After seeing Alexander Kishchenko’s Chernobyl tapestry at the United Nations I was interested in reading more about the artist. I found little in my initial online searching in English. But in a tweet, Elena Rosenberg suggested that I read the Russian Wikipedia entry through Google translate. That was interesting, and it sparked me to further search the web using search terms in Cyrillic. I read through several articles and references, albeit with clunky translations like “The artist’s widow, Nina is sure: all moguchest Alexander – from the Don.” Huh? (In: http://mk.by/2011/11/04/50131/)
The Chernobyl tapestry was made around the time of Kishchenko’s REALLY big tapestry, the largest ever woven, according to the Guinness Book of Records: “The Tapestry of the Century.” Oddly, the website doesn’t even include an image of the six-story-high tapestry.
Measuring 14 x 19 meters, Kischenko’s “Tapestry of the Century” used 286 kilos of wool and took five years to complete. Kishchenko spent three years developing ideas and sketches and then two years for his employee Borisov to oversee the weaving, with nine weavers at first, and then 14. A news article pointed out that the difficulty in displaying such a large tapestry is that is requires the strength of 11 men to move such a large bundle of wool.
The theme of the tapestry is the confrontation between good and evil. Over 80 prominent figures of the past and the present are depicted, including Noah, Christ and the Antichrist, a Pope, Fidel Castro, Vladimir Lenin, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Ernest Hemingway, and Bill Clinton. A self-portrait of the artist is at the top right. Alexander Lukashenko is depicted, because that spot was reserved for the leader of the country at the time the tapestry was woven in 19194. I read in one source that the dome-like image at the top is like a brain, the wisdom and accomplishments of the 20th century.
From what I read (and none of this research is long-term and verified), the tapestry does not have a permanent home, and is still owned by his widow. The “Tapestry of the Century” was displayed for the seventh time in two decades in the lobby of the Development Bank of Belarus in 2014. In the first week over 1200 people visited and tours were held every twenty minutes. Because people could view the tapestry from several floors, it was the first time that portions of the work could be seen without the aid of binoculars. The images I am posting come from an article about the exhibit, found here. There are more photos.
I read through a number of online comments on the article about the tapestry exhibition. Many were like the commentary I always avoid in my newspaper reading: strident, dismissive, angry for no reason, and sometimes thoughtful. Many are still a complete mystery, since they become only nonsense through the translation software. Still, it was interesting to read the reactions to the tapestry on exhibit. Some people wouldn’t go because of the dust. Another person felt it was terrible art, and only made because the artist knew the right people. Others appreciated the patriotic and historical aspects. Some just didn’t like tapestry. But it did provoke reactions, understandably. It must be completely overwhelming to stand in front of the six-story high tapestry. I can understand some criticism of the tapestry in purely artistic terms. Is this Bill Clinton’s head awkwardly placed on the abstracted body? Crazy! I love it.
When I saw “Chernobyl” at the United Nations, it was overwhelming. Whoah – so much activity. I can’t get my head around it! But I narrowed my focus to examine one section, and then wanted to examine the next. I become curious about the intention behind each detail. What does that figure mean? Why is that animal there? Finally, I felt ready to look at the tapestry as a whole, as a grand story and lesson in history and culture. It’s really the same process as working through a monumental painting or mural.
Alexander Kischenko graduated from Lviv State Institute of decorative and applied arts (1960). From 1963 to 1970 he taught painting and composition at the department of monumental and decorative art of the Belarusian Theatre and Art Institute in Minsk. He created hundreds of paintings and murals and worked in mosaic, ceramics, and tapestry.
He died in Minsk in 1997, only 64 years old. He was named the People’s Artist of the Byelorussian SSR in 1991, and considered one of the most famous 20th Century Belarusian artists. A postage stamp issued in 2008 celebrated his birth 75 years previous. His paintings are in museums in Russia and Belerus, and also in the private collections of the Francois Mitterrand family and Bill Clinton. He was awarded the State Prize of Belarus for his “Tapestry of the Century.”
Learning about Kischanko leaves me with many questions. Where is the “Tapestry of the Century” now? What will happen to it? I might write a longer article in the future, but today I am returning home from a wonderful week in New York – home to get weaving again! I would like to see a whole book about his tapestries, with many photos of individual sections and images within the compositions. I might have to visit Belarus.
More information: Historical Information about the Tapestries of A.M. Kischenko (Google translated page)