Editor: Before getting this interview I’ve decided to visit the exhibition of Mykola Kononenko’s works in Shevchenko Museum in Kiev. It was sunny spring day and I went to the museum inspired with the possibility to see amazing paintings. I was surprised that there were no people around. I entered by the door and the guard opened his eyes wide. He asked: “Lady, where are you going?” I answered that I wanted to visit the exhibition of Mykola Kononenko. The guard said: “Yes, there is his exhibition here, but today the museum is closed.” I could not give up and I said: “Please, I need to see these works today, it is very important.” “Well, ok, lady…” - answered the guard. It was amazing to enjoy paintings with no crowds of people in a spacy, full of sunlight museum with glassy roof. It was real luck and thanks to that chance I had an opportunity to talk to every painting and to get to know better the person who created them.
We’ve met with Mykola Kononenko and Yana Antonova, his daughter and famous artist, in their studio in the center of Kiev. This building is created especially for painters and their workshops. While entering the hall of the building you get into the Soviet epoch with its monumental sculptures, old fashioned furniture and the atmosphere of the end of the XXth century.
It prepares you for entering the artists’ studio. You feel that the time stopped here about 20 years ago. Big windows let the light come into the room with a lot of paintings on the walls, old furniture, shelves with books and something that you can’t see, but feel. This is the atmosphere of creative life and hearty people who work here.
Yana welcomed me sharing the new idea of her paintings. I was really astonished with her friendly approach when she told me about her creative plans. She showed me her new works and treated me with tea and biscuits while we have been waiting for Mykola Ivanovych. He entered the studio with his wife, smiling and welcoming me. We sat at the table and started to talk and drink tea. It looked like it was a meeting of old friends, but for me it was a meeting with amazing, interesting people – the bright souls of our times.
While reading the reviews about your works I realize that they influence the human soul itself, they are always very emotional. And I can prove it upon visiting the exhibition by myself. But I am always interested in the feelings of the artist who creates the work. What do you feel when you paint?
Mykola Kononenko: I feel delight while meeting with nature, with life itself. It is always a delight if you can pass your soul, your mind, your way of thinking, and especially your emotions to the painting. This is creativity. In any kind of work you are an artist at heart. Creativity is the meaning of life and love is its simplified form. When you create, it's like when you breathe or walk without thinking about it. Subconscious defines the essence of creativity. You do not reflect any light, you are the light and the painting passes this light.
Yana Antonova: My paintings transfer my energy to someone else. I charge the other person with my works. I splash out the energy.
Mykola Kononenko: Creativity means that you forget for whom you create a painting, you just tell the story, pour out your soul if you are sincere. It is not a job already, but a lifestyle. The borders and slogans disappear, but the essence remains.
There is huge interest in arts now despite the hard times in the country. Why?
Mykola Kononenko: Art is a saving space, the corner where you can escape and relax from the bustle of this life. Even during World War II people were drawn to poetry, visited exhibitions and concerts in spite of all the horror around. The more difficult the times are, the more people apply to art to rest and to get recharged.
Yana Antonova: It is the instinct of self-preservation. In such a difficult situation, in hostile environment and stress a soul dies if it does not have any opportunity to relax and to enjoy the beautiful things. Therefore we need a way out. It can be a concert, an exhibition or art performance. This is food for our souls.
Mykola Kononenko: Art gives hope even in the most difficult times. We (the Ukrainians) are like that frog that gets into a bucket with milk and swings its paws to whip butter and to get out. We will succeed.
Great interest in terms of the Ukrainian artists has been observed in the world over the last years. Which of our contemporaries would you like to mention?
Mykola Kononenko: Anatolii Kryvolap is on the first place. There is his exhibition now in the Historic Museum. He is not just a talented artist. He created the Kryvolap Fund for students who study arts. The best of them will have the opportunity to improve their skills abroad for 1.5 months. This is what the young talented people need now.
If a foreign visitor comes to you, what would you like to share with him/her, to show and to tell him/her about Ukraine?
Mykola Kononenko: First of all I’d like to invite that person to my exhibition. And then I would advise to visit the Museum of History of Ukraine. It is a good theoretical start. Afterwards, it would be nice to travel all over Ukraine: to get into our villages, to enjoy Ukrainian cuisine: original food and drinks.
It is great to know our world from the inside, rather than to see the glossy touristic routes. It is possible to feel the spirit of Ukraine in our village, for example, in Zasupoivka located on a bank of Supii River.
Yana Antonova: It is the place where the artists live and work. It's a kind of Barbizon. There is beautiful nature and scenic views, hills and water. It is located 110 km from Kiev in Yahotyn area. Welcome to Zasupoivka.
Editor: Yana Antonova was in a hurry, so she left us to talk a bit more and Vera Mykolayivna (the wife of Mykola Kononenko and Yana’s mother) went to see off her daughter. And we continued our conversation tet-a-tet with the artist. I asked him some questions about the paintings that amazed me at his exhibition.
The painting called "The Lightning" strikes you as if you are really hit by the lightning. The figure of Christ takes you to the philosophical reflections about the sense of life. I asked the author about his ideas while creating this work.
Photo: Shevchenko Museum
Mykola Kononenko: The lightning destroys all the bad, our negative past and gives mankind a new beginning. Christ is an opportunity to change. The lightning illuminates the life view in general.
Editor: Yes, the artist’s indomitable optimism is traced in his every painting. Another work called “Wave of fate” took a central stage at the exhibition in the National Museum of Taras Shevchenko. The author speaks about it with warmth and tenderness.
Photo: Shevchenko Museum
Mykola Kononenko: The bird is the symbol of human soul in the space, it flies on the wave and is washed with it. In the background the sun breaks through the clouds. A bright future is waiting for us, but not the eternal darkness. I am an optimist who survived a lot of frustrations.
After experiencing a failure, don’t cry, but be aware of this failure, find out why it has happened and try to correct the mistakes. This is the only way to know the sense of life, which you define by yourself. Do not despair. Light is not waiting for us at the end of the tunnel, but we are the light. The man himself must illuminate his way without stepping on other people's heads. Otherwise, you can rush to the light over the heads of others, not noticing them.
It is important to remember that there are no hopeless situations. You just need to pull yourself out of the surging emotions and to concentrate on possible solutions of the problem. Be positive, because life is amazing.
Editor’s P.S.: When I was ready to leave the studio, the artist has noticed that I was cold a bit and my voice became dull. He and his wife were worried that I could get sick. Mykola Ivanovych gave me the last piece of ginger root and said: “This is the best remedy against cold, use it with hot tea”. He also gifted me his book with presentation inscription. That sunny day was really amazing for me and I did not get sick, by the way.
Interviewed and photos by Anna Vishtak