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Shevchenko’s philosophy of art: toward the great artist’s jubilee @AU light. Yet, this by no means prevents one from supposing that, for example,

16 марта, 00:00

Myth sometimes disguises the true essence of things, and to understand the latter this essence one must have certain experience of perceiving things without undue respect for myths or canons. This above all applies to Taras Shevchenko’s heritage, especially to his visual art, which modern researchers tend to overburden with a social, historical, and in some cases narrow psychological context. We must heed, however, the genius’s own voice, “I think high art has a stronger impact on the human soul than does nature itself. What an unfathomable divine secret lies hidden in this creation of human hands, in this divine art! This divine secret is called creativity, and... a great poet or a great artist deserves an enviable lot. Although our brothers in flesh, they, endowed by the Almighty, are like divine angels and God Himself. It is only they to whom the prophet addressed his words, it is only they whom God created in His image and likeness...” These words, put in the mouth of a character in the novella A Stroll with Pleasure and Not without a Moral, still reflect, to a large extent, the outlook of Shevchenko himself.

It is common knowledge that Shevchenko was contemptuous of “esthetics and philosophies.” Yet, the artist’s powerful creative energy showed that he was a profound thinker with extraordinary spiritual experience which required both verbal and visual means of expression.

Here is the watercolor Mariya, one of Shevchenko’s early works. The composition features a flexible wavelike line that connects the hands of Motriya (Mariya) and her mother. The old Kochubei woman conveys the energy of alarm to her sleeping daughter by a gesture of touch. The mother’s figure depicted at the intersection of several sources of light emphasizes a bitter struggle between light and darkness. Conversely, Motriya is illuminated uniformly, without deep shadows in the folds of bedclothes and the curves of her figure. Her lush sleeping body basks in a soft glow. The artist seems to have blurred the objects surrounding Mariya. Avoiding any spectacular plastic extravaganzas, the author unveils the psychological and historical drama inherent in the plot. Light and color are the principal means of expression here. They epitomize the artist’s own feelings and of those who manipulate as they wish. The esthetics of this and other similar works is undoubtedly a talented expression of the “essence of beauty” in the plastic arts, the tonal cadences, and the exquisite texture of painted canvases. But, in addition, Shevchenko depicts this essence through the struggle of the beautiful and the ugly within one person. In this case, the artist’s esthetic space is inseparably linked with his moral imperative. In his compositions, ethics come through situations when the characters must make a choice. The artist builds his compositions as sort of a dialog between the characters and attaches great attention to gestures and the expression of the eyes. This is a sacrament of reciprocal penetration and exchange of energy rather than an idyll. His hero/heroine, instead of being lost in the crowd, reveals itself in natural mundane situations: in the family, among friends, or in the mysterious encounter of love-bound hearts. The artist does not focus on the social status of his heroes — what above all matters for him is the individual.

Now consider the principle of cognition. In fact, one can really understand a piece of art only when it becomes an inner subjective reality. In this case, a thorough and attentive contemplation of a painted canvas or an instantaneous strong impression will conjure up a steady image of this work — as if it were illuminated from within — in our mind and imagination. What we see is the reciprocal penetration of worlds: the object of esthetic reception becomes the subjects of our spiritual experience. The same applies to the creative process itself.

In allowing all kinds of images and impressions (from the mundane from the refined and esthetic) flow through his organs of sensation, the artist selects and “illuminates” what is close to and consonant with him. This all the more applies to the flow of historical sentiments and emotions. Let us turn to the specific experience of Shevchenko recorded in his diary in 1857, the last year of his servitude at Fort Novopetrovsk. Already notified about his imminent liberation, Shevchenko dreamed of the Academy of Arts, looking back on his academic youth and apprenticeship in Karl Briullov’s studio. There are the following lines in the diary, “In the shade of his dainty and luxurious studio, I saw the gloomy ghosts of our martyred hetmans flit before me, as if I were in the sultry Dnipro steppe. I saw a sprawling mound-strewn steppe. I saw my lovely and poor Ukraine standing in all her impeccable melancholic beauty... I was lost in reverie, unable to draw my spiritual eyes from this enchanting splendor. All I could feel was my calling.”

Clearly, this diary fragment first of all expresses the author’s mixed feelings about the calling of a poet and the profession of an artist. Yet, Shevchenko’s vision of gloomy ghosts can be equally interpreted as an impulse for a poetical or a painting work. For example, in December 1838 — practically at the same period described in Shevchenko’s diary — he drew in pencil A Cossacks’ Feast, and still earlier, in 1836-1837, he did The Death of Bohdan Khmelnytsky in India ink. Both drawings give careful and true-to-life depictions of historical interiors, clothes, and the trimmings of seventeen-century Cossack everyday life, although the artist had no real examples at hand during his stay in St Petersburg. Moreover, Shevchenko’s attitude toward these historical events noticeably differed from academic canons. Thickset figures with smoothly-curved proportions allowed the artist to reproduce Ukrainian types more exactly.

What can be called an appropriate example is the composition Kateryna, which remains a focal piece of the Ukrainian fine arts of those times and later. The picture’s central figure is practically independent of the light and air around her. She clearly stands out against the background of a typified Ukrainian landscape symbolically featuring a mound topped by a windmill, a grave that “dreams in the steppe,” an imperial milestone, and a gorgeous oak-tree. Kateryna’s posture looks easy and natural thanks to the exquisite disposition of the folds of her clothes and refined cadence of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna might as well have been her figurative prototype.

This is not a formalistic approach, this is a case of consonance with the artistic pursuits of late Renaissance painters. For A Gypsy Soothsayer (1841) and Kateryna (1842), Ukrainian-theme pieces executed in Petersburg, as well as A Peasant Family (1843), At the Apiary (1843), and A Young Kobzar (1843) created during a travel across Ukraine under the impression of what the artist saw, do not exactly fit the framework of the everyday-life genre, although they belong to it in terms of theme. The scale and solemn posture of the central figures, the exalted language of gestures, bring these pictures closer to the religious genre (precisely in its Renaissance period). From the viewpoint of ethnology, they depict not so much the typical scenes of peasants’ everyday life as the key points of traditional Ukrainian existence. The same applies to the Picturesque Ukraine series.

Shevchenko managed to avoid not only the false grandeur of classicism but also the visual effects of romanticism. Nor will we find the refined sensuality of sentimentalism in his oeuvres. The structure of Shevchenko’s artistic range is based on the principle of the so-called golden section, which perhaps determined the artist’s own outlook and the spontaneous philosophy of his visual images.

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