Vasily Kursaksa is an extraordinarily gifted modern Russian artist. He talks in this interview about the core of his art, the life of an artist, modern “art”, and Chernobyl.
“For me, Orthodox, religious, Rus’ with its churches, occupies the central place.”
—The larger part of your work is occupied by small Russian towns—Suzdal, Rostov the Great, and others. What interests you about them, and what do you see in them?
—I see in them first of all an image of our homeland. In general I plan to make paintings dedicated to as many small, old Russian cities as possible. That would be Vologda, Uglich, Yaroslavl, and the whole “Golden Ring”. I’ve already managed to do Rostov the Great, some of Suzdal, as well as Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, etc.
True, I have never travelled with an aim, as if to say, now I am going to this or that city to paint it. It’s just that I am constantly observing. Yes, of course it’s good that now there is Internet—you can look up a town and have some idea what it’s like. But my theme is not specifically provincial Russia or old Russian cities. For me, Orthodox, religious Rus’ with its churches occupies the central place. If we look at the ancient Russian towns, very often in the center is a kremlin and some main, large church. This is the image of our thousand-year-old Motherland. It is still intact in some places.
But all of this is departing, being rebuilt, broken down. The beautiful spots are being taken away and cottages or villas are being built on them. And it’s my task to show in pictures those old, more or less untouched corners in order to save them in our memory—first of all the image of our holy Motherland.
—It’s interesting what you said about getting an idea of a town in a minute on the Internet. So then why do we need artists? What do you think, what do you show in pictures that we can’t see on the Internet?
—The spirit of the town. The internet can’t convey that.
—What is the “spirit of the town”?
—It has to be felt. If you’ve felt it, experienced it, understood what it is with all your inner being, then the painting can be successful.
I am not saying that there are no good photographers who can also feel the spirit of a place and make good photographs. That is another story, and we aren’t talking about that now. But the provocativeness of your question lies in this: Today you can look at the Internet and get an idea of what awaits you in a given town, although you have never been there before. But nevertheless, when you get there you see and feel it differently. Photography never conveys that. Here it works more on feelings and senses.
—What other themes touch you besides small Russian towns? What gets to you and interests you positively?
—In principle, I am a landscape painter, and there is very much that interests me and gets to me. Yesterday for example I stood and drew some purple loosestrife in the field. I like every birch tree, every rivulet. Every one of them is beautiful in its way.
I am also interested in history, the historical events of our time. In general I would really like to paint historical pictures.
—What events in Russian history are especially interesting to you?
—If we take the lives of our saints, there is so much that could be done based on them. Sergius of Radonezh, for example, has been painted by many different artists. One would think that the theme has been sufficiently developed. But if we dig deeper there is so much more that could be done—more descriptive, more deep. For example, we could try to paint some kind of inner life of that time.
You come to each town, go into a church, and there are its saints. You start to read their Lives and there is so much history! Once you’ve walked around these little corners you start to see them in another way. You imagine how they lived and in general what went on during those times. Who was the tsar, what the boyars were like, what industries there were and how they developed, what the peasants were like, and so on. And then all of it comes together into a separate image. And a whole series of pictures could be painted on this history. But this is very complicated work. If you try to penetrate it, immerse yourself in it, you’ll never resurface. That’s why I do more modern landscapes with elements of history; and since I studied in a landscape studio, I try not to poke my nose into what’s not my business.
“Glazunov came up to one of my works and said that it would be good to hang it in a pizzeria.”
—Could you tell us a little about yourself and about your creative path? How were you formed as an artist, and what influenced you the most?
—I was born in Ukraine. My parents took me and my brother out when the explosion happened at the Chernobyl atomic electric station, in 1986. We live right in Pripyati, in Chernobyl, and we were evacuated on the third day. After the evacuation we went to my mother’s native Bryansk. My brother and I lived two weeks in some Pioneer camps, and then we were sent further away from the zone. After those two weeks we understood that we would not be returning to Pripyati.
In Bryansk my brother started going to school, and I was still very little. Then we were given an apartment in the city; my father received it as a liquidator. Until the tenth grade I didn’t know where I would go for a higher education. My parents wanted me to go to a technical institute. They considered that my artistic life and activities were just a hobby, and that art isn’t taught. But in the tenth grade, I went to art school. I studied a year there, then entered the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture of Ilya Glazunov in Moscow.
In fact in turned out that I had come to the institute from the art school without having completed the latter. Thus, I came very untrained. After all, people would normally come there after five years of schooling. After three years I entered the Academy, also without completing the institute, and I always had to catch up with my classmates. The learning process was very complicated. Very many who couldn’t keep up were let go. For about two years I was catching up with my classmates.
In the third year we chose studios: portrait, historical, or landscape. I chose the latter. We began to travel a lot around various cities. Images and thoughts began to be born in me, of what I need and what I want in life. Among other things, my interest in the image of old Russian cities began to take form.
—The image of what they are now? Or in principle?
—Large paintings with a broadly developed theme on a specific place—you can count them on your fingers. I am talking about conveying the spirit of a town in my work, and not only the spirit of a modern town, but also with elements of history.
This image exists; it is basically one, although perhaps it changes a little in one or another direction. Hills can be leveled, or the half the town can be flooded. But the image will still be preserved. And what upholds it, what is the core, the heart of the town? Precisely the kremlin and the Orthodox churches. For example, the town of Yuriev Polsky is in my opinion absolutely underappreciated. It needs to be put in order, like Suzdal was. Why is it any less deserving? It is a beautiful Russian town with its own great history.
—You have been to many places. Where have you been, and what impressed you the most?
—First of all Karelia, the Kola Peninsula, our Russian north. These are astounding places. There you find yourself alone with nature. Nothing hinders or distracts. You see authentic, real life, where a person lives in harmony with nature. Although the places have their minuses—people have no jobs, and many take to drink. But whoever wants to and can live just fine there. They go hunting and fishing. The workday is spread out so that they practically have no free time. People work on the land, and it feeds them.
Also interesting is Crimea, for example, ancient Chersonese. I very much like St. Petersburg. There you come in contact with our tsarist Russia, with well-preserved old villas, where you can stroll around and feel the history. There are marvelous places along the road when you drive north: Vologda, Ferapontov, and the St. Cyril of White Lake Monastery.
In Kirov, formerly Vyatka, I was amazed at all the local private enterprises that make their own food products, real and delicious. And I can’t understand why we don’t have this in Moscow, why they don’t sell here what we tasted there? They bring us everything from abroad, but in the countryside are excellent, real foods—no matter where you look it’s all natural. That is Kirov. There they work the fields, sow rye, sunflowers, corn, and peas. I walked into a pea field, and immediately remembered my childhood. I spent an hour and a half there. Harvesters and other machinery are at work there. Here’s what amazed me: Further north, in Siberia, the culture of working the land still survives. But in central Russia they’ve forgotten how to do it; there is only the job, business, stores, theaters, and more jobs. People no longer go to work the land.
An artist’s works should greatly differ from one another. So that you don’t leaf through an artist’s work and everything looks the same. It’s all colorful, but all the same…
I’ll be honest, some of my paintings from life abroad were painted from photographs. For example, my Venice sketches. I liked it all, and it was all great. But I understood that it’s not my thing. I knew that I could make money on it, sell someone a landscape for interior design. Once Glazunov came up to one of my works and said that it would look nice in a pizzeria. Now what? And he was right. For us it’s a landscape that hangs in a café or restaurant, and no more. It’s pretty, and it has architecture in it. But my soul is more inclined towards our real Russian land.
We painted a lot in Italy. They sell well, people like them—people who have left the villages, become wealthy and are really afraid of going back. They don’t need run down buildings; give them Italian beauty.
—But why are you so attracted to such landscapes? Our run down buildings, as you say?
—It’s our country. We come to a village and start drawing an old house. It is leaned to one side, maybe fallen down in places. Local people walk by and ask us why we’re drawing that rundown house. Look over there, they’ve built a new, pretty cottage. Do you want to bring shame upon our village? And how do you explain it to them? They think you’re shaming their village. But should I draw a plastic cottage with a pink fence and mowed lawn?
—It’s not interesting?
—It’s not that it’s not interesting. It’s just that we are followers of the old, traditional Russian school, students of the outstanding masters of the Tretyakov gallery. We looked at them throughout our schooling. There are artistic worldview was formed. We would like to show the truth, and not lie. All that is coming from Europe is not ours, do you understand? All of those metal fences; and they’ve covered the old houses in plastic siding. This is terrible, in my opinion. There is no more beauty. Only ordinary squares…
I work for man: his soul, his consciousness… I bring him a landscape and show him what there is outside of Moscow’s city limits. Not only Mercedeses and short skirts but lupines are in bloom, birds fly, and beautiful churches stand. A person who longs for the real and alive receives this with great pleasure.
—Your paintings contain many religious themes. How did you come to the Church?
—I think that my grandmother brought me to the Church. Thanks to her my parents baptized me in the church not far from Pripyati, which is gone now. It was wooden, and when we went to grandmother’s for our summer vacation she would always take us to church. She baked prosphora, sang, and worked in the church. I have memories of talking with the priest, my first Communion, the ringing of the bells. It was all thanks to grandma. Our parents also took us to church during our school years. But I think that we received more from grandma—she always prayed for us.
Also my aunt on my father’s side worked in the Kiev Caves Lavra. In our childhood we saw how they would rise and pray, then pray again when they went to sleep. Incidentally, Aunt Anna died at age 93, and was buried right on the territory of the church near Kiev, where she worked during the final years of her life.
Although I have to admit that during my school years, in my youth, I was not a religious person. My return to the Church happened later. I was always drawing churches. And each church in each city is special. Here it’s tall, there it’s as if drawn to the side. Here the dome is one way, there another. When we would arrive at some city the first thing we’d do is run to the center look to at what churches were there, and only then would we look at everything else.
“Just imagine if during Repin’s time someone were to bring ‘Black Square’ to a village.”
—I have a question. What in your opinion is the modern art world? How do you relate to postmodernism, and what place in the modern art world does the direction you chose occupy?
—I repeat: Ours is the classical path. We are the continuers of the school of realism. We hold to the traditional Moscow artistic school, which gave us Savrasov, Levitan, and Korovin. They are our first teachers.
That there is a large division in the artistic world—I fully agree. Things are appearing in art that to me are barbaric. For example, “art” that deforms people’s consciousness: erotic and pornographic things. Avant-garde, abstract—I don’t understand them or acknowledge them as art.
—What about Picasso or Matisse?
—Picasso and Matisse don’t exactly fit into these categories. They were artists. They expressed themselves in their time in their own way. But on the whole avant-garde is something that came to Russia and was alien to it from the beginning, alien to the Russian man. Just imagine if in Repin’s time someone were to bring “Black Square” to a village. Or something like that—brought a pair of triangles or squares to the village to show the peasants. They even regarded the realists with a good deal of suspicion. When Repin was sitting and sketching on the Volga, and little children were frolicking around him, their mother shouted, “Get away from him, he has demons in him.” But this [avant-garde] is real demonism.
—You consider the “Black Square” to be demonic?
—I consider that it is. What is in it? He hung it at its first exhibition like an icon, as if it were a masterpiece of unprecedented scale.
In fact, I am quite all right with Malevich. He has some remarkable student works. But what happened to him? The black square never appeared before in art. There is a concept called “fan painting”. That’s when you place a white canvas, turn on an electric fan and pour paint. The paint flies. Or a bear walks across a canvas. That’s all, teddy drew a picture. But that’s all cheap and lowbrow, and basically worthless.
—Why then did it become popular?
—You know how everything works these days. There might be a very good artist but no one knows him, no one’s ever heard of him. And then there’s a half-baked artist who can hardly do anything. But he has connections who can create a brand, promote it and give it PR. You can sell anything you want. Some of our local guys on the Arbat sold some foreigners ordinary bricks. “What is this brick?” “They’re from the Kremlin wall.” “Can I buy it?” “Sure, one hundred bucks.”
You can lie about anything, pull a person’s leg. And people will fall for it and buy it. This is also a war between good and evil, it goes on in the art world, too…
—When you paint pictures do you set a goal to also educate the viewers?
—Of course, I don’t just do it for myself. I want people to look at the picture so that real feelings might be awakened in them. So that the filth that darkens the soul might be blown off of them. With time all that is unnatural and artificial will fall away like a film from their eyes, along with their stoniness and cruelty. When a person looks at something normal, natural, and alive, different, authentic feelings come up in him. He remembers them; they are already placed in his soul. I consider that art should be positive, and I strive for this.
—What do you mean by “positive”?
—I mean paintings that bear positive feelings.
—Well you paint, let’s say, old run down houses that are disappearing into the village. Is that positive painting?
—Yes, it is positive painting. It can anger only a mentally dark person. Look for example at this landscape on the Volga. What feelings come up in you—negative or positive?
—Positive, because it is all stable, self-sufficient.
—But half the town was flooded.
—And what about your painting, “Crows”?
—Yes, it’s negative, unfortunately. But what meaning do you see here? I’m interested.
—A disappearing village.
—Those crows that have flown in—what do you see them as? Each person sees things in their own way. One person saw in the black crow people who have taken over Russia. The disappearing village is falling into ruin, no one needs it with its crooked fences. When I painted this picture I didn’t understand it myself. When old timers and artists of the outgoing generation saw it, they gave me hints. And later I finally began to understand what I’m doing. The departing village, and those crows—let each understand it in his own way, what has flown in and from what direction—do you understand? But the landscape is still there—our bright sky with clouds, rivers, hillocks, and trees.
The village is disappearing, it’s destroyed and ruined. Everything possible was done to make people leave the village and go to the city, to live according to material values. So that people would never work their own land or have eight or nine children, like they did before, and so that their children would not stay on that land either.
A true artist has to work
—What is an artist in general, in your opinion?
—An artist is a film director. His paintings are the shooting of a long film. That is, the artist puts those feelings into the painting that he wants the viewer to see. Take the old masters, for example. They could direct the viewer’s eye. They could make it so that when you come up to the picture you first look here, then there, then elsewhere, and only then do you see it as a whole and understand what it is about.
We show the viewer what we went to show him, and if the viewer feels this, it means that our work succeeded.
—What is the life of an artist? Some think is bohemian—wine, immorality, etc. Or is it regular work and an established way of life?
—I think that a true artist should be constantly working, regularly. For example, we recently went on a fifteen-day vacation and brought back fifteen works.
—Who is “we”?
—I and my family. My wife is also an artist. And we worked on our vacation without a break. There wasn’t a day when we didn’t paint something.
An artist must remain free, and not be a slave to everyday passions
An artist should always remain free, and not be a slave to everyday passions. This is very important. If you start working for someone else, or if you are interested in money, you have lost your freedom; you can no longer think freely.
—Who and what money can interest an artist and entice him away from his calling?
—Look, twenty people graduated from our Academy class, but only three or four are still working as artists. The rest are either painting the walls of wealthy houses, or something like that. That is all understandable, because people have to support their families. Otherwise you’re officially unemployed, while nevertheless working like a workhorse. Interesting—if they pass a law against parasitism, will artists fall into that category? I could also be called a parasite, because I don’t officially work anywhere, although I work very much.
—How much do you work?
—It’s hard to say. When I paint a picture, I paint it from morning till night. I rise at dawn, have breakfast, and when evening comes I put down my brushes, wash them, and work is done for the day. When I’m in plein-air, it’s the same. And when during a free schedule there aren’t any specific goals, I will still definitely make at least one sketch, and go out into nature.
—How are you able to support a family if you don’t work anywhere officially?
—With difficulty, and inconsistently. There are times when we have a lot of money, and there are times when we don’t have any at all and can’t even afford a loaf of bread.
—Do you have a large family?
—I have two children—two girls—and a wife. One daughter is nine, and she’s studying at the gymnasium in Sergiev Posad, and the other is four, and doesn’t go to school yet. We have a house there, and an apartment in Moscow, so that the children could live in the city.
—Why did you decide to buy a house in Sergiev Posad?
—It just happened that way, and it’s a whole story. When my wife and I met in the Academy, we were often in Abramstevo practicing. When we married, some extra money came along for both of us and we decided to buy a parcel of land there, because that region was close to our hearts. We bought parcel of land in a little village and only later learned that the village is located on the path of St. Sergius of Radonezh.
—I know that while you were studying in the Academy those trips to the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra meant a lot to you.
—I often went there during my studies, and during exams.
—You just get on the commuter train and go to Sergiev Posad. You get out there and walk along the tiny streets. You go into the Lavra, talk to your friends, pray, and venerate the holy relics. Whenever I felt some weight on my soul or things weren’t going right, I would always go there. I’ll tell you a story in connection with this.
You know that I was born near Chernobyl. And when my wife couldn’t conceive our second child for a whole year, we started worrying, and it was right around the 700th anniversary of St. Sergius of Radonezh. We saw on television a girl talking about the holy spring in Gremyachi, and we had never been there. She said that she also was unable to conceive, but after going there to pray and immerse herself in the water she got pregnant. So I said, “That’s right nearby, let’s go, we’ll have a walk. We went there, and soon Liza was born, my second daughter.
It’s also remarkable what day and under what circumstance she was born. We were living in Ivanovo at the time—we hadn’t yet moved to Sergiev Posad. My wife’s water had broken, and she was starting to give birth. But a whole day passed and she couldn’t deliver. April 26 was approaching—the day of the Chernobyl catastrophe. I thought, is she really going to give birth on that day? What’s going on?! I came to the maternity hospital and my wife says, “There is a church here next to the maternity hospital, go there and pray for me.” We went there and there was a large crowd, waiting for some icon. It was brought in, gifted, and that icon, the “Chernobyl Savior”, had been brought for the anniversary of the catastrophe. We venerated it and suddenly a call came from my wife: “I gave birth.”
So those were the circumstances and coincidence. I simply can’t fathom why this particular icon was gifted to this particular church, and in the city of Ivanovo; this was a very important event for us.
—What icon is that—the “Chernobyl Savior”?
—It was painted with the blessing of His Beatitude Vladimir, Metropolitan of Kiev and All Ukraine. On the icon is depicted the St. Elias Church (the only active church in Pripyati), over which stood the Heavenly Queen with Archangel Michael and Gabriel on either side.
A cloud lowered to the ground, so that over it the outline of the figure of the Most Holy Theotokos could clearly be seen.
The first great sign of the Chernobyl catastrophe that shook the whole planet in 1986 was manifested during the time when atomic energy was being vigorously developed—long before the explosion in the fourth reactor at Chernobyl. Eyewitnesses to the event recalled that it happened exactly ten years before the accident—April 26, 1976. Around evening many local people saw how a cloud lowered down to the earth, so that over it the outline of the figure of the Most Holy Theotokos could clearly be seen. Her face and garments could be seen, all in bright colors. She held in her hands a bundle of dry wormwood, which we call there, “chernobylnik”, and the Mother of God dropped the wormwood on over the city. Then the radiance moved toward the forest and stopped over the Church of St. Elias. And exactly ten years later the accident happened at the Chernobyl Atomic Electricity Station. But when all this happened it didn’t even occur to anyone that between these events, separated by one decade, there was a connection. Only much later did people remember and begin to be aware that this was a sign from God.
One of the liquidators, who got cancer from the huge doses of radiation, began to see this icon in dreams. It appeared to him for over two weeks—one and the same dream. He went to the Kiev Caves Lavra; they brought him to the Metropolitan and he told some iconographers what he saw in the dreams. They composed an image, showed it to him, and he said, “Yes, it was just like that.” On the icon, on either side of a cross-shaped tree, stood the perished and living liquidators, and over all of it was the Lord Jesus Christ with a bundle of branches.
The icon was painted in the Holy Trinity-St. Sergius Lavra in 2003. It was blessed in in the Kiev Caves Lavra, on the patronal feast of the Dormition of the Mother of God. When His Beatitude Met. Vladimir blessed the icon of the “Chernobyl Savior”, three signs immediately appeared in the heavens: Directly over the icon, before the eyes of hundreds of people flew a dove, a rainbow appeared in the sky, and then a cross with the sun shining in the center of it. And what is interesting, the liquidator who saw the icon in his dreams soon recovered from his cancer. The Lord healed him.
And when one day I got a call asking us to paint that icon, I joyfully agreed. In the town of Klintsi (Bryansk province) a new church was being built. Many liquidators suffered there [Klinstsi, located close to Ukraine, was also heavily hit by radiation.—Trans.]
And what is remarkable, we painted this icon just as in 2003, from April to August, only in 2019. I even called the head priest of the St. Elias Church in Pripyati where the original icon is located, and conferred with him in order not to allow even the slightest inaccuracy. The icon was blessed by Fr. Feodor Konukhov, our famous traveller and priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, in the church on the territory of the his house museum in Moscow, August 14, 2019. Our whole family was present.
Very soon the icon will find its place in the new church, which will be consecrated by Patriarch Kirill in September. For us this will be a very important family event.
Vasily Kursaksa’s official site: http://kuraksa.com/