Belarus Art and Architecture
Many distinguished artists and architects, who enjoy worldwide renown to this day, were born on Belarusian soil. However, due to the century-old shifting of borders to various countries and empires, not all artists who lived on Belarusian territory are counted as Belarusian artists.
The first Belarusian artists were mainly architects and icon painters, but their names were seldom recorded in the Middle Ages. Many of them purposely did not want their names to be mentioned. It is known today that the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1030-1060) was built by the architects David, Toma, Mikula and Kapes and others, but they themselves had their names removed from the foundation stone.
Another name prominent in Belarusian art of the Middle Ages is that of Lazar Bogsha. He was a talented goldsmith from Polotsk and made a famous altar cross in honour of St. Euphrosyne in the year 1161. Unfortunately this disappeared in the Second World War. In 1997, goldsmiths made a copy of the cross, which is to be found in the Church of the Transfiguration in Polotsk. It is considered the most important religious symbol of the country.
Architects from Polotsk and Grodno attracted attention in the 13th to 16th century. Many skilled architects emanated from the schools of architecture in these towns and made an impact during this period.
However, during the baroque period many aristocratic families increasingly invited foreign architects to come and work in Belarus. Thus the first Belarusian church in the baroque style, the Catholic Corpus Christi Church in Nesvizh, was built by the Italian Giovanni Maria Bernardoni. It was completed in 1593. Another important project for Bernardoni was the Corpus Christi Church in Grodno, which is one of the most beautiful sights of the city today.
In the context of late baroque, the so-called Vilnius baroque was generally popular (also known as the baroque of the United Church). Typical of this style are the high, multi-tiered towers with broken contours, the distinct shapes of the gables and many apertures. The name of the Prussian architect Johann Christoph Glaubitz is particularly associated with this specific type of baroque. His works are to be found in Vilnius, Polotsk and Lida. His most important project in Belarus was the reconstruction of the St. Sophia Cathedral in Polotsk (1748-1765). Other architects who contributed to the proliferation of Vilnius Baroque in Belarus were the Italian Giuseppe Fontana III and the Belarusian Alexander Ossikevich. Around this time, several churches were remodelled in this style, whilst others were newly built in the regions of Vitebsk and Polotsk.
As in Western European architecture, in particular in Italy and France, baroque classicism began to influence Belarusian architecture. The famous Italian architect Giuseppe de Sakko (court architect of the Polish king Stanislaus II August) devoted much of his creative period to the region. His works can be seen in Grodno and the surroundings to this day. In the field of painting, very few names of baroque artists have been handed down, as they rarely signed their works in this period. However, staff at the Belarusian National Art Museum has been able to attribute some works to certain artists. So we know the names of some painters who lived and worked at the end of the 18th century/beginning of the 19th century, for example Vassili Markiyanovich from Slutsk and Thomas Silinich from Mogilev.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Belarusian architecture was governed by eclecticism. Parallel to the classical forms, more modern neo-baroque, neo-classicistic, neo-Gothic and neo-romantic forms developed. A striking example of this is the red brick theatre in Mogilev and a neighbouring building built by Peter Kamburov in pseudo-Russian style. After the annexation of Belarusian territory to the Russian Empire, Belarusian architecture was influenced by followers of two Russian schools of architecture, the Moscow and the St. Petersburg schools. These included the well-known Russian architects Vassili Stassov and Avraam Melnikov. The Russian architect Nikolai Lvov designed the St. Joseph Cathedral in Mogilev and Ivan Storow erected the castle in Krichev for Prince Potemkin, as well as the castle of the aristocratic family Rumjantsev-Paskewitz in Gomel. The reason for this was that the Russian empress Catharine the Great had generously given her favourites estates on Belarusian soil. These counts and princes invited only Russian architects to build their palaces and castles. Belarusian master craftsmen were not in demand.
In the 19th century, Belarussian artists were trained primarily in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Therefore their work developed predominantly in line with Russian art and architecture. However, other Belarusian painters were influenced by Lithuanian and Polish arts. The most famous Belarusian painters of the 19th century are Joseph Oleshkevich, Ivan Khrutsky, Andrei Khrutsky, Sergei Zaryanko, Apollinary Goravsky (Horawski) and Theodore Yasnovski.
The Belarusian artist Ivan Khrutsky was one of the founders of Russian still-life. He imitated the Dutch masters in his first works. All of his paintings were focussed on a central point and were always symmetrical. Today, everyone in Belarus knows the most famous still-life by Khrutsky as it was imprinted on the old 1000 rouble banknote which was withdrawn in 2016 when a new currency was introduced.
This style can also be seen in particularly vivid form in the works of the painter Sergei Zaryanko, which are considered today as archetypal of classical Russian portrait painting of the 19th century.
The 20th century – the century of scientific and technological progress and modernity – saw the turning point in both Belarusian and worldwide architecture. Building typology and structural engineering changed and new forms of architecture arose thanks to electrification and new construction options.
One of the most prominent architects of the 20th century in Belarus was Joseph Langbard, whose buildings are characteristic of the Belarusian capital to this day. He designed the government building, the opera house, the academy of science and the officers’ club house.
Many talented architects from all over the Soviet Union, including Mikhail Parusnikov, Alexander Voinov, Yuri Yegorov, Georgi Zaborski, Naum Trakhtenberg, Mikhail Barshch und Vladimir Korol, worked on the mammoth architectural post-war project of virtually rebuilding the capital of Minsk. Together with Abram Duchan, Korol worked for example on the design of the architecturally appealing Main Post Office in Minsk.
Inspite of two World Wars, the art of painting still developed in Belarus in the 20th century and many world-class painters emerged. Witold Byalynitsky-Birulya was a highly talented landscape painter and lyricist. His work was dominated by so-called pure landscape painting which entailed the depiction of nature in abstracto without any living beings.
In the post-revolution period of 1917, the town of Vitebsk became the most important centre of arts. A folk art school was inaugurated there in 1918. This was founded by the world-famous painter Marc Chagall, one of the precursors of the avant-garde and visual arts. Chagall’s painting was influenced by his teacher, Yehuda Pen, who was a prominent advocate of the Jewish renaissance.
Other famous artists who attended the Vitebsk Folk Art School were Lazar Lissitski, Vera Emolaeva, Zair Azgur and last, not least Kazimir Malevich. The latter developed a new movement in painting: suprematism. The painter and sculptor Zair Azgur became known thanks to his many sculptures which grace Minsk and other Belarusian cities today.
Painting in Belarus developed further in the second half of the 20th century and was fashioned by artists such as Nikolai Ishchuk, Mikhail Savitsky, Vladimir Tovstik, Felix Janushkevich and Valeri Shkarubo.
One of the most significant contemporary artists is Mikhail Savitski. He focuses primarily on historical subjects in his paintings. His best known series of paintings is called “Ziffern am Herzen” (Numbers ingrained in your heart), which examines the atrocities in the concentration camps.
Currently the best known and most successful architects in Belarus are Victor Kramarenko and Mikhail Vinogradov. They are responsible for the designs of the Belarusian National Library and the Minsk main station. These architects construct their buildings largely of glass combined with ingenious metal structures.