Krystyna Melnyk's Altarpiece and everything that preceded it

Krystyna Melnyk, photo by Yaroslav Futymskyi

Maria Lanko, curator, cultural producer and co-founder of The Naked Room Gallery, spoke with Krystyna Melnyk, whose Altar was on view at the gallery from January to March 2024. Krystyna talked about how she realised she was an artist, her studies, passion for colour and image, the artists who had the greatest influence, and the creation of the very monumental work that became the centrepiece of our exhibition.

I would like to start from the very beginning. Do you remember the moment when you realised you were an artist? What was it like? When was it?

It's a hard question, but I think I've always wanted to be an artist, from the very beginning. Probably, I realised myself in this role in adulthood, but the desire to become one happened when I was five years old. My grandparents were religious. We used to go to church, and there was a print of Leonardo's The Last Supper. When I looked at it, it evoked feelings in me. I want to work with these feelings.

I have a very similar connection to art, not through museums and originals, but through some reproductions that I found somewhere. I was super excited by them. We are such post-Soviet children who grew up with reproductions.

Where did you live and how did you start studying? You decided to be an artist, and then you went to art school. How did this happen?

When I was five, my mother took me to a Pioneer's Palace. Then I went to art school. I had a great teacher who loved me very much. From the age of twelve, I studied anatomy, copying old masters. I think it influenced what I do. I moved away from all this, from the corporeality that is inherent in the Northern Renaissance, and then returned. It somehow stuck with me. After art school, I went to college in Melitopol. Then there was the Crimean Academy, where I studied until 2014.

Is this our branch?

Yes, it was. And then I entered Kyiv, I was a free student there. I went to study painting in Crimea to enter the Academy here.

How long did you stay in Crimea? A year?

A little more. I left on the penultimate day before the war. We were just taken out of there, and that was it. And then I came back a month later to get my stuff.

What was closest to you in your studies? Anatomy, nature? What did you want to achieve in your studies?

I was interested in colour for quite a long time, I worked only with it. I didn't like painting and drawing at all. Then the moment came when I started to care about the image, I was interested in its effect. I felt that something was forming that was interesting to me, and I gave up colour altogether. Because when I work with it, I don't care about anything else. So I chose image over colour.

Do you have any works from those academic years?


I need to see them, it's curious. Pavlo Makov studied painting at the Symferopol School, he also worked with colour, and then something happened to him and he moved to Kharkiv and became a graphic artist. Maybe Crimea does something to artists that they abandon colour.

By the way, his graphics are very picturesque.

Then you moved to Kyiv, what did you study at the academy?

I went to study painting. There is a division there. I went to Storozhenko in my third year, I studied easel painting, then went to monumental painting. I went there only because they taught you something.

Do you directly feel that the academy gave you something? Do you not have the trauma of the academy, like many young artists?

Of course, in the third year you get an understanding of art. You realise that it exists in a gap with the academy. You think that you will be taught to be an artist, but there is nothing about art and who an artist is. But in terms of working with composition and drawing, it's the right place. It seems to me that there are very few places left where you can get this for yourself.

What was your graduation project? 

We made an iconostasis.

You didn't go far. When you graduated from the academy, did you have a feeling that in the academy you were doing what it needed, but your artistic practice was completely different? I remember that when I started working, there was a generation of artists, Nikita Kravtsov and others, who graduated from the academy, and they had the perception that they were doing something for the academy, and something for the gallery. Did you have this feeling as well?

It happened to me that in my fourth year I refused to do productions, I did my project at the academy. Because the workshop professed certain traditions, but these traditions were in breach with the academy, because it had a totalitarian regime. I rejected it, removed a body. Storozhenko has a certain attitude to folds, and I made structures from which the body disappeared, instead of productions.

In fact, what you're doing now is returning to the body, but to the inanimate body. You are now working with it as a fold. Is there no such thing?

No. It seems like the body is not primary for me, it's an image of pain, and only then the body.

You can work with pain through colour, but you work through a graphic image. Have you thought about why you chose this path? And in general, why haven't you done any other work in the last few years?

Yes, there are several points here. My life experience and the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy had a great influence on me. I was a free student. There I learned about Georges Bataille, he was very close to me. I was influenced by his Story of the Eye. When I read it, I wanted my work to have a similar feeling. Oleksandr Ivashyna said that after reading this work, you will feel like a human being. Through pain, suffering, disgust, you will get closer to being human. Having experienced such feelings, I wanted to strive for this in my work. Bataille's father died of a serious illness when he was a teenager, as did my grandparents. So you enter into a relationship with a body that is suffering and being deformed, which can be perceived as very tragic, but there is something loving in this relationship, some tender feelings. You want to hug the body, but you can't touch it. That's why I have a lot of tenderness in my work.

No doubt about it. The kind of beauty that allows you to look at this body with admiration, even without compassion. There was a certain turning point when you identified a topic that interested you and began to develop it consistently, right?

Actually, I wanted to make such a work back at the Kyiv Academy of Media Arts. I painted it, but I failed to create a double feeling, to paint it in such a way that it evoked both horror and tenderness. A year later, I managed to do it.

How do you determine whether it worked or not? What exactly didn't work? That you didn't feel tender when you looked at this painting? Are there any formal criteria?

Yes, there are, feelings. It's a problem that when you work for a long time, you don't feel as much as you would like. There is a work called "The Back of the Angel of History". I thought I had spoilt it badly. Then I didn't see this work for a year. And when I finally did, it impressed me so much that I almost burst into tears. A distance formed, I forgot that it was my work. Before that, I looked at it through the spoilt moments, but then I saw it as if from afar. It just breathes, just like I wanted it to. Sometimes it takes a long time to realise that the work has been completed. As an artist, you look through the moments that didn't work out. But sometimes there are works that you immediately realise are it.

Do you show someone the process or the intermediate result? 

No, I don't. I never consult anyone. When you work with feelings, it has to be someone who is not too close to you. But I would show Bataille.

You can use a medium. I'm at a residency near Turin, which is the capital of esotericism: tarot cards, lots of mediums who talk to the dead. Wherever you go - whether it's an artist's studio or a museum — this line is somehow present. In the last museum, I watched a student make a video with a young lady medium talking to deceased artists. I'm thinking that I need to talk to someone like that too, like Holosiy.

Tell us how you work. Your artistic process from start to finish. It is clear that you write for a very long time. How do you set yourself a task? You make a sketch and then develop it. Are there any accidents in your painting? Do you allow something to happen unplanned?

Because it is a levkas, there are unplanned moments. The material dictates the rules, you always adapt. It's also not the same, it can be different everywhere. There are so many important things: how and where it dries, the humidity outside, how much you added, what kind of gelatin, what kind of chalk.

Why levkas?

I feel more like an iconographer than an artist, because during the war I didn't want to be an artist. An artist is based on power, and I wanted to make the longest possible works in order to perceive time differently. 

What is the difference between an icon painter and an artist? Is it the fact that he serves?

Yes, the fact that he is subordinate. 

Levkas is an interesting theme in Ukrainian art. It is present extensively in different authors. When we brought Katya Buchatska's levkas to Paris for an exhibition, the European and Western public was not familiar with this tradition. Of course, it made a fantastic impression. Is this the legacy of the Academy?

Yes, Storozhenko's workshop —  sacred and monumental. We were taught to make levkas.

More about the moment of duration. Why do I work for a long time? Because you depict pain, you want to give time. There are images of sacrifice, you have to take a certain position, sacrifice time, because time is life. I could not make such works quickly. It's mentally impossible.

Also, the nature of pain is such that it requires time. The first association when I think of pain is time, because pain is really the longest-lasting feeling. Only time can enter into some kind of equal relationship. Without time, there is nothing.

Tell us, how did you work on this exhibition? What did you want from it? It's not your first solo show, but it's the first one of this kind, and probably the most public one.

I went to Madrid to see the works of Goya. But I was already thinking that I would paint an altarpiece when I was on the train back. And I started doing it. What I painted became the basis. I haven't changed anything since then. It's just that when the war started, I thought that I should look at four artists. The first one was Otto Dix. I went and saw him. Then Max Beckmann, Francisco Goya, and then Gerhard Richter.

It's curious. And artists are not like you. Why are they important? Because of the war context?

I started to like Otto Dix and Max Beckmann six months before the war, they have a sense of reality that is close to me. There is a very strong influence of the image. I try to achieve this so that you cannot be not at the power of this image. These artists manage to do it. You leave them as a different person. It's the image of the body that affects you, they all work with it, just in different ways.

And Richter?

He does the same thing. I think he's one of the artists who thinks a lot about reality. I like that he is considered the last romantic artist. I would like to take this title away from him.

I was at his retrospective at the Neue Nationalgalerie. It was probably one of the most powerful solo exhibitions I've ever seen. So I wish you to complete the plan. Let's talk a little more about your Altarpiece. What elements does it consist of? What does it mean to you?

I really liked Matthias Grunewald's work, and I relied on it. It's far from what I did, but there are similarities. Do you remember his Altarpiece? He made it for a hospital for skin diseases. He has this attitude towards the body, where he portrays it as vulnerable. No one had done this before him. There was a scandal when he painted the body of Christ in such a way that it was really a body. I have this attitude that the body is the soul. So for me, it's more about depicting the spirit. I see it as an icon.

Did you draw these fragments straight from your head?

No, I used photographs, but first I was looking for something that would suit me, certain parts. In the centre of my Altarpiece is the boy's chest, and everything else is the female images around him.

Can you tell us a few more details? What specifically caught your eye in the fragment and what did you want to convey?

It has a very classic look, but by cropping the shapes, it has a modern twist. I really wanted it to be in the style of the Northern Renaissance. The attitude of the body that is there. I managed to do it, because when you work with classics, it's very easy to go vulgar. It was an important task to remain not vulgar, but at the same time to get closer to this painterly style.

What's next after the Altarpiece? It's the pinnacle of your artistic practice. Are you thinking of doing something else? 

I want to return to colour. 

Yes. After such a fundamentally monumental work, it will be difficult to continue doing something like this, but not in the format of an Altarpiece. This should exhaust this topic for you in every sense for a certain period.

I haven't worked with colour for six years, it will be a reunion.

Have you done other media? Do you want to try it? Is painting your main tool?

I really like being a classical artist. There is a certain audacity in this position in relation to time.

And how do you feel when you paint these works for a long time and very scrupulously? Do you still see the tasks you are solving in the long process?

It's very nice to have an understanding that you love it. Because the duration of the feeling indicates seriousness. It's nice that you don't lose interest. I've never had a moment when I lost interest.

It's a certain psychological organisation, I think. It's clear why artists do what they do, why they don't lose interest. But there is also the production of subtle things that take time. It's not dashing art, when some energy comes out of you, it's also a scrupulousness that is not so much characteristic of artists as of people in other types of organisations.

The most interesting thing is that when I was studying at the academy, I used to paint dashingly. But because images excite me, that's why I can work for so long. With others, I wouldn't be able to do that, I would paint wildly. I was even shocked when I started to do such drawing things. At the academy, I didn't paint like this, I liked to just throw material.

At the same time, the image is revealed and manifested for you in the course of a long production.

You probably have a lot of contact with it, you grow together. But it is also a witness to life. Because while you are painting some kind of dividing work, a lot of things happen. It's always a very unusual experience. You come to this work, you see it every day. There are just global things happening in life — the war and other events that don't fit into your head — and you come to one work, continue to write it consistently. So it enters into a certain conflict.