Petro Smetana is a well-known contemporary Ukrainian artist. He was born in 1985 in Lviv in western Ukraine. He graduated as a designer from Lviv University. In 2016, he was a participant of the Gaude Polonia scholarship program and studied in Krakow at the Academy of Fine Arts. The artist tends to be a non-figurative artist, combining subtle color with expressive, even rough textures, and skilfully working with form. In the spring of 2022, Petro Smetana’s project “Resurrection” was shown at the Personal Structures Art Biennale, which was held in parallel with the 59th Biennale Arte di Venezia. G.ART Gallery is pleased to start working with Petro Smetana, and today we are talking about how he became an artist, his sense of time, and the prospects for Ukrainian art on the global art market.
Petro, you graduated from the Design Department of National Forestry University. But for some reason, you became an artist rather than a designer…
I don’t know if I’ve become an artist yet… [Laughs] In my youth, I liked the profession of an artist not because I loved to draw, but because of the irregular working hours. I didn’t have to get up early for work, and that was the worst thing for me. But at university, we only had two painting classes and two drawing classes a week.
This is very little!
Crazy little. So I actually have a technical education. I studied at the Faculty of Woodworking Technology, and I know a lot about it. At that faculty, our design department, which is closest to art, was created. It was the only faculty my parents agreed to send me to. They simply would not have let me go to the Academy of Arts! Everyone in my family is either a doctor or an engineer, and who is an artist? And I wouldn’t have entered a more serious institution, because I was very bad at school.
So everything went well?
It turns out that my parents decided on my profession, but I didn’t really resist. It was very interesting to study at the university. I have always loved doing things with my hands, working with wood. And there was an opportunity to develop my imagination. We had a lot of specialized subjects. For example, we studied what a form is, how it is created, how it is transformed, and it was very interesting.
Now it’s clear why you work so well with form in your paintings.
But still, the main direction at the university was not artistic, but utilitarian, namely design. We were taught to create objects that people could use in their lives. I was always inclined to more impractical concepts, but my teachers forgave me for that because my products were very aesthetic, and I always emphasized that they had utilitarian value. This trick always worked for me! But when I started painting and drawing, I became much more interested, because it was already pure art. I was completely free in the space of canvas or cardboard. And, most importantly, design implies a customer who needs to be listened to, and I’ve always disliked that. But I make art for myself, I don’t have a client and I don’t have to take anyone’s opinion into account.
Your still lifes are effective, but your calling card among Ukrainian painters is landscapes. You work with the concept of time in an intriguing manner in them. Your landscapes resemble archaeology as if you are observing them from a distant and ancient era.
I live in a place that transcends time. There are timeless cities like Rome, and I believe that Lviv is one of them. In addition, I have a penchant for collecting antiques – objects that have absorbed the frozen essence of the past. For example, I am attracted to fragments of architectural elements that have broken away from ancient buildings. These fragments end up in my studio, where I cherish them and contemplate them, immersing myself in the passage of time that has passed since their creation. I don’t consider myself their owner, but rather a temporary custodian, knowing that they will stand long after me. Many of my friends are restorers, and in their workshops, I come across decorative elements taken from old buildings – elements marked with bullet holes or damaged by the elements. These artifacts are carefully revived and returned to their original places, where they will stand undisturbed for centuries.
And you seem to be moving through layers of time.
These are eternal things, but I can touch them. Often in my landscapes I depict objects that will soon be built up, changed, and disappear. But in my works, they will be preserved. I’m interested in researching their architectonics and seeing the opinions of architects and builders. To think about the stories of the people who lived and worked there… I have friends of a very respectable age, over 90 years old, who have lived in Lviv all their lives. Lviv was Polish, occupied by the Germans, under Russian occupation, and they walked the same streets, looked at the buildings, at the windows, and knew those who lived there. And today, life goes on inside the houses, but their shell remains eternal. I subconsciously put these ideas into my work.
In your industrial landscapes, you seem to make visible the “blind spots” of the Ukrainian landscape. After all, old plants, factories, and houses are being destroyed without supervision, as if they are not seen by society. And your project in Venice, Resurrection, was dedicated to the Krayan plant in Odesa, whose main building, built in the late 19th century in the Gothic style, has turned into ruins due to the irresponsibility of the authorities.
I am pleased to know that I have drawn attention to the Krayan plant with my project. Now the mayor of Odesa is being brought to justice because of this plant. In Ukraine, many cultural heritage sites need restoration and preservation. I would like to say that the situation with restoration in Lviv has improved a lot. Many sites have been restored and adapted to modern needs. I am very pleased that we already have an understanding of how to preserve our heritage.
Obviously, we are adopting the European experience.
When I received a scholarship in 2016 and studied in Krakow at the Academy of Arts, I explored the city and its industrial architecture. There is such an important detail. In Krakow, the buildings were built by Poles or Russians themselves. In Lviv, the same Poles or Russians built mostly. And I was very interested in understanding the attitude towards such an “international” heritage. The Poles started the restoration process much earlier than Ukraine, and we are really now adopting their experience. In Krakow, I was impressed, for example, by the Oskar Schindler factory, which became famous after the drama film Schindler’s List. It has been restored and turned into a museum of the history of Krakow, telling about the years of occupation. Today, by the way, there are a lot of Polish restorers in Lviv, bringing new technologies.
How did you find working in Poland in general?
It was a very interesting experience. I know Polish, I grew up watching Polish television and Polish films. When I was a child, we could watch films either with a Russian translation or a Polish translation. There was almost no Ukrainian translation back then. And I liked the Polish translation much better! So I understand how Poles think, they are mentally very close to me. It’s always a pleasure to be there, it’s interesting to see how Poland has rebuilt itself. Krakow is a beautiful European city, very well restored.
Unfortunately, Russia’s attack on Ukraine has brought new meanings to the world. It’s not just individual buildings that are being destroyed, but entire cities. Do you work with this topic?
Yes, but not literally. I don’t want to show the war literally. I want to talk about the trauma that happened to a person in their perception of the world. I am planning a new exhibition project in Kyiv for autumn, and this topic will appear there. There will be portraits and still lifes. I like the way fragments of architecture work in still lifes. They were on the facade of the house, then the house was destroyed, the facade fell down, and a fragment of its decor remained with us as a reference to the whole that it once was…
What is your general view on the prospects for art from Ukraine in the international cultural space?
The prospects for the integration of Ukrainian art into world art are very good! Why? In my opinion, our country still has a very correct perception of art – not as a conjuncture. During my international residencies, foreign artists told me: “Oh, you have such great art! It’s very real! You don’t follow the conjuncture”. In contemporary Western art, the algorithms are clear. If you want to become an artist, you calculate the commercial appeal, think through your strategy, and study the market. Of course, not all artists are so meticulous about their careers, but many of them strive to respond to the demands of the market and collectors. In Ukraine, for various reasons, this is not the case. For the most part, people are engaged in creativity because they cannot help but create. And galleries and collectors are already looking for their works. And I think this is the right approach.
But perhaps there are problems in Ukrainian art as well.
Ukraine lacks intelligent curators. Unfortunately, we are now like in a jungle, everyone has their own knowledge and everyone works with it at their own discretion. For example, many artists don’t know how to take their work abroad. They lack experience and professional management. There are also problems with art criticism. To reach the European level and market, we need professionals: curators, art managers, researchers, and critics. There are many wonderful Ukrainian painters, including world-class masters. But when an artist simultaneously paints, corresponds, thinks about how to send his work abroad, and organizes exhibitions, he has no energy left for creativity.
In addition, Ukrainian artists have a powerful emotional experience. Paradoxically, the war and resistance to the enemy are our inspiration now.
Yes, it is. It is a source of inspiration. A negative but powerful source of inspiration. You know, I don’t understand how artists can work when everything is stable and when the daily routine is repeated. It’s extremely boring.” [Smiles] An artist has to experience being knocked out of their comfort zone in order to create something. At least, I need stimuli that stimulate me, and push me to work. Ukrainian artists have a long way to go to work with negative experiences. I can’t help but think of Anselm Kiefer, who, although born after the war, lived in its realities, in the cities destroyed by the war. He let the trauma pass through him, worked through it, and it was real art. Nowadays, almost every Ukrainian artist has trauma, authenticity, and frankness.
We just need to understand how to process this experience in painting in Ukraine and show it to the world.
For my part, I tried to show it at the Venice Biennale. I couldn’t attend the opening of my exhibition because the war broke out and men couldn’t go abroad. The project was presented by my wife, the artist Olha Kuziura. When she told me why the author was not present at the opening, the audience took it to heart. It was a real emotion, a strong feeling.
Isn’t it too strong for the European audience?
There are few people in Europe today who are willing to experience negative emotions. After all, life has really become calm, convenient, and comfortable. However, Ukrainians are caught up in a whirlwind of negative events, which evoke strong emotions in the viewers. I believe that over the next decade, we will continue to live through these experiences and reflect upon them negatively. Ukrainian history is such that we have been compelled to respond to challenges for centuries, and as a result, we have developed a certain antifragility, becoming strong and resilient. It is absolutely crucial for curators to transfer our knowledge and experiences to the artistic sphere, allowing us to showcase not only a strong army and resilient people but also a thriving contemporary art scene to the world.
Well, let’s hope that the charity auction of Ukrainian art at the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, organized by G.ART Gallery and Airlift, will show the world’s best contemporary Ukrainian artists.
Let’s hope so! Berlin is a fascinating city—I have visited several times and even lived there briefly. It feels like a convergence of civilizations. We should now learn from the experience of renovation. We can observe how Berlin was reconstructed after the war, combining both dilapidated and new buildings. It is crucial for us to collaborate with European countries—politically, socially, and culturally—for our own development. I live just 40 kilometers from the Polish border. Before the war, we used to travel there and back in a single day. Ukraine’s openness will be restored, but we must endure and overcome all the trials to achieve that. Europe has weathered its own challenges, persevering with the strength inherited from previous generations. Now, we bear the burden for the sake of future generations. It may be disheartening to feel like soil or fertilizer when one desires to be a flower, but history has decreed these stages of civilization. We are forging ahead and progressing in these difficult times.
Cultorologist, journalist, art critic