Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 16 July 2018

Ukrainian artist Henri Yagodkin’s brush with the past

Henri Yagodkin, one of Ukraine's foremost artists who has not exhibited in the last 20 years is having an exhibition in Abu Dhabi.
Evening in Desert, a painting by Henri Yagodkin. Courtesy Henri Yagodkin / N2N Gallery
Evening in Desert, a painting by Henri Yagodkin. Courtesy Henri Yagodkin / N2N Gallery

Henri Yagodkin is one of the best known and most respected artists in Ukraine. However, despite having a flourishing career in realistic art during the 1970s and 1980s, he has not exhibited in any gallery or institution for the past 20 years.

He chooses to lead a simple life, not even owning a mobile phone. He paints for pleasure out of love for the art in his studio, inspired by coastal scenes, books and walks in the forest. This month, however, Yagodkin is having his first exhibition in more than two decades.

N2N Gallery in Abu Dhabi, owned by Ukrainians Natalya Muzaleva and Natalia Petrukha, has represented Yagodkin’s daughter Tetyana Yagodkina since it opened in 2013. With her help, they persuaded the artist to come out of hiding for an exhibition, titled Sunny Portals, featuring 21 oil-on-canvas paintings created between 1999 and last year. Here, he speaks to The National through a translator.

Why have you not exhibited for so many years?

I used to exhibit my art in the Soviet Union as well as overseas but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I had to adapt to the new conditions including the economic ones and find ways to reflect this through art. I spent a long time researching, exploring other techniques and just letting the creative process flow. The creative process never stopped but I ceased participating in exhibitions after a gallery in France took several art pieces from me without compensation and made postcards and posters from them. It made me very sceptical and I decided that not exhibiting was the only way to let my creative process flow freely without boundaries. At one point, my children and grandchildren will have a vast collection on their hands and I prefer to leave this legacy to them.

Is it not important for you to know that other people outside of your family are able to see the results of that creativity?

Of course, the reaction of the audience is important. The artist is responsible for creating quality and a professional artist should be aware of how his work is received.

Are you proud of your status as of one of the most prominent Ukranian artists?

I do what I do, and if people appreciate it, I hope that it means that they are getting something out of it. Personally, I am in love with the old masters and the classical forms of art. I have great respect for the Ukrainian school of art and as an academic and an artist, I always remain close to it. I believe it is important to keep this form of art alive. In terms of being proud, I consider myself a part of Ukraine and a part of its history, which spans thousands of years with good and intelligent people.

Why do you think people love your work?

My motto when I paint is: “Honesty, truth, beauty.” I believe people can see it and appreciate it, especially when we are going through difficult times. On several occasions when I was doing open-air painting and while talking to passers-by, it has happened that by looking at my painting they begin to see the landscape with different eyes, even a place they are used to — they suddenly notice its beauty. It is somehow life affirming.

How do you choose your subjects?

Like many landscape artists, I paint the things I feel and love and I want to uncover the beauty, the life and the light on a canvas. We are surrounded by so much beauty as God has created such a wonderful world for us to see and enjoy — in fact, God is the most incredible artist and we so often don’t notice that beauty lies in the most usual places.

I also pay a lot of attention to colour and light — light is my passion. I have always strived to capture light in my paintings. Light gives it warmth and pulls the viewer in. It is evident in all my works, and I believe this to be a big contributor to the appeal of my paintings.

Why did you agree to this exhibition in Abu Dhabi?

This exhibition is a result of a collective effort by the gallerists and my daughter. They joined forces and made a decision to convince me — and agreed not to take a “no” for an answer. They were relentless and I had to respect their passion for wanting to represent Ukrainian artists in the UAE. At the end of the day I agreed because I love my country and this is a great chance to advocate Ukrainian art.

What is your opinion of the UAE and the art scene?

From what I know, the UAE is an exciting and dynamic place with a rich culture of its own. I also believe in the importance of learning and, in a way, this is a chance to learn more about each other’s cultures. I do not speak Arabic or English, but I can communicate through art. I actually made some artworks inspired by the UAE and Middle Eastern scenery in the 1990s — these works will also be displayed at the exhibition. The good thing about painting such places is that there is a very bright sun, which means strong light — as you already know, this is something I enjoy working with.

• Sunny Portals runs from September 15 to October 6 at N2N Gallery, 1st floor, Nation Galleria, Nation Towers, Abu Dhabi