The new building of the National Art Museum in Minsk is a grand hall. With its whitewashed walls and columns, it resembles the ancient Roman thermae. This part of the Museum has been unveiled only a couple of years ago. It contains some of the most outstanding pieces of Belarusian art – those few, which were not lost, looted or destroyed during many never-ending wars, occupation periods, and ideological purges.
In one of the hall’s corners, you will find a modest glass-covered stand, something like a jeweler’s showcase. Looking inside, you cannot help thinking you see a handful of gems. However, as you take a closer look, they turn out to be sheets of paper, vividly coloured by some meticulous hand. What you see is book graphics by Mikola Selyashchyk, one of the most outstanding Belarusian artists of the late 20th century.
Mikola Selyashchuk was born in 1947 in the village of Velikaryta; you can hardly find a place in Belarus, which would be further to the south. It’s a country of sunflowers, big juicy apples, and white sand on the riverbanks. Having moved to a big city in pursuit of an artistic career, Mikola Selyashchuk carefully preserved the fragments of his childhood dreams, which he later generously inserted into his paintings.
Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu, a poet and friend of Mikola Selyashchuk, recalls himself telling the artist a story about a boy, who grew up with his father, a forester, in the woods without any knowledge of the outside world. One day the boy was struck to see a car, which came bustling through the thick of the forest to his house. “This is a story about me!” said Mikola Selyashchuk. “I also remember, how a metal machine invaded my world once, bringing its own strange smell and colour along. It happened on a homestead, where I grew up… This homestead was my whole world, when I was a kid. I hadn’t known any other world before. That’s where I come from, that’s where I have brought all these fairytale dwarfs and insects from”.
In his paintings, Mikola Selyashchuk created his own universe, which is at the same time a very Belarusian one. It is populated by men in clothes of different ages, beautiful women, and some strange creatures, which remind you of magic fairytales or pagan myths. They all populate Belarusian landscapes, which are so vivid and realistic that you almost sense the odour of melting snow or fresh grass.
“The meaning of such babel of characters, colours, and techniques is the Game”, writes Siarhey Hareuski in his series of articles “100 Masterpieces of the XXth Century”, published in the weekly newspaper Nasha Niva in 1999. “The foreboding of the Creation emerges out of the mixed rubbish, unfinished puppets, sheets of paper, fragments, splinters, and extracts. The artist fixes his look on the half-backed things, ready to breathe life into them”.
Mikola Selyashchuk first became famous in the 1970s with his book graphics. He prepared illustrations for some collections of Belarusian folk stories and fairytales. Books with his colourful miniatures could be found in almost every Belarusian family in the 1990’s. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the imaginary world of Selayshchuk has, to a large extent, shaped views of many Belarusians, who are now in their late twenties. The artist made Belarusian classics sound different by illustrating, for instance, the epic poem “Symon the Musician” by a prominent Belarusian poet, Yakub Kolas. “Playing around with filigree details, like puppets, filling the composition with the realm of strange, incomplete characters, which either fly or swim or grow, has become the special style of the artist”, writes Siarhey Hareuski.
The paintings by Mikola Selyashchuk resemble still shots from movies, or frozen theatre scenes. Sometimes the author himself appears between the characters of his paintings, like a director during the opening night of a theatre show. In terms of audience, Mikola Selyashchuk usually had full house; his works appear in many private collections and museums around the world.
Mikola Selyashchuk often introduced himself as an “artist from above the ocean”. This should be understood literally, for his workshop was on the top floor of the house in Minsk, right above the famous seafood store “Ocean”. By some tragic twist of fate, he found his last rest in the salty waters of Tyrrhenian Sea, when he was fulfilling his old dream of touring Italy in 1996. Mikola Selyashchuk was swimming when a wave swept over him. Sailing, flying, drifting away was a frequent motive of his phantasmagoric works...
by Ales Kudrytsky
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