In the Middle of Nowhere

Culture & Science
4 July 2011, 16:55

Renowned French art expert Jean-Claude Marcade, describes Mr. Makarenko’s art as orfism. Mikhail Shemiakim, a master of mystic carnivals, refers to it as metaphysical synthetism. Ukrainian art historian, Dmytro Horbachov, considers that Mr. Makarenko blends traditions and modernism into his. The painter himself prefers to work rather than reflect on theoretical isms. This he does in his tiny workshop in Paris, where he lives surrounded by his paintings. 

Live like Shevchenko 

UW: How would you describe your style? 

– I don’t rely on words. Can anybody explain to me what love or life is? It’s the same with art. There are some things that cannot and should not be interpreted. I prefer to live the way Taras Shevchenko once wrote, “It is indifferent to me,… whether I live or what people say.” I’m just doing my thing – get up at six every morning and paint. Sometimes, I leaf through Ukrainian art magazines, where all artists there have a concept regarding their own creativity. Some “reveal the soul of Ukraine”; others – “historical discussions.” If I were to follow some kind of concept, my art would not be free. I would be doing that, which I had theoretically dreamed up. But the most important things for me are liberty and freedom. I have searched for them my whole life, since I was a child. 

UW: You were born in a village with no art schools or teachers. 

– The village has it all. It has the whisper of the forest, quiet backwaters and endless sky. Women wove fabrics, hung rugs on the walls and put them on clay floors. My granny embroidered shirts, wedding and gift rushnyky , and painted decorative patterns in the rooms. The outside of our house was painted in patriotic colors, the porch was yellow and the walls were blue. To get that blue color people added blue to the limewash. There is a lot of art in the village, but people don’t see it that way. Sometimes they ask me, “Why did you use this particular color, Mr. Makarenko?” I used it because I didn’t have the one I needed. Just like my granny did when she was weaving – she used the thread she had at hand and did not wait for a specific one. That’s where I became a painter, in that village, before I even realized it.

My parents were born in Novopushkarivka, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast. My uncle, twice removed, was Anton Makarenko , the very Makarenko who worked with homeless children. I was four when my father left my mother. I remember his every word, gesture and move from that day. I met him again as an adult to get his signature confirming that he didn’t mind my going abroad. He refused at first. “How can you go? There are spies and CIA agents all over the place there! America wants to conquer us” he said. 

I lived with my grandparents in our village until I was six. My only friend was our chestnut coloured mongrel, Rex. My grandfather would kick him out of the way so that he wouldn’t beg for food, and I would squirrel away something tasty in my pocket for him. I was the youngest on the street, so older boys often chased me off and the dog protected me. This is probably why he appears in just about each of my paintings.  

UW: Do your childhood memories, reflections and phantoms inspire you more than the present? 

– Exactly. My granny told me that during the war, for some reason a German wanted to take me away. I don’t really remember this as I wasn’t even a year old. But the feeling of horror, that something terribly will happen – that memory remains. I sometimes notice that the echo of it sometimes appears in my paintings. 
When the time came to start school, my mother took me to Dnipropetrovsk. It was the first time I ever saw sand – we didn’t have it in the village – only black soil. Its effect was so powerful that in time, all these sandy shades of yellow have become an integral part of my paintings. 

I began to paint just like that, out of nowhere. In the evenings, my mother would go to the theater and concerts and I stayed in the small room she rented. I didn’t like to read or write, and I don’t write letters to this day. I used to look outside at what was happening in the yard. But I didn’t draw what I saw – I drew airplanes, tanks, sort of antifascist pictures. One day our neighbour saw my drawings and brought me to an art class. Petro Matvienko, my first teacher, placed a white cube in front of us and told us to draw it. I wondered how it was possible to draw a white cube on white paper. So, I scribbled something. To this idea I have no idea why he accepted me. I spent four years there and when I graduated from 8th grade, he told me, “You need to continue studying.” 

The other side of freedom 

UW: Where did you settle down eventually? 

– I barely scraped through my entrance exams to the Dnipropetrovsk Art College. The selection committee liked my paintings but weren’t happy about the fact that I hardly spoke any Russian. My diploma was a painting in geometrical realism. It showed two girls in traditional Ukrainian costume painting a wall and a crane operator giving them flowers. I was scolded for being a formalist, my painting was destroyed, but I still got a B. One of the teachers, Ada Mykhaylivna, said “Makarenko, you can’t go to Kyiv or Kharkiv because they will eat you alive there. You need to go to Moscow or Leningrad”. 

UW: Why were you kicked out of Leningrad? 

– I didn’t like Moscow. But Leningrad… It was the season of white nights, subdued light, the Summer Garden and murky waters. I fell in love with the city and decided to stay there forever. I applied to the Academy, then accidentally came across the Vera Mukhina School of Monumental Art . I saw a painting of girls. Their feet were not on the ground; they were soaring in the sky, just like in icons. I liked it so much that I decided to apply there. We were taught the art of mosaics and frescoes. But the most important thing was the freedom of spirit. I ran into trouble again with my diploma. I created a 30-meter long fresco for the Akimov Comedy Theater. They asked me why my actresses were in long dresses. At that time, short dresses were in style, so they accused me of being old fashioned and even pro-Western. Once I graduated from college, I had a hard time finding a job and eventually got one at the Decorative and Applied Arts Factory. I worked with ceramics and painted for my personal enjoyment. 

 In 1970 I offered my paintings for an exhibition. The committee came, as well as Vasiliy Tolstikov, the First Secretary of Leningrad Oblast and City Committee. All of a sudden, I hear his voice: “This painter must be banned!” Shortly thereafter, I was summoned by the city executive committee, and told me I wasn’t registered in Leningrad and had to leave. I asked where I should go and they said I could go wherever I wanted except Moscow and Kyiv. “I’m Ukrainian, I want to go to Kyiv,” I said. “You can’t” they replied. So I decided to go to Estonia. I had friends there and besides, there were ships that sailed from there to the West. I thought I could hide in one and escape. 

Estonia was very inviting. I had my own workshop there. My paintings were accepted for a show. I later figured out that this was solidarity: I was from Ukraine, a nation suppressed by the Communists. The only difficulty was the language, I simply didn’t understand anything. But I also met Viktoria in Tallinn. A journalist invited me to his wife’s birthday party. So, I came and saw her near the end of the table. Oh my God! That was it. We lived in the Estonian capital for 10 years, our daughter Darusia was born there. 

One day, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was brought to Moscow and put on display. We had to stand in the line for 24 hours to see it. That’s when I decided that I would either see her in Paris or never. 

I applied for emigration each year for a period of six years. Mikhail Shemiakin and various galleries, where my work had already been exhibited, sent me invitations but the head of the Visa and Registration Office would always say that there was no need for me to leave. Then they began to let people go to Israel and his secretary said, “Why are you wasting all these years? Go for Israel!” But I’m not a Jew, I replied. “Well, your wife is Estonian and she has this weird surname…” she said. 

Remaining a Ukrainian 

UW: Do you accept commissions for paintings? 

– I paint what I want. In fact, sometimes galleries order paintings of a certain size, but it’s only the size, not the image. I don’t like painting portraits. I’m better at portraying a person’s image or essence, not painting a portrait. 
I never thought that I should paint something ethnic. It’s just that my images and particularly the colours come from Ukraine. They trace back to my childhood and have been with me ever since. 
Not everything can be painted. So, I often write Shevchenko’s or Lesia Ukrayinka’s poems on my canvases. Texts are an absolute must for the background of all my ethnic paintings of Cossack Mamai. I also used quotes from Gogol but stopped after reading his “Taras Bulba”. Taras Shevchenko is also close to me because he remained a Ukrainian all his life even though for the most part, he lived away from his homeland. 

UW: You have spent many years searching for a home for your artwork in Dnipropertovsk, St. Petersburg, Tallinn and Paris. What have you lost and found during these travels?  

– I’ve been looking for freedom, but I mostly ended up in the middle of nowhere. Dnipropetrovsk was the first revolution in my consciousness. That was where I learned to resist and do something different than was demanded by the teachers. It was then that I fell in love with Paul Cézanne, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin and Mikhail Vrubel, and came to hate social realism. Even then I couldn’t and didn’t want to paint the mandatory paintings of workers and women working in the fields. 

Leningrad truly taught me a lot about painting, but I always ran into problems with the subjects I chose to paint. We were forced to paint the siege of Leningrad, but I wanted to paint sunflowers. I remember with great warmth the Shevchenko nights at the Academy of Arts, where the poet had studied. We listened to kobzars , sang songs and made varenyky, traditional Ukrainian dumplings. We spoke Ukrainian amongst ourselves and Russian with the teachers. I still have a heavy accent when I speak Russian. 

Tallinn was the only place in the Soviet Union where I had a warm welcome. This was probably because I was Ukrainian, not Russian. 

As for Paris… The older I become, the more I realize where my roots are, and the more I turn to my childhood and my homeland. I return to the seed which gave me life. My parents are no longer among us. This painting is called A Memory of My Mother. You can also see my little dog Rex here. And this is me as a child. I dreamed of being a pilot back then. This is the little house where we rented a room. Birds singing. You don’t necessarily have to paint Khmelnytsky or Mazepa to be a Ukrainian. 


Volodymyr Makarenko 
Paris-based Ukrainian non-conformist artist

1943 – born in Novopushkarivka, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast
1963 – graduates from Dnipropetrovsk Art College and enters Vera Mukhina School of Monumental Art in Leningrad  
1969 – gets a degree in monumental painting, joins the St. Petersburg Group, an unofficial organization of non-conformist artists 
1973 – moves to Tallinn, works as a coal heaver and displays his artwork at exhibitions 
1976 – has his first personal exhibition at the Paris-based Hardy gallery; displays his paintings at the Congress Palace 
1973–1981 – applies to migrate to France every year 
1981 – moves to Paris 
1987 – Mr. Makarenko’s artwork earns him the Silver Medal of Paris award

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