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Interview with Petro Honchar, an artist and Ukrainian culture enthusiast
Petro Honchar is the Director of the Ukrainian Center of Folk Culture Muzey Ivana Honchara. He was interviewed by Yevhen BUDKO, Mizhnarodny Turyzm Magazine senior editor.
Petro Honchar is the Director of the Ukrainian Center of Folk Culture Muzey Ivana Honchara (for convenience — the Ivan Honchar Museum). It was his father, Ivan Honchar (1911– 1993), an artist and a great Ukrainian culture enthusiast, who had been putting together a collection of Ukrainian applied, decorative and folk arts for many years, until his very death. This collection was elevated to the status of a museum in 1993.
At present, it has about 20,000 various museum items — embroideries, Easter eggs, ceramics, folk paintings books and many other things which reflect the richness and varieties of Ukrainian folk art.
The Museum has always been much more than a depository of Ukrainian folk art — it was truly an active center of promoting Ukrainian culture, spreading information about Ukrainian folk art, and supporting artists, singers and Ukrainian culture enthusiasts.
I know that you’ve been recently awarded an honorary title, Zasluzheny diyach mystetstv Ukrayiny (Honored Art Worker of Ukraine). What’s your attitude to such titles?
Generally negative. I always thought these titles were part of the soviet legacy and I was against them, but surprisingly enough when I was informed that I had been granted this award I did not refuse to take it. I admit that I was even pleased to a certain extent — probably, at some subconscious level we want to see some kind of public recognition of the things we do.
You are a member of a commission that determines who is to be awarded Shevchenko prizes. What kind of tendencies have you observed in prize giving in recent years? Are those who get these prizes really worth of them?
Most of the awardees are really worth of the prizes they get, but it does not mean that all of them are. I think that now you see more prizes being given to those who really promote Ukrainian culture, deal with the problems the Ukrainian state faces in their special artistic way. I hope that this line continues into the future. But unfortunately a certain number of people still get the prizes not for their creative achievements but thanks to political considerations.
Is there any particular project that you are working at now?
Yes, there is. This new project can be called “Gates and wickets”. On my expeditions to the Ukrainian countryside, during which I look for things that can be obtained for our museum, I could not help noticing the picturesqueness and telling features of many gates and wickets. We want to mount an exhibition of Ukrainian gates and wickets. The texture of the wood, the scars, the grains of wood, their age — all of these things make them look like abstract pictures, but abstract pictures that have a deep meaning which can easily be read by the onlooker. We already have culture enthusiasts not only from Ukraine but from Holland and the USA who help us. They contribute their research, ethnographic findings and philosophical background. A gate in the fence around the peasant house is a door that connects the world outside and the world within, it bears witness to years of communications between these two worlds. There are quite a few gates and wickets, which look as though they have been especially made to be collector’s items, ready to be exhibited in a museum. And our museum is exactly of the kind that is interested in such things. If you pick up a thing of everyday use and exhibit it in a museum, it suddenly acquires quite a new, special significance. We do hope that our visitors will immediately relate to the mute but highly expressive exhibits!
However, the main thing for me remains the same — upkeep and development of the Ivan Honchar culture center. We are toying with the idea of creating a museum which will be devoted to ethnography. There is no such museum in Kyiv and it needs one. The Ivan Honchar Museum, among other things, also functions as such a museum but we should have a separate museum with the full status of a museum. Such status will provide financing and foundation for research. If we can do that then I’ll consider my mission of a culture enthusiast and museum curator fulfilled.
But you are also an artist in your own right!
Yes, I am, and I continue to work as an artist. I’m at a crossroads now, and I’m not sure which direction I’ll choose as an artist. It may take a couple of years to figure out which way I want to go.
You became the Ivan Honchar Museum curator because you wanted to, or because you felt you should follow in your father’s footsteps?
The latter, I think. My father kept repeating that I should pick up from him and continue his cause. I used to reply, “I’m not sure I can, I’m a different person.” He used to bring everything into the house, as it were, and I, by nature, am a person who tends to take things out, metaphorically speaking. I never liked hoarding, I always liked being free from material things, I’ve always wanted to be creative. But when my father died and I realized there were several other persons who sought directorship of the museum — and I knew these people! — I felt I would rather be curator myself for some time. I thought I’d be better qualified to continue my father’s cause, I thought I’d make sure things go in the direction he’d approve of, and then I’d quit. Well, I’ve been quitting for the last fifteen years, but I’m still there (laughs). At first, when I worked in the museum, I kept thinking of the moment I’d be able to go to my studio, but now, when I’m working in the studio, I can’t help thinking about the museum!
I’ve contributed a lot to the museum, both in terms of efforts and money. Earlier, I never thought I could be such a hoarder. I think I’ve collected as many things for the museum as my father did. I may have a character and vocation different from my father’s but, like him, I’m inspired by the same idea.
Will your son also become the museum director?
I don’t know. Nina (Nina Matviyenko, Petro Honchar’s wife, is a celebrated singer) says I should start training him in the museum business. “But I see him,” she says, “devoting all his time to painting and drawing!” I sort of avoid giving straight answers. Time and his inclinations will show which way he’ll go.
Now I’ve got a very personal question… Could I ask it?
Yes, sure, go ahead.
I know that Ivan Honchar was not your biological father…
Yes, I was an adopted son. My father, Hryhoriy, was Ivan Honchar’s elder brother. I developed a great desire to paint at rather an early age. We lived in a village and there was not much prospect of developing my talent there, and my uncle Ivan took me to Kyiv where he put me into an art school. He was not married, he did not have children, so on agreement with my father he officially adopted me. My father had four children and his old mother to look after, and he accepted his brother’s offer to adopt me. It was a great sacrifice on my father’s part, but at the same time there was something of his peasant pragmatic thinking in his decision. Hryhoriy held his brother Ivan in great respect, he felt they were just one family, he trusted him absolutely. Incidentally, I’m not sure I’d be prepared to do a thing like that for the sake of my children…
Was Ivan Honchar a strict disciplinarian?
No, he wasn’t. In fact, he gave me a free rein. He never even asked about my grades in school. He kept saying, “You should be free in everything.” He knew I was by nature “an artist who should be free in choosing his own way.”
Did what your father was doing in looking for and preserving artifacts of Ukrainian folk culture affect you?
Of course it did! The authorities looked askance at his activities, or rather they frowned upon them, but he went on doing what he thought he must. It made me feel a hero at his side — “we” sort of defied the authorities, the very soviet regime! Ivan Hocnhar gave me a new understanding what beauty was, what true cultural values were as opposed to all those soviet false values of “class struggle” and chimerical communistic aspirations. He gave me the feeling of being part of the Ukrainian people. Our home, which looked like a museum, was visited by Ukrainian culture enthusiasts, Ukrainian intelligentsia, by foreigners who were interested in true Ukrainian culture, not soviet propaganda. There were actually lines waiting at our door!
It must have been hard to be living in a museum!
It’s a good luck that we had our own private house rather than a regular apartment, but it was not a big house. At first, it was possible to arrange the items on the walls but as their number kept increasing, the indoor space seemed to be catastrophically shrinking. Museum items were put into trunks, boxes, and these trunks and boxes filled the rooms from floor to ceiling… Some of the things Ivan Honchar had to hide, and after his death we made unexpected discoveries — ancient icons, documents of the Ukrainian nationalist movement and other things which the soviets could use as a pretext for doing away with my father.
Many people who visited Ivan Honchar’s home museum underwent serious cultural and even “ideological” changes. Just one example. There were, of course, visits paid by KGB officers in plain clothes and by those who were hired by them to look for signs of “dissent and subversion.” After his visit to Ivan Honchar’s home, one of such persons reported that “Ivan Honchar is a true communist” (he was in fact a card-carrying member of the soviet communist party) and “a very honest person” devoted to culture who “should be left alone and allowed to do what he is doing.” This person, a poet, became a dissident and spent years in concentration camps and was even forced to undergo treatment in a psychiatric hospital (it was a standard practice of dealing with political dissidents)…
Isn’t it strange that Ivan Honchar was allowed to go ahead with what he was doing without much interference?
Yes, it is, but things which are difficult to explain from the point of view of soviet intolerance did happen. Besides, the top communist party leader in Ukraine, Shelest, was a sort of nationalistically minded. Incidentally, it was the reason he was ousted. There was another thing — the KGB could monitor those who come to the museum and thus make a list of “Ukrainian nationalists” who could be rounded up when the secret service thought “the time was right.” Rumors were launched that “Ivan Honchar worked for the KGB.” Many of those who visited the museum were later “invited” to pay a visit to the KGB headquarters. I was “invited” too. Once, someone squealed to the KGB that I had type-written manuscripts of “banned” Ukrainian poets and I was taken in a KGB car “for a talk at the proper place.” I gave my explanations, I was asked whether I’d ever visited Ivan Honchar’s museum. I modestly said that I had to visit it every day simply because I lived there… For reasons I can’t explain, they let me go without charging me with anything…
Did things radically change for Ivan Honchar’s museum after Ukraine’s independence?
Not right away. The economic recession and galloping inflation delayed the official establishment of the museum for quite some time. The main problem was to find a building for it. But there was a strong support from the general public, money was collected for the museum, and at last the building was found. I can’t say it was the best solution but at least we have something. The repairs on the second floor of the building we were given are still under way. We do need as much space as we can get… Museum is a place where time stops. Museum is a sort of sacral place where you can find yourself face to face with the past — or with eternity, even though it may sound bombastic. Museum should have an aura of reverence and quiet.
How many items are there in the museum’s collection?
About twenty thousand, but we can’t exhibit all of them. Any museum has a lot of items which are in safe keeping and they are not actually meant to be exhibited. Researchers are welcome to study and examine them. The usual world standard for museums is to exhibit about fifteen or twenty percent of all the items in their possession. We, unfortunately, can exhibit only five percent. I hope we’ll be able to exhibit more after the repairs have been done.
Was it the museum that brought you and your wife together?
In a certain way. Ivan Honchar asked me and other young enthusiasts to bring to the museum those people who we thought should be converted to our cause of spreading the values of Ukrainian culture, or who should know that there was a center of “Ukrainianness”. Once at a concert, I heard Nina sing and was greatly impressed and thought that she should be taken to the museum to see its riches. I somehow managed to get introduced to her and well, that’s all there’s to it…
Are your children in art too?
Yes, they are. Both of our sons are talented artists, both studied at the Art Academy in Kyiv. My elder son, Andriy, has taken monastic vows. He paints icons and decorates churches — though not free of charge, as probably a monk should. In his young years he seemed to be indifferent to religion, but later he experienced a profound change of attitude.
We also have a daughter who showed artistic inclinations at an early age, but instead of an art school we took her to a music school — almost against her will. But now she is a professional singer, like her mother. Thanks to her, now we have a granddaughter.
Could I ask you to speak in some detail about your son becoming a monk?
I did not try to talk him out of it, I thought he’d change his mind — but he did not. I was skeptical, yes, I thought there would be so much work for him to do at the monastery that he’d have no time for prayer. Now, when I ask him whether he regrets his decision, he says, “Absolutely not. I’m very happy.” He is in India now, getting marble for his monastery.
Do you think of your museum as a link between the past and the present?
Yes, indeed. A museum like ours is a link in cultural continuity. Cultural legacy of the people must be preserved at all costs. It’s the foundation on which a nation stands. I’m happy ours is one little part of that foundation.
Photos have been provided
by the Ukrainian Center of Folk Culture Muzey Ivana Honchara
Muzey Ivana Honchara organizes and holds various
events devoted to Ukrainian folklore and art;
one of them is Kupalksy vohon, an observance
with pre-Christian roots, celebrated in summer.
In one of the halls — Narodna estetyka
(Folk Art Esthetics) — of the Ivan Honchar Museum.
Petro Honchar’s mural in the Zhyttedayne dzherelo
(Life-Giving Source) Church of the Holosiyivsky
Monastery in Kyiv. 2008.
Nina Matviyenko and her husband Petro Honchar at
the opening of the Children’s Folk Festival Oreli.
Petro Honchar’s diptych Posvyata Tymofiyevi
Boychuku (Dedicated to Tymofey Boychuk).