Onishenko marks 20 years of living the Czech dream

A savory character of Prague’s art world celebrates 20 years in his adopted homeland — originally meant as a stop on a longer journey

Arts & Leisure
Guest Writer | 24.05.2011

If you encountered Alexandr Onishenko walking down the street in Prague, you would probably say to yourself that he does something interesting. The big, burly Ukrainian with long gray hair and a penchant for old-fashioned hats also sports a formidable, push-broom mustache. You would probably guess, correctly, that he’s a painter, such is the flair with which he lives his art.

Many artists “live art” of course, but most tend to be either more humble or more enigmatic about it. That is not the case for  54-year-old Onishenko, who lives in a deconsecrated Baroque church, drives an antique Citroën and is often photographed at work in an 18th century sleeping gown or at play in a severe black suit. He has been living and making his unique brand of art in Prague for exactly 20 years.

“This is a city like none other,” he told Czech Position, after putting on a shirt. “When I came to Prague in 1991, I was only passing through, trying to fulfill a dream of going to Lake Ohrid in Yugoslavia. But I was captivated by Prague.” He recalls the staples of the city’s post-revolution mystique — euphoric freedom, cheap beer, somber dereliction and wide open opportunities, before bringing his reveries back to earth. “More importantly, I ran out of money. And some new friends I’d made suggested that I try painting on Charles Bridge.”

A lot of roving artists came to Prague in the early 1990s this way, on the back of the catchphrase “It’s like Paris in the ’20s.” Onishenko has another turn of phrase: “It was like the Klondike in the gold rush. Whatever I drew, sold. Maybe for laughable amounts of money, but it was enough to live on. … If you sold a painting for  Kčs 1,500, then at  Kčs 2 a beer that was plenty to keep you going for a month.”

His early success speaks for itself. After six months of sitting on Charles Bridge he had amassed the financial means to hold some exhibitions, and after three years and making many of the right friends, he opened Galerie Jakubská, in the heart of Prague’s Old Town. 

Onishenko’s niche is what he calls “New Impressionism” (the wording is key, because the style is much less similar to neo-Impressionism than it is to the older school). The method — which he cryptically claims to have learned “in the east” — uses a black canvas, a painting knife and gloopy, impasto layers of color. “It’s the same as the normal impressionistic technique, but in reverse; everything they taught you to do, you do in the opposite way,” he explains. “They say it’s more aggressive. I see it as a question of lighting a candle in a dark room as opposed to a room that’s already lit. The effect is jolting.”

A look around  Galerie Jakubská shows mostly dreamy urban or rural landscapes. Prominent above the stairway is a well-known work of Prague’s red rooftops and white chimneys, an image that could indeed hardly be more striking in any other style. The painter’s beloved Citroën then hangs large in one corner, done in the same method, but now giving a sort of comic-book feel. Onishenko says he employs most any theme, but there is a conspicuous absence of people in the paintings. The other thing you do not see is any kind of agony or euphoria, confusion or other more deeply human musings. Maybe that’s the thing that keeps Onishenko’s beautiful art — popular art — from being “high art.”

“I reject depression as a matter of principle,” he says. “This tendency of artists to put their problems on the canvas. … I prefer to wait until they resolve themselves. If I’m sad, I try to paint something optimistic, and it helps me, and other people as well. My intention in painting is more about giving pleasure.”

On one of the first warm spring evenings of the year, about 70 people, mostly Russian-speaking, are gathered in the crowded cellar of Galerie Jakubská to celebrate 20 years of Alexandr Onishenko in Prague. The cellar smells of the borscht he made himself for the occasion, soloist Damir Basyrov is traversing the crowd doing throat exercises, and Onishenko himself is looking both sheepishly pleased by the attention.

Among the friends and family assembled are some of the people who first bought an Onishenko work in Prague, like Irena Topinková. “We have a painting in the bedroom that we bought on Charles Bridge in the early ’90s,” she begins, pleased to be telling this story at Onishenko’s side. “A few years later we were walking down the street and saw this gallery, and I was sure it had to be the same artist, so I went inside and asked if the painter had been working on Charles Bridge, and sure enough, it was Sasha. So we brought it in to finally have it signed. Since then we’ve bought many of his paintings. They’re beautiful and unique, but at the same time not kitsch. The only problem with them is that they keep getting more expensive.”

Onishenko takes the practical approach to art. Art is divine, art is an image of the soul; art is a spiritual communion among humans, and art is also money. “If I were to say, ‘No, I’d never sell this painting’, that would just be cheap PR,” the artist said. “If I were to say that, it would probably be because no one wants to buy it. Of course I take this like a kind of game. What am I going to do with a gallery that doesn’t sell anything, other than walk around like a hot shot?”

At the same time, he doesn’t put much store in his long run of good fortune: “Who knows where we’ll be in the future? I have friends whose galleries have busted in the last two years, and they’ve gone back to painting in the street.” Everything about Onishenko seems to be about process, and there here and now.

One thing he seems to know about the future, though, is that Prague is the end of the line. As long as he is here, he has the happy feeling of still being a wayfarer on his way to Lake Ohrid, which he never reached in the end, and no longer wants to. Its philosophical value is greater now than the value of a package tour. “Maybe it’s better never to reach that destination,” he says. “Life is more about getting to a place rather than being there. Maybe I’d get there and be angry to find that my dreams of some miraculous place were wrong, and all there is there is a normal lake.”

Galerie Jakubská
Jakubská 4, Prague 1
Daily except Sunday, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
www.galeriejakubska.com

Christian Falvey is a reporter for the English-language service of Radio Prague 

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