Style never dies - having emerged once, it lives in works of art, in the minds of artists and the public. Like the seed of a noble plant, it is waiting for its season. In rich soil, it bursts into flowering works of art. Style cannot be invented - it can only be felt inside. Then it becomes part of a person - it gets individualized. The personality gives the style one’s colours and one’s name, thus securing the special features, devices, the set of themes and performing manner. It is not that important how the artist lived, the main thing is that he or she has left an inimitable variant of style. Style is personality.
Talent is like money - one either has it or not. Andrei Smaliak has talent. Today he is one of the most brilliant Belarusian artists. He has created a painting language of his own, which harmoniously combines the lyricism of the Belarusian artistic tradition and postmodernist formal devices. Glamorous ladies depicted by his easy brush fancifully curve their bodies on canvases in beautiful frames. Clowns, dancers, musicians, circus actors, who have been for many centuries painted by European artists, are also present in his art. His studio is a venue for politicians and actors, poets and directors... Situated in the centre of Minsk, it is a whirpool of bohemians’ and collectors’ life. His paintings cause poems and songs to be composed, they inspire fashion designers to create new collections. Journalists hurry to interview him. He has to his credit European recognition, exhibitions in Brussels, Antwerp, Helsinki, Riga, Vilnius, Bialystok, Michigan, Seoul... His was the first in history exhibition of a Belarusian artist in the European Parliament, the title of an Honorary Academician of the European Academy of Arts (Paris), a silver medal of the European Parliament for contribution to European culture.
Such appears to be the life of a contemporary and very fashionable artist. But it was preceded by years of tormenting search of himself, of his painting manner, his place in Belarusian culture.
Sometimes artists are lucky in their lifetime. Passing on to the public by means of energy the secret message of their works, they get other people’s souls to vibrate in happy harmony. Quite often these messages, as was the familiar case with Van Gogh, only reach posterity.
Andrei Smaliak was lucky: fate has saved and preserved him for creative work. Not everybody is that lucky. Just to mention the untimely death of Nikolay Seleschuk - a painter and graphic artist, whose works founded the preciously refined “ethnoromantic” style that logically emerged to succeed the “stern partisan” one, promising new artistic solutions. It was then, in the 1990s, that there arose the problem of searching for the postmodernist context in Belarusian art.
In the times of socialist realism, the chief desire of many authors was to “guess and please”. This lack of freedom - artists’ dependence on the political situation - badly affected artistic culture and hampered formation of the national school. Then came a time of protest and scandal. Modernist trends, which captivated young artists’ minds, created an illusion of integration into contemporary art and made the artist an attractive figure - an innovator and rebel. Traditional values withdrew into the background in waiting for a theoretical conception which could stop the devaluation of cultural meanings.
Postmodernism proved quite opportune for Belarusian culture, having actually saved it. Concurring in its reflexion with the national Belarusian (mostly sceptical) world outlook, allowing wide popular masses access to world art, it brought the art school from modernist chaos to art as an everlasting value.
The art of the most gifted young artists of the late 1980s, including Andrei Smaliak, began to show ways out of the provincial modernist blind alley on to the wide vistas of European culture. Their works attracted attention by their professional mastery, intellectualism, rejection of heroic and patriotic themes (prevailing in the works of the older generation of the Belarusian Soviet artists), by knowledge of the problems, merits and drawbacks of contemporary art. The scandal and whimsy of the perestroika times yielded to search of new ideas determining the meaning of art.
In the period of “confusion and hesitation” Andrei Smaliak suggested his own way of redefining painting as artistic solemn ritualism. He began by changing his painting language, sorting out the composition of his works in the light of the great masters’ art. By the very nature of his talent oriented to searching for his own formula of beauty, possessing an excellent artistic intuition, he understood the main idea - nothing is as valuable as a precise stroke of a paint-brush in combination with enigmatic ambivalence. This is what makes a difference between a confident master and a timid learner.
The Smaliak style began to take shape in the series of portraits of his beloved model and muse - his wife Olga. Taught to be an actress, she was an easy and natural model, who allowed herself to be presented either as unprotected, only discovering the secret of makeup (Olga, 1991), or as a woman of fashion (Olga, 1993), or even a coquettishly graceful beautiful actress (Olenka, the Wife, 1995). The desire to render the charm of the moment with a few precise strokes, admiration of the model - all these truths were at the basis of developing his manner of painting.
A new stage in his creative work was marked by four big programme self-portraits, in which the artist depicted himself successively turning into Dali, Velasquez, Rembrandt and Picasso. Deriving from the individual manners of the greats the devices proper to him, he not only preserved his likeness but, which is more important - his own pictorial style.
Andrei formulates his creed in a typically postmodernist manner: “Part of my ‘Self lives in various times and peoples. At once and everywhere. Rembrandt, Vermeer, Matisse, Picasso... They exist in my mind as real people, in flesh and blood. Their resuscitating energy nourishes my soul.” By consciously trying on the masks of the classical masters, he declares belonging to European artistic culture, which contemporary Belarusian art is so short of.
Even more declarative are the artistic statements on the theme of Manet, Vermeer and Malevich in the triptych Reflections (1993-1994). Playing with the meanings of the cultic works, Smaliak supplies classical characters with the features of his near and dear and of his own (Andrei after Manet, 1993, Olga after Vermeer, 1993). The centre of the triptych is The Black Square after Malevich, 1993. It looks as if this generally acknowledged symbol of the end of art, like a black hole in the Universe, is going to splash out matter for creating new life. The unaffected character of the quoted works in the postmodernist interpretation through the philosophical depth of The Black Square turns the triptych into a reflection on the sense and origin of life, on love and beauty, which overcome black non-existence.
Noble variation of palpable colours. Polychrome pulsating strokes, expressive line either moulding or destroying the shape. Light scattered over the surface, which creates a glittering effect. All this has become the main features of Andrei Smaliak’s brushwork.
An attempt at looking into the nature of light brought about an original result in abstract themes. In the 1995 series of six paintings Portraits of Colours the formal aim caused a search for the precious self-sufficiency of painting. The artist, as it were, personifies colours, covering the surface of the canvas with intricately interlacing shapes. By involving the viewers, he invites them to assist at the birth of colour magic. In this kaleidoscope of noble crystals, each viewer sees his or her own image embracing all the shades of colour.
With many Western artists such formal discoveries would have been commercially successful for decades. But Smaliak, though declaring a Western approach to art and the image of a fashionable artist, deep in his heart remains his country’s son. He could not leave the eternal Belarusian questions “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?” without an answer in his creative work. Smaliak replied, “We are a sun in stone, and we go where the sun goes. We are no travellers, we are the road.” Sun in Stone, 1991 is the title of the painting depicting a cobbled road as a symbol of the nation’s progress. Going upwards, it carries the prints of time, from a foreign hoof and a tank caterpillar to a wheel of a native cart, sparkles with tear drops of the joy of a wedding procession and the sorrow of a funeral cortege. It resembles a symbol of the European civilization - Ancient Roman Appian Way. Lit by an ominous sun, the road in the picture produces a dual sense - of doubt and at the same time of hope for a happy destiny of his country. The artist managed to create a new image of the national shliakh (way). Traditionally lined with age-old trees, the country earth road, a motive to be found in many works by Belarusian artists, seemed to reflect the historical constraints of our way. It could not but have its effect on the formation of the “discreet” ethnic character. Andrei Smaliak intuitively has been looking for such features of countryside as would reflect a different mentality - firmness, determination, courage, rational optimism.
Mental anguish for the nation’s destiny, sorrow for the futility of the wasted time permeate the paintings The Village of Pukhovaya, 2001 and Bread, 2001. The depictions bring us back to the recent past with the reigning feeling of hopelessness and lack of faith in the future. Using the freeze-frame compositional device, as if stopping the moment by chance, the artist has us recall our own life experience and turn over the sad pages of history once again. Painted with splendid artistry in a refined but simple manner, they represent the dark side of existence. And it is only the hero’s young blue eyes that leave room for radiant hope and confidence that there may be a way out of the dead-end.
There is a different pair of eyes in the picture Boatman, 2004. The artist proves capable of a philosophical generalization. A Belarusian humorist actor is depicted on an unsteady basis - in a boat with the oars that he let go. He is not afraid of looking ridiculous in his secret and overwhelming desire to be handsome. His sad look brings to mind the portraits of court dwarves by the great Velasquez. The wind of time is blowing in all directions and the stage of a boat is drifting uncontrolled. To what shore will it pull in? Floating between two shores, between reality and dream, East and West, with no helm - a national cultural idea, - non-resistance to fate and expectation of a miracle... A sad symbol of bohemians.
A true talent is like an iceberg. On the surface, lit by the sun, the public only see a small fraction of creative work. Among Andrei Smaliak’s habitual images there are unexpected mystical and symbolical elements in Phantom, 1991, possibly inspired by Goya’s art, as well as postmodernist interpretations of the biblical subjects in P. Filonov’s manner (polyptych Holidays, 1994).
However, from these subject-and-style digressions he invariably returns to the theme of female beauty caught by a sudden glance. As a musician does scales in order to practise his hands, so does Smaliak paint his women to practise his brush. In a masterly way he portrays the fragile defencelessness of women’s bodies. Of which is there more? Admiration of a boy who for the first time looked into the mystery of femininity or caress of a sophisticated lover? It is for the viewer to decide. But the main thing is a sense of the deep irrevocable pungency of a fleeting moment. And of happiness that there is the art of painting capable of freezing it.
His Western experience made Andrei Smaliak believe that there was demand for art in this country too. He got eager to set up a gallery of his own. His muse and wife Olga became the producer and hostess of the Ermitage - the first author’s personal gallery opened just opposite the Republic of Belarus National Art Museum. The history of this artistic challenge was bright and short-lived. The trans-avantgarde works, which attracted the attention of connoisseurs, could not resist the established idea of art here. The attempt to combine contemporary show-business gimmicks with “quiet” gallery life proved premature in Belarusian conditions. The art market in this country has not yet formed. The stone statues (allegories of the painting and sculpture of socialist realism) keeping watch at the National Museum entrance came out victorious that time. The steps of “the stone guests” drowned out the sounds of a fashionable party. The Ermitage Gallery continued the list of art projects unwilling to be trade shops.
But no effort is in vain: the gallery activities created around Andrei and Olga an atmosphere of artistic reverence. The notion of “a fashionable artist”, new to Belarus, became another testimony of integration into European culture. Culture without fashion is a collection of canons and taboos.
According to some experts, the works of many present-day Belarusian artists are characterized by insufficiency of meaning, apparent histrionics, exploitation of a couple of successful devices. From a means of cognition of the world, pictures often turn into decor, entertainment, and no formal discovery can disguise this emptiness.
Innate intuition suggests to Andey Smaliak that dramatization and decorativeness can get him nowhere. There is intrinsic value in every, even the simplest, painted subject. Smaliak’s art is as varied, contradictory, harmonious, simple and complex as life itself. He is, undoubtedly, one of the authors for whom a gesture and improvisation are means of creating an image. And this is an image of the time the artist lives in.
If you come to think of it, what is depicted on most of Andrei Smaliak’s canvases does not really exit. His pictures are windows into a parallel world. It is inhabited by fanciful women and enigmatic men, in an unstable web of lines transpire the sights of cities which have never existed on earth. We witness the backstage of unknown ballets, carnivals and circus performances. The art of ambivalence, which the painter wields so masterfully, is the basis of his artistic style. It implies a dialogue with the viewer, expecting an answer to the question “And what do you think and feel looking at the picture? What is your attitude to the mystery of existence?” The artist has found his own theme, worked out an expressive language of his own, created a world of his own (parallel to ours) and confidentially invited us to peep into its most secret corners. It is the way of true artists. And with God’s help, may the angels always move his brush!
Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Michigan's International Institute, United States
National University, Seoul, South Korea
Funds of the Belarusian Union of Artists, Belarus
National Library, Belarus
European Parliament Art Collection, Belgium
Russian Cultural Centre, Belgium
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Belgium
National Art Museum of Belarus, Belarus
Pinacoteca Comunale, Città di Castello, Italy
Estonian National Opera, Estonia
National Center for Contemporary Arts, Belarus
Zepter Museum, Serbia
2017 The whole world - theater... / Estonian National Opera - Tallin, Estonia
2017 Life as Art. Art as Life / Zepter Museum - Belgrade, Serbia
2014 Life. Painting. Love / Mikhail Savitsky Art Gallery - Minsk, Belarus
2010 Solo Exhibition / Pinacoteca Comunale - Città di Castello, Italy
2010 Red Glasses / Palace of the Rumyantsevs and the Paskeviches - Gomel, Belarus
2008 Solo Exhibition / National Art Museum - Minsk, Belarus
2008 Unknown Smaliak / National Art Museum - Minsk, Belarus
2004 Ladies’ Salon / Ermitage Gallery - Minsk, Belarus
2004 Holidays / Ermitage Gallery - Minsk, Belarus
2004 Carnival / Ermitage Gallery - Minsk, Belarus
2003 Solo Exhibition / Vladimir Korotkevich Museum - Orsha, Belarus
2002 Solo Exhibition / Press House - Minsk, Belarus
1999 Solo Exhibition / Zeppo - Brussels, Belgium
1999 Solo Exhibition / Fayla - Brussels, Belgium
1999 Solo Exhibition / Elisabethzaal - Antwerp, Belgium
1999 Solo Exhibition / Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium - Brussels, Belgium
1998 Solo Exhibition / Central Officers Club - Minsk, Belarus
1998 Art - Bridge to Europe / European Parliament - Brussels, Belgium
1998 Solo Exhibition / Russian Cultural Centre - Brussels, Belgium
1997 Dedication to the Master / Chagall’s Museum House - Vitebsk, Belarus
1997 Solo Exhibition / Younost Centre - Minsk, Belarus
1996 Solo Exhibition / NEAE - Minsk, Belarus
1996 Solo Exhibition / Palace of Arts - Minsk, Belarus
1995 Solo Exhibition / Ya. Kupala Library - Minsk, Belarus
1995 Solo Exhibition / Second Chagall International Open-Air Exhibition - Vitebsk, Belarus
1994 Solo Exhibition / Antik Gallery - Treviso, Italy
1994 Solo Exhibition / Institute of Soviet and Central European Studies - Michigan, United States
1994 Solo Exhibition / Zhilbel Exhibition Centre - Minsk, Belarus
1993 Solo Exhibition / Leonardo Gallery - Celje, Slovenia
1993 Solo Exhibition / Rynek Gallery - Bialystok, Poland
1992 Solo Exhibition / Metro Gallery - Minsk, Belarus
1991 Solo Exhibition / VDNKh - Minsk, Belarus
1991 Solo Exhibition / “Art” Gallery - Maribor, Slovenia
1990 Solo Exhibition / Palace of Arts - Minsk, Belarus
1989 Solo Exhibition / Belarusian Artists Union - Minsk, Belarus