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Valery Franchuk, an artist who declares love of his native land
Journalists Mykola and Nika Kryzhanivsky talked to a prominent Ukrainian painter, Valery Franchuk, about his art and his life and now present some of the things he said in a monologue.
Roads we choose
Every artist, no matter how distanced he wants to position himself from the world around, is still part of it, and has his or her own vision or understanding of this world. I love Ukraine, my native land, and feel connected to what is happening here. The struggle of Good and Evil, of Light and Darkness that is going in my land is reflected, albeit in an indirect way, in works I create. Three years ago, for example, when I was working at a large polyptych, Hetmansky shlyakh (The Way of Hetmans), it was important for me to clearly understand that rulers, or leaders, to speak in terms of today, can lead their nation either into a barren desert with mirages instead of real achievements, or along the road that may take their nation to the land of spirit and of plenty. If an artist addresses himself to Shevchenko, to the great tragedies of the Famine of 1932–1933, or the Chornobyl Disaster, he takes upon himself a great task and has to pass a very tough test. I am not indifferent to what art critics will write about my creations, or to what people in power will say, but the most important thing for me, high above everything else, is what ordinary people see in my woks, how they react to them. Once, at an exhibition of my paintings, a middle-aged woman who, judging by the way she looked, did not have an easy life, came up to me and said, “Now after I’ve seen your art, I know that there’s something in this life that’s worth living for…” It was very moving. Art does have a power to inspire.
People’s destinies differ so much — some are destined to go along a wide and winding road to their goals; others are destined to stop short after they have travelled a narrow path to the dead end — and yet, we must be given a chance to choose our own roads. I’ve chosen the road of art and every day I take a little step toward a better understanding of what this world, and I, and my art are all about.
Sources of inspiration
I was born in the village of Zelena, in the Land of Khmelnychchyna. Metaphorically speaking, it is there, in the well that my maternal granddad had sunk so many years ago in our yard that the source of my art lies. He worked so hard on the land he had, in the field and in the cherry garden. But the Bolsheviks took away his land… I have a photograph of him, taken in 1924 — his eyes speak volumes. It’s a miracle this photograph has survived… He was so clever with his hands, and could make all kinds of things from wood…
I called one of my paintings, The Soul of a Neglected Well. I wanted it to be a symbol of spiritual sources that should never be neglected. Once a year, my brothers and I, we go to our native village, to our grandfather’s well, we clean it and make sure the water is good there.
In my childhood I went around barefoot — because there were no shoes to put on, and hungry most of the time. There were five sons, me included, in the family. From my early childhood on, I had some chores to do — among other things, I tended grazing ducklings, geese and cows. There was an ash-tree grove which I would most often go to — it was probably that grove that was another source of my artistic ambitions. It was rather early in my childhood that I felt an urge to draw, and as far as I remember I began by copying pictures from my brothers’ books. I liked pictures of knights and their armour in particular. My first drawing, fully my own, was devoted to the space flight of the first man in space, Yury Gagarin…
Among the most vivid memories from my childhood are the gorgeous springs that came after long and severe winters when there was so much snow that our house that had been built by my grandfather, was buried in snow up to the roof. But at the same time there were nice things too, like our skating on the lake. My brothers and I, we spent a lot of time there. Time seemed to move very slowly, at a measured pace… My grandfather was among those who built a beautiful wooden church in our village. I was baptized in that church. But in nineteen-sixty five, it was pulled down on the order of the local authorities…
My father was an orphan who had started working hard on the land when he was very young. He was such an honest person, with a crystal-clear soul. He was greatly respected but respect did not add to his earnings. My mother complained that he should have contributed more to the family well-being rather than giving himself so fully to his work. My father used to tell me, “You must always respect other people and be kind to them no matter what you do in life. And I will never interfere with your choice of occupation…” He would say it in a low voice but his words remain carved in my memory. And the image and memory of my father inspired me to create works devoted to him.
It was only fairly recently that my mother, Mariya, saw an exhibition of my works for the first time. The exhibition was held in the Lavra Art Gallery in Kyiv, and for me her coming to see that exhibition was an event of greater importance than all my previous seventy-something exhibitions. I was truly happy to see her there. She, my gray dove, could not find time to do it earlier — either there was too much to do at home, or my father was ill and had to be looked after, or something else was in the way. My mother is eighty six. She survived three famines and back-breaking work in the soviet collective farm. It was she who revealed the magic and the beauty of the world to me.
That same exhibition saw another Mariya, my nine-year old daughter, the apple of my eye, who draws wonderful portraits of cats. She studies at the Kyiv Children Art Academy…
Coming back to my reminiscences — the dream of becoming an artist never left me in my adolescence but after school I was drafted into the army, and after the army service I had to urgently find an occupation that would give me some money to live on. I began working as a mechanic repairing agricultural machinery. Once, my mother paid me a visit in the repair shop where I worked. She looked around, looked at my hands all in black oil, sighed and said, “My dear son, what about your dream of becoming a painter?” And she gave me a copy of a newspaper in which there was an advert about some painters’ training courses at an art centre in the city of Khmelnytsky. I decided to try my luck and went there — and I was admitted! It turned out to be a turning point in my life. As the classes began, I knew art was what I wanted to do in my life. It was a difficult start for me, and I was thirty — quite an age to start a career of a painter! — when I was enrolled as a student to the Kyiv Art Institute. I was a married man then, but my wife Polina supported my decision and showed much understanding. My mother was happy that at last I found my true calling.
Once, when I saw paintings by Opanas Zalyvakha, I felt immediately drawn to them. I found out that Zalyvakha was also a philosopher and I wanted to meet him very much. I regarded myself as his disciple though we had never met. I wanted to meet him very much but somehow I could not find a way of doing it. Twenty years had passed before I actually met the man. It happened at a gathering of intellectuals and artists in Kyiv. I was so excited when we were introduced that I could not say a word, so at first it was he who did the talking. When at last I managed to say something, I blurted out, “Mr Zalyvakha, you’re a living legend for me!” And he just laughed. “I’m not a legend, I’m just an old painter! But I like your eyes — there’s something of a child and of a magician in them.”
He returned to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk where he lived, and we began our correspondence. His letters were filled with profound thoughts and interesting ideas. I reread each of them several times.
There are quite a few of Ukrainian painters whom I could mention among those that I admire — Mykhailo Chorny, Fedir Humenyuk, Ivan Zadorozhny, Viktor Zaretsky, Mariya Priymachenko, Kateryna Bilokur. They are artists of world standing, no less great than, say, Picasso or Salvador Dali, but unfortunately the world does not know them. If Ukrainian art were properly promoted, the world would have made many stunning artistic discoveries!..
I had the honour of meeting Vyacheslav Chornovil who was a very prominent public figure in the late nineteen-eighties– early nineteen-nineties. I saw so much light and kindness in his eyes. He sort of radiated that light. He wanted to come to my studio and “have a good look” at my paintings. He said that they were so much alive that they were “dancing and cavorting.” But he never did — no time, too busy, and then he died in what the authorities claimed was an accident. For me, he became another star in the Milky Way.
I’m happy I met Yevhen Sverstyuk, a man of a philosophical mind, who, like Chornovil, spent many years in soviet prisons and concentration camps for his Ukrainian national ideals. For me he is an epitome of absolute honesty, civic duty and steely determination to tell the truth…
I like reading and rereading wise books. Among such books are those written by Valery Shevchuk.
I draw inspiration and artistic ideas from my travels, from meeting interesting people, from kind and warm emotions. Every day when I get down to work, I do it with joy and vibrant expectation. I know I have not created my most important work yet. I hope I’ll do it some day, and it will reflect all my life experience, my experience of an artist. I have in mind a new cycle of paintings which I tentatively call The Ode to the Creator…
The Forest in Yabluniv. Oil on canvas, 70x91, 2001.
The central piece Oceanis from the triptych Vangelis.
The Artist. Oil on canvas, 80x140, 2003.
Going up to Lukyan. Oil on canvas, 60x80, 2004.
An Autumnal Tune. Oil on canvas, 63x88, 2003.