Gudzenko: Ardor and Joy
Art critic and culturologist
In his self-portrait painted in 1987 the artist Eduard Gudzhenko looks watchful, gloomy, mistrustful, and sulky. His nose is slanted to the left, his eyes are like nails. But at the same time he looks kindly and not at all rancorous.
That same year his solo exhibition took place in Cherkasy – the first and last one in his not so very brief life, which spanned sixty-eight years. But it was a taxing event, as it sparked official disparagement, similar to what was heard during a meeting of the Cherkasy oblast branch of the Union of Artists of Ukraine, at which Eduard Gudzenko’s creativity was the topic of discussion. One of those attending the session stood up and made the following unambiguous statement: “Comrades! In Moscow we have Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn, but in our country we have Gudzenko.” After this denunciation, the gathering branded Gudzenko’s art as formalistic and predisposed to the evil influence of the West, which put paid to the artist’s prospects to exhibit his work anywhere ever again. His attempt to present his self-portrait at a meeting of the exhibition committee ended with one national artist’s acerbic public comment: “This is not a self-portrait. This is Jewish cosmopolitanism!” Pyotr Kozin, one of Gudzenko’s few artist friends, tried to calm Gudzenko down, but to no avail: the beleaguered artist’s eyes were glistening with tears, and the affront to him had caused heart spasms. His serious illnesses (including a heart attack in 1987) and low spirits were the only things that destiny had in store for him.
But he managed to live out his life. This is clear from just a quick glance at his works: fiercely and beautifully, with paintbrush in hand, he pounced on canvases, like a bull charging a red cloth, similar to the one pictured in The Violin (2005), where such a formal theme should not have elicited such emotions in the artist, but they did nonetheless.
The world raged beneath his paintbrush. Every work became an act of overcoming in the name of joy. “A joyous, major-key hymn to life” is how the correspondent of the oblast newspaper Cherkaska pravda, B. Landsman, appraised Gudzenko’s Sunflowers (1966) and Still Life (1964) in an article published in 1966. This was the last time that any compliments about his work appeared in the press during the artist’s lifetime.
Gudzenko’s joy is therefore complex, achieved through much suffering, and poignant. He is a “gloomy” pantheist, and his paintings seethe like a stormy sea, although he never painted anything broader or more turbulent than the Dnipro River or, sometimes, the Dnister River. But, after all, even the Dnipro is not always marvelous and pacific.
While I was working on this article, I had occasion to travel to Ukraine’s Cherkasy oblast, a region known as “the land of Bohdan and Taras”, according to the inscription featured on the large decorative shield standing on the border of Kyiv and Cherkasy oblasts). I would call this area the “Ukrainian Switzerland” because of its amazing picturesqueness, which is extraordinary even for Ukraine. However, neither Khmelnytsky nor even Shevchenko was ever reflected in the artist’s work. He remained completely indifferent to heroic themes, the subjects explored in Shevchenko’s poems, and gentle poetry celebrating the region’s velvety slopes, ravines, lakes, and moonlit nights. It was as though Gudzenko had resolved to pursue the path of “greatest resistance.”
The painting The Cherkasy Outskirts (1972) is filled with the smoke of factory chimneys. Where is that “Ukrainian Switzerland?” One time, a friend of Gudzenko’s tossed this cruel phrase brutally into his face: “Engrave this on your forehead: there were never any talented people in Cherkasy, and there won’t be any now!” What kind of talents can blossom in this immense atmosphere of smoke?
This partly explains the apparent paradox of the misery of Gudzenko’s life. In general, he deliberately avoided external conflicts; he did not go looking for problems, with the exception of those that had cropped up during his student years, and even then it was a one-time occurrence. He could not help it if problems sought him out. Nevertheless, he did not yield to them. The answer lies in the fact that from the very outset, non-conformism became a normal feature of his life, which was not merely declarative, but based on the profoundest conviction. What could he do if he was unable to conceal it beneath a mask of that magisterial indifference which was typical of so many painters who were deprived of success, yet possessed every mark of distinction?
It is utterly impossible to imagine Gudzenko with prizes. For many years he taught children art at the local Palace of Pioneers at a local art school, earning a modest living creating his monumental works in various art studios in Cherkasy, which were already becoming known for their primordial conformity and emphatic attention to the requirements of “the most highly placed customers.” He withstood, he did not bend.
The context of Eduard Gudzenko’s paintings is not only and not so much Soviet Ukrainian as it is cultural on a global scale. If one defines his importance on the territorial scale, at the very least it is a Central European one. To a significant degree this context defined the creative practice of the legendary Romanian painter Corneliu Baba, whose paintings at the 28th Venice Biennale in 1956 elicited the undivided enthusiasm of Ukrainian artists. Gudzenko’s rare precepts were a gift of Fate: “You have to paint gently; it is inadmissible to contour and introduce graphics into painting.” He abided by these words throughout his life – and not just them. Nevertheless, Gudzenko’s texture, created by heavy, thick brushwork, is his very own style, whereas the Romanian classic preferred trowelled, muffled surfaces.
It is difficult to overestimate the cultural influence of the mysterious Romanic country on Ukrainian culture, a topic that has not been studied adequately, unlike the cultures of Poland or Russia, which are the subjects of numerous monographs. The recently deceased Karel Jakubek, a native of the city of Lutsk, was always proud of the short lectures given at the Baia-Mara school of plein-air painting. But have many people ever heard about it?
Another aspect of Gudzenko’s context is the obvious references to the carnivalism of the Bulgarian master painter Zlatyu Boyadjiev – a glance at Gudzenko’s Comedians makes it difficult to demur. This was not a direct influence, like the influence of the much older Chaim Soutine, whose entry into the “Paris School – many of whose members were ethnic Ukrainians, like Vasyl Khmeliuk – was already in the offing. Marc Chagall is another story: when Gudzenko was a child, his teacher of Russian language and literature talked to him about this great artist Nevertheless, both of these analogies inevitably bring the Ukrainian master painter out of the “zone of influence” of home-grown carnivalism and the national 1960s movement, to which he paid only superficial tribute. Eduard Gudzenko is simultaneously in tune with this phenomenon and out of step with it:
“I am a dinosaur, a stranger to others, to my own kind,
I survived in order to atone for their sins.”
Now that we have looked at one self-portrait, a graphic one, let’s take a look at another – a painterly one from 1975 . In this work the artist is more self-disciplined, he is outwardly artistic, almost puffy swollen. He is wearing a dingy-red, high fur hat called a papakha, which resembles a Phrygian Frigian bell-shaped cap (compare this painting to Corneliu Baba’s 1971 Self-Portrait in a Red Fez; it is also easy to find a “red violin” among the Romanian classic’s works. And let us not forget the color red in Kasimir Malevich’s self-portrait from the 1920s). The maestro’s traditional habit of holding a paintbrush in his right hand is very significant. It is as if the artist has “readied himself to create,” and the artist’s self-portrait underscores not only even the creative but the cosmic, theogonic capabilities of his talent. Even if he does not create separate worlds, then those that already exist he ruffles into unrecognizability, turning them into webs of obscure, frequently absurd, passions that cannot be compared to three-dimensional reality.
It is “windy,” not in any concrete, discrete part of the Cherkasy land, where Eduard Gudzenko spent nearly his whole life: “The wind, the wind in all of God’s world” , wherever he could insert the leg of an easel and set himself up next to it in order to listen to the music of nature.
His Delphiniums in a Ewer (1974) simply blaze with a floral fire. They truly burn with a blue flame, glowing with tiny little buttons and curls, and even if they grow dim in the penumbra, they still manage to glimmer with the embers of the dying blaze.
The most innocent subjects – and in Gudzenko’s works they are far from postmodernist refinement – are fraught with explosive tricks that pass into a solar prominence. In his microcosm such extraordinary excess is the cornerstone of figurative poetics.
Every grassy plot is pregnant with an earthquake; a tornado rages in the crown of every apple tree. Every face is saturated with the presentiment of a possible breakdown, but the author does not bring things to this point. And the pumpkin drips blood, and the clothes-paddle on the table bares its teeth, as though it is alive and angry.
In this joyful whirlwind the boundaries between genres are obliterated. Landscape is the tectonic movement of the masses, even if this is not thematically defined. (Boats on the Banks of the Dnipro is a variable subject in his oeuvre). The still life is a microscopic landscape in active wakefulness, suggesting a mutiny in the near future, where even apples on a tablecloth are rolling stones. In the meantime, the onions and beets scattered on the flat surface in Still Life with a Mortar quarrel stormily with each other.
Gudzenko’s Turkey (1995) is a living bouquet of feathers. Or is it a zoological individual in a state of incomprehensible, festive delight? In the very same way a cascade of green crowns “shoots” into the sky in the painting In the Garden in Springtime (1998), and clusters of guilder-rose berries redden in the Guelder-Rose (1972).
At first glance, the situation is much simpler with the human characters in Gudzenko’s works. As much as nature in his paintings is frantic, intemperate, and unpredictable, so are his heroes – relatives, colleagues, and fellow villagers – severe, reserved, and practically driven inside themselves; the taciturn brotherhood of the all-suffering, exclusively innate in those who, according to accepted practice, are called simple folk. Through the artist’s will, there exists among them an intonational equilibrium enriched by a multitude of individual nuances and artistic decisions. Whereas it is possible to sort out the “quiet” genres (in the context of Gudzenko’s legacy, this term sounds like an outright taunt, considering their unparalleled “acoustic potential”) by ascribing thundering and boiling ardor to strictly natural irrationalism, as regards people, a new snag emerges each time. The fact that none of them kick up a rumpus does not resolve the problem; it would be better if they did!
Meanwhile, even here his portraits are not sealed off hermetically from his landscapes and still lifes. Contrasted to them by texture and mood, they reveal an unexpected resonance with something else: the earthen-colored surface of their faces, their cheekbones scarred by the years, like roads, their craggy cheeks, their weather-beaten hands. And although one cannot deny a single one of them, even the simplest one, a dose of common sense, let alone native peasant wit, they look, above all, like manifestations of an organic world that is paradoxically endowed with consciousness. Something human, something ineradicably human, peers out of every ugly mug that ultimately turns out to be a face.
This is the “Ukraine that we lost,” logically derivative of photographic portraits of a century ago, not unlike those with which the very biography of Gudzenko himself begins (a little fellow in a sailor’s jacket with his mother, their arms around each other). Gudzenko draws and paints his gloomy, obstinate “relatives” persistently. It is no paradox that both his father Ivan Ivanovych and his daughter Alexandra (who died prematurely) had an uncommon interest in painting and graphics, even though they never ventured beyond the bounds of conscientious experimentation with still lifes and landscapes that nonetheless did not fit into the customary scheme of picturesque Ukraine.
Gudzenko’s peasants of the 1960s–1980s are the children of their fathers, who lined up in front of the camera in a dignified and unhurried manner, in the awareness of the steadfastness of life and their own merit. Their descendants did not fritter it away; it just became slightly stripped away. It is true, however, that they became fairly embittered: the steamroller of history had crunched across their backs. They are lucky to have survived. The collars of their shirts became frayed, but the necessity for excessive ostentation had disappeared.
An abyss separates Gudzenko’s peasant women from the folkloric rural women of, say, the extremely talented Tatiana Nilovna Yablonska, to whom Gudzenko was beholden at a certain point for his very physical survival. Yablonska, who at the time was a People’s Artist of the USSR, an academician, and a master painter known throughout the country, recalling the brilliant debut of Gudzenko’s Still Life with Peppers (1964), wondered why his new works were not being exhibited at shows…Someone may have told her what was happening to Gudzenko in Cherkasy or she felt that storm clouds were gathering over the young and gifted painter. But her visit to the picturesque city on the Dnipro River was Gudzenko’s salvation. In any case, his works were no longer thought to be politically or ideologically hostile,” wrote Gudzenko’s countryman, the painter Aleksandr Naiden, in his introductory essay to the first catalog of Eduard Gudzenko’s works published in 2006 .
But whereas in the works of the celebrated classic Yablonska we see a belief in the hallowed wisdom of old age, which was germane to the 1960s, we see something completely different in her “ward.” Gudzenko’s Granny Ulita (1965) is not obviously notable for her wisdom; she is generally not one of those people who could serve as a model for “city folks” eagerly seeking someone whom they can emulate. Ulita is a worn-out, confused, and daydreaming old woman wearing a green head shawl; she is almost ridiculous, but precisely for that reason she is charming in a non-standard way. The artist preferred to stop at the stage of a character study, without becoming mired in the thickets of positive generalizations.
Aunty Palazhka (1967) is slightly more standard. This painting shows the iconic pose of the folded fingers and the position of her figure beneath the fiery-crimson Gudzenko-style rushnyky, Ukrainian embroidered cloths. Here “at the last moment” the artist avoids idealizing the image by presenting to the viewer’s attention more of a reverse-lighting effect on the human figure in the interior of the Ukrainian house rather than a female symbol of rustic mystery, to which all the external features of the artistic decision behind the portrait were urging. There is another fact about this painting, which is known throughout the artistic world of Cherkasy. During one of Yablonska’s regular visits to this city she was shown the works of local artists, including Gudzenko’s Aunty Palazhka. She expressed her sincerest admiration for the subject, the character of the work’s composition, and its psychological power. She also asked the artist’s permission to use this subject in one of her future paintings. This recognition of his talent was a momentous occasion for Gudzenko, who had every reason to exult.
But the painting Veteran Stableman Ivan Hrytsai (1984) – whose image appeared in that Orwellian year, when the “liquidation of differences between the city and the village” was supposed to take place unconditionally (if only out of counter-propagandistic ardor) – comes from the breed of Shukshin’s eccentrics, also from the countryside. He is slightly resentful and roughed up by life, a bit playful and, of course, a fool, but here he is warmed by his love for his smaller brother, the horse. The hero is giving the horse some water from a pail, as usual, bending over the animal, like over a child. Perhaps in the author’s secret plan there was a reason for the expression of such tender emotion, but he was swept away by the purely visual ordinariness of the hero, a crooked-nosed dolt wearing a funny peaked cap and unbuttoned shirt that is utterly crumpled. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine a more convincing scene of friendly closeness between two laboring beings.
The portrait of Uncle Pylyp (1962) is the complete opposite of the preceding painting: he is a solid fellow, not at all a milquetoast (Gudzenko’s miserables clearly have something in common with the “heads” and group scenes in Corneliu Baba’s paintings of the 1950s). It is as if he has been pulled out of the tragic soil of Kholodnyi Yar of the 1920s. He is a born rebel, hard and handsome because of this metallic hardness of old age: call him what you like, but he is not an eccentric, not a victim, and not a little ethnographic image of the stubborn khokhol .
Vasyl Shkliar’s novel The Black Raven – about the desperate Ukrainian Vendée made a big splash and caused a scandal in Ukraine in 2010 – 2011. However, Gudzenko painted his portrait more than half a century before the publication of that literary work, which was nominated for the Shevchenko Prize. The action of the novel unfolds in the Cherkasy region. It is interesting to note that Gudzenko himself participated in the glorious rebel tradition when, in 1960, he took part in the first student demonstration in the USSR against the Soviet regime. It took place, however, outside the borders of Ukraine – in Kishinev, the capital city of Moldova, where he was studying at the Art Institute.
If “simple folk” are not so simple, then what can one say about the characters in the cult novel by Miguel de Cervantes, which opened up a vista of a whimsical, psychological parable before Gudzenko. Incidentally, this painting should be called Don Quixote and Sancho Panza or, perhaps, just Sancho Panza because the loyal squire of the cunning hidalgo from La Mancha does not simply occupy more than one-half of the painting; he is also fundamentally reconsidered. It would seem that the author could have created another variation on a country bumpkin. Instead, we see an evasive stooge, who openly mocks his not very bright master. Fortunately, he does not notice this. Nor does the artist spare him in his own right: the hero is tightly armored in a cocoon of starry-eyed idealism and naïve messianism.
The painting does not add up at all to the antitheses of high vs. low, nobility vs. baseness, and dream vs. reality, although overtones of all these contrasts are present in it. It is possible to interpret it as both an analytical study and a kind of artistic confession. One cannot even understand what there is more of in it – confessionality or analysis? Of course, Don Quixote is the self-portrait of a master, although done in a slightly crooked mirror that does not conceal his shortcomings but even exaggerates them. But is not Sancho Panza a second, dark, side of this image? Or is Don Quixote only a mental simulacrum in the sophisticated consciousness of Sancho Panza, “who…over the years had contrived to draw away from himself his demon, whom he later called Don Quixote, that he [Don Quixote] began to commit increasingly more insane deeds one after another” ? (Among Franz Kafka’s short stories and “crumbs,” “The Truth about Sancho Panza” was translated into Ukrainian and published in the journal Vsesvit (Universe) exactly ten years before Gudzenko created this painting.)
The playful and demiurgic hand gesture of the squire turns the master into a chimerical projection of his servant’s unscrupulous intentions. In any case, Gudzenko’s myth is not of literary but plastic origin, which is confirmed by the savory, pictorial decision behind the background of the action depicted in the painting. The artist, who was unquestionably an erudite individual given to much intensive thinking (he did not write verses; he wrote “thoughts in poems”!), did everything in order to appear unrefined in his work. At the same time, his painting is a bitter verdict on the ethos of the 1960s, which capitulated in the face of the boorish pressure exerted by his peers, zealously kowtowing to the Soviet authorities, whose tyranny in Ukraine during the existence of the USSR was marked by special monstrousness.
“For me, art is a game; improvisation in art” . This strange dictum, preserved in the artist’s papers and written in an almost indecipherable scrawl in Russian, seems to set Gudzenko apart from the 1960s generation, and brings him closer to the generation of the 1970s, whose legacy is quite indistinct and whose vague ideology has not been sufficiently delineated in the historical process. If one endeavors briefly to define their position, then it may be expressed in the form of an antithesis of the earnestness and seriousness of the 1960s: “take it easy,” which in Ukrainian sounds completely distinctive: ne pereimatysia. Don’t weigh yourself down with what is dark and heavy. It is better to cultivate that which is bright and playful.
This gives rise to scenes of carnivals, celebrations, joyful crowds of mummers, countless follies of recreations and the sweet euphoria of a game that is perceived as the sense of life and its supreme achievement: games of mystification, stylization games, even games of parody. In Eduard Gudzenko’s oeuvre this tendency is represented by a minimum of three paintings (a triptych?) dating to the 1970s: Portrait of Natalka, The Comedians, and The Premiere.
Subsequently, the artist decisively avoided similar experiments, turning instead to the palpable, the visible, the audible, the understandable, the accessible, and that which was no less (indeed, more!) mysterious than all that.
“Keep me steady, my dear, on the steep path”, we read in one of Gudzenko’s poems. In that phrase, the word “dear” is probably fierce life, which is merciless even to gifted people.
It did keep him steady.