Valer Bondar. The Warm Shadow of the Cold Mountain


Valer often told me about Munich. Not that he’s ever been there, of course. But he had this story that he liked to tell about how, if he got off a train at the Munich Station, he’d be able to get about freely without ever getting lost, because he knew it, this city, perfectly well, down to the last street or alleyway. I used to take it as a tall tale, with incredulity, but also with a smile. And now, looking back on it all, I understand that it was underpinned by that sense of unity with the world that makes you feel at home and in your element, by that sense that connects everything and explains everything.

Valer didn’t travel much. I assume he hadn’t seen all that much either. Well, maybe in the movies. That didn’t stop him from talking about life in the bourgeois West, where he’d never been, with the same confidence he had when talking about life in Ukraine. He was born in the village of Melnytsia-Podilska, grew up in the Soviet provincial Kharkiv and lived there his whole life, which nevertheless didn’t become either insurmountable trauma or an existential tragedy for him. It’s just that the notion of provinciality had no place in his understanding of life, the world, or in his vision of art. He had the miraculous talent for ignoring the reality that degraded or standardized. Valer blithely created his own reality, which didn’t necessarily correlate or match with what was the subject of newspaper articles or the bone of contention in arguments on trams. Only choir singing or asocial behavior could draw him into an argument on a tram, never something pedestrian, like prices for staple goods.

He stood apart and kept his distance from the objective and the seemingly unavoidable. This allowed him to stay true to himself and avoid every possible trap of provinciality, which could undermine his self-sufficiency. Valer was a Ukrainian artist, whether he was inscribed into official canons, lists and registries, or not. He didn’t need to join the Union of Artists, organize solo shows or give highbrow interviews to believe that he was a Ukrainian artist. The sense of belonging to the force field of culture that was being created in this space in this moment in time was enough. Everything else didn’t matter all that much. Not for him, at least. What others believed was another matter, obviously: I don’t think Valer existed for official art circles in Kharkiv or Kyiv; I don’t think they recognized that artist. They don’t recognize him to this day. Was that a problem for Valer? I doubt it. It was more of a problem for art circles, whatever that means.

From a more objective perspective, if we take a step back from Valer’s own private mythology, which had room for characters from popular novels and western rock stars, his classmates and neighbors from a residential cottage district, Bondar’s Kharkiv happens to fit snugly the definition of the 4th Kharkiv as described by George Shevelov: the Soviet Kharkiv, the provincial Kharkiv, the Kharkiv stuck in a mental split between the red Moscow and Kyiv as the capital of the Soviet Ukraine. In this Kharkiv, you could still hear about Picasso and his dove of peace, but this Kharkiv didn’t and couldn’t have room for Jackson Pollock, an important touchstone and source of quotes for Bondar. In this case, provinciality meant not so much limited interests as limited opportunities: the world outside capitals and centers didn’t have communication channels that could have given its residents the full picture and a venue to talk freely. If this world had no room for Pollock or Warhol, neither did it have room for Ukrainian art that didn’t fit the picture of the 4th red Kharkiv. The unofficial Ukrainian culture from the 1920s to the 1960–70s just wasn’t visible in this space. You could only discover it through private (mostly unsanctioned and definitely unofficial) sources. Bondar had those sources and channels. This is what allowed him to be a modern Ukrainian artist in the provincial Soviet Kharkiv.

Bondar’s nonconformism has always been demonstrative, flamboyant even. Despite the fact that he was employed as an artist at the perfectly official Museum of Literature, his position and his positioning have always been markedly independent. It’s just that he entered the museum once and found his place in it: the place that gave him some social legitimacy (a real artist in a real museum!), but always left room for him, a space, several square meters of his studio where he didn’t have to bend to somebody else’s will and take into account the agenda of the day, where he could create graphic portraits of the writers Semenko and Khvylovy, discuss Pollock and Bandera, listen to The Beatles, sing folk songs. This space was very different from Kharkiv of the time: it was closed off, open only to the initiates. This space was markedly Ukrainian-centric, with everything that it usually entails (a vested interest in politics, distrust for state institutions inextricably linked to the Soviet political and administrative legacy, the focus on repressed and dissident art, siding with the opposition, aesthetic and political radicalism). That said, Valer was fairly cosmopolitan. Paradoxically, Valer found it natural to take an interest in world cinema, music or literature, always viewing overblown expressions of parochial patriotism with a grain of irony: he saw it a sign of provinciality with nothing but a glazing of pro-Ukrainian rhetoric.

Notably, Valer, who in private conversations liked to taunt the Blagbaz district with its bourgeois air that didn’t allow private space or self-sufficiency, changed his tone drastically to something deeper and more lingering in his works depicting Kharkiv. The setting acquired the volume of a myth and the poignancy of a legend. His Kharkiv and his urban narrative are lyrical and epic at once: space retreats from time, the perspective of lines reveals the historical perspective, the domestic and the private transcend their boundaries to become a part of the general picture, of urban mythology, of historic legacy. Bondar’s Kharkiv—his Cold Mountain, his streets in the downtown, his portraits and buildings—become a part of the shared space woven of his imagination and his love. With scenes from old-fashioned quotidian life appearing as deep and metaphorically charged as scenes from the Old Testament, these private stories become a part of cultural legacy. The sparse, measured and meaningful lines of Valer’s graphic art had lent the private cottages of the Cold Mountain and the bridges over the river Lopan a unique universality, the cosmic dimension typical of true art, the legibility open to all, regardless of their mailing or permanent residential address. His private mythology of Kharkiv alleys and crossroads provides a good opportunity to take a new look at the city, not within the framework of politics or economy, but through this cross-section of personal meaningful stories, partly elegiac, partly ironic: familial stories, familiar stories, almost lost but preserved against all odds. This experience of overcoming the provinciality of one’s context through the self-sufficiency of art is the legacy of his phenomenon, of Bondar’s phenomenon.


Ultimately, it’s an interesting idea: to tell the history of Kharkiv in the 1990s through the framework of Bondar’s studio. Obviously, this account would be highly subjective, but this subjectivity is well warranted. Valer could reconcile the irreconcilable, bringing together personalities so different that they seemed incompatible, and as the result, the very list of names and faces snatched out of the dusk of his basement studio begins to appear not so random after all. Which is to say, the very randomness speaks volumes, and this motley crew seems logical and consistent.

Whom could you usually meet at his studio? Friends from his earlier life before the museum, members of Kharkiv’s art milieu, politicians, journalists, students. I should start by outlining the specificity of Kharkiv’s Ukrainian community from the late 1980s – the early 1990s (to begin with, it was indeed a fairly cohesive community that stuck together for more effective representation and self-identification). As you might have guessed, this community was fairly invested in politics. Their Ukrainian identity, no matter what we mean or imply by it, entailed not only aesthetic priorities but also political or, so to speak, ideological preferences. For example, if you read Ukrainian poets of the Executed Renaissance (the modernist generation decimated by the Great Terror, - translator’s note), you likely supported the pro-perestroika People’s Movement of Ukraine, one way or the other. It was all a package deal. Moreover, not much has changed in this sense over the last 30 years: the choice of a Ukrainian identity entails a whole set of rules and rituals, from musical taste to electoral preferences. Granted, it now has very different scope and scale, but the situation in general remains fairly similar: by calling yourself a Ukrainian, you don’t just don a traditional embroidered shirt. You sign up for a truckload of things that weren’t necessarily on your agenda originally.

30 years ago, the majority of Kharkiv citizens who entered the force field of the Ukrainian movement had to balance between cultural outreach and political engagement. It should be said that Valer would sometimes talk about these Ukrainian circles with irony (and not just with irony, but outright dismissively), but—again, paradoxical as that might sound—he was himself their organic part. He looked exotic and aloof in any Ukrainian company, but he did understand that that was his milieu, conflicts, incidents, warts and all. I think he found it hard to balance all these pieces, but balance them he did; he himself balanced for a while between politics and bohemian circles. For example, Valer was the first leader of the Kharkiv branch of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists; that was his background: a dissident uncle Ihor Bondar, a “Ukrainian nationalist” family, the first demonstrations and creative nonconformism. Nevertheless, that sounded too extravagant to last. The world of politics doesn’t accept bohemian artists and jesters, so Valer stepped down from his leadership position without much of a qualm. We, his young followers, went in his footsteps without a doubt. It could be said that we crossed over from big politics to the liquor shop next door. Politics, it seems, didn’t even notice the loss.

Dropping by Valer’s studio off a Kharkiv street, you never knew who you’d meet there: a representative of the Ukrainian Youth Association or of the Union of Artists, a poet, a journalist or a character with an interest in Ukrainian affairs whom nobody, Valer included, even knew. Many didn’t take Valer seriously: he was too unconventional in his ability to discuss important matters with irony (self-directed first and foremost). Traditionally, Ukrainian context required a more solemn and reverential approach to its signs and symbols. Valer’s role of a jester attracted many others though: those who didn’t want to see Ukrainian identity exclusively as a source of trauma, those who sought to combine a fundamental approach with modernism, or ethnic culture with Beatles-mania. All that aside, Valer always had an apostolic knack for taking the scumbaggery of others in stride. He could (and often did) say what he thought of this or that character behind their back, but face-to-face, his sensitivity and unwillingness to stoop to quarrels and finger-pointing prevailed. He knew when to keep his temper. Few noticed that it took him any effort at all. What that dishonesty? Maybe, to a degree. Nevertheless, he more than made up for these “double standards” to his friends with his humility and self-deprecating humor. He saw through everybody, it seemed, but said nothing not to spoil the party. It was the sensitivity of a man who found himself on a tram with the people that he was seeing for the first and last time. He’d be getting off at the next stop, so might as well get there without drama and quarrels.

And here’s another thing: I remember everyone I met at his studio well. Those usually weren’t chance encounters: they were driven by stories, biographies, paintings, poems, articles; afterwards, once we were back out on the street, all those things acquired a different sound, becoming a part of culture, a part of politics, a part of history. And now, thirty years on, the departure of many of those I happened to have met then really hits hard. They were too striking for their departure to have gone unnoticed. They leave empty air behind. It’s uncomfortable to stand in that air, as if you were taking up somebody else’s space. It doesn’t matter that it’s already been thirty years.


For me, “Bondar’s school” was useful and timely. My meeting with him happened to coincide with my discovery of the whole continent of hidden and newly rediscovered texts, with my growing up into an adult and the adult world, with the discovery of the whole strata of culture that existed in a parallel dimension that I couldn’t have touched before. In the early 1990s, it was easy to be a young poet somewhere in Kyiv, Ivano-Frankivsk or Lviv, whereas in Kharkiv, you kept crashing against the wall of “the 4th Kharkiv,” with its conservative and conformist official art circles, and the unofficial circles’ embracing Russian narratives. In essence, you didn’t have a community and lost out on many important communicative opportunities and benefits. Valer was our guide between contexts and discourses, demonstrating that you didn’t need any particular conditions to create contemporary culture: you could create your own context and set the rules of the game. Valer was a living (and, in our eyes, fairly persuasive) proof that Ukrainian culture didn’t have to languish in a ghetto and wasn’t synonymous to being on the margins; it could be self-sufficient and capable of expanding its outreach. Always emphasizing that he was “out of context” and at a distance from any milieu, group or circle, Valer simultaneously demonstrated that one could be fairly successfully present “in the thick of it,” artistically speaking, without leaving one’s studio. In his conversations with us, the young ones, he always stressed that he was privy to all the fascinating unseen events unfolding in the capital or in Western Ukraine. He often bluffed, but did so with talent. He talked about the Bu-Ba-Bu group of poets as if they were his fellow thinkers or even friends despite having never met them (it was us who invited Viktor Neborak and Yurko Andrukhovych to Kharkiv and brought them to his studio). He talked about the editorial offices of Suchasnist or Post-Postup as if he were their staff writer, when in reality he was just a reader of these iconic publications, as were we, his disciples. We understood that rationally, but spiritually, we never questioned Valer’s unspoken right to be a step closer to the sacred and the important. He was older than us, more experienced than us. Most importantly, he had more soul. Even his guileless quotidian mythologizing and burlesque tall tales fascinated us. Importantly, he never tried to persuade us: “it’s my job to tell you, and whether you believe me or not is up to you.”

Valer was never didactic or doctrinal. Most of what he said was said in a joking tone, so there was no point to taking offence or arguing with him seriously. Nevertheless, behind his mask of a jester hid something that made us take his every anecdote, fantasy or tall tale with attention and respect. One way or the other, his studio was the place where I’d first read poems by Hrytsko Chubai, Taras Melnychuk and Ihor Kalynets. It was also the place where I’d heard dozens of names, maybe not for the first time, but always with great interest. Bondar also had a talent for pointing out, in few words and with a light joke, what was off about what we’d written or come up with. While it was never said in so many words, it was always clear that if he didn’t like something, it must have been truly worthless.

Writing about “Bondar’s school” here, I’m not saying the most important thing: Bondar himself never fancied himself for a guru. I suspect that he’d have a scathing response to this description or assumption (“do you feel like a teacher figure for young artists?”). His knack for turning everything into a joke sometimes made any conversation meaningless, but this defensive (or offensive) irony allowed him not to slip into patriotic pathos or aplomb even while discussing serious and important matters.

Speaking of pathos, Valer would sometimes put on a show of a professional Ukrainian mourner and shed a tear. Granted, even these shticks were clearly burlesque and usually happened during moments of moderate or acute alcohol inebriation, in the company of friends who were also under influence, and ended with absurdist and contradictory effusive declarations of love to the Ukrainian singer Kvitka Tsisyk or to Ringo Starr. In a word, the line between his pathos and his boundless nihilism was so fine that nobody dared to take him seriously.

Meanwhile, his laconic professional observations about painting, cinema or poetry, only ever made when sober, stuck in his public’s memory, inspiring to check out, rewatch or reread those works. It was an unobtrusive school of invisible hints and inconspicuous clues. It was interesting to watch how his “professional” colleagues, artists from the official Union of Artists, with normal shows, catalogues, sales and reputations, positioned him. I’m mentioning sales and reputations without any negative connotations or irony: Bondar chose nonconformism of his own free will and of his own accord, not as the result of any petty intrigue from his colleagues. Not all of them could be described as his colleagues, even though they were all artists. It sometimes seemed that Bondar didn’t fit the familiar framework of the city’s art life: having found it blatantly boring, he didn’t even try to play by its rules. That said, his colleagues treated him if not with deference, then with attention. You couldn’t help noticing it. He had no official status, no normal schooling, his name wasn’t on any lists and posters, but it was obvious that he was the real deal, more real than any proof of membership in a union. You couldn’t miss it in the way they talked about him. Valer himself, as far as I can remember, didn’t take any of that too seriously. It was more important to him who’d share his table than where that table stood. In a conversation partner, he treasured the ability to sing along to his favorite drinking songs more than their status. Singing together mattered far more to him than any plenary session. Obviously, we all soon learned the words of his favorite songs. It’s a pity Valer was the only one we could sing them with.


That’s not the most important thing though. The context explains much, but doesn’t justify everything. This whole conversation wouldn’t have been worth much if not for his graphic art and paintings, his works that reflected the post-Soviet, post-depressive, startlingly deep and poignant Kharkiv that has now become an object of historical and anthropological studies. Bondar was an artist first and foremost; everything else was largely contingent on this first identity, secondary, of lesser importance. Neither Bondar’s singing nor his private mythology, his anecdotes and apocrypha would be worth a thing without his portraits, without his series of works on glass, without his torn, choppy, spiky and sharp graphic art, X-ray-like in that unexpected and surprising sources of life brought into relief the obscured or submerged remains of the civilization that was natural and familiar to him since childhood; as an artist, he felt in his element in that civilization. That confidence inspired him to share the outlines of this civilization, dying and futile, but undefeated and unbowed: the civilization of private cottages and shortcuts through yards, the civilization of street vendors and train station loiterers, the civilization of deep snow and fruit orchards in the Cold Mountain district. 

His quotidian, day-to-day life was very generous and verbose, which found interesting and unexpected reflection in the laconic sparsity of lines of his drawings: they were reserved, measured, metaphorical to the utmost. Valer, it seemed, brought out all the baroque excesses and arbitrary objectness over to this side, to the world on this side of paintings, in order to leave only the most crucial things there, on paper, glass or canvas: the crucial elements without which the graphic verticals would dissolve and collapse, without which the splashes of dense paint would stop breathing light and depth.

Every detail—sparse lines, contrasting lighting and especially constant repetitions of certain motifs—demonstrated just how thought-out and measured these works were. Valer, it seemed, always returned to several motifs and plots that were of particular importance to him, constantly adding, remembering or revealing something new in them. It didn’t matter what his focus was, be it abstract combinations of lines and strokes in snippets of winter landscapes that gave barely a hint of the material world, or eloquent and obvious biblical scenes. He didn’t have all that much to say, but it was of paramount importance, it seems, to make sure that what he did say was heard and understood. Aside from his natural skills and craft, this also revealed his integrity when it came to style, tone and values. One way or the other, the orderliness of memory, language and emotions turned into the orderliness of red, black and white colors in his works. 

As time went on and the quotidian orderliness of his day-to-day life gradually dissipated, the changes inevitably found reflection in Valer’s works, which became ever more chaotic or outright sloppy; there emerged a rift between the idea and its implementation, imperfections multiplied. It was sad to watch, and one could hardly help; what can an outsider do for a complicated man with a precise style? Trying to help would hardly change a thing. Valer was much too independent to take his friends up on an offer to stand by him and give him a hand. That’s how he departed too: as an independent man, a thing on his own, watching the world from the sidelines. His departure was neither solemn nor dignified. It was melancholy rather than anything else, and it left us disoriented rather than anything else. His works don’t carry that sense of melancholy and disorientation: they might be tragic and pained, they might carry the premonition of departure and the darkness of the impending crossing, but they don’t seem disoriented. Valer’s characters, disciples, warriors, salt merchants and denizens of the wild steppe, were brimming with dignity and courage; they didn’t require sympathy and didn’t complain too much about their lot. Valer didn’t complain much either, even though his last years were not rich in examples of either outstanding courage or excessive heroics. Ultimately, he is not unique in that everything he did, painted and created transcended the sum of what he had left for himself, what he was left with in the end.

On the other hand, we have not yet fully grasped what his legacy was, what he had left to us. I mean that in the very obvious sense: the preservation of his works, some sort of publication and some sort of systematization are long overdue. I also mean the need to read and understand the context, these attempts to verbalize that Kharkiv: Bondar’s Kharkiv, the Kharkiv of the turn of the 1980–90s, the Kharkiv filled with draughts and premonitions. Those draughts have unfurled too many a flag, and too many of those premonitions have come to pass. To a large extent, we still live among those shadows, among the echoes of voices of the men and women who went out into Kharkiv streets and crossroads a quarter century ago, joyfully welcoming one another and courageously turning their hot wind-chapped faces to the first December snow, peering into the low and poignant Slobozhanshchyna sky for signs. But there were no signs, and they lightheartedly walked to the nearest bar to hide from the first snow, laughing, quarreling and slipping into the quiet winter melancholy.
The sky above them turned wet with snow.
The snow fell into the rivers of Kharkiv, melting slowly.
In the south shone the black warmth of the Cold Mountain.