapes, portraits, nudes, pastorals, non-figurative and very whimsical pieces; all of them look so different – and yet looking at any of Marchuk’s works, you immediately recognize it as Marchuk’s. I don’t think there’s any other artist in this universe whose works could be mistaken for Marchuk’s — Marchuk is absolutely unique. His vision is unique, and his images are unique as well. The artist himself has another name which he jokingly uses to describe his art — plyontanism, from the verb plesty, or weave, interlace; many of his paintings do look like as though woven from magic interlacing threads of different colours, of varying length and thickness.

 

When I asked Ivan Marchuk for granting me an interview, the only place he said that he might time for me was at his exhibition in the Ukrayinsky Dim Culture Centre. As I was approaching the centre, I saw people coming out. They seemed to share one and the same expression on their faces. At first I could not figure out what was so special in it and then realized that such an expression people usually wear when they have lived through a profound spiritual experience or when they come in touch with something they don’t quite understand but feel they are in their presence of something exceptional, mysterious and overpowering.

The interview did not work out the way I had planned. In fact, there was no interview in a usual journalistic sense. Instead — and I am very happy it turned out that way – we had a wonderful conversation that lasted, with interruptions, for quite some time. Those interruptions (which were almost as exciting as talking to the Master himself, and which were caused by friends, artists and intellectuals who kept coming up to greet him) were worth being recorded and written about but it would turn this article into a book, so I will have to resign myself to an attempt to present in the nutshell some of the things that the Master said, and intersperse it with my impressions.

Incidentally, every good looking woman that came up to Marchuk to express her admiration, was rewarded with a kiss which could not be described as being quite innocent or chaste. People who know the artist well say that there are two overriding passions in his life — painting and women…

 

“There is no real world that I want to reflect in my paintings. I peer into myself, I listen to my soul and out of it comes my art… My art is the voice of my soul,” said the artist.

The more I talked to him, the more he reminded me of a remarkable Ukrainian philosopher of the eighteenth century, Hryhory Skovoroda, not in appearance, of course, but in the way he treated the world. “The world has been trying hard to catch me but failed,” said Skovoroda. Something similar Marchuk could have said too. Marchuk, similarly to Skovoroda, is indifferent to fame, honours, or awards. He lives in his own world that feeds his spirit and inspires his art.

In the soviet times, Marchuk could have been destroyed physically like so many Ukrainian artists, poets, writers and intellectuals had been, but for some reason he was more or less left alone — but everything possible was done to turn him into a “unperson,” to use the word coined by George Orwell in his famous novel 1984. Marchuk and his art were made almost “invisible,” reviews were absent or indifferent or negative; he was made to feel “the soviet people did not need this decadent art,” (to quote a soviet newspaper). And then came a point when “you could not take it any longer and decided to emigrate, hoping that there, across the pond, your art may find some recognition, right?” And he did find it. But then I could not help saying something that sounded very much petty bourgeois but I could not restrain myself, “You must have lived very comfortably in New York — recognition, money, exhibitions, galleries… Some people were so moved by your art they actually wept, overwhelmed with emotion… You could have lived the rest of your life in comfort, respected and appreciated, creating masterpieces in your plyontanistic inimitable style — but you returned to Ukraine. Why?”

Yes, the Master agreed, “I could have lived a very comfortable life in New York. The Big Apple is an exciting place indeed, in every sense of the word… But I did not feel myself at home there, I could not get the feel of that life, I could not understand it properly… Neither could I quite get the ways of their love…” His smile was hidden in his walrus mustache. “The thing that was the hardest for me to get accustomed to was money as the measure of everything. Everything is assessed in terms of money, even love. When you start a relationship you sort of have to calculate it in terms of money, and for me it was absolutely unacceptable to draw those bills in my mind. A bill for a woman! I lived eleven years there and failed to come to understand their women… It’s one of the reasons I came back.”

Irony, and self-irony in particular, is a very powerful thing, and the sense of humour is a very useful thing to have too. He knew I understood that it was not so much the problem of “understanding women there” that drove him back to Ukraine. I thought to myself, If you really wanted, you would have found an American woman who would not have to be assessed in terms of money — you just wanted to go back home, and wanted it badly. I did not say it aloud but I saw the Master read my thoughts.

He loves his native land though it remains to be unpredictable, unstable, and lacking in hospitality too. His studio is situated at the top floor of a several-storied house, and there is no elevator to take him to the studio, so he, almost seventy years old, has to climb the winding stairs. He performs this climb to his personal Montmartre everyday. He is a man of robust health and is in a good physical shape for his years, but still he would prefer a bigger studio in a house with an elevator. “As a matter of fact I would not mind climbing a hundred floors, provided my studio was a decent one…” But he does not ask the authorities to provide him with a good studio — he considers it to be below his dignity.

I think it is the authorities who have to ask the Master, Would you please choose the studio out of this selection that we can offer? Marchuk has creative plans that would last him at least another two hundred years – provided he has a proper place to be creating in. But so far there has been no proposals from the authorities — not a single proposal, much less a selection…

I could not help asking Ivan Marchuk about the Orange Revolution and his answer, quite naturally, confirmed him as a great enthusiast of that “truly revolutionary,” in his opinion, event. He even called it “the greatest event that I have ever participated in.”

The new “orange” president and government seem to respect Ivan Marchuk and his art; President Yushchenko, an amateur painter himself, regularly comes to see all Marchuk’s exhibitions, and once even climbed all those winding stairs to Marchuk’s studio. But things do not go further than all those nice speeches, greetings, awards giving and well-wishing. There was an idea expressed to create a museum or an art centre, which would have Marchuk’s works permanently exhibited, and at which the Master would be able to teach art and share his unique vision of the world with those who would care to learn. Unfortunately, this idea remains wishful thinking with nothing practical being done about it.

As you’ve noticed, I call Ivan Marchuk “The Master” as he fully deserves to be called. As a true Master, he does not care one bit about all those awards and orders bestowed upon him — but he cares about his art being accessible to the people. I hope we will not have to wait fifty years after his death to proclaim him a genius (as it, alas, happened more than once in this country) and then set up a museum, long overdue. Let’s do it now.

 

Birth of spring.
Acryl on canvas. 101 x 76 cm. 1995.

 

Steppe is all around.
Tempera on cardboard. 58 x 70 cm. 1965.

 

The crescent over the Dnipro River.
Acryl on canvas. 100 x 130 cm. 2003.

 

In the circle of my images.
Acryl on canvas. 100 x 120 cm. 1994.

 

Temptation.
Acryl on canvas. 91 x 91cm. 1992.

 

From the cycle of paintings “The planet in blossoms”.
Tempera on canvas. 80 x 80 cm. 1980.

 

Christmas night.
Acryl on canvas. 80 x 100 cm. 2004.

 

From the cycle of paintings “White Planet II.”
Acryl on canvas. 100 x 120 cm. 2000.

 

A deserted nest.
Tempera on cardboard. 50 x 40 cm. 1980.

 

Trust.
Tempera on paper. 25 x 31 cm. 1978.

 

The road that leads home.
Acryl on canvas. 71 x 90 cm. 2002.

 

Very little space left.
Acryl on canvas.100 x 170 cm. 2000.

 

Eve.
Acryl on canvas. 91 x 91 cm. 1993.

 

The cow’s portrait.
Acryl on canvas. 101 x 76 cm. 1991.

 

The Sun over a ravine.
Acryl on canvas. 80 x 100 cm. 2004.

 

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