Success Against All Odds

Culture & Science
7 October 2011, 08:30

His paintings cost tens of thousands euros and represent Ukraine in the best exhibition halls all over the world, but he keeps working in a small studio in the attic.

Ivan Marchuk ignores his status of a living classic and leads a Spartan lifestyle.

He looks young for his age, and he has got more pep than many young people. He gets phone calls from all over the world, yet he is always alone. He says he has neither a wife nor a muse. But he always remembers his home village of Moskalivka near Ternopil. And he keeps painting it.

This year, the main street of the village leading straight to his museum was named in his honor. The artist was invited to be present at the inauguration. The street was so crowded that he could hardly drive through in his gold-colored Opel Astra.

“There are still real men in the village, kind, sincere, and warm,” says the artist. “It is next to impossible to rally them for a formal meeting – but this time they all came. They decorated ‘my’ street and filled all of the potholes in the road.”

Marchuk brought a few more canvases to Moskalivka, but there is nearly no room to exhibit them. The village club building, which dates back to the Soviet era, houses a school now and is not meant for storing paintings. But the artist has hundreds of pictures, and he is anxious to show people all of them. Marchuk brought them all to Ukraine and was happy when Viktor Yushchenko wanted to open a museum of his paintings on Andriivsky Uzviz in Kyiv. However, his joy was premature — now an office building and entertainment center will be built in that place.

Marchuk did not stay in Moskalivka long before moving on to Ternopil, to award a newly established prize to a young artist. He recalled how he was awarded the Lepky brothers prize.

Marchuk knows what it means to be a self-made artist. He was born into a family of a hard-working, but poor weavers. He learned the art of weaving the world into his mind frоm his father. Then followed seven years at the Ivan Trush School of Applied Art in Lviv, then service in the army followed by college…. As a student, he always ran away from home, as far as possible. He fell in love with Lviv at first sight.

Later, heworkedat the Kyiv Institute for Superhard Materials for three years, and still later, at the Kyiv factory of decorative and applied arts. It would take him two hours to cope with his responsibilities, and he would use the rest of the time to look for his own individual style in art. He felt that he had to be different. And when he did find it, he said the biblical “I am!”

“And then all the locks burst open, and my hand could hardly catch up,” the artist recalls. “For some time, I didn’t even give names to my paintings. I was so terribly happy.”

Marchuk’s works are executed in an elaborate technique of hundreds of intertwining fine lines. He dubbed his manner of painting pliontanism (from dialectal Ukrainian pliontaty – to knit, intertwine. – Ed.), and it is virtually impossible to imitate it. His country landscapes from the early cycles are even more unique, since the paints are unavailable. “They stopped manufacturing the tempera I painted with back in the 1970s. The world does not know it, but it worked like a charm for me,” he smiles, “I invented this technique in1972.”

His works were a tremendous success, first due to the grapevine and exhibitions held at home. But if you are engaged in something unauthorized, you fall under suspicion. Moreover, if you arrived from Lviv, and have only a modest command of Russian, then you must be a nationalist. The master fell among dissenters despite his non-involvement in politics, having only signed a few appeals in support of the Moscow dissidents. But this nipped his career in the Union of Artists in the bud, which meant no studio and no exhibits.

Marchuk reacted with an outburst of desperation over new repression, censorship, and the stifling atmosphere of the 1970s in Kyiv. He began to paint mazes with no way out, and the characters of his contemporary paintings were strikingly tragic. That was when he got noticed. He was summoned to the KGB office, intimidated, admonished, but to no avail. He persistently refused to notice the “optimistic Soviet reality.”

“If you have a backbone, nothing can break you down,” he says, “but 10 out of 20 years I lived in Kyiv are completely lost. There is nothing worse for an artist than painting without exhibiting.”

His first unofficial exhibit in the Ukrainian capital took place only in 1981, at the headquarters of the Union of Artists. “The line was as long as one at a store when everything was in short supply,” recalls Marchuk. “And two days later orders came to remove the exhibit. I said, remove it yourselves if you will, I’m not doing anything.”

Then followed exhibits at the Union of Composers, at the Library of Medical Literature, and at Dr. Amosov’s Clinic. Those were places devoid of any ideological officialism. However, soon Marchuk’s work was criticized in the Soviet press with denouncing articles like Making Circles or Making Progress? which appeared in Prapor Komunizmu (The Banner of Communism) in 1982.

“Kyiv was still afraid to exhibit me at its galleries when Ternopil did it in 1986. Then there were exhibits in Ivano-Frankivsk, Kolomyia, and at Shevchenkivsky Hai, a skansen in Lviv. However, the big bosses from the Union never showed up at the shows.”

In 1989 the painter moved to Australia, and later, to Canada and the US. He recalls that at that time he could have bought three or four apartments in Kyiv with his fees, they were so cheap.

Marchuk spent over 10 years in the US. Over this time “nine Marchuks” were born: the artist kept experimenting with his palette, technique, style, and forms. He painted landscapes, surrealistic pieces, nu, naïve, portraits, and so on.

In 2001, after witnessing the fall of the Twin Towers in New York, he took a new look at his life and returned to Ukraine. Since then, he has been working in an old studio and jokingly calls himself an easel guy.

Marchuk believes that obsession is the first and foremost quality for an artist. “Art is not a mill. It requires absolute concentration. If you are a run-of-the-mill artist, you have fun, sell your pictures, drink and indulge in your pastimes… But if you are a Van Gogh, forget about it.

“I am not bound to a non-existing state. The so-called state so far called Ukraine is a Titanic. I am the kind of man who can break loose at any moment and take everything with me, just like Shevchenko put it. When it is all sold out, when artists can’t look at it anymore because they will either be eaten by dogs or shot, then I can run all the way where the road takes me. I don’t care if I die on the road,” says Marchuk.

He is convinced that it will take a hundred years and a complete change of generations to uproot the Soviet mentality.

“Ukraine has been in the state of civil war for 20 years now. Under the Soviets everything was so oppressed that no one dared say a word. Meanwhile now everyone is at war with everyone else, in the government, in art, education, everywhere. This territory is suffocating in an atmosphere charged with malice, hate, and envy. People breathe it and become ill.”

He says he could just as well live in Europe, in Prague or Krakow, where there is no big language barrier. “But then I think to myself, okay, I run away from here – and what then? People know that I live an honest life, in truth and justice. My way of life pleases both ordinary people and big bosses who don’t even know my work. But after all, it doesn’t really matter if they like my paintings or not.”


Marchuk was born on May 12, 1936, in Moskalivka near Ternopil. After finishing seven classes of secondary school he applied for the department of decorative painting at Ivan Trush School of Applied Art in Lviv (1951-56).

1965 – graduated from the Lviv Institute of Decorative and Applied Art.

1965-68 – worked at the Kyiv Institute for Superhard Materials

1968-80 – worked at the Kyiv factory of monumental and decorative art

1989 – emigrated to Australia, later moved to Canada and the US

1996 – awarded the Merited Artist of Ukraine

1997 – awarded Taras Shevchenko National Prize of Ukraine

September 11, 2001 – decided to return to Ukraine

2006 – the International Academy of Modern Art in Rome admitted Marchuk to the Golden Guild, now including only 51 artists from various countries

This is Articte sidebar