The Uncompromising Vision of Eduard Gudzenko
Doctor of Philosophy in Art History, Researcher at Brownsville University, Texas
True talent can produce genuine, even astounding artistic expression without the support of a sophisticated cultural environment, and, as history shows, creativity may actually flourish under very harsh circumstances . The standard art history narrative for Soviet countries after World War II describes a monopoly of predictable images of heroic and happy industrialized citizens. Only after the break-up of the Soviet Union is it slowly becoming clear that the story is much more complex. In the small city of Cherkassy, Ukraine, 100 miles southeast of the capital city Kyiv, artist Eduard Ivanovych Gudzenko created paintings of uncompromising vision, persisting in the face of severe economic, social and moral hardship. Trained in the neighboring country of Moldova, he created art work that from the very beginning displayed a remarkable understanding of color, composition and surface texture, as well as an unlikely affinity with the work of western European painters Picasso, Cezanne and van Gogh. Gudzenko’s work is thick with paint, pulsing with energy and rich with the mystery that continues to surround this enigmatic man.
It is important for the non-Ukrainian viewer and in particular for those not raised in the former Soviet Union, to understand the context in which Gudzenko was working. He was born just before the start of World War II, a period of incredible loss of human life in Ukraine, compounded by ongoing Stalinist persecution. The precepts of Socialist Realism, imposed in the early 1930s as the only acceptable artistic method, required that art be understandable to the general public, that it show the Soviet Union in a positive light, and be based in a realist style. At this time artistic training involved a classical foundation, highly skilled drawing abilities and, in particular, almost exclusive concentration on academic realism. The Soviet regime imposed a cultural isolation from the trends ongoing in the West, so it is especially significant that Gudzenko went to Moldova for art school, as the professors there were apparently more open to experimentation and artistic trends outside of the Soviet sphere.
In 1956 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev delivered his famous secret speech sparking a short-lived change in Soviet policy, including a brief period of mild experimentation in the arts. For the first time in decades the work of the Impressionists, of Pablo Picasso and examples of international contemporary art, including Abstract Expressionism, were shown in the Soviet Union in the late 1950s-early 1960s. Moscow artists developed what became known as the Severe Style, using somewhat more modernist techniques including Impressionism, while still keeping to acceptable themes. These developments in Moscow seemed to trickle out to the provinces, as did information on Western artists. From Gudzenko’s biography, however, it is clear that these new freedoms were not necessarily welcomed in the provinces. Resistance to change, and perhaps professional jealousy of a talented young artist, meant that he could not get away with the same things in Cherkasy that artists were doing with official approval so far away in Moscow.
In any event the Thaw did not last and the year 1968 marked the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and an end to any real cultural experimentation. As Ekaterina Dyogot has pointed out, most artists faced the challenges of producing art under such restrictions by choosing landscape, still life and genre scenes as subject matter (non-political, non-collective subjects) while retaining a figurative, representational style .
All of this is to say that Eduard Gudzenko’s consistent, persistent creative output in a style clearly unique and highly expressive went against everything around him and resulted in great hardship for himself and his family. There was a severe cost to working outside the system; without membership in the Artists Union, he did not have access to lucrative orders commissions, art supplies, government studios, or exhibition opportunities. Yet, statements from friends, colleagues and family describe a man who could not compromise, as it may for him have been the ultimate price. Nonetheless, his health problems and repeated heart attacks are linked by those who knew him to the harsh public criticism directed at his work.
As others have noted, Gudzenko’s work shows strong influences from western European painters, including Cezanne, Matisse and van Gogh. The artist may have learned of their work from reproductions or quite probably secondhand through the work of other painters in the Soviet bloc such as his instructors at the Kishinev Art College. It is telling that Gudzenko’s work prior to attending the art school showed all the signs of his mature style, so it would seem that rather than imitating western trends, he recognized in them kindred creative spirits.
Of the earliest extant paintings from 1957 – 1959, several landscapes demonstrate Gudzenko’s remarkable facility with the oil medium. “White House” is a small work on cardboard, done before the artist had more than a couple years of high school art classes. The paint is applied fearlessly in thick swipes and dabs with a sophisticated palette. The works appears to have been done swiftly and layered while wet, which coincides with reports from his colleagues that he painted quickly. Like his contemporaries painting across the ocean in New York, Gudzenko used paint strokes that express movement, wind and energy.
The western art trends of the 1960s and 1970s such as Minimalism, Pop Art and Conceptualism would not reach Cherkassy for some years, and Gudzenko, already isolated by his unorthodoxy, further distanced himself by moving to the small village of Budyshche. The Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning might, at first glance, seem related, but in fact Gudzenko worked in a markedly different mode without the psychological unpinning of the unconscious or the large-scale canvas of the unrestrained ego. And crucially, even in his most abstract works, Gudzenko never lets go of representation. One can only wonder what he might have achieved if unfettered by the restrictions of his era.
Eleonory Gilbourd compares the importance of Khrushchev’s 1956 “Secret Speech”, in which he denounced Stalin’s crimes against the party, to the exhibition of Picasso’s work in the USSR of the same year . Furor over the Picasso exhibitions held in Moscow and Leningrad lasted for more than a decade, according to Gilbourd, and the artist’s name became a figure of speech, symbolizing artistic freedom as well as western European culture . Even if unable to see the exhibition, Gudzenko and other artists had access to standard Soviet publications, which by the 1960s discussed and illustrated the work of Picasso at length .
Picasso was nonetheless a problematic figure for the official art establishment, and even though a member of the Communist Party in France, his art was branded formalist and cosmopolitan. Similar public criticism was made of Gudzenko, whose expressionistic brushwork and highly abstracted forms were suspiciously foreign and thus threatening not only to the aesthetic order but to national safety. The Ukrainian artist’s still life “Dishes” of 1968 and the much later “Portrait of the Stableman Ivan Gritsay” (1984) use strongly faceted planes and dark tones highly reminiscent of Picasso’s “Analytical Cubism.” In this movement three-dimensional form is shown from multiple view points on the flat surface of the canvas, creating for the Cubists a reality much truer than the illusion of single-point perspective. Derided for their little “cubes,” it is ironic that during their time the Cubists were seen as a threat to the established values of western high art and conversely perceived by the Soviet establishment as representing dangerous bourgeois values.
Like so many Soviet artists isolated for years at a time from artistic developments around the world, Gudzenko shows a particularly skillful ability to adapt a variety of techniques to his own style. Adaptations of the roughly reworked paint of Vincent van Gogh, the heightened color palette of the Fauves and the flat outlines of the German expressionist Der Blaue Reiter appear in several works. What is unclear is how much Gudzenko may have agreed with the philosophical and theoretical views of these groups. His highly apolitical stance might have been a survival tactic, but we may never know.
Above and beyond all of these foreign artists, Gudzenko seems to be conversing with Cezanne, pushing the post-Impressionist’s blocky patches of color into thicker, more abstract forms. “Le Mont Sainte-Victoire” (1897 – 1898) is one of several Cezanne landscapes in Russian museums featuring layers of spatial planes that make interesting comparison with Gudzenko paintings such as “Dnestr” and “Village Fence,” both from 1958 . Gudzenko’s heavy dabs of paint put emphasis on the two-dimensional surface. A captivating tension and dynamism exists between this awareness of the flat canvas and the Cezannean “passages” of color, which create depth and the illusion of space.
In “Snowy Winter” of 1987, Gudzenko maintains his abstracted forms, and, though he fights the paint and overworks it, he still manages to convey to convey a rich sense of light, shadow, and depth. This was a tragic year for the artist in which he had one of his several heart attacks, and it may be that we are seeing damage to his physical health in the struggle to apply color.
Throughout his life, Gudzenko stayed remarkably faithful to his vision; “Winter Morning” of 2004 contains his hallmark thick, rapid strokes of paint, fearless color, and a vivid sense of movement and energy. This must be the work of a committed optimist. To see in the snowy morning the beauty of life, and to paint it with truth to his vision was the true mark of courage and faith in the new day.