Eduard Gudzenko: An Artist’s Destiny
Doctor of Arts, Art historian, and
full member of the Russian Academy of Arts
Eduard Gudzenko was born in a remote Ukrainian town Cherkasy shortly before the Second World War. After the war ended, he studied in a provincial art college and spent his entire life in the village because he had no opportunity to pursue his artistic career in the hometown Cherkasy, let alone Kyiv, the capital city of the Ukrainian SSR. The flourishing of his creativity coincided with the last two and a half decades of Soviet rule. Like other talented stepchildren of the Imperial Mother, he bumped against her cold embraces. The Soviet government had no liking for artists like him during the age of victorious socialism, which conquered not only people’s minds and their conscience but also itself, and in the end it died from that victory. Gudzenko’s biographers and Ukrainian art specialists say that his life was not an easy one, and he suffered greatly because of the periodic tricks played on him by local functionaries and derzhimordy, the totalitarian “stranglers” of the Communist Party. These experiences are probably the root cause of his serious illnesses, which put an end to his not particularly long life.
Looking at his paintings and drawings, one would be hard put to guess that the person who created them had such a hard life. In his works Gudzenko appears to be a free artist in the very same sense as was posited by the Renaissance artists. The artist, inexorably greedy for visual impressions, was passionately emotional and ready to splash onto a canvas his impressions and experiences. The artist’s eye was designed in such a way that he saw drama and comedy and tragedy in combinations of color hues; he saw irony and sarcasm in the texture of a brushstroke, in combinations of forms. His soul and mind were directly connected to his eye, and his eye to his hand. The free and creative nature, as described in Goethe’s Faust, is a curious and mistrustful personality that looks intently at real life and reveals its hidden aspects to people. It has no fear, and refuses to consider standards, prohibitions, and canons of official ideologies as something binding.
In some unknown way, two characters united in the person and life story of Gudzenko. On one hand, he was a perpetually hounded and marginalized individual, a constant target of attacks by the local district committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine (which was much more dangerous and cowardly than the central Moscow government and hence much more spiteful, vengeful, and suspicious). On the other hand, he was an unfettered maestro, a wizard of the paintbrush, and an interlocutor of the elemental energy of flowers. On a canvas he gathers a whole array of hot tones, from pink and yellow to wine red and brown, setting out a veritable feast for the eyes. He loads a canvas with a heavy, dark stain, from which chills run up your spine and you literally hear a chord from Beethoven. Quiet, gentle music plays in his small lyrical sketches, and orchestras thunder in his mighty, contrasting, and larger compositions. Gudzenko’s subjects are truly prosaic, ranging from still lifes with fruit and earthenware to boats on a river bank; from a portrait of a village neighbor to theatrical fantasies.
Chroniclers of the arts have a long way to go before they sort out all the paradoxes and twists in the artist’s biography and the mysterious phenomenon known as Eduard Gudzenko. The only thing that was never in doubt from the very start was his indomitable thirst for painting and drawing, that is, the need to express himself without words and to do this loudly, decisively, and openly.
According to psychologists, artists – like all people – are products of their childhood. Eduard’s father Ivan Ivanovych Gudzenko painted in oils. His paintings were semi-professional, but had a lot of character. This is evident from the texture of his autumn landscape, which he completed in 1936. Although he was not a very skilful painter, he was diligent because he needed to convey the state of his soul – not an idea, not an emotion, but his spiritual apprehension of landscape, of nature cooling and coming to a standstill. God only knows what kinds of feelings were overwhelming the young Ukrainian during that uneasy year. But sorrowful and anxious expectation had clearly crept into his soul.
His son Eduard’s first steps in art were marked in a very revealing manner. In 1949, when he was eleven years old, he sketched a portrait of his grandfather. The drawing is painstakingly crafted and somewhat “tormented” – loaded to the extreme. He put a lot of blackness into the background in order to illuminate the glare on his subject’s forehead. This is too much, it is over the top; there is such pressure in the drawing that it seems as though its creator is about to break into a shout. The young artist already had a temperamental, passionate nature: give him a paintbrush and show him the technique of working with colors, and he will go and paint the entire region.
This is indeed what happened. In 1953 the difficult years of the early 1950s the local artist Nikolai Kirichenko gave young Gudzenko was given a present of a box of color paints; perhaps somewhat used. Right then and there he took a small piece of cardboard, on which he affixed a landscape as well as his own character, thereby revealing his future aesthetic system. He had only a handful of colors: a semi-opaque lead white pigment, yellow ocher, lake pigment, and some kind of grimy brown. Using a wide brush, waving it with all his heart (where did this courage come from?), he outlined the trunks of trees, pillars, a winter road, roofs, and fences. And even though the painting is was somewhat muddy and murky, it is was powerful and soulful. What we have here is a strong, expressive, and severe piece of art. It is worth noting that he was not studying anywhere yet and had no prior artistic training.
“From my youth up the sunny Moldova was like a magnet for me”, wrote Eduard in his diary and after finishing school he entered At the present time, it is difficult to determine how and why he decided, at the age of twenty, to study at the Kishinev Art College. Did someone suggest this, or did he decide to go there on his own? The decision turned out to be a gift of Fate. To study in Kyiv and be under the constant scrutiny of Ukrainian socialist realists would have been a great mistake, if not a catastrophe. Moscow was far away, and he had no idea how people made their way to the Soviet capital. There, under the iron rule of the Academy, were various teachers, including those who had inflicted much suffering on the young Ilya Kabakov, who later fled from Moscow to the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipropetrovsk.
In the Moldovan city of Kishinev the new recruit was taught painting by the very masters who were necessary to Gudzenko: M. Grecu Hrek, A. Kolchak, and A. O. Vasyliev. They understood the virtues of a broad paintbrush, they valued individuality in their students, and they rejoiced at the expression of sincerity and vitality. Furthermore, if they did demand substantial content from their students, at least it was not the kind that was required of officially sanctioned art. They allowed naïve and playful works, art that revealed the folk soul, and painting that spoke of life’s pagan joys. It was these very features that began to develop (and how!) in the young Gudzenko’s paintings.
The small, early landscapes that he painted during the Kishinev period (until 1962) sparkle with sizzling shards of pure sunlight; like stained-glass windows, they are embellished with gold, red, and green tones. A kind of dramatic tension can be clearly observed in his very first attempts. The young Gudzenko did not at all resemble a bird in springtime, trilling exuberantly and oblivious to danger. Within him was a more complicated and broad scale of emotions and experiences. Very likely, his teachers reacted swiftly to the arrival in the distant capital of the Soviet Union of the so-called severe style, to the first “hard” paintings of Pavel Nikonov and Nikolai Andronov, and to a certain degree they were even able to convey these new winds of art to their pupil. In 1961 Gudzenko did a school assignment, a painting of a brawny man wearing a long coat and heavy soldiers’ boots. The young artist was still not fully able to coordinate the various parts of a human figure, but it is obvious that he was excited by the architecture of human bodies and spaces, as well as by constructional muscularity. The so-called “Severe Style” had begun to appear at this very time in paintings that were created in various republics and cities of the Soviet Union, from Latvia to Russia. The sense of the Severe Style lay in the fact that artists no longer wanted to kowtow to the tastes of the party elite, and they began to express the tragic nature of the history of the USSR.
Above all, it is Gudzenko’s portraits that bear the imprint of the Severe Style during that period. He depicted his fellow villagers, relatives, and fellow artists with the aid of those same facets and planes that were favored both by Russian Cezannists and avant-garde artists in the first decades of the twentieth century, including various distinguished natives of Ukraine. Suffice it to mention Kazimir Malevich.
The intention to construct a head and face as a kind of mountain landscape and turn a human into a mountain, cliff, or mighty tree is clearly visible in Portrait of a Veteran Stableman Ivan Hrytsai (1984). On the right side of this painting we see the horse’s muzzle; it is shaped softly and delicately, for a horse is a living being. But the face and hands of the elderly man seem to be hewn out of stone or carved out of hard wood. This contrast speaks volumes about the fate of the man, his life story, his character.
Gudzenko never became a “severe” artist in the full sense of that word, but he mastered its broad scale of emotions and experiences. He was now able to paint not only the glittering, sunny, and God-given stuff of life but also moments of difficult reflections and states of anxious concentration, lyricism, and the element of tragedy. Gudzenko has the ability to encompass this range, which is practically Shakespearian.
His talents were immense but his resources limited. He became a resident of the Ukrainian village of Budyshche, where he spent his entire life, as it turned out. He painted furiously. It was a great blessing – another gift of Fate – that his family understood him, approved of his work, and financially supported him, since his art was alien to the Soviet authorities, who provided him with barely any income (rarely and meagerly). Rumors about him spread to artistic studies throughout Ukraine, and he was appreciated and praised by the most recognized artists in Kyiv, such as Tatiana Yablonska, and Heorhii Yakutovych and Hryhorii Havrylenko, who were permitted such liberties as complimenting a provincial painter. They were academicians with reliable Moscow connections, and they were permitted what was forbidden to others. To many people Gudzenko was an alien: a strange and dangerous dreamer. The taste for beautiful and genuine painting was extinguished in artists and viewers for decades; how, then, can one condemn those who had never seen a Matisse or a Konchalovsky?
The landscapes that Gudzenko painted in the 1960s are like a scattering of precious stones and heaps of luxurious fabrics found in a treasure house. But, note how powerfully and sharply he marks the center of a canvas with a mighty tree trunk or another heavy and dark object. His Boat on the Shores of the Dnipro River (1963), seemingly small in its absolute dimensions, is 60 cm wide. But it is infused with such powerful feeling that it threatens to shatter the frame. The dark, heavy body of the boat, thrown onto the bank like a large fish, stiffens and hardens, the sand around it glimmers with heat, and the greenish waters of the endless river skirt and envelop this dramatic scene – a tragedy on a global scale!
About a year earlier Gudzenko painted his magnificent, similarly-sized landscape Hotter than the Sun Hot Sun. The same surface of the earth seems to sway and rustle from the heavenly heat, the sun is heating up on the celestial frying pan, the trees and other vegetation are bursting with the juices of life, and a line of tiny peasant women carrying the tools of their labor are going about their work: a blessed land, practically a paradise on earth – the original Garden of Eden.
Gudzenko’s still life Sunflowers (1966) almost automatically sparks a comparison with Vincent van Gogh’s still life. But the similarity of formal motifs should not conceal unique differences. In his later period van Gogh was obsessed by his sense of vital energies, and his trees, clouds, fields, chairs, and figures of people sway and rock precisely because they are overflowing with these energies. There are internal vibrations here. Gudzenko pays some tribute to this feeling of cosmic life, natural essence, and the pressure of internal forces. But, at the same time he makes a jug holding life-loving flowers heavier and darker. And this drop-like form almost turns into a kind of black hole that weighs heavily in the frame. For that reason, the glittering of the sun-splashed petals acquires, by proximity, the special sense of a despairing appeal. May the Lord save and protect us: it is practically a prayer.
The still lifes produced during that period constantly seek to tell us that the material world is tense, like a taut string, and we find ourselves on the border between light and darkness, life and nonexistence. This range of meanings and moods is the domain of a very great master, who is able to encompass reality in all its contrasts and paradoxes.
During the very first years of his independent, creative life the artist embarked on some extraordinarily bold experiments. In his portrait of an old woman, Granny Ulita (1965), the subject’s facial features are seemingly carved out of a slender oak tree, but the sculptural head is placed on a body garbed in a delicate lilac-colored knitted jacket, more suited to a child. We see the woman’s youthful openheartedness and wisdom that comes with old age: all this appears before our gaze on a dense, viscous, and incomprehensibly fiery, dark background. To be able to paint such a portrait, you have to be not only a psychologist and philosopher but also a penetrating observer of human destinies and the world of objects.
By the 1960s Gudzenko had already mastered the broad palette of artistic devices, and his vision had matured. Yet, he was still young and energetic, still hoping to find a common language with his contemporaries, and he taught art at the Palace of Pioneers in Cherkasy. In 1964, the only time he takes part in the Republican art exhibition, and local officials. However, Soviet officials, with their special intuition, recognized unerringly that he was an ideologically alien “formalist,” inasmuch as he was both talented and original, and therefore not someone to be welcomed.
Since Gudzenko was not known for making showy political gestures and he lived the life of a recluse, the powers that be, having become vegetarians, did not seek to press him down and grind him into the dust. It was enough simply to deny him the chance to make a name for himself and just force him to sit quietly in his corner. In those years, young artists based in Moscow and Leningrad knew quite a lot about their fellow thinkers in Minsk and Riga, Yerevan and Novosibirsk. But the master painter from a remote village in Ukraine did not enter their field of vision.
Can one say that in those years the Soviet government was the victor in its struggle against free art at least in one sector, namely the Budyshche front? The answer is yes. True, there were some loopholes in the ramified system of Soviet-type artistic production. Naturally, Gudzenko, who possessed an artistic temperament and had reached some bold general conclusions, had a propensity for monumental art and for designing theater sets. Here I must express myself in the subjunctive mood: He could have created magnificent stage scenery and costumes for plays, and through his paintbrush the large surfaces of walls would have been enchanting sights. Gudzenko began receiving some orders for his monumental art, but they were minor ones. Large installations in large Soviet cities were not for the likes of him.
Indeed, Gudzenko seems to have been destined to create large-scale and powerful paintings and mosaics, but he was forced to remain the creator of only a handful of small-scale mosaic projects. They are decorative, of irreproachable taste, and sustained in a style of conventional signs: here is a bird, here is a tree, and here is a cloud; an ordinary background, the stylistics of Ukrainian folk embroidery, and inadequate color combinations. It is immediately clear that the artist had a meager budget.
In those years Zurab Tsereteli, the young Georgian contemporary of the Ukrainian master, started out by doing pleasurable, decorative work embellishing fountains and pools in the sanatorium zone of his blessed republic. In many respects, Tsereteli and Gudzenko’s beginnings had much in common. The subsequent paths of these two artists turned out to be diametrically opposed. Tsereteli went on to find work in the larger cities of the Soviet Union, and then overseas, while Gudzenko stayed forever in his village, where on one-meter-wide canvases he painted landscapes and still lifes, portraits and decorative fantasies.
Multicolored and captivating monumental works remained alive in his imagination, just like those unborn theater productions. Around 1970 motifs of the stage, masks, and scenic games became conspicuously more pronounced in the master’s oeuvre. During this period carnivals, mummers, and scenes from folk or street theater became favorite motifs of several young accomplished painters in the Soviet Union, and a new generation of painters entered the art arena. They locked themselves up in their personal experiences, having become disillusioned with the heroic efforts of the Severe Style, because, before they knew it, reality had managed to undermine people’s fervent hopes that the Soviet regime would change and be renewed and rejuvenated. The country became frozen, and once again, liberties and experimentation came under persecution. Officialdom became even more deadened and ossified. Living, independent art departed to a country of fantasies and myths, into complex intellectual constructs, into a space of allusions and implications. The same thing happened in the theater and cinematic art, in literature and painting, including in Ukrainian art.
We do not know the exact routes by which these new fads reached the Palace of Pioneers in Cherkasy, let alone to the sleepy village of Budyshche. But facts are facts: Gudzenko’s paintings now featured puppets and fair barkers, tiny decorative roosters from a fairy-tale palace, dancing bears, and other characters from children’s theater, verging on a circus performance.
Finally, in 1975 the artist painted his only known, large self-portrait, a kind of confession and manifesto. It is a theatricalized portrait, in which the master entered the world of footlights from the dark space of the stage, wearing a wizard’s hat (in fact, this is an ordinary paper hat worn to protect his head from paint splashes). And he peered inquisitively into our – the viewers’ – eyes as though he wanted to make sure that we had understood his arrival and his thought process.
This is not the place to engage in empty speculations about whether Gudzenko was recalling the outstanding, late self-portraits of Robert Falk, with their Rembrandt-like intonations. He could not suspect that researchers and biographers would begin to see any hints and allegories in his self-portrait. But, when the light plays so mysteriously on his face, when a woven hand with clenched fingers holding a paintbrush lightly but firmly emerges from the colored semi-darkness as though out of thin air, then the experienced viewer cannot help thinking about the greatest self-portraits ever created by painters; about Rembrandt, who painted his face and hands, leading one to reflect on the mysterious emanations of spirituality; about Velasquez, who portrayed himself holding a paintbrush and palette, with a quizzical gaze directed at us, the viewers; about our contemporaries, like Viktor Popkov or Pavel Nikonov. They painted themselves – people of art – at the footlights of life, on the boundary between light and shadow, and they implied a mute question aimed at them and at us, other people. What is happening to us? Where do all these shadows and grimaces, black holes, and difficult instants in our sparkling, beautiful world come from?
The creative experiences of Eduard Gudzenko were not in vain. Yet life’s scrapes also left their mark on him. In 1987 he suffered a serious heart attack, so serious that he lost the ability to paint: at one point he had trouble using his hand. This is evident in some of his later paintings. His eye remained the same, paint was still picked up by the brush with confidence, and the power of color never abandoned his paintings. But, for some time the sureness of his hand was suspect, and there were signs of amorphousness and fuzziness in his brushwork.
Perhaps one of the main victories in Gudzenko’s biography was the triumph over his undeserved infirmity. He worked furiously with his paintbrush in a struggle against nonexistence, and in the course of this breathtaking and constant exercises there appeared such wondrous paintings like Turkey (1995).
He recovered. In the paintings that he created in the last fifteen years of his life, he had become more complex and profound. He painted such masterpieces as The Alley of Peace (2005), a reflection in color on the miraculous nature of life, on the stirring, joyful, and frightening oddities of our visible world, behind which are concealed other realities.
The next year, he was no more. For a long time to come we will be helping people to discover his art, be amazed by it, and to learn how to understand it.
Doctor of Arts Art historian, and
full member of the Russian Academy of Arts