I am moving off - I am approaching. Self-portrait.

Yevhen Leshchenko, a highly gifted painter of wide renown, lives in the town of Kryvy Rih. It is not a major cultural centre where the arts flourish. It is situated in an area rich in natural resources and is a centre of mining industries. But probably there is something that is hidden in the bowels of the earth that radiates mysterious energy which moulds artistic personalities of remarkable talent. One needs to take only one look at Leshchenko's house to understand that someone of subtle artistic tastes lives in it. The house differs from all the other houses in the neighbourhood - it is adorned with decorative wood carvings and has an artist's studio with wide and tall windows, perched rather high above the ground. Yevhen Leshchenko has revealed himself in the interview that follows as a person of wide knowledge, high culture and deep spirituality.

WU. It’s so happened that your works are better known abroad than in Ukraine. You receive in your hospitable home guests from the USA, France and other countries. Now the art of Yevhen Leshchenko begins to be discovered in Ukraine as well. Is it so important for you to be famous?
Leshchenko. No, it’s not a matter of having fame for fame’s sake. I don’t create art for myself. I create it for people. For those who are very close to me: my wife, my parents, and for those who care for my art, who find something to their liking in it. Mind you, a famous artist is not necessarily a kind one. I want to create kind, humane art. I’m for good against evil. The universal love is my favourite subject. Art for me is like tintinnabulation that carries the glad news all around the land and reminds the heart of the highest spiritual values. I think that art that has something evil in it does not have the right to be called art at all.
WU. But can one draw a sharp line of division between good and evil?
Leshchenko. This line is blurred, but there’s no doubt that good and evil exist as separate entities. It’s like with beauty and ugliness — you can’t draw a sharp line between them but no one doubts, of course, that there’s something what we call «beauty» which is separate from something that we call «ugliness.» Good and evil can be found in the things we do, in our hearts and in our minds. The earth is a place where forces of evil and darkness exist side by side with forces of good and light and our hearts are the place where these are engaged in a never-ending battle. Every person has a black and a white side to him or her. But we have a mind and will power and a freedom of choice and what we choose, good or evil, entirely depends upon us, the way we live determines on which side we are: on the side of good or on the side of evil. Freedom of choice does not mean though that we make our choice regardless of others and of circumstances. When we do something wrong, we immediately feel it is wrong. But we shouldn’t try to change the external things around us, we should try to change things inside our hearts and souls, and the things external will change sort of by themselves.
WU. Art critics often use words «harmony,» «disharmony,» «balance,» «disbalance,» «vulgar,» «lofty» and other similar notions in describing pieces of art. What is your attitude to such concepts?
Leshchenko. I’m all for lofty, fine art, for subtlety in art, I’m against vulgarity in art. Harmony is not something that has been invented by man. It has been in existence since before time. Disharmony is death, it’s temporal, harmony is eternal.

I'm on my Way to You, in the Constellation of Leo. Portrait of the Painter's Wife.

A Cat's World

Fertile Soil.

It’d be pretty difficult to define vulgarity in art, but it’s not deformation of what is popularly called «reality.» Deformation is not deformity, it’s just alteration of forms and shapes. But an artist must know where to stop, must know how far he can go. The most important thing in art is not form or shape, it’s spirit that one should be after. Colour is the soul of painting. Light and colour are inseparable. In our world everything is interconnected in one way or another but one should not forget that there’s something that stands above it and unites all — it’s what may be called the Higher, maybe Transcendental Intelligence. Great mysteries are concentrated even in the most trivial things. One has to learn how to see them. Every little thing in the world is built, as it were, the way it should be. Nature is the realm of Harmony. Everything stands upon a mathematical foundation. Take a flower — it blooms in accordance with some law. Everything you do must be thought over and planned well in advance, brought to its logical end. If I’ve done that, I can paint freely, I can even conduct a conversation standing in front of my easel. I can do it because I’ve got everything settled within myself as far as this or that particular painting is concerned. Art should seek perfection. Art could be likened to chess: on the one hand unlimited choice of movement, and on the other — very strict rules. Some painters tend to be too expressionistic, disregarding the laws of painting, some others limit themselves to a very narrow scope of expression. A lot of painters cannot break away from cliches and stereotypes of their times.
WU. Do you have a respect for art of the past?
Leshchenko. My own art is based on the achievements of art in the past. And I mean it very literally in the sense that I learnt a lot from looking at paintings and carvings created by my great-grandfather, at my father’s works who was what I call a «naive painter,» a sort of primitivist. He was inspired by the steppe and by blooming orchards. In a more broad, general sense, I became acquainted with works of art of the past in my childhood looking at prints and art albums and at copies made by my father from masterpieces of great masters. Later I started making copies myself. I went the hard way. I tried myself in all the media, experimented with many painting techniques.
But my father was dead-opposed to my ambition of becoming a painter. He wanted me to become an engineer. Since I was denied access to oil paints I had to concentrate on drawing. I persisted and went to study at the Kyiv Art Institute (now it’s called «Academy of Arts»). I had left behind so many drawings that my parents loaded them on a cart and took them to a market place to sell. And can you imagine it — most of them were sold! Embroidery was also among the factors that formed my artistic tastes. My mother was very good at needlework. Tapestry created at rural homes was still another influence, not tapestry itself but geometrical and stylized patterns used in it. Incidentally, they are similar all around the world, say, Ukrainian and Red Indian of North America. I tell you, everything is interrelated in this world. Architectural design has made an impact on my art too. Visual arts are universally understood, an artist can draw freely from many sources but should not become totally eclectic. Finding one’s own way in art is a slow process. An artist has to try very hard to establish himself in art, to prove his right for having a unique vision. I like many trends in art because usually there’s a powerful personality that stands at the roots of each trend. I respect tradition but I think at the same time that there are good and bad traditions. One has to be careful in avoiding false traditions, lacking in truth.
A Grasshopper.

Among Blossoming Waves.

A Lucid Moment.

WU. Could you express your opinions of modern art, please? But don’t give us analysis or assessment, just try to think aloud without making any attempts to formulate the one and only truth.
Leshchenko. All right, I’ll try. I think that there’s a lot of artificialness and worked-up emotion in modern art. I believe an artist should look for his own way in art and avoid becoming politically engaged. Unfortunately art is quite often treated like a game, entertainment and thus vulgarised. An artist should not be a reporter either. Mass media seem to concentrate on reporting dreadful and unpleasant things, art should never do anything of the kind. There’s an easy way of making oneself popular — it is by criticizing political institutions, political leaders and the like but art must not choose this way. An artist instead of criticizing should attempt to make himself better. Both he and art will benefit.
WU. Allen Ginsberg, a prominent American poet, was reported to have said looking at your paintings which were exhibited in the Warsaw Modern Art Centre: «It’s truly great art!»
Leshchenko. If he did he paid me a great compliment indeed. But I hope he really enjoyed looking at my paintings. Understanding is best when it comes without words. Painting can communicate something which words cannot. And the best award for a painter is when someone who sees his work likes it. Sometimes we forget that art is primarily a spiritual activity and an artist should be concerned, ahead of anything else, with what to paint rather than with how to do it. The spiritual is above the material, spirit is primary, the matter is secondary. Technicalities should not get the upper hand though the skill and technique are of great importance as well. An artist can achieve great skills in handling his material but he becomes a genius only when he soars spiritually and keeps this high level of spirituality in all of his works. But you can’t stay in the lofty heights all the time, you have to go down once in a while, have a good look around and then go back to work. You can’t be all the time sad or cheerful, right? The same with the spiritual soaring. Some fall and break their necks. Here I want to reiterate the importance of finding one’s own way, one’s own individuality in art. If an artist puts his soul into his art then every painting of his, no matter what it is — a landscape, a still-life, an abstract composition — is his self-portrait, or rather a portrait of his soul. Love, purity of heart and high morality — on these three art rests.
WU. Do you believe visual arts have a future?
Leshchenko. Of course! Art is eternal, never-ending. There was great art in the past, there’ll be great art in the future. At the end of the 19th-early 20th century, there lived a monk named Nektary at the monastery called Optyna Pustyn’, a man of great wisdom, who wrote: «No matter what you do, you should do it as though God were looking at you and your work, and so you should try very hard indeed to win His approval... An artist who paints an angel should show light emanating from the angel rather than falling on him from some external source.» I always keep these words in my heart.

Leshchenko’s paintings seem to emanate this mysterious light. It is extremely difficult to reproduce his works in print. One has to see them as they are, in their original form. Leshchenko’s paintings are exhibited in the National Ukrainian Museum, Kyiv; OR-Gallery of Kyiv; the State Gallery of Western Art, Lviv; the Arts Museum, Poltava, and in many other museums and private collections in Ukraine, Russia, France, Mexico, Canada and the United States.

Reported by Lyudmyla KORNIENKO, Mykola VOLGA
OR-Gallery telephone: 380 (44) 412- 603

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