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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“In this country, every official bit of paper scares me”

Artist Pavlo Makov on painting, Ukraine, Kharkiv, and art, contemporary and eternal
23 August, 2012 - 00:00

Pavlo Makov is one of the most interesting contemporary Ukrainian artists. In the purely artistic sense he occupies a separate niche, since such a complex and archaic technique as etching is almost exotic for contemporary art.

However, we are interested in something else. Makov is a man of broad erudition and shrewd mind. He cites Herzen, quotes Matisse’s memoirs, and has very pragmatic ideas about modernity. That is why we invited the painter to meet Den’s Summer School of Journalism.


“I perceive the world like an ordinary man, rather than like an artist. I have a family, someone I love, two kids, a dog, my home, which I also love – a little house outside the city, which I built with my own two hands. I used to have a father and mother. In the first place, the world crazes me like an ordinary man. Art helps me get over this craze. When I haven’t worked for a long time, I turn mad. But when I get down to work, I start an inner conversation with myself, and so, like a car stuck in mud, I struggle out and onto the hard road, little by little.

“My work does not illustrate my perception. It is rather an attempt to understand this perception of mine. I am not bound by names and definitions. I could not care less what school Rembrandt, Titian, or Giotto belonged to. For me, only one name exists, Life.

“In painting, I have been always guided by my own emotions, first of all. My works make up a sort of a timeline, a chronicle of what has happened to me. Everything I do is joined to what I have been doing, like a twig to the trunk. If anything new does appear in my mind, I won’t be able to work with it as an artist until I have linked this new thing with the old.

“My most important influence was first of all Vitalii Kulikov [a Kharkiv-based nonconformist painter. – Ed.], whom I met when I moved to Kharkiv. He helped me shape my personality.

“In the 1990s I suffered from my marginality to a certain extent. It was related to my life in Kharkiv and to the fact that everything that I do is super-marginal, such things just do not exist in contemporary art. However, now I take this aloofness from mainstream as a great advantage. I realize that I am my own man, and I make my own decisions.

“As I watch a customer who comes to my studio to pick a certain painting, I can say what kind of person they are. I know for sure which painting I reached by an untrodden path, and which was just playing around. Every artist has that.”


“I like the idea expressed by the historian Yaroslav Hrytsak from Lviv: if three generations were exterminated in social as well as in cultural sense, for revival the country needs at least another three generations as ‘manure.’ And only after that something can grow – on condition of peace. That is to say, your grandchildren already have a chance to live in a different society.

“It is easy to change political systems, currencies, geographical maps, but not human minds. This is actually where the major changes happen. What happened to Russians, Ukrainians, other Eastern European nations is a catastrophe which happened in the mind, first and foremost.

“I was born in Saint Petersburg but went to school in Rivne. I lived there for quite a while, and later I would often make car trips from east to west and back. It is interesting to watch the landscape change when you travel, say, to the west: when you cross the border of Khmelnytsky oblast, you leave monuments to Lenin behind – although in their time they were as common in Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts as well. As you come back, these monuments start to appear again, more and more with every next kilometer, and on the left bank they are just mushrooming, it seems. They flourish, in the literal sense, because each Lenin is offered floral tributes. This is not related to ideological prejudice or fear, it is simply the legacy of past in people’s minds. By the way, there are people of your age among them. Of course, even in the worst of times there were lots of Different people, that is, critically thinking. But they have always been in the minority.

“It is not only a matter of purely Soviet backlashes. This mentality, which we label Soviet, was absolutely common in the pre-Soviet Russia. If you read Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, the first part in particular, you will get my point. The Soviet regime itself is to a great extent the product of East Slavic mentality. In France, Spain, and Germany, where last century’s revolutions also burst out, everything faded away. But here it lasted full 75 years.

“Cancer cells are ever produced in our bodies, but our immune systems block them. Art and culture as a whole is society’s immune system, which blocks ‘cancer cells.’ But it blocks them on individual level. I think that art cannot appeal to a crowd. It is an intimate conversation between you and that what you see. It is your inner dialog. I have always said that what hangs on the wall is not the main thing. My work as an artist is completed, when my work somehow gets to you, and triggers a dialog. Not with me or what you have seen, but your inner dialog with yourself.

“As far as our society’s ‘cancer tumor’ is concerned, it is quite big. Yet, just as most tumors in the contemporary world, it is curable.

“My work The Fountain of Exhaustion, created in 1994-95, was for me a symbol of what was then going on in society. I would like to describe the work in a few words. There is a wall with shell holes, one at the top and several dozen at the bottom. A certain amount of water gets in the top hole and then trickles down to the others below, whose numbers increase from top to bottom. This process is endless. I was not trying to imitate the social system, I merely described what I felt.

“In the early 1990s I felt like a man without place. Thence the name of another project, Place. I had to make my own space in the city I lived in, and do it all on my own, because by that time nothing had been left of My Kharkiv. I felt a vacuum behind my back. Whereas Russian culture inherited a sort of past after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kharkiv, and Ukraine as a whole, was stripped of any past. I had never loved the Soviet Union, but after it was gone, I was left all to myself in a city, where I had to explain to myself why I still was living there. In the 1990s I often traveled abroad. I was often asked why I still was THERE. But every time I came home, I realized that if I was needed somewhere, it was only here. Not because I was some great patriot. But because in the West no one needed me, while here at least I needed myself. Conversely, if I went there, I would not have any use for myself. If anything is to change in this country, it will only happen when people realize that it is here that they actually want to live. Still, The Fountain of Exhaustion is as timely as it was in the 1990s. I wish very much that it would stop, though.

“The project Targets was born by the permanent perception of oneself as a target, which is quite common in people in our country. When my wife’s grandmother died, in her room we found bunches of housing bills – starting from 1947. She had very little love for the Soviet regime, although she had never voiced her oppositionist views. She had been collecting those bills with only one aim: if someone should ever check on her, she had to have proof that she owed this government nothing. Grandmother avoided any relations with the regime. This permanent feeling of being a target… By the way, I still have it. In this country, every official bit of paper scares me.”


“Kharkiv’s history is very short. Besides, the city has no institution which could shape the concept of Kharkiv’s culture, its past, and show what it was like. Meanwhile, until the end of the 19th century it was nothing but a provincial town, albeit with a university. As a cultural center, Kharkiv has functioned for a mere hundred years, since the city began to gain wealth. Money doubtlessly promotes the development of culture.

“Just like the rest of Ukraine, Kharkiv has not received due attention for its promotion abroad. For example, let us take Yermilov, who was in fact a founder of constructivism in the architecture of social realism. If there was a Yermilov museum in Kharkiv, it would be a reason for foreigners to visit the city, for Yermilov’s works adorn the world’s best museums. By the way, I first saw his works at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne. The biggest Yermilov collection is owned by a Russian tycoon.

“Ukraine as a former part of the Russian Empire had always differed from the rest by the prevalence of the visual. It is the birthplace of many world-famous artists like Malevich, Arkhypenko, and Kabakov. This land has always borne talented people, but they have always found it hard to develop here. The helicopter was invented in Ukraine, yet for some reason it was built in America. And there is no lack of such examples.”


“Look at our neighbor, Russia. It has enough money and wits to rent the world-famous Guggenheim Museum and hold Days of Russian Culture there. Or to rent the Louvre in France for a similar purpose. However, Ukraine is not being presented as a cultural country. And the reason for this is that officials who manage art matters are totally ignorant of how our country should be presented abroad. Look at the state of publishing. If not for the writers’ personal initiatives (which is an absurd phenomenon in civilized countries) nobody would have ever heard anything of Ukrainian literature. Our writers are left to create the image of Ukraine abroad with their own blood, sweat, and tears.

“By the way, talking of personal initiative. A wonderful classic music festival is held in Kharkiv. It was initiated by Ukrainian violinist Valerii Sokolov, who lives in Switzerland now. The festival stays afloat solely thanks to Sokolov’s connections in the music world. Of course, local authorities allocate some money for it, but they are absolutely incapable of organizing such an event all by themselves: they need to be told, taught, and shown the ways it should be done.

“The collector Voronov starts building a private museum where he is going to display his own art collection. This is also a step forward. I do not believe in governmental initiative. If anything is ever going to change, it will happen only thanks to private individuals. By the way, there is nothing new about this. If you take a look at the best Russian collections created at the break of the 20th century, they belonged to Shchukin and Morozov. Two paintings by Henri Matisse that are displayed at the Hermitage now – The Music and Dance, are the sketches to staircase paintings ordered by Shchukin to be done in his house. At that point of time Matisse was 40, he was living a modest life, working as a professor… Until he met those two Russian guys. After he painted their orders, he could afford buying a house in Paris’ suburbs.

“You cannot find books by Ukrainian authors even in our bookstores, let alone abroad. Meanwhile, there are 24/7 bookstores in Russia, even in the times of this damned Putin’s regime – because the state takes care of publishing houses there. Umberto Eco has barely published his books On Beauty and On Ugliness in Italian, and Russian stores were already selling beautiful editions of these books translated into Russian. And I have to use these books. What else can I do? They were never translated into Ukrainian and published in our country.

“Ukrainian legislation makes it impossible to organize an awesome exhibit featuring paintings by foreign artists, unless you have a million to spare. What else would you expect in a country where ministry officials steal paintings from museums and are not even ashamed of it?

“My generation of artists includes at least 50 great people, and their works can be gathered to form a rather interesting exhibit. Such projects are sometimes realized by separate individuals. But why does this not happen on the government level, in Paris or Berlin, for example? The state should not just give money to artists and writers. We are adults, and we can earn our living by ourselves. This money will be put to much better use if it’s spent on the creation of tools necessary for the promotion of our country in the international scene. From a government’s view, literature, music, and art are the instruments that can mend the image of its country.

“I hear that the Presidential Administration has assigned 2.5 million dollars for Arsenale. The very fact of the biennale’s existence is a huge step forward. Though personally I am not satisfied with what I have seen there. But those are my own disagreements with the curator’s choices. Unfortunately, Western curators use countries like Ukraine to make some easy money. They are paid much more over here, comparing to what they earn in their home countries.”


“I think that nonsocial art does not exist. Any form of art is created to be seen and perceived by people. I can deal with my inner world just fine even without art. I hope that when somebody faces the same problems as I do, when they look at my works they will find some solutions to their personal problems.

“But there is another kind of art’s social nature, when it emphasizes some left-wing ideas or social problems. To some extent this reflects the tendencies from the West, because that is where grants that support this kind of art come from. Frankly speaking, my attitude towards this art is skeptical. I am not interested in art that reacts to specific political events. I can see the same thing on television. Practically it is a part of information culture. Such art does not give answers to my questions. Whether art is honest or dishonest, conjunctural or non-conjunctural, commercial or non-commercial – all this should not be decided at auctions, exhibits, or fairs, it should not be determined by grant givers, but only inside the artist’s studio. It is for the artist to choose if he is creating something for the sake of money or because he can’t keep silent. There is nothing bad in selling works you create. But to consciously create things that will definitely sell well is a totally different thing.

“People can endlessly argue on what is better: when an artist works on a private commission or for a supposedly non-profit organization. But it should also be taken into consideration that when an artist works on a grant project, he knows perfectly well what theme to choose in order to receive a grant. So this is a kind of a made-to-order artwork too. And after all, there is nothing bad about it either. Let us say that da Vinci’s La Gioconda was a privately ordered portrait too.”

“Only that it had been painted for seven years, and then Gioconda died and her husband was broken. Nobody needed the portrait anymore, so Leonardo dragged it along with him for all his life, until Francis I awarded him with a home. Thus, da Vinci spent the rest of his life in France, and La Gioconda became a part of the Louvre’s collection after the artist’s death.

“Flirting with art’s social role seems too artificial to me. Why is ‘left-wing’ art so popular now? Why are artists so eager to tell the world their work is non-commercial? Because non-commercial art sells the best. And this is a well-known fact.

“Timely, topical art is the one that is created in an honest way. If it is created dishonestly, it will never become topical. Most of topical art is curators and art critics’ fiction, because they just need to come up with a name for it.

“There is an art group in Ukraine that scorned kitsch when they appeared. And now they are selling fridge magnets on Andriivsky Uzviz. Started with fighting kitsch and ended up being a vivid representation of it. If you want to kill a dragon, you will become one.

“There is a young female artist in Kharkiv whose works are related to erotica and sex. At one of the exhibits she presented a video art featuring the theme of absence of real love: nowadays nobody wants to bear responsibility for children and sexually transmitted diseases. If I watched this video and pitied a person who has never had love in their life and is really lonely, it would be wonderful art. But the video was made in such a way that as I watched it, all I saw was porn.

“Some people say that Picasso did not know how to draw, and they are ignorant of the fact that this Spanish artist had received classical art education by the age of 15, and back then he could draw just as well as an average 25-year-old artist. And then Picasso chose his own way. Sometimes the pressure of classical education is too strong. The school can ‘suffocate’ a young person who does not have enough internal resistance. But the strong ones survive, and classical education comes in handy for them. I think that it is better to have education of this kind. Because before walking on hands, one has to learn to walk on foot. But at the same time, classical education does not guarantee an artist’s success. By the way, there is a curious tendency: when in Kharkiv somebody is expelled from an art school, this individual instantly becomes a very important persona in modern art. The academy was shocked: as soon as they expelled an artist, he became famous! Our system of education is not just outdated, it is hopelessly outdated. It is dead.”


“Real life is always more interesting than any art. It is impossible to argue with reality. Art plays a very serious role, but it does not work beyond the margins of its capacity. I agree with the words Iosif Brodsky said in his Nobel Prize speech: art cannot cure the whole society, but it can cure one person. I don’t like when my colleagues pretend to be demiurges. Please, God, let the artists influence at least one person in their lifetime so much that it would change them.

“Under any conditions and in any given era, art has always carried a protest. But a protest cannot be the only goal of art. It is too primitive.

“Just consider this: how many times has Jesus Christ been portrayed over the two thousand years of Christian painting? And only a few works have survived till the present day. Why did it happen this way? Because it is not about WHO or WHAT is portrayed, but about HOW it is done.

“People constantly tell me that my art is sad. What should I say? Read Shakespeare, each page of his works is filled with blood and grief. And what, aren’t you scared? Is Romeo and Juliet a happy story? No, but this drama is created in SUCH A WAY (the original story does not belong to Shakespeare, by the way) that it helps us understand something important about ourselves.

“As a matter of fact, I am not a conceptual artist. I think that the phenomenon of conceptual art does not belong to the 21st century solely, as it might occur to some. It is purely Christian art, which has always been related to a concept that everyone has read about and is familiar with. Even the most benighted peasant, who has never read the Gospel or the Bible, does not ask why ‘that guy’ is hanging on the cross when he comes to church. He knows what this is about. So, the concept has always been there. Christianity is the background of our art and culture. The Bible and the way of thinking that results from the ideas put in the book form its foundation. At a certain point in time Christianity served the church, of course, but it has always been about values in the first place.

“If you talk about ideological art, it defends values of a certain regime. However, even socialist realism has some impressive works. For example, I consider A Letter From the Front by Aleksandr Laktionov to be the best painting about the World War II. At least in the USSR. It is done in a very honest way. It seems to me that my art does not have an ideology. I am not a religious artist either. But my works carry an idea that is related to Christian values: you always need to try to remain a human being, no matter what.”

By Maria TOMAK, The Day, Nina POLISHCHUK, Tetiana AVDASHKOVA, Den’s Summer School of Journalism. Illustrations from the website makov.com.ua