Every artist is interesting first of all as a person. At the same time, the artist’s adherence to a particular school, within which the creator finds an expression for his personality, is desirable to give a sense of stability and tradition among contemporary experimental diversity. In Ukraine, it’s possible to distinguish at least five historically formed schools of painting, which grew up from academia and realism: Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Transcarpathia. Here we will discuss the works of a representative of the last one.
Vasyl Ivanovych Vovchok was born in April 1959, in the Transcarpathian village of Nyzhnia Bystra. Starting from 1967, he lived in Uzhhorod, in the family of his uncle, the famous author Vasyl Vovchok. He immediately enrolled in the children’s fine arts studio, where he studied under the Merited Teacher of Ukraine Zoltan Bakony. Thus the future artist found himself in the Transcarpathian intellectual milieu. Even in this early period, the young Vasyl was able to work amidst well-known Transcarpathian artists, mainly in open air environments, to observe how Zoltan Sholtes and Sandor Petky work, to turn for advice to Anton Kassai, and much later — to Pavlo Balla and Ernest Kontratovych. Vasyl defined his priorities early on, and after graduating from high school, he decided to apply to the Art and Graphics department of the Odesa Ushynsky State Pedagogical Institute (now South-Ukrainian National Pedagogical University named after K. Ushynsky). At that time it was the only institution in Ukraine which provided thorough artistic and pedagogical training.
It was during the entrance exams that I became acquainted with Vovchok. I, an entrant, was impressed by the ease with which Vasyl painted his watercolors or composed a still life, observing scale correlations. His teachers of graphics were Oleksandr Lykholit and Alla Vorokhta. As his degree work, Vovchok presented rather moody two-figure composition depicting an open window at sunset. His work was distinguished by its color saturation and minimal use of undertones, a quality which is inherent in his paintings to this day. His early-identified talent, his diligence and persistence, as well as the conducive environment and calm disposition destined the artist for a smooth professional formation and development. I remember young Vasyl as a prudent and rather moderate, modest and terse colleague.
After graduation, Vovchok’s professional work as a painter was inseparably connected with teaching, first at the Mukachevo School of Arts and later at the Uzhhorod Children’s Art School, where he works until now. This year’s thirtieth reunion of the abovementioned university’s alumni in Odesa again drew my attention to Vovchok as an original Transcarpathian artist, and made me evaluate his mature works more thoroughly.
The language of Vovchok’s painting develops within a system where the colored tuning fork is necessary, as a tool for building the picture’s color structure according to “warm” and “cold” colors’ correlations. This logic, meaningfulness and readiness to limit himself, which are derived from his seemingly reserved, but internally emotional nature, result in very organic and powerfully-expressed painting. Organic painting is promoted by the artist’s ability to use equally-sized colored spots, as dictated by the peculiarities of plastic motif (e.g., in Phloxes). The very nature of Transcarpathia with its transparent, devoid of soft sfumato, atmosphere and sharp shadows allows one to be sensitive to objects’ form even at a distance, and to use loud, intense colors. Impressionism had not impressed Vovchok, as it was passe for the Transcarpathian school (it influenced early works of Bokszai and his disciple Sholtes). “It is impossible to perceive and to write otherwise in the Carpathians,” admitted the artist.
Vovchok’s views as a painter were influenced not only by his senior colleagues from Transcarpathia and Odesa, but also by some representatives of the “severe style,” in particular, Pyotr Ossovsky with his penchant for unexpected angles, the dominance of the sky, opposing contrasts of light and shadow, graphic basis in painting and the dynamics of objects in space. Our countryman, though, uses less architectonic construction of a composition, and is not as hard in painting as the Russian artist (by the way, born in Kirovograd region); Vasyl is more spontaneous, even irrational. Vovchok also evades glowing panoramas, inherent to Ossovsky. For all his paintings’ monumentality (caused by generalized treatment of objects, as well as open and fluid mountain space) Vovchok is no stranger to chamber motives.
When we follow our emotional predispositions, we are in harmony with the world and our ways to our goals shorten. “Find himself” is the goal of every creative person. Vovchok annually paints in the open air, in Ukraine, Hungary, Romania and especially in Slovakia, where he has many friends. One day while he was in the Slovak town of Orava, one resident showed the artist an area with a panoramic view. “Wait, I had already seen this landscape somewhere. Yes, I had, in the painting by Ossovsky!” shouted the Ukrainian guest. “Of course. I brought him here,” the elderly local smiled. There Vasyl painted the famous monument of Romanesque architecture, full of gloomy grandeur — the Orava Castle.
The leading genre in Vasyl’s work (and for the Transcarpathian school in general) is landscape painting. This largely influenced his interpretation of still life and especially portraiture. They constitute a significant share of the creative works of the artist. His portraits are dominated by villagers, woodcutters, shepherds and intellectuals, who are painted, as a rule, against the backdrop of nature, with local color enriched with reflexes. One of his works painted in Slovakia attracts the spectator’s attention with its psychological expressiveness; it is a portrait in a landscape: a lonely old woman sitting at the gate of her home. Perhaps, she is looking for her children returning from the city (later I learned that she was a mother of a local artist who works in Paris). The artist, in my opinion, has not fully revealed his talents, as of yet, in the genre of folk art composition with metaphorically poetic interpretations, as seen in Oh, sheep, my sheep; Girls; Heaven and earth celebrate, and others. Proximity to folk art in these works is manifested not only in their plots and topics, but also in the way of interpretation — as in the Easter eggs or folk ornaments, these paintings are characterized by especially high brightness of saturated colors without being patchwork-like. As a city resident, the artist does not lose his connection to the countryside and remains loyal to folk customs.
However, the proximity of the Transcarpathian school to European realistic tradition is worth noting too. This is natural because of geographical and historical features, as its founders studied in Budapest (Erdely, Bokszai) and Prague (Manajlo). Less known is the fact of Kotska’s studies in Rome, where he managed to hold a solo exhibition (which was visited by the then highest leadership of the state, led by Mussolini). If we will once again resort to comparisons (for example, with famous predecessors), we must recognize that Vovchok doesn’t use, for example, a wide experimental field, the rationality of approaches inherent to Mykyta, or “fauvism” and symbiosis of primitivism with decorativism, so characteristic for Manajlo. What all they share is expressiveness: Vovchok’s brush is rapid, it follows natural terrain and structures, flexibly slides along the canvas’ surface like a solar whirlwind.
Works by the Transcarpathian artist can be seen as consistent, following a certain living chronology, a report on the visible world. The motives of his works are imbued with an acute perception of the artist’s nature, sensitive to the rhythms, colors and light. Once created, the painting installation can be divided into different series, depending on the location and time of their creation: Uzhhorod motives, Slovak Orava and the Tatra Mountains, architecture of Budapest and Vienna, the provincial towns of central Europe, Carpathian mountain pasturelands or folkloric groups. In these compositions, as in the portraits, the artist achieves an organic combination of figures with the landscape, forming an integral image. This apparently calm man is temperamental and impulsive at work. Through painting he conveys his excitement with the visible world; his goal is to sing praise to all its beauty and grandeur.
Of course, not all works of the artist are equally worthy, some paintings happen to be rather “dry” in color, in some cases they are overly sketchy, even schematic, while his propensity to work with a palette knife exclusively gives them a certain uniformity and rigidity, and causes a loss of textural richness of the canvas. However, internal discipline, the habit of working all the time, gives good results, even if not immediately. Another secret of creative growth lies in the ability of the artist to constantly learn. Unfortunately, during his last stay in Odesa Vasyl could not meet with his former teacher Lykholit, despite wanting to meet him. On life’s journey we need moral and professional authority. This need could be subconsciously motivated by one more fact: Vasyl lost his father at the age of eight. Perhaps that is why he found a certain comfort, a sense of greater certainty in the company of older artists. Partnerships linked (or link) Vovchok with other masters of painting, for instance, with Zoltan Sholtes and Pavlo Balla. Maybe, this partnership helped a new feature appear in Vasyl’s painting. At some stage of his development the artist felt the need to create light-bearing paintings, with more positive energy (Phloxes, Tatra Mountains, Zhdiar, Petofi, Sunflowers, Sheaf, all painted 2004 through 2007). Sometimes, despite a respectful distance, this relationship developed into friendship. Over the last ten years of Ernest Kontratovych’s life (1912-2009), Vasyl always took care of the lonely master — a bright representative and one of the founders of the Transcarpathian school of painting. Now one of Uzhhorod publishing houses is preparing an album of Kontratovych’s works, and Vovchok is advising the publisher on how to determine the chronology of the paintings by this artist (who did not date his works so as to prevent forgeries). Last year, the artist celebrated his fiftieth anniversary with a personal exhibition in the Uzhhorod gallery. Vovchok’s creative work has not only enriched Ukrainian art and the Transcarpathian school of painting. Along with paintings of Taras Danylach, Anton Kovach and other masters of middle generation, his work provides new impetus for development, and, by virtue of developed creative relationships, integrates our culture into the European space.