The Artist & His Work
Eugene E. Lemcio, Ph.D.
Seattle Pacific University
The body of Petro’s (Peter’s) work (most of which can be found in Renton, WA) could provide a museum or private collector with an illustration of a pivotal thirty-year period (ca. 1960-1990) in the history of Soviet-era art. However, there is one thing that won’t be found: examples of Soviet socialist realism. To understand why requires some acquaintance both with the man and the environment of L'viv where the artist spent the majority of his adult, professional life. This is the most European of Ukrainian cities. Until WW1, it had served for several hundred years as the cultural and political capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s eastern region. Between the wars, L’viv and Halychyna (western Ukraine) belonged to Poland. Because the Soviets controlled this area “only” since WW2, it was not as russified or communized as intensively as the center and east. Consequently, the intelligentsia here dared to maintain contact with western-European culture. In art, this meant that a deep appreciation for the impressionists and post-impressionists could be cultivated, albeit with great care and cunning.
Of course, this did not mean slavish imitation. Under the guidance of Roman Selski, the L’viv “School” appropriated and transformed the best of classical and modern art. Before long, Peter became a member of the 60’s rebellion against the predictable, ideological conventions of Soviet socialist realism: art for propaganda's sake. It was not easy; it could not be done with frontal attacks. Sometimes, a sort of compromise was struck: blue and yellow (sky and wheat) nationalist colors began being smuggled in, though there was always something colored red, so as not to displease the ever-watchful “Older Brother." Or, one changed strategy: “When the art-police looked too closely, we became more abstract. As the pressure eased, we got more realistic. Of course, much was secretly-produced and never exhibited until the late 80’s and Glasnost." It was a period of intense soul-searching. How could one be nationalist without being parochial? How could one make a political statement without buying in to any one system? Was there a way of dealing with profoundly universal themes through the particularlist lens of one’s own culture and history? Could his land, people, and time become vehicles for speaking about humanity as a whole?
Without a doubt, they can and must. However, in order to be heard-seen, one has to have a voice-look. Viewing the range of Peter’s creations could give the wrong impression. He seems to be all over the map, working in metal, wood, stone, ceramics, oils, and watercolor. One can see the influence of every master and movement. Will the real Peter please stand up or at least sit still? Has he found himself or is he still searching? Long classical training in several media might have delayed such self-discovery and tempted one to imitate. But it also provided the tools and avenues for eventual success (unless the constant search is itself the goal.) Finding one’s voice requires conversation. So, what looks like an imitation of Cézanne is in reality a dialogue with him. Furthermore, re-working the same theme in stone, copper, and canvas is an attempt to see what the medium itself has to say in the discussion between form and content. Or, to change the metaphor and point slightly, one might think of a soloist with a multi-octave range who can contribute either as tenor to Verdi’s “Requiem” or as bass in Handel’s “Messiah.” Such variety and versatility need not reveal someone groping in the dark. Everyone appreciates the property of plate glass because it allows light to pass through unobstructed. But lovers prefer diamonds (or at least cut glass). It is the detained light, bouncing against a thousand different angles, that gives them their brilliance and value.
And one must not forget the audience addressed. Will the artist have anything to say to the consumer as well as to his colleagues, and, of course, to the critics? Selling out to any of them is the task to avoid. Perhaps the greatest temptation to compromise lurks in the ceramic work which, because of its decorative nature and utility, challenges the artist to maintain his moral and esthetic convictions more than in any other medium.
Like many artists profoundly affected by Chornobyl, Peter responded yet again to the world’s misery and to the severe impact of human evil on society and nature. But there’s more than meets the eye. “Apocalypse” means revelation: beware that demonic forces are at work behind the scenes which resist God and his good intentions for creation. Peter was dealing with some of these religious themes even before his conversion to Christianity in 1976. Perhaps some of the more moving and poignant works are those employing found items, in particular, buttons from the clothes of Holocaust victims. By using objects once owned and worn by particular human beings, one could memorialize and give public voice to those whose screams of terror were muffled in the gas chambers and ovens.
The decision to become a believer cost him dearly, both professionally and personally: expulsion from the Union of Artists and Writers and abandonment by his first wife. For the next decade, until his work was “rehabilitated” during Glasnost in the late 80's, Peter labored in the Church as an ardent Christian, widely bearing witness to his life-transforming experience. But, in the end, vindication occurred. Perhaps some of the seeds sown during that revolution of the 60's brought forth their fruit. Before emigrating to the US in the early 90's, he enjoyed the attention of State television, which gave his work a public retrospective. How fitting that Art Mavens should do the same, only this time at the beginning of his American career.
Author's Note: For some historical details and critical observations I am indebted to Peter and to an article reviewing his work by Olena Ripko, “Petro Markovych u Rektrospektyvi Shkoly,” Zhoveten, 89/7 (Lypen 1989) 126-130.