Walera Martynchik was born in Belarus and emigrated to London in 1990. During the 1970s and 80s he was an active member of the Soviet Underground movement in his native country and participated in a number of group exhibitions in Estonia and Moscow. The themes of cosmic consciousness, mysticism and the Universe are constantly explored in Martynchik’s work. His abstract paintings, which often depict an explosive arrangement of complex three-dimensional forms, are deeply influenced by philosophical and scientific thinking from the likes of Mark Aurelius to Einstein and the Russian Avant-Garde. He has exhibited extensively across Europe and America and his paintings are housed in a number of collections, including the Norton Dodge collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art in the USA. A new exhibition, ‘Walera Martynchik: New Paintings’, opens at London’s Albemarle Gallery on 21 March and runs until 13 April 2013.
Theodora Clarke: How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Walera Martynchik: My idea is quite unusual; instead of depicting fragments I decided to depict the entire invisible world smashing into ours. Artists like Malevich, Matisse or Mondrian were the very first abstract artists; they painted fragments and predominantly flat compositions and had been thinking about and illustrating cosmological ideas. They got rid of gravity. Malevich painted Suprematist satellites and his interest was the sensation of rotating or spinning around this universe, around the planet Earth. I want to show the cosmogony not cosmology, which is a little bit more ambitious. I see the universe as Mark Aurelius did 3000 years ago: as a creature.
I grew up with the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia and that was a great influence on my development as an artist. My mother died when I was young and my father left me with my Grandmother for seven years. I was also left with 53 volumes of these Encyclopaedias.
TC: How old were you when you started reading it?
WM: From zero! And I have used it all my life. Instead of toys I had the encyclopaedia and a Granny who could read the thousands of articles written in them. Art was featured in the books, with coloured images of the old masters from Russian Museums like the Hermitage and Pushkin.
TC: These were paintings by artists such as Rembrandt?
WM: Absolutely. They were fantastic. Many years after when I visited museums, thanks to my Encyclopaedia, I knew every piece along with the dates and names.
TC: Did you always know you wanted to be an artist?
WM: I always knew I was very good at art. I didn’t bother to develop my skills because I was so confident that I could draw better than anyone else. But when I was fourteen I saw an exhibition of watercolours from a children’s evening class and it was so professionally done; I couldn’t sleep. Next morning I enrolled to the same class and it took me 3 years to catch up with them and build professional skills. After that I went to the College and then Academy of Art in Minsk.
TC: Did you start as a naturalistic painter? When did you move to a more abstract way of working?
WM: Of course, everyone starts in the realistic style. But it’s a gradual process. When I was fifteen and a first year student in Art College I was of course a realistic artist. We had no images of modern art at all; Modern art didn’t exist in Russia at that time. You couldn’t see it in magazines or exhibitions or libraries. Everything was eliminated and all memory of modern art was lost. Suddenly in the 60s when I was a young artist everything came out. Bookshops began to sell magazines and albums of Picasso, Dali and others. And we heard about Vitebsk, where Malevich taught his theories, which was nearby to us in Belarus. We were shocked.
TC: You didn’t realise that Vitebsk was a centre of the avant-garde until this point?
WM: We had no idea at all. Our professors and teachers were those who were actually destroying that memory about Modern art. It was a shocking period. When I started trying to experiment in the classroom, to paint in the style of Picasso or Dali, I was immediately asked to leave the Institution. I was punished and lost my scholarship.
TC: Was this because you were imitating Western artists?
WM: At that time we had a compulsory and mandatory style of painting. Everything outside of these rules was subject to punishment. If you wanted to paint like Chagall or Di Chirico, regardless of the quality, the work had to be destroyed. The cruelty of professors was enormous. Whilst at the Academy I spent one year in a TB hospital because of stress.
TC: You talked about the importance of the Russian avant-garde in Vitebsk. Who would you say has been your greatest influence as an artist? You have mentioned Kandinsky and Malevich as inspiration in previous publications.
WM: I wouldn’t say that I personally was a direct follower of Malevich but Kandinsky and Filonov interest me in particular. Filonov was a revelation to me at that time because we hadn’t heard about him. It was only through a friend, an artist, who visited Filonov’s sister and saw his paintings in her flat. The first book was published in the Czech Republic in the 1970s and this book was a precious object, it was the first time I saw images of his work. Filonov worked at the same level of complexity with thousands of elements at once; it is particularly interesting for me to see how to manage chaos into something orderly. We face similar tasks. My additional element I would define as adding 3D to flat, two dimensional abstract art. If you look in general the abstract art of the twentieth century is usually flat including Kandinsky, Pollock and Malevich. I belong to the generation of computer art and my experiments coincided with that development 30 years ago. My art grew in complexity and the composition became a self-developing structure. It’s quite difficult to manage. To have two squares and a circle is one thing but when you have cubes you can rotate them. It immediately gives you an enormous amount of possibilities.
TC: Do you use a computer in the process of composition?
WM: I draw everything by hand. I am a computer myself! They asked Salvador Dali once if he used drugs. His reply was “no. I am a drug”.
TC: You use an incredible range of bright colours in your work and this reminds me of Kandinsky. Did his colour theories influence you?
WM: Absolutely, but actually I am now trying to diminish the saturation. Now I plan to make more monochrome compositions. The main reason for this is curiosity. I have painted a lot of bright paintings and now the pendulum is swinging back. I saw an exhibition of Picasso’s black and white works at the Guggenheim exhibition and they were amazing; monochrome is so powerful. I find his work resonates with me.
TC: You have a forthcoming show at the Albemarle Gallery. Are the works you’re exhibiting commissioned for the show or are they paintings you’ve been working on for a long time?
WM: It is both. Sometimes I simply create what I want to create but sometimes I am approached and asked to paint something. I was commissioned for example to create a small crucifixion a few years ago and now I have made a much larger one for myself.
TC: You have a series of works in the studio of Ten Angels and the painting you have just mentioned depicts the crucifixion. Are you interested in religious art? Obviously your interpretation is very different to traditional views.
WM: It is not actually religious at all, it is philosophical. The idea of crucifixion may be coming from Pagan ideas of the ‘seed’; the cycle of developing, growing and dying. My idea is about beautiful painting with something theoretical behind it. I am interested in the complexity of the world and how this visible world combines with the invisible; the possibilities, spaces and dimensions.
TC: You do have some naturalistic elements in your compositions alongside the geometric components. In this painting for example I can see some cherries, a baby and female figures.
WM: When we talk about complexity we have to be complex. I’ve recently been arguing with a well-known mathematician. He said ‘look at those fractals; that is complexity’. My response was complexity is not just one pattern multiplying. Complexity is when you have unexpected things, for example suddenly humans, birds, landscapes. That is my perception of complexity. I have been painting models in the studio for ten years; I know how to depict the human body. But I want to show not only the visible but the invisible as well.
TC: Is there a particular theme for this exhibition?
WM: All my works illustrate a certain philosophy. First of all I want to create something beautiful. That is a major task. I want to create something emotionally interesting and at the same time illustrate a certain kind of philosophy. I was recently at MoMA in New York and I saw Malevich’s paintings in the Abstraction exhibition: they are beautiful.
TC: How long does it take you to complete one of your paintings?
WM: It takes years!
TC: And how do you decide on the individual elements in your paintings? Are they motifs and symbols that you’ve acquired over your career or is the process more organic?
WM: Einstein said that ‘combinatory play’ is an essential part of creative thought. If I have a number of elements I can combine them, like Lego, to make different structures. Petr Ouspensky wrote how he saw infinity. He saw it not as something stretching from point zero into infinity but rather like a random, infinite combination of things
TC: Could you tell us about the Soviet Underground art scene you were involved with in Belarus?
WM: Usually the Soviet Underground is known as a Moscow and St Petersburg activity because there were foreign media, collectors and diplomats in Moscow but at this time Minsk was like a military base. It was much smaller and had a lesser number of educated people in general. It was a real artistic underground. In Moscow there were exhibitions in artist’s flats and outside, like the famous Bulldozer exhibition which became known across the world. In Minsk I had to lock the door, draw the curtains and for twenty years I had to hide my work from everyone except a couple of my friends. In the catalogue of the Norton Doge collection they ask how I was able to paint such large canvases when other artists made small scale works for apartment exhibitions that were easy to transport. But in Minsk you couldn’t imagine any such exhibitions; the KGB were everywhere. I allowed only my close friends and family to see.
TC: When did you leave Belarus and emigrate to the UK?
WM: I went to Poland first, for just under a year. During Perestroika the curator of the Estonian State Art Museum visited me and offered me a solo exhibition in the museum. It was 1987 and I was shocked. After all my life working underground I suddenly had a serious proposal. They didn’t offer any transport or any money for this. The alternative was a group exhibition and I had heard about a generation of other young underground artists. We found roughly ten other artists and I curated the group exhibition in Tallinn. After that we took part in the first Festival of the Soviet Underground in the city of Narva in Estonia and after that Moscow.
TC: So for nearly twenty years you couldn’t exhibit in your homeland and then you had an exhibition in Europe before being invited back to Russia?
WM: Yes. I never did exhibit in Minsk.
TC: How did you go about finding the other artists for the exhibition? Did you know them?
WM: I knew only one or two personally, from the whole of Belarus which is nearly 10 million people. I was introduced to younger artists and found their kind of installations and performance art very interesting. It was an extraordinary group. People in the Tretyakov said to me at the time don’t emigrate, things have just started. There was the first auction in Sotheby’s in 1988 of Russian art and the first exhibition of Francis Bacon in Russia. Things were really changing.
TC: There seems to be a big diaspora of Russians who settle in Europe and many artists, such as Kandinsky, relocated to Germany and France. What made you choose the UK over other European countries?
WM: It was mostly by accident. I knew very little about Britain, only Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. When I had my last show in Moscow I had so many visitors with different proposals. I had invitations to Rome and New York and other cities. I had two invitations to exhibit in this country in London and Liverpool and I already had my papers for Poland so went straight to Liverpool from there.
TC: You left Belarus because you felt you weren’t able to be an artist in your home country?
WM: Of course. All my life I felt like I was working in a prison. If you can’t show your work for the whole of your professional life; what kind of life is that? It is still hard to work in Belarus now. There is a little bit more freedom but in general the situation seems almost the same.
TC: When you paint do you use a maquette, or is the composition already in your head?
WM: They say that Modern composers don’t write scores with notes, they just depict waves. For me I often see it in an explosion-like composition. Maybe Pollock was inspirational to me in this sense, but I want every splash to make an object.
TC: What are your future plans after the Albermarle Gallery exhibition?
WM: I will be taking one or two works over to Moscow to exhibit in the summer. Then I have another exhibition coming up at the Alex Gershman gallery, which specialises in Russian Underground art. In terms of my work I am also experimenting with sculptural forms. When I was a sixteen year old art student I started drawing three-dimensional inflatable structures and now I want to revisit them. I have a series of models and maquettes I am currently working on which in the future I want to make into large constructions.
Walera Martynchik 21st March- 13th April 2013
Albemarle Gallery, London
This interview was conducted on 12th February 2013. All text copyright of Russian Art and Culture Ltd.