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“Painting is not imitation of nature, but its transformation”. Interview with Kyiv artist Olga Akasi

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There are many amazing things in Olga Akasi’s paintings, such as soulful looks, graceful gestures, light piercing through the darkness, poetic names, and the highest skill of execution. But perhaps the most surprising thing is the time when these works were created: they were painted in the 21st century. Arthive asked the artist how she created her canvases and drawings without using a time machine.
Olga Akasi. The Flower Bud, 2003. Canvas, oil, 76×52 cm.

Olga Akasi was born in Kyiv in 1970, and remains a Kyivite to this day. She works in the manner of the Old Masters and prefers the portrait genre. Notice that her paintings are neither copies, nor even imitations, they are all original. Olga Akasi’s works can be found in private collections in Ukraine, France, Japan, USA and other countries.

Olga Akasi. Black and White Pages. Diptych. Pencil, torchon.
"Olga, the subjects of your works have alien faces, eyes, even hands, they are as if from some other time! Where do you find your models? Or is it all about your eyes?"

"Oh, nature! Sometimes just in the street. Or some acquaintances of my acquaintances who are strong enough to pose for several hours. Sometimes they are the people whose portraits I make. I look for people in accordance with my ideas about human beauty, eyes, hands, which comprise my world view. To transfer a person’s appearance to the canvas as he is in everyday life — why? Reportage shooting in paints? What for? It is interesting to show a person from the inside. You can talk to your model, put him or her in different conditions, and he/she manifests oneself differently. There is beauty in every person. We must get it out of him or her."
Olga Akasi. The Meaning Found Tomorrow, 2008
  • Saga of Meditation (Mythic Diptych)
  • Soft Symbolic Touch
"Painting is not a reflection of reality, not an imitation of nature, but its transformation."
"Well, those who now, in the 21st century, prefer a realistic manner, are often asked by "well-wishers": why compete with the camera?"

"It is not a competition. Theatres did not disappear with the advent of cinemas. The Internet has appeared, but books are still there. Photography and painting are different types of art. The competitor is the artist who tries to work as a photographer, copying a photo with paints. This "photographic quality" makes the painter’s work seem to be meaningless. "Just like in the photo" is just a negative sign for painting. Art is a choice, a selection. Painting is not a reflection of reality, not an imitation of nature, but its transformation."

"You have chosen not only realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
, but also the style, atmosphere, stories that unequivocally hint at the Old Masters. Do you skip the shortcuts?"


"It is interesting to overcome difficulties. It takes minutes to paint a plastic portrait à la Safronov. And therefore, there is nothing to be proud of. To paint a graceful smile, a sly look, a complex colour glowing from the inside with dozens of layers is the work, the hard work. I guess I’m a workaholic. Perhaps this is an ambition — to be a maître. To paint a portrait the way no one else does — at least here, in this country. It’s not modest, but I have achieved some success here. I am interested in the personalities — in painting, cinema, literature. My portraits are not always commissioned. I paint portraits of Pascal, Machiavelli, Boethius, Abelard, Laura. I read their works, about them, about their life, I immerse myself in this atmosphere. Realism
Realism (from late Latin reālis — “real”) is considered to be the beginning in the development of modern art. In a strict sense, “realism” is an art movement that faithfully and objectively reproduces reality in all its details, regardless of how beautiful are the objects in the picture. Read more
comes from psychology. For example, abstractionism is alien for me, because it has no psychology, I’m not interested in it."

  • Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius. The Last Roman
  • The Portrait of Machiavelli
Paintings left to right:
— Born in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the third daughter of Catherine de' Medici Margaret of Valois
— Portrait of Blaise Pascal, philosopher and mathematician
— "Nothing about her was earthly or mortal…" or Portrait of Laura de Nova
— Young Hamlet
"All creative people are curious, they try different things, they seek. Malevich has cute impressionist paintings, Piet Mondrian has quite realistic landscapes and still lifes … You probably also experimented with different styles and directions until you found your own?"

"There were experiments, of course. But my experiments were mostly of a purely technical nature. I am constantly experimenting now. But one way or another, everything was subordinated to the portrait. Man, psychology, eyes, smile — these are the main experiments, and the main difficulty."

"On Facebook, you have an interesting folder titled My Tuning Forks. There are still not so many pictures inspiring you, but the available ones make it clear how deeply you know and how subtly you feel the Old Masters; surely, not only Holbein and Dürer. And yet, who are the very ones you need to have before your eyes when you are sad (or joyful, and you want it to be even better), when you are tired, when inspiration lingers on the way?"

"I just don’t have enough time to expand this folder. This will have to be done. I need them for work, and not just to post a picture. And for myself, for my own eyes, to keep myself always fit, to focus on the strong. And for those who ask me questions like yours. I often use these tuning forks in my work with students, with these examples I explain how, and what, and why. I have a lot of albums in the studio. I used to buy everything issued. Now there are less of them — on the Internet, many high-quality reproductions in excellent resolution have appeared. The best-most for me are Leonardo da Vinci, Luini, Christus, Raphael, Borovikovsky, early Titian, Cranach, Rembrandt, Ingres, Levitzky. Of course, Georges de La Tour, his work with light."
  • The Infanta, 2002
  • Face of Time, 2004
Olga Akasi. With the Lips of Sleep, in the Harmony of Silence, 2008
"Renoir said: ‘Only there, in the museum, you get the love for painting, which nature alone is not able to give you. Not in front of a beautiful view, they say to themselves ‘I will become an artist', but in front of a painting.' Do you have such a picture?"
Dmitry Grigorievich Levitsky. Portrait of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna

"The Portrait of Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna by Levitzky. I lived in a house next to the National Museum then. And my kindergarten was located next to the Khanenko Museum and the Kyiv Museum of Russian Art. I was often brought to these museums. At the age of five, this picture made a strong impression on me. And then, it seems, I wanted to become an artist for the first time in order to make such a miracle. I still consider this picture the pearl of our collections."

"I have never had a single capable teacher in my life. I would like to be a student of Raphael."
"For some reason, I cannot imagine you standing in admiration in front of Malevich’s Black Square or buying a ticket to the Damien Hirst exhibition. Am I wrong?"

"No, you’re not. Not interesting."

"Which contemporary artists are of your interest?"

"There are some, though I will answer selfishly — I am completely absorbed in my own endless improvement."

"Do you feel comfortable in the 21st century? Which century would you choose if you had such an opportunity?"

"I have never had a single capable teacher in my life. I would like to be a student of Raphael."

"Do you wear sneakers? Use a smartphone?"

"I wear sneakers when travelling. In the wild. I love to travel very much. However, these are not even sneakers, but such, you know, alpine shoes with special soles, waterproof, strong. Because I can walk 10−20 kilometres. In the city, I wear sneakers when I take long walks on the weekend. I don’t use a smartphone. I have an expensive, good, but ordinary phone.

(in the photo — Olga Akasi)

"What kind of music do you listen to? What movies do you like?"

"I listen to different music. I love the classic music very much. This is our Philharmonic. The last time I was in awe of Prokofiev’s Poem of Ecstasy when I was listening to it in the mountains. This music was so natural in the open!

"I really appreciate and respect Vakarchuk. Jazz or blues are for the city. Ethno is for being close to nature. It all depends on my mood and environment. Energetic, Spanish — when walking or jogging. Never — pop music, variety. I never listen to the radio, I ask to turn it off in taxi. I do not like the flow of external noise and music as a background.

"Movie? European indies. So that it is clear, the ideal of creativity in cinema are Bergman, Tarkovsky, Parajanov, Shepitko. Recently I watched many films with Doronina. Superb fine acting! I really liked Godfrey Reggio, his planetary epic. From the recent ones is the director Yuri Bykov."

"Where do you think people get such a love for antiquity that they even exploit it commercially? After all, vintage or purposely aged furniture, dishes, antique postcards and posters are very popular, there are even nail polishes with a craquelure effect!"

"People always have a craving for the old, history, the past. Given they create less and less original now, this craving for antiquity increases. Craving for the good old days. This is probably a psychological explanation. On the other hand, your question already contains the answer — ‘exploit it commercially'. It is easier for a goods manufacturer to use old ideas than to invent something new."
  • Cherry Study
    A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
    So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
    , 2006
  • Boy with Ice Cream, 2001
Olga Akasi. Days and Nights of Our Wanderings (detail)
"Back to your work. Does your painting style require special techniques, materials? Do you specially study
A study is an exercise painting that helps the painter better understand the object he or she paints. It is simple and clear, like sample letters in a school student’s copybook. Rough and ready, not detailed, with every stroke being to the point, a study is a proven method of touching the world and making a catalogue of it. However, in art history, the status of the study is vague and open to interpretation. Despite its auxiliary role, a study is sometimes viewed as something far more significant than the finished piece. Then, within an impressive frame, it is placed on a museum wall.
So, when does a study remain a mere drill, and when can we call it an artwork in its own right, full of life and having artistic value? Read more
the craft secrets of the Old Masters?"

"Yes, I did. For many years. The classic approach: just as before, artists used to study the painting of the maîtres before becoming maîtres themselves. I didn’t have any teachers who would really give me something as a student. Therefore, I had to comprehend all the secrets myself. Literally, in museums. Mainly in St. Petersburg and Moscow museums. And now I take my students to Kyiv museums to tell and show things you cannot read in textbooks, and no guide would tell you. Materials, paints are all standard. Well, I never use domestic canvases, because they are rough, knobby, while my painting requires a perfect flat canvas. Therefore, I usually use Italian canvas. Hundreds of brushes. Sometimes all in one working day. Do I use someone else’s work? Rather, I’d say that I use my own ones, which I obtained as a result of endless experiments."


Title illustration: Olga Akasi. Interlacing Fingers (detail), 2004

Except for the portrait by Levitzky, all the artworks in the material were created by the artist Olga Akasi.