Serhiy Yakutovych

Serhiy Yakutovych. The First Song. Illustration to Kalevipoeg.
1981, author’s technique

You need to tell a story. About the man who once participated in battles, led the army and punished those whom he considered enemies. All this was done with a sincere belief in inevitability of violence, justice and the need to protect the society.
And this man survived, won the war and got hope for the world he imagined.
How do you tell such a story? How do you call this man? Most epic works, novels, films and other media chose one common feature: a hero.
The feeling of heroism makes every story – just like our life – meaningful. It is a certain meaning that justifies the very fact of existence and being in the world.
A hero speaks in meanings which we want to hear and absorb. If you depict a character, and it does not embody the desired feeling of importance of a certain epoch, it does not become a hero and remains a “little man” who only waits for “the one” to come.
Working with feelings is neither an analysis, nor a critical attitude. It is agony, often unconscious – however it does not make it less logically built and structurally integral than “rational” forms of expression. To do this, you need to be an artist, rather than a scientist. The artist who uses an image to form a strong aura which hides all weaknesses. One may see only the vital force to change, fight and, finally, win.
But despite the great number of common denominators of heroism, legendary characters are not the same. As representatives of a separate society, they speak in its language: they dream together with it about the future, warn about the present, flee from the past. Even the most individualized heroes are dissolved in the context of society. And at the same time, they imbibe all the essential and important things from it. To look at a hero is to plunge into their epoch.

Serhiy Yakutovych. The First Song. Illustration to Kalevipoeg.
1981, author’s technique

Serhiy Yakutovych. Perekop Assault. Illustration to Perekop.
1987, etching, aquatint

In the early 1980s, the Kyiv publishing house Dnipro printed another i book with the Estonian epos entitled Kalevipoeg. An archaic story about an ancient giant was politically significant in the Soviet Union since the beginning of the World War II. After the war, it was important to make Estonia stay in the Soviet space at the cultural level, so the main literary works were actively published in different languages of the Soviet republics. Kalevipoeg was considered to be something “fundamental” and original for the Estonians – therefore this book was often printed despite its complicated structure and rather out-of-date plot.
To make epos more attractive, it had almost always been decorated with illustrations, a lot of attention was paid to design. In the 1980s, continuing this tradition, the publishing house turned to a young yet already rather famous graphic artist Serhiy Yakutovych asking him to design i the book. He had already made a name for himself with a graduation project with illustration to Oleksiy Tolstoy’s Peter I, received several significant awards, created a picture to Alexander Pushkin’s Poltava and was actively involved in easel graphic art. Moreover, Serhiy had been in Kyiv art circles since his childhood: his father Heorhiy Yakutovych was a living classic and a central figure in art of that time. The publishing house got itself a very nice combination in Serhiy: technical skill and experience on the one hand and the desire to experiment and try out new techniques on the other hand.
Besides, Yakutovych was drawn to heroics. It was probably because of the personality of his father who maintained a majestic aura in his son’s eyes all his life. Another factor could be that Serhiy, since his early childhood, was into the Ukrainian epos, legends and myths – once again because Heorhiy had worked with these topics for a long time. But the main reason was Serhiy’s inner perception of himself: it is convenient to hide behind a shroud of myths one’s personal traits which may show themselves only if the legend’s casing is deconstructed.
A mighty giant from the Estonian epos is a good material to make a hero’s image of. It is separated from us historically and culturally, remote and unknown. Kalevipoeg is seen as a fairy-tale character who does not demand a truly serious treatment: it happened a long time ago, but now it is neither relevant nor topical for anybody. And most importantly it does not need to be made relevant, because the Estonian theme must be presented in a soft and calm light of the remote past. Kalevipoeg is a hero from another world we have no contact with.
What can Serhiy Yakutovych do within such limits? He does not enter the socio-political territory, although it is close to him – it was during this time that the painter developed the so-called “political graphic art” in his easel works. He does not stylize or play with the Estonian national symbols as well as does not try to make a book monumental. Yakutovych chooses a different way – he talks about Kalevipoeg in a personal, almost friendly language.

Serhiy Yakutovych. The Twentieth Song. Preparatory material and illustration to Kalevipoeg. 1981, author’s technique

Before the actual work, Serhiy goes to Tallinn to roam the streets and look into the faces of Estonians. Among many people he notices a tall, broad-shouldered, blonde, blue-eyed young man. He will become the image of the graphic Kalevipoeg acquiring all the general conceptions about the Estonian people. The character type that teeters on the brink of cliché and life. The individual hero who is always dissolved in a collective stereotype.
Another challenge was several years later when the same publishing house Dnipro asked him to design i a completely different book, Oles Honchar’s Perekop. The central theme – the revolution-era heroics of 1917-1920s – makes it impossible to be detached or forget least for a minute about the political nature of images. Symbols are critical, painful, topical. So is the hero who does not even have a defined place in time and space. He is both the substantial past that one cannot refuse from and the inevitable present that constantly reminds about itself. The dissolution of the main character in the society is felt even harder than in Kalevipoeg: Perekop’s hero does not even have any certain individuality, he is very similar to other characters of the novel – and that is his power, his penetration in the essence of a specific culture.
Two absolutely different poles of heroism were created by Serhiy Yakutovych within a decade. One of them is fairy, separated by millenniums and kilometres, yet close by the spirit and “warm” by the filling. The other one is constantly present nearby in the not distant history and, at the same time, characterized by a bunch of collective restrictions which it is ideologically tabooed to overcome. The former has the name which is hard to remember – Kalevipoeg. The latter’s name is ordinary and simple: Danko Oresko. The intersection of these different characters, the point at which their mythological auras meet, becomes the actual conflict of heroism and its main manifestation.

Serhiy Yakutovych. The Seventh Song. Illustration to Kalevipoeg.
1981, author’s technique

Serhiy Yakutovych. Now! Illustration to Perekop.
1987, etching, aquatint

Yakutovych could not allow himself to make another propaganda leaflet out of Perekop. The fact that Danko Oresko did not correspond to the traditional heroism and was united with the collective could become a serious obstacle for him to be depicted as a hero convincingly. And that is where the artist resorts to the technique which is very close primarily to himself: he emphasizes the sensuality, passion, physicality and, finally, sexuality.
Many of the scenes of the characters’ personal life did not make it to the final edition and remained the independent engravings. Howsoever, even those of them that may be found in the 1987’ book considerably extend Oresko’s image. When turning over page after page and looking at the straight ranks of soldiers, cold lines of firearms, the atmosphere of suffering and despair, you feel awkward running into the illustration of the moment of passion between the main hero and his beloved. But this plot with its frankness and eroticism is far from accidental in Yakutovych’s visual history. It must bridge the gap of heroism that resulted from the “collectivization” of the notion hero.

Serhiy Yakutovych. Makhno. Illustration to Perekop. 1987, etching, aquatint

The image of a woman has been a symbolic need since the times of archaic mythology. Land, country, power, people – all these were the identification of the female essence the male hero had to take control over. Therefore, in the legends or fairy tales, gaining favour with the desired beloved was a direct metaphor of conquering a certain territory or acquiring power. This set of archetype symbols is still present in the culture of the latest decades: we may often see in modern movies a simultaneous victory of the main hero in love affairs and political ambitions – they supplement each other and form a wide feeling of the character’s perfection and success. The same function in Yakutovych’s illustration was performed by Danko Oresko’s love scene: he was the only one to be loved by a woman, which symbolically transitioned to his heroic traits.
Kalevipoeg also has an extensively covered storyline of relationships between men and women. However, its format is essentially different: despite the “fairy-tale” nature of the style, the violence in the contemporary Estonian epos is striking. The main heroes do not get any consent from their women, their main tactics of “winning them over” is physical force. Nevertheless, Kalevipoeg and his farther remain positive characters. The situation in Perekop is different: only enemies can rape, while Danko Oresko attracts his beloved with his virtues. Such a perspective allows understanding the main message of the Soviet story: this authority comes in voluntarily, without violence, solely owing to its good qualities and undeniable advantages.
What can form a hero besides their relationships with the opposite sex? We may easily name two elements: enemies and friends. The former carries all the negative qualities, the notion of evil and nefarious dominating in a certain period in the society. Ideally, there should be no sympathy for the enemy, because it may reflect something coming bad from the hero. This is probably the reason why the images of enemies are often so unhuman. Thus, both Yakutovych’s illustration cycles, Kalevipoeg and Perekop, play with the feral faces of adversaries: enemy forces in the Estonian epos have tails and pig’s snouts, Golitsyn’s anarchist gang smiles with horse’s grins, and Makhno reminds of a monkey.
The hero in this case is not just a protector of certain ideas, he is more of a guardian of the human nature on the whole – which is a much more noble and universal aspiration.
And these people, this big Utopia of the society, are always around the hero. They follow Kalevipoeg: hero’s broad figure closes fellow tribesmen’s smaller bodies. They create even lines and Danko Oresko is lost somewhere between them – their massiveness is the synonym for the grandeur of deeds they do. Serhiy Yakutovych subtly feels the nuances of hero’s communication with his environment – every look, every gesture or posture of characters demonstrate the position of heroism in the book reality.

Serhiy Yakutovych. Makhno. Illustration to Perekop. 1987, etching, aquatint

Serhiy Yakutovych. The Third Song. Illustration to Kalevipoeg.
1981, author’s technique

Serhiy Yakutovych. Love. Illustration to Perekop.
1987, etching, aquatint

Serhiy Yakutovych. The Tenth Song. Illustration to Kalevipoeg.
1981, author’s technique

Animals do not need to justify the leader – it is just there, that is how matters stand. People often feel embarrassed that they need a leader or a hero – because it implies personal imperfection, lack of independence or self-discipline. A hero must be justified just like the need in such an ideal. And visual images are the concentration of the main things that are present in collective desires and dreams.
Heroism is initially an empty notion that must be filled. It was best incarnated by the archaic cultures: a hero was impersonated by rock phallic sculptures. That is it was just a vertical post, sometimes with the features of a human face or body. And this post concentrated everything in it: power, propagation, control over territory. A laconic expression what heroism is. All other characteristics are only the superstructure of time, place and living conditions of people who need it.
Yakutovych felt the necessity in visual reflections about heroism. In different texts he found dissimilar descriptions of heroes which always had something in common. This “something” is hard to word yet a little bit easier to depict. As a matter of fact, it is the thing that will remain if you free a hero from social norms, individualized feelings and the context of an epoch. It is the aspiration for pure power which will subdue all other people who will recognize it as universal.
“There is no place, unfortunately, for the ideal in this world,” Yakutovych wrote. i – “However, the endeavours, the energy of creating the ideal, the energy of making mistakes is the essence of art and regular revision of the absolute truths. The intelligentsia’s refusal from quixotism is the end of civilization.”
Heroism is art in a way. It is vital, it nourishes people with ability to act and makes them think that life is meaningful. That is how Serhiy Yakutovych understood it and applied in many illustrated books. Kalevipoeg and Perekop did not have the energy in their texts that the readers who lived in Kyiv in the 1980s needed. Heroism and art merged in these books to give them a new lease of life.

Serhiy Yakutovych. The Second Song. Illustration to Kalevipoeg. 1981, author’s technique