For many connoisseurs the one-man retrospective of the noted Ukrainian artist Mykola Hlushchenko, mounted in September 1971 to mark his 70th jubilee, held quite a few surprises. This was especially so as regards Hlushchenko’s productions of the last few years. Those who admired the exhibits were impressed by their telling expressiveness, vivacity of color, and a fresh and original apprehension of the world around us. The show covered fifty years in the career of the artist, and every one of the canvases was a distinctive page in his biography.
One of his earliest creations, a self-portrait painted at the age of twenty-two, is done in Italian Renaissance-derived style. Its wide range of soft pastel browns, as well as the conventional architectural background and the well-modeled features of the face emanate an unusual tranquillity. And only the tense expression of the young man’s eyes distorts the inner classical balance of the portrait, revealing the true identity and thoughts of the person it represents.
When Mykola Hlushchenko was five years old, his father died. Together with his mother, he moved from his native town of Novomoskovsk to the Ukrainian village of Borisovka in Kursk Province. There he experienced the first excitement of a would-be artist while watching the local icon painters at work. The urge to paint has never left him since then. He attended classes in drawing at a commercial school in Yuzovka (now Donetsk) and was especially fond of Repin and Vasil-kivsky. The copying of paintings and scenery pieces for workers’ clubs were Hlushchenko’s first independent steps in his career as an artist.
Then followed the hard days of confinement in a prisoners-of-war camp in Poland, from which he made a daring escape to Germany. Jobless, hungry, deprived of decent lodgings, Hlushchenko nonetheless pursued his career, studying at the private studio of Hans Baluschek in Berlin.
The different schools and trends in art, which alternately coexisted with or negated and influenced each other in those days, left his artistic individuality unscathed. His best paintings he did then had a new quality of a distinction which was not drowned in the kaleidoscope of prevalent artistic inventions.
During his studies at the Berlin Academy Hlushchenko fell under the spell of symbolism which dominated the German art of the time. He had a special fondness of the famous Swedish artist Anders Zorn, whose work, realistic as it was, bore some definite marks of impressionism. This is evident in the refined feeling of plastic form, opulent brushwork and conceptual unrestrained in Hlushchenko’s pictures.
His quest for different forms of plastic imagery took him to the museums, galleries and exhibitions in Berlin, where he found many interesting works by his contemporaries and masters of the past. As an advocate of realism he was attracted by the severity and clarity of the canvases of the German and Flemish Renaissance (Dürer, Hans Holbein the Younger, Jan van Eyk, and Lucas Cranach the Elder). Hlushchenko endeavored to convey the innermost motives of his soul, and for him the image of man and the eternal theme of feminine beauty seemed to be the best vehicles of expression in this respect.
Reviewing Hlushchenko’s entries in the 1924 exhibition at the Kasper Art Gallery in Berlin, the critics noted the high culture and technical perfection of his canvases. This success opened to him the doors of the exhibition of the Neue Sachlichkeit group, which featured works by German, French, Swiss and Italian artists (in Jstern, Dresden, and Erfurt).
In 1925, Hlushchenko moved to Paris. From here the lame of Courbet, Millet, Corot, the impressionists Manet, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, and Matisse, Picasso, Léger, Derain and Rouault spread throughout the world. Without these names the history of world art would be incomplete. “The vitality of Paris, the play of color and the illustrious achievements of the impressionists captured me,” he would later recall.
Heated disputes, criticism of the reactionary dogmas of academism whose advocates were already in a spiritual impasse but still dominated the official salons, attendances of the famous salons of Tuileries and those of the “Indépendants,” visits to dozens of private galleries and improvised shows — these were the main interests of the young artist in Paris. The rapidly changing tastes of the time notwithstanding, Hlushchenko’s personality was not lost in the colorful crowd of artists from Montmartre and Montparnasse. Apart from the works by formalistic experimentalists, which were devoid of deep content and figurative idiom, the Parisian exhibitions also displayed canvases whose subjects were closely related to life, and among them were Hlushchenko’s productions — fresh and distinct in their own right.
His compositions Les Joueurs de cartes, Les Joueurs d’échecs, La Procession, and Un Couple d’amoureux were exhibited in the Salon d’automne, Salon des Indépendants, and the Salon des Tuileries. They bore yet marks of severity and certain asceticism typical of the Berlin school. But his subsequent works — Femme assise and Femme à sa toilette — are imbued with a vitality sustained by a laconic and expressive draughtsmanship. During the Parisian period Hlushchenko also took an active part in public life. He popularized the economic and cultural achievements of the Soviet Union. In 1925, he designed the Soviet exhibition at the Lyon Fair. As chief artist of the USSR trade-industrial exhibitions, he took an active part in organizing the Soviet departments at expos held in Brussels, Milan, Paris and Marseille. Due to his efforts, a number of shows of Soviet artists were organized in Paris, such as the widely spoken about exhibition of Petr Konchalovsky.
Hlushchenko’s achievements in composition, drawing, and psychological treatment, and his broadened spiritual horizons were especially clearly projected in his portraits of the 1930s — those of Romain Rolland, Henri Barbusse, Paul Signac, and Victor Margueritte. The portrait of Henri Barbusse. in particular, produces an unforgettable impression by its dramatism and exceptional authenticity. The inner world of the subiect. a passionate fighter against fascism, is happily conveyed through original expedients which are skillfully made use of. The portrait is rightfully recognized as one of the best in the Soviet Ukrainian visual arts of the prewar period.
From 1925 to 1936 Hlushchenko’s one-man shows were mounted in many cities of Europe — in Paris. Berlin, Ostend, Milan, Stockholm, Rome, as well as in the USA.
As the political atmosphere changed for the worse, Hlushchenko could not stand aloof of the problems agitating the public mind of the world. During a visit to Spain in 1934 he did the painting Execution of Revolutionary, which he barely managed to slip through the customs.
At all stages of his career Hlushchenko’s creations have been distinguished for their telling civic message which corresponded to the best features of the art of socialist realism.
In 1936 Hlushchenko returned to his homeland.
At the outbreak of the Second World War he resided in Moscow. The press often carried his poignant graphic works indicting the crimes of the German fascists. His series Defense of Moscow is highly patriotic and revealing. Hlushchenko frequently visited the frontline and reproduced his impressions in Death of General Dovator, in the Wake of the Enemy. These and some other of his works, particularly a number of landscapes permeated with love of Russian nature, were displayed at the artist’s one-man exhibition held in Moscow in 1943.
Ukrainian art-lovers also took great interest in Hlushchenko’s creative work. The exhibition of his pictrures organized in the Kiev House of Writers drew the attention of many prominent figures in Ukrainian culture and arts.
After the liberation of Kiev, in 1944, Hlushchenko moved to Ukraine. Since then his art is closely related to his country of birth. Its colorful natural beauties and the poesy of creativity of Soviet man are the underlying sources of his inspiration. Thematically, Hlushchenko’s landscapes range from intimately lyrical to epic and monumental pieces, e. g. the pictorially refined Birches in March, the spacious Fields of a Collective Farm, the fresh Morning by the Sea, the solemnly restrained and dramatic Vishgorod Bridgehead, the elegiac Autumn in Kiev, and the grand Ukraine. In his sketches and studies he has skilfully captured the changeableness of nature and the ecstasy man derives from his immediate contact with it.
Hlushchenko’s temperament has made him one of the most traveled artists in Ukraine. For him the studio is only a temporary place of creation, where he transplants his impressions onto the canvas to be admired at exhibitions invariably following his many travels throughout the Soviet Union and abroad.
Tn the 1960s, as many critics have noted, Hlushchenko’s artistic conceptions suddenly took on a new form. His brushwork became broad and vigorous and his colors pure, and there appeared a marked decorativeness in his paintings.
At first sight, this was something of a surprise to many of his admirers. But on closer inspection of his previous works one would hardly leave unnoticed those subtle elements which led to such a change, viz. his keen sensitivity to the surrounding environment, unexceptionable feci in it of rhythm, and fondness of decorative folk art. His palette became richer and his choice of color freer. He sees the world in constant movement to which he subordinates both form and color. However, the decorativeness which results therefrom only enhances the feeling of harmony.
When we look at Hlushchenko’s beautiful still-lifes with flowers, we perceive them as something live and not as something created by the sheer fantasy of the artist. His works are a happy combination of fantasy and reality, e.g. Still-life (1971). with its dynamic red, yellow and lilac colors; Still-life in Blue (1971), a dreamily sensitive and bright canvas; and The Dance (1967), conveying the expressive movements of a Hutsul dance. He does not merely contemplate nature, but reproduces its eternal process of renovation. His pictures are results not of stratagem, but of spontaneity. Yet there is no trace of superficiality in them, for he is a man of exceptional talent, great experience and profound erudition in his craft.
Hlushchenko excels in many mediums. After visiting the places connected with Lenin’s life and revolutionary activities abroad (England, Italy, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and Czechoslovakia) he made a series of drawings in colored felt-pointed pens, pastels, and monotypes which are as consummate as his picturesque oils. His water colors merit the same praise.
Advanced in years as he is, Hlushchenko’s youthful energy is more than admirable. His pictures vividly reflect the wisdom of immense experience, the maturity of chiseled craftsmanship and unfading talent which until now has retained its freshness, strength and the daring of an innovator’s searchings. Says the artist: “My best picture has not been created yet. I am still seeking that fire-bird which evades my grasp.”