The Belarusian artist Igor Barkhatkov is in his element painting meadows, woods, wastes overgrown with grass (the grass of oblivion) trees, little villages... It could be expressed shorter: the world of Igor Barkhatkov is the landscape but we would not like to use this word here. It is somewhat affected, mincing and too much dissonant with all that is painfully familiar, which belongs only to him and which the artist has revealed to us. If not “landscape” what should we call that genre? Views... still not the right word. It sounds rather vulgar, like in a tourist guide. As it appears there is no appropriate word to determine this kind of painting. We could call it “pictures of nature”. Maybe... Let it be this way, though it is not accurate either. While looking at the works of Barkhatkov you forget that they are paintings. They seem to be life itself. The greatest art is that which you do not notice, as A. Rodin said. There is no need though to reveal the “secret” to a modern experienced art gallery visitor that the impression of identity of a painting and nature is an illusion. In reality every artist animates his work with his thoughts, feelings and ideas. To put it another way: he extracts from nature everything which is in tune both with his soul and with his time. The grass is green in Holland and in France and near Moscow, and Russian pines do not differ from French ones, but even so you could not confuse landscapes of Sezanne with those of Shishkin, Corot with Levitan or Savrasov with Byalynitsky-Birulya. By the brushwork of every artist nature becomes different, it acquires novelty and unique features. So, what was the novelty shown to us by Barkhatkov? Why was it necessary to depict once more all those meadows, forest edges, village backyards? Of course, not to enjoy the fertile fields and fat cattle (as in the Dutch paintings of the 17th century), and not to please the idle nobles with the elegant groups of trees and smartly dressed shepherdesses under them (as in the French paintings of the 18th century). And, surely, not to solve plein-air problems (as the impressionists of the 19th century did). And to rest from the deathly still pathos of academism with its “Roman half-naked warriors” (as in Polenov’s canvases). And moreover, not to glorify the boundless fields of collective farms producing bounteous harvest well above plan (as in the paintings of socialist realists). In Barkhatkov’s paintings there is none of that placid, quiet admiration with a shade of nostalgia of past times, of noble country seats and suburban dachas where intellectuals chat around a samovar, with butterflies flying onto the veranda and the newly-mown grass smelling so sweet... But then, perhaps, there is pathos, passion and the desperation of Levitan or, at least, his morbid euphoria and a blessedness equal to suffering or suffering equal to blessedness in the paintings of our artist? No, my dear friend, just have a look and you will see nothing of the sort. And now, take another close look, stand still before the canvases for a while, take your time and at last you will see every thing that is really present in these paintings. You will not be able to express it in words, though you could use many. But one word will certainly sound in your soul, and it will stay there for a long time: God. The artist simply seems to paint what he can see. And the whole secret is that he sees not what an ordinary eye can see. He sees through the exterior of things their deep essence, the intention of our Creator. All these “things” — the sky, trees, grass — are not created by man. Is it not enough to show them as they are and by that put the Creator above oneself as John the Baptist put Jesus of Nazareth? A. Stifter, a German writer of the 19th century, worded it well: “The greatest poetical fullness, the power most thrilling and most absorbing our heart lies in the world and its parts. Reproduce reality with the reality which exists but do not change the ardour which is already there. You will create far more marvelous works than you could ever imagine or produce by painting fakes and declaring: there is ardour here now”. My dear friend! If you do not feel the divine breath of the Creator in these pictures, all my words are in vain. As we know well, it is impossible to prove the existence of God by means of our poor mind, which is foolishness before the wisdom of the Creator. But when words are inadequate, then objects, forms, space and colour speak for themselves. Just glance at Barkhatkov’s paintings: there are no people. Nature is free of both the presence of people and the fruits of civilization. A sinful man deserves to be banished from the God’s world, as Adam was expelled in his time for having desecrated the garden of Eden by the original sin. The artist gives space to the Spirit of God and the lines of the paintings are positioned horizontally to let it breathe freely. Low gray clouds, a strip of a forest on the horizon, lines of trees in the foreground, ridges and the cornices of izba (log cabin) roofings — all of these are horizontal. The upper and lower parts of the painting stop being neutral and join the melody of horizontality. Here you can clearly hear the march of Time, the objective and absolute cosmic Time, which is fully dependent on the Superior will. It moves quietly and evenly from the left side of the canvas to the right and we have no power to speed up or slow down its movement. We can only surrender to its cosmic rhythms. Igor Barkhatkov does not paint lines rapidly running away into the distance, highways, canals or large rivers, electric wires... Even park walks do not appear in his pictures (and it is well known that they ought to be present in the central perspective). A rapid movement perpendicular to the picture’s plane forms a “black hole” at the point of the convergence which absorbs the space and creates a rush — the disaster of our time. For our glance not to run far away, the artist closes the horizon. That is why his space is intimate, you can stay alone with God in it. Maybe in the horizon being closed and also because of the small size of the pictures, the precious characteristic feature of the artist’s soul shows itself distinctly — his modesty, even shyness before Him who is above all others.
Blessed are the gentle for they inherit the earth...
In his work, every artist, being aware of it or not, chooses one out of two possibilities: mass or space, material or spiritual source. At the same time the physical essence of his subject does not matter. You can paint mountains alive and flying (as the Chinese do) or you can paint a stony and iron sky (as cubists do). If a painter was overwhelmed by space and air, the light would inevitably be present in his works and the forms would be airy and transparent. This is exactly what we see in Igor Barkhatkov’s paintings. The light in his canvases is indeed the Comforting Spirit pacifying the soul. There is so much kindness and hope in the soft light of a winter morning, in the cool sun of early autumn, in the golden brilliance of fading trees! Sad are the meadows, coppices and gray little peasant houses: who knows what fate evenly flowing time will bring them? Won’t their peace be destroyed by the grinding of excavators and the wailing of the saws? Won’t the peasants’ houses be crushed by a heartless bulldozer which leaves naked with all the shamelessness of a rapist the innermost secrets of a human dwelling: the bread-giving stove, wornout floor boards, a shred of floral wallpaper... The painter’s look is sad, he gazes at his model as if for the last time, as if saying farewell to a dear person. But the sorrow of the parting is eased by the hope and faith that God will not connive our ruin.
oh burning bush,
what is the fault of the people?
Life-giving hope is inspired by the soft caressing light depicted with such mastery that it takes some time to understand how it is done. Take, for instance, “The Church in Uzda”. The sky is dark. Not a sun’s ray can be seen through the heavy clouds but light is shining, radiating out of the picture. Live, meaningful light! In my opinion, this is the best painting of all portraying a church. It radiates a mysterious glow. Unfortunately, this may not be conveyed in reproductions. The trees are thick and dark green here, their crowns are breathing moist coolness, they live a secret quiet life in their dark deepness, while nearby a similar mysterious and silent life is lived by a small white church having the same thickness in its white body. So that nothing prevents this radiance from filling all the space of the picture, the artist paints transparent trees either completely leafless or with scanty spring or autumn foliage. He likes the lightest of the trees, the birch.
It’s sweet beholding birch and nun...
In black and white you feel all Russia's spirit...
Thick massive trees are seen only in the background. They stand like a wall protecting the delicate peace of the meadows and farm. In 1991 and 1992 the artist often painted churches. They are humble and meek like nearby peasant houses; there is no pride and ostentatious greatness, even though their architecture tries to express it in vain endeavor. The white walls are not blinding, they merely shine softly, the crosses do not glitter with gold, the domes do not tower above the ridges and are sometimes even lower. And the temples themselves do not look inhabited. They seem to be either neglected or abandoned or half destroyed. But still the presence of the temple gives peace to your soul and removes the excessive melancholy and uneasiness seen in his earlier paintings. Take a close look: the axis of the temple coincides quite accurately with the symmetry axis of the picture, while the cross underlines and reveals it. The temple is the basis for everything. And though the architecture is “noble” the essence is still close to common people. The picture “A Quiet Evening in Mlyovo” shows, so to say, two temples standing side by side. The central temple (and thus the main one) is formed by a group of peasant houses crowned by a belfry. The other temple, on the right, has lost its dominating position. It is equal, if not inferior. In the early 1990s the artist, following his destiny, approaches the temple so closely that all he has to do is just cross the threshold and enter it. He paints church interiors, the clergy and altar boys with candles. The works of this series are a significant cultural phenomenon. You can see a brave attempt of the artist to commemorate in paintings the revival of Christianity in our Motherland. This aim (if it is dominating) leads to the genre of sketch or study. The artist wants to create a document: here is a modern church with a real priest, here are altar boys in crude country boots and hair fashioned in a crew cut. One of them has a turned-up nose, the other wears glasses. Not long ago, in their free time boys like this played football or fought between themselves in the street, and now, lo and behold, they believe in God. The picture is so factual and documentary, that the painting itself recedes into the background and becomes only an instrument. The “uninhabited” church interiors in Igor Barkhatkov’s pictures are undoubtedly much better. The church interior is a special subject in the history of painting. Realistic images of it are usually worthy of display in a historical museum (as a document of bygone times) rather than in an art gallery. What is the reason? In life, the interior is perceived as a whole and as you move, your eye runs over the space; impressions of separate fragments are summarized into a general picture. If you are going to depict the interior with the help of perspective, you will be able to show only one view from one angle confined to the narrow space of human vision (40-50 degrees horizontally and even less vertically). Can a fragment represent the whole if that whole is a kind of the Universe, the abode of God, one and indivisible by its nature? To restore in the picture the lost spirit of the whole, there has to be some condition breaking the law of realistic vision. The architectural fantasies of Piranesi, Bibiena and Gonzago are so much alive and valuable because they are as far from realism as dream is from reality. But the painter has a miraculous ability to overcome the inertness of the brick walls and pillars, to make them as light as Christ’s burden; there is a way to enliven even a narrow temple corner in the picture, and that is by the use of colour and light. Barkhatkov knows how to use it in an interior as skillfully as in a landscape. What has been left of all the decoration of the church in New Jerusalem? In the picture we can see bare brick walls and small windows, but we feel quite clearly that the Holy Spirit is still here. It is in that pinkish light inside and in the bright sunny light outside penetrating freely into the temple unobstructed by doors or window panes.
I am the light of the world... (John 8:12)
While you have the light, believe in the light,
In order that you may become sons of light (John 12:36)
The Spaso-Georgiyevskaya Church in Mlyovo has so far avoided being ransacked and ravaged (though shameless plunderers are “working” hard to this end). Who knows, perhaps, if these are not the last icons shining gold in the semi-darkness of the temple in Barkhatkov’s picture? This radiance as well as the bright light on the altar inspires hope: the Lord is alive, He won’t let His house be destroyed. The path chosen leads the painter nearer and nearer to the holy of holies, leads to the icon itself.. Where can we go from here? At this point it is necessary to come to a halt, to plunge your gaze and your soul into the dark faces of the Holy Mother and Child and to portray solely Them, not diverting your attention to anything else. Thus the icon appears — a picture in a double frame. The internal frame shows a medieval image and the exterior one the same image seen by a modern man. In a hundred years, the artist to come will set another candle in front of Barkhatkov’s picture and will depict it in his own third frame and soon, step by step, the image will move farther and farther away into the depths of picture space. In a few thousand years, the icon will become almost indiscernible. Will a man see his reflection in it, will he recognize himself in those dark faces? In this picture, the artist raises a complex philosophical problem and inspires us to muse not so much on the past but mostly about the future. While looking at the picture “Old Staircase” in your mind you go up its ramshackle steps half overgrown with grass... The ascent is very difficult because the air is saturated with moisture as if before a thunderstorm, and there is quite a lot of steps too, 33 of them. But where does the staircase lead to? What is to be at the top of the hill is not shown by the artist but clearly appears in your imagination. For this little hill in the forest is Golgotha; leading to it are steps equal in number to the years lived on earth by the Saviour. And here, at the top He himself seems to appear on the cross. After all, Golgotha is not only in Jerusalem and Christ did not wander through the Promised Land only. Sacred history repeats itself up to the end of time and in any place, just as God lives in any of His creatures and in any heart. It does not matter that the trees, grass and a gray sky seem so usual; the eye is so accustomed to seeing them... as if there does not exist proper solemnity or something special to signify the greatness of the place and event. Remember that Christ was “like all others”, without special marks. And deep sorrow takes hold of our soul: these steps will soon be overgrown with grass, the broken handrails will fall down, the hill will become deserted... This very sad sight is represented in the picture “Forgotten Cross” (1992). Involuntarily the words of Vyacheslav Ivanov come to mind:
The holy oil is spilled, the lamp is drying,
The empty icon-lamp is dark.
In sorrow, slow decay is dying
The so-much-suffered land of mine.
In this picture everything sounds in one key — quiet resigned sorrow about things irretrievable and gone for ever. But there is hope: though the grave is forgotten, the cross stays and stands upright and stable. This means that not all is lost, just patience and faith are needed and the rest will be “added to you”. Ivanov ends the sorrowful verses with:
Everything will be kneaded like clay
In us. But the heart is like a diamond!
But don’t be fooled by the external simplicity of Barkhatkov’s landscapes. He is an artist who has “double vision’’, he is highly symbolistic. This peculiarity of his art is distinctly seen in his works composed of many figures or in pictures with a certain theme. Here you do not have a “ready” model, you have to compose, decide and arrange everything. In other words the artist is working from “inside” of himself. That is why his innermost spiritual mentality becomes much more obvious here than in a landscape or a still life. It is not so easy to be righteous; the closer you come to God, the more you are attacked by the enemy of the human race. The devil dared to tempt even Christ himself. Many, alas, very many young artists could not resist the temptations of this world and took the path of denial and decay. Barkhatkov fortunately avoided the devil's victories. I doubt if he had ever felt uncertainty about the truthfulness of his way. His faith protects him like a solid wall. Moreover, fate did not leave him in solitude as it had many artists. He was led and supported by his father, Anton Barkhatkov, and his brother Vitold. Then later, in his wife Elena Nikolayevna he found a trustful, like-minded comrade in art. Igor Barkhatkov’s father is not only his close relative and first teacher. Igor’s attitude towards his father cannot be separated from his attitude to art or to the problem of “fathers and sons” or to traditions and innovations. Barkhatkov jnr set out on his great creative crusade “with an open visor”, having unfolded his banner with a motto and coat of arms on it revealing his principles and convictions. This banner is his diploma work “Father and Son”. At first sight, the idea of this picture seems to be expressed too directly. It is perceived as a manifesto or a leaflet in paint. The content overshadows the painting. The old commandment of a father to his son should have been written on the frame of the picture.
“My Son! Keep your fathers commands and do not forsake your mother's teaching;
bind them upon your heart forever; fasten them around your neck...’’ (Prov. 6:20-21)
The son trusts his father absolutely, he is ready to defend him from any unkind encroachment. He sees it as the aim of his life to continue his father’s pursuit. The son is not afraid of being reproached that he is not up-to-date or anything similar. Faith in his father’s cause gives him strength and courage to withstand any opponents. This is the best position because it is said: “Be it done to you according to your faith...’’ (Matt. 9:29). But if the painting spoke only about complete and unreasonable acceptance of the Father’s heritage it would look like a political poster. If you look closely at the painting the external straightforwardness disappears and its dramatic effect, complexity and deepness reveal themselves gradually. In the composition, in the postures of the figures, in their gestures and faces, an attentive observer will read that the father and son’s problem is not that simple, and that tradition must not only be kept but continued, that is, surmounted. And one more thing: at the closest spiritual unity of fathers and sons, the insurmountable distance is still there between them, because double-unity is available only for gods, not for ordinary people. There is such a law in human history: what is once created will never disappear. Culture has vast stores but has no incinerators. Even the heritage of primitive people has lived up to now in myths, in the inmost recesses of our mind and in archeological findings. As to the culture of ancient and modern times, it goes without saying that sometimes Plato and Seneca are closer to us and more understandable than Heidegger or Bachelard. Here an analogy with the physical law of energy conservation comes to mind: nothing disappears. Realism in art is alive for ever and thus it will stay. Never will fields and meadows, trees, grass and flowers lose their value, never will they become unnecessary. Keeping all these in form and in paint, art will never lose its attractiveness. Will a modern city dweller understand the purity and truth of this painting? Will his ears deafened by the noises of our hectic life hear the silence of these forest meadows, wastelands and village outskirts? With profound and deep faith I answer: Yes, this art we do need. What is more, people will understand it.