Barys Zaborau: The Long Return

If rookie art-ignorant burglars attempted to rob the National Art Museum in Minsk, they would hardly be tempted by this painting. For them, “Humno” (‘Barn’) by Barys Zaborau would be no more eye-catchy than a piece of old faded wall-paper. However, to the robbers’ utter surprise, the work turns out to be one of the most valuable recent acquisitions of the main Belarusian art museum.

Paintings by Barys Zaborau can be found in galleries and museums around the world. However, it took Belarus, Zaborau’s homeland, almost 30 years to recognise his talent. In February 2009 “Humno” received its place in the main exposition of the National Art Museum. “The ceremony was organized well and rather pompously”, says Barys Zaborau half-jokingly. “30 years ago I was showed the country’s door with almost the same degree of pomposity”, adds the artist. 

Writing about paintings is a miserable task. It is even more difficult with Zaborau’s works. Studying them is not only a visual, but also sensual experience. The colours of “Humno” are hushed and modest. In fact, glancing at this rectangular piece of canvas for the first time you will barely recognise any specific object at all. All you see is a shape of an old wooden gate in the centre, drowned in the mist of an early summer morning. But don’t walk away shrugging your shoulders, and don’t try to press your nose against the painting. Instead, make a couple of steps back. There, you will find a small soft bench. Sit down and wait until your eyes get adjusted to the colour palette.

You will soon discover that studying paintings by Zaborau is like watching photos being developed in a photographer’s dark room. Slowly, ever more details begin to fade in. The space of the painting becomes deeper and more visible. After a couple of quiet seconds you begin to discern a small lawn in front of the gate. It is grown with something like old grass – or bushes – or faded flowers. There is a dark shape of something that could be an old rusty bucket, or a moss-covered stone. And these two pointed lines sticking out of the grass: are they the horns of a goat which lost its way in the abandoned yard? Gradually, the space of the picture stretches itself, expands in all directions. You begin to make out a grove of trees nearby, and a darker stripe of woods on the horizon. Far away there is a bright spot: it must be the mirroring surface of a lake or river with vague shapes of a town or village on its bank. And even further, above all of it, you see the clouds which let sunrays fall down on the vast landscape. The light travels across gently sloped, wood-covered hills. The details become  so numerous that the wooden gate, which previously appeared as a lonesome wrack, is now holding the whole universe like the buckle of a belt. But what is hidden behind the gate, inside the barn? Maybe, there is a wholly different world, which not even the painter himself is able to see?

Parallels between Zaborau’s paintings and photos are not groundless. In fact, it was an old photo album which inspired the artist to adopt this painting style. It happened shortly after Zaborau emigrated from Minsk to Paris. But what made one of the most prominent book illustrators of Soviet Belarus leave the country? And why did he have to wait twenty-eight long years to see his painting exhibited in his native city? After all, there had been personal exhibitions of Zaborau in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, in the Manezh Gallery in St.Petersburg, as well as numerous galleries around the world, from Paris to Tokyo. Why had Zaborau, whose works can be found in the collections of the Albertina Museum in Vienna, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow and the Uffizi Gallery of Florence, and who created scenery and costumes for the famous Comédie-Française theatre in Paris, been ignored in Belarus for so long?

Barys Zaborau was born in 1935 in Minsk. In the 1950s-60s he studied art in Minsk and, after that, at the renowned Repin Institute in Leningrad and the Surikov Institute in Moscow. However, he did not remain in Russia, but returned to Belarus.

During the Soviet time anyone who wanted to pursue a career of an artist seriously had to join the state union of artists. Otherwise, you would neither get a studio, nor participate in exhibitions, nor be able to live from your work. Most of the commissions for artists were distributed centrally, according to the ideological plan. In his dreams, Barys Zaborau always wanted to be a painter, but he chose to become a book illustrator. He knew that painting was one of the most fiercely regulated fields of art in the Soviet Union. As a book graphic artist, Zaborau remained relatively free in what he did, because he always stayed in the protective shadow of the text he illustrated.

Barys Zaborau soon developed his own distinctive style of illustration. Compared with the old-school Soviet graphics, it was truly innovative. He earned multiple awards for his illustrations, in the Soviet Union and abroad. The recognition brought Zaborau a privilege of choice. “I could pick any book from the plan and illustrate it”, he says.  However, the freedom was not ultimate. Those in charge of the Belarusian union of artists observed Zaborau with suspicion and envy.

For a very long time the artist was denied a studio of his own. And when he finally received a place where he could work, the pressure became even higher. Finally, the KGB searched his studio on the New Year’s Eve. Zaborau’s father, an artist himself, went to the KGB demanding an explanation. A KGB officer confessed that they did not have any evidence of Barys Zaborau’s anti-Soviet activity. However, the KGB was flooded with anonymous letters from Zaborau’s colleagues denouncing the artist, and the security service felt obliged to react.

There was another problem, which frustrated Zaborau even more. As a book illustrator he knew that his work would always be of secondary importance, with the text being the primary masterpiece. But he wanted to be an independent creator. At the same time, he realised that if he stayed in Belarus, he would keep on producing books one after another, with the main dream of his life remaining unfulfilled.

In 1980, shortly after his father left for Israel, Barys Zaborau also decided to head abroad, taking his family along. “It was scary, but I like it when it is scary”, he admits. However, when Jewish repatriation organisations began to approach the artist in Vienna, he refused to follow his father’s footsteps. Zaborau strived for Paris. With the help of the Tolstoy Foundation he managed to settle in the French capital. “The Tolstoy Foundation is an organisation of a special kind. It scrutinizes the backgrounds of people it supports. They must be people of art. In this regard, we fitted their conditions. I was an artist, and my wife was a daughter of a repressed Russian poet Boris Korneev”, explains Zaborau in one of his interviews.

Zaborau came to Paris and immediately realised that he was just one of the thousands of artists who tried to find their fortune in this city. “It was a masochistic pleasure watching Paris out of my window in the night. There was a sea of lights before my eyes and not a single person in these windows who was aware of my existence”.

Disillusioned and desperate, Barys Zaborau was looking for a key to his future life and for the solution for supporting his family. He admits that this almost brought him to the verge of suicide. One day, idly sifting through his luggage, Zaborau stumbled upon an old photo album. It was a small collection of photos he brought from Minsk. “These old albums mesmerize me. I always want to invent these people’s lives”, he says. The artist promised himself to abandon his previous life and never return to book graphics. Instead, he decided to recreate the people from old photos on canvas.
Some day, shortly after he first came  to Paris, Zaborau  was strolling down a street in the Latin quarter of Paris with his friend Aleh Tsalkou, another Belarusian artist who has already been in the French capital for a couple of years. Aleh pointed at the window of the Galerie Claude Bernard and said “If you see you picture in this gallery by the end of your life, be sure that your coming to Paris was not in vain”.
Three months went by, and Barys Zaborau’s paintings went on display at the Galerie Claude Bernard. One of the co-owners of the gallery died, and the mighty Bernard family clan decided to introduce his young daughter into the gallery life. They bought her additional exhibition space, hired an experienced art manager as an assistant and suggested that she expanded the gallery activities by looking for unknown artists and selling them at prices, which would be affordable for an average European collector. In the beginning, the gallery was looking for about seven or eight new artists, in all European countries. When the manager of the gallery visited Zaborau in Paris, the artist only had three or four paintings ready. All of them were purchased without much bargaining. Moreover, the gallery offered Zaborau to sign a long-term contract. At 45 years, it was the start of Zaborau’s career in Paris, or better to say, the start of his new life.

However, Zaborau left Minsk not only with bitter experiences. Some memories have inspired him throughout all these years. Every year after coming to Paris he created a painting of a Belarusian barn, ‘humno’. There are now 28 “Humno” pictures all over the world. Zaborau drew inspiration for them from his travels in Belarus. “I am not so much interested in the barn construction itself, which is rather unpretentious, but in its surrounding. I used to travel a lot in Belarus, and often spend nights in barns, in the hayloft. The odour of hay, the breath of cows arouses very pleasant memories. When I grow tired of dialogues with the numerous characters of my paintings, I turn to this motive. When I paint the barn, I take a stroll around it and see much more – the Narach Lake, where I spent my childhood, somewhere to the right – the road to the town of Pastavy… This is how it happens”, explains Barys Zaborau.

During the ceremony of “Humno” presentation at the National Art Museum in Minsk Zaborau said that he had three motherlands. First one is Belarus, where he was born and spent his childhood, where his relatives are buried and many good friends live. Russia is the land where he spent his youth and studied, the country which shaped him professionally as an artist. And France is the country which gave him the opportunity to fulfil the sacred dream of being a painter. Zaborau is a citizen of the world with intermingled cultural backgrounds. It took a while for him to receive recognition in the country where he was born. But this is also something which is typically Belarusian.
By Ales Kudrytski




Pony, 1988



A boy ruding a bike, 2003