A dark vision of Belarus: nightmarish chaos and devilish forces

For many years, once a year, on 25 March, the artist set up an easel in the main square of his village and painted the 'Picture of Freedom'. The work was created in public, exclusively on this one day, a national holiday for Belarusians. However, it was completed in Poland. The original is kept at the Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw.

On Tuesday, 11 July 2023, the Belarusian painter and performer Ales Pushkin died in Grodno. He would have turned 58 in less than a month. The death occurred in the intensive care unit and the causes of the artist's death remain unknown (in any case, one can only speculate about them). Pushkin was serving a sentence of five years in a penal colony. In 2021, he was convicted of 'rehabilitating Nazism'.

This allegation concerned the fact that the artist displayed in the Grodno City Life Centre a portrait he had painted of Jauhien Zhychar, an anti-Soviet Belarusian partisan during World War II who, according to official regime historiography, collaborated with the Third Reich as a Nazi.

A tribute to a hero

Meanwhile, when it comes to assessing the activities of this militant, the matter is more complicated. Yes, Zhychar is a controversial figure, but he was not a Nazi.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE In the summer of 1944, the Germans in the territories they had occupied in Belarus ordered mobilisation. Zhychar was drafted into the Abwehr-organised "Dalwitz" landing battalion, where he received training to fight against the Red Army. But after the Second World War, when his homeland was fully incorporated into the USSR, he tried to conceal his past and joined the ranks of the Soviet army. Presumably he did so in order to survive, because he did not become a communist.

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The essence of Zhychar's activity was to fight against the Soviets for an independent Belarus - under such conditions as he thought possible. After 1945, he continued this fight in the underground. In 1955, during a skirmish with the KGB, seeing that he had no chance of escape, he committed suicide.

Ales Pushkin's tribute to Yauhen Zhychar has its origins in the artist's political involvement.

Belarusian nationalist

We have become accustomed to the fact that dissidents in countries such as Belarus and Russia are usually liberal-minded people, mentally, politically and financially managed by Western circles who want to build 'open societies' in the East. As part of this ideological colonisation, the message is served that the alternative to post-Soviet dictatorships are democracies based on the agenda of progressivism. Belarusians (and not only them) are thus told that if they want to get out from under Russian influence and join the West, they must, for example, improve the situation of sexual minorities in their country and dismantle the traditional family model as a form of patriarchal violence.

Meanwhile, Ales Pushkin had nothing to do with such ideological moods. He was a Belarusian nationalist who, at the very least, regarded Christianity with affection. There is even no shortage of works of a sacred nature in his oeuvre. Some of them caused political scandals. These include frescoes in both Catholic and Orthodox churches. These works depicted biblical figures with the faces of well-known people of Belarusian public life. The fresco 'Last Judgement' from 2000 was particularly notorious, with Alexander Lukashenko and Metropolitan Filaret, then exarch of the Russian Orthodox Church of Belarus, recognised among the sinners painted there.

At the end of the 1980s, Ales Pushkin participated in the formation of the Belarusian Popular Front (BFL). The programme of this conservative, patriotic party envisaged the revival of Belarusian national identity on the basis of the historical heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The BFL's activity began with a campaign to commemorate those who, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, were executed en masse by order of the Soviet authorities in the Kuropaty wilderness near Minsk. Ales Pushkin took part in the initiatives of the Belarusian Popular Front and for this reason, even though perestroika was already in progress, he had a bone to pick with the Soviet justice authorities.
At the same time, one has to admit that the artist was capable of shocking with his statements. In 1989, he said in an interview that he dreamt of a Belarus 'without Jews and communists'. Ten years later, when he was reminded of these shocking words, he did not deny that he had said them. He merely explained that he had changed his mind. And he declared that Belarus was to be a country for everyone (including Jews and communists), where freedom would reign.

One may wonder what Ales Pushkin meant by the "Jewish question". Probably the most probable variant is simply that the artist wanted to provoke a storm and, deep down, was not motivated by any prejudice against Jews. It is significant, by the way, that the anti-Semitic statement of the artist from more than three decades ago did not spoil his reputation in the West. When he was severely persecuted by the Lukashenko regime, people from the right to the left came to his defence in Europe. In 2021, Camilla Hansén, a member of the Swedish parliament for the Green Party - i.e. a left-wing formation - announced that she had become the imprisoned dissident's 'godmother' and extended her long-distance protection to him.

The godfather of soc-art

In Ales Pushkin's case, nationalist views went hand in hand with avant-garde innovation in art. In Belarus, he introduced soc-art. This trend of art was born in the USSR in the 1970s and is an ironic, perverse combination of Soviet social realism and American pop art. While American artists such as Andy Warhol were making use of the products of pop culture and advertising, in the Soviet Union analogous efforts were made with the images and slogans of communist propaganda. The credo of soc-art can be summarised as follows: what Marilyn Monroe was to Americans, Vladimir Lenin was to the people of the Soviet Union.

On 25 March 1989, the 71st anniversary of the founding of the independent Belarusian People's Republic (BRL), Ales Pushkin held a famous performance. It was a manifesto of social-art. The artist organised a march on the main street of Minsk with 12 posters that contained slogans contradicting the official Soviet ideology. One of the works depicted the coat of arms of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1951, while the poster read: "Enough of 'socialist', let's revive People's Belarus!". The march was disrupted by the police and Pushkin was arrested.

“Picture of Freedom”
Of the artist's works, the work 'Picture of Freedom' is particularly impressive. It is, incidentally, also part of a performance that Ales Pushkin carried out annually in his home village in the Minsk region - Bobra. For many years, once a year, on 25 March (i.e., as already stated, on the anniversary of the establishment of the BRL), the artist set up an easel in the main square of this village and painted the 'Picture of Freedom'. This work was created in public only on this one day, precisely on the national holiday of Belarusians, and remained unfinished for a long time.

However, as Piotr Bernatowicz, director of the Centre for Contemporary Art - Ujazdowski Castle (CSW), tells TVP Weekly, Ales Pushkin's work was eventually completed, and in Poland. Its original is in the CSW. According to Bernatowicz, Pushkin's intention was for the work to return to Belarus. But as a condition for the work's return, the artist indicated the liberation of his country from Lukashenko's dictatorship.

'Picture of Freedom' is a dark vision of Belarus as nightmarish chaos. Here we see a multitude of tangled naked human bodies (a few of them, judging by their headgear, are bodies of state functionaries - Soviet or Lukashenko-era, it is difficult to determine). In addition, there are frightening figures associated with devils. There is also a devastated or even bombed-out tenement house. But there is no lack of hopeful elements. These include angel trumpets and the Belarusian independence colours, i.e. the red, white and white national colours.

Watching 'Picture of Freedom', the phrase by Cyprian Kamil Norwid, which became the motto of the monthly magazine 'Sztuka i Naród' (Art and Nation), comes to mind. This was a clandestine nationalist magazine published in Warsaw under the German occupation. Norwid's motto was: 'The artist is the organiser of the national imagination'. The work of Ales Pushkin remains an illustration of these words.

– Filip Memches

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Tomasz Krzyżanowski
Main photo: A fragment of Ales Pushkin's 'Picture of Freedom', on show at the 'Political Art' exhibition at the Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Photo: Włodzimierz Wasyluk / Forum
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