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Taras Shevchenko

Encyclopedia of the life and works


The artist

Taras Shevchenko

This story by the great Ukrainian poet, artist, thinker and revolutionary Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) is a highly original work. Using the concrete facts of his biography and tinting them with a writer’s fantasy, Shevchenko showed very convincingly the true life of a talented artist whose childhood and youth were spent in serfdom. The story shows the role played by famous Russian and Ukrainian cultural figures in Shevchenko’s release and tells of the formation of his ideological and aesthetic views. The author paints a vivid picture of cultural life in St. Petersburg in the 1830s and 1840s recreating with special warmth his happy years of study at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and in the studio of Karl Brüllow.

St. Petersburg… Taras Shevchenko did not like this city, having calling it “the devil’s swamp.” And now it stood before him: the sphinxes on the quay near the Academy of Fine Arts, the lines of Vasilyevsky Island, the Neva, the numerous canals … The buildings stand now, they will probably be here a hundred years from now. As for the people, many are no longer in St. Petersburg. Karl Brüllow passed away, never finishing his large canvas The Siege of Pskov; Vasily Sternberg is no more. Both died under the skies of Italy. Sokha (Ivan Soshenko) is still alive. Fate spared him, possibly because he returned to his Homeland in time. Soshenko met Shevchenko, then an apprentice of Shiryaev, a house painter and interior decorator, on a sunlit night in the Summer Garden. Without him, Shevchenko’s life would probably not have turned out so miraculously: freedom, friendly relations with Brüllow, studies at the Academy of Fine Arts. Shevchenko’s first benefactor and teacher, he gave him a good grounding in art in a relatively short time. And then medal followed medal for his successes in his studies.

From day to day the private Taras Shevchenko waited for an official document permitting him to leave the hateful Novopetrovsk Fortress for the long-awaited St. Petersburg. He knew from his St. Petersburg friends that his liberation was being secured by very influential people. The last months and days of Shevchenko’s life in exile went by slowly and drearily. He was tired and nervous: could it really be that in that year of 1857 he would see St. Petersburg again after ten years of suffering in this joyless desert. In the Novopetrovsk Fortress Shevchenko the artist executed some of his masterpieces (The Parable of the Prodigal Son to name but one series) and Shevchenko the writer tried his hand at Russian prose. Here he began his Diary and the stories which he intended to publish in a St. Petersburg magazine under the pseudonym K(obzar) Darmograi. The dreary life of the garrison was reflected in the Diary, his stories were also a diary of sorts which noted even the minutest details of life on the outside. All of Darmograi’s Russian stories are more or less autobiographical, but The Artist is a unique chronicle of life in Brüllow’s studio, which Shevchenko knew like no other person. It includes discussions with his teacher, his thoughts, impressions of lectures delivered to students before the works of the great masters in the Hermitage, reactions to concerts and theatrical performances. How could he not remember the kindly Vasily Sternberg, or his relatives the Schmidts and, in particular, Soshenko who introduced Shevchenko to Eugene Grebinka, a well-known writer, and to Apollon Mokritsky, a student of Brüllow? Had it not been for Grebinka, Shevchenko’s collection of poems Kobzar would not have been published and the fame of a poet would not have been his.

It is characteristic that in The Artist Shevchenko does not say a single word about himself as a poet. This is possibly the reason why he does not mention Grebinka and other men of letters limiting his circle of characters mostly to artists. The author bestowed quite a few of his personal traits upon his freed hero and upon another of Brüllow’s students, who was the first to “discover” Shevchenko. Shiryaev’s apprentice was not 14 or 15 years old of course (as in the story), but more like 20 to 22 years old, and it is not known whether Soshenko went with Brüllow to a ballet performance by the great dancer Maria Taglioni. Shevchenko conferred his recollections upon his benefactor and friend. The story is told by one of Brüllow’s students who has much in common with Shevchenko.

It begins with the establishment of a truly devilish principle: artists of genius are never happy. As examples, the author uses “the great Thorvaldsen” who embarked on his brilliant career by “carving ornaments and tritons for blunt-nosed Copenhagen ships” and “my hero” whose artistic career began with the grinding of paints and the painting of floors and fences. Bertel Thorvaldsen was a universally recognized sculptor, Brüllow’s favorite, while “my hero” was Shevchenko himself. It is interesting to see the author’s striving for accurate detail: Danish ships in fact were blunt-nosed. As for Shevchenko, he painted floors, though not for very long. Then the narrator alleges that Correggio and Domenico Zampieri “died of hunger,” suggesting the reader look through Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Eminent Artists, Sculptors and Architects (Shevchenko himself had no access to Vasari in the Novopetrovsk Fortress). Then he goes on to the question of art being “a refined decoration for dazzling the multitudes and outshining the heretical teachings of Wycliffe and Hus, which have already begun rearing that undaunted Dominican Luther.”

The story’s author studied the history of medieval Bohemia so that he could write the poem The Heretic, dedicated to Jan Hus. But, though he remembers the names of the key figures during the Reformation, he confuses the names of the Popes: there was no Pope Leo II during the Renaissance. However, apart from this, there are no other major inaccuracies in the story which was written for the most part from memory. And finally an important trait of Shevchenko’s writing needs to be mentioned: his love of allegory. For example, in the story Soshenko meets Shevchenko near the statue of Saturn, who is devouring his own child; Soshenko places a human skeleton posed as a lusty drinker for his hero to draw; the hero paints a picture of a vestal virgin using a pregnant girl as his model. Seducers of vestal virgins were put to death in Ancient Greece. For the author of the painting Katerina, a poem by the same name and a host of other works on the cruel lot of betrayed and abandoned girls, the seducers of innocent girls were so hateful that they deserved only death. Shevchenko’s story The Artist is based on numerous concrete details from his own biography, and comes to the reader for the first time with a diversity of illustrations: views of St. Petersburg, pictures of buildings and interiors, works by Shevchenko from his Academy period and those done at the time of writing of the story, portraits of his contemporaries, works by Russian and Western European artists, photographs, documents, autographs. Herein lies the special significance of this publication.

After publication: T.H.Shevchenko The Artist. – Kyiv: Mystectvo, 1989 (parallel text in Russian and English, translated by Anatoly Bilenko).