by Leo M. Tadek
In Living with Art (August issue/Reinventing Home) Mona Molarsky shared the works that shaped her sensibility and her life – from her grandfather’s idyllic renderings of Russian villages to her mother’s fascination with Kathe Kollwitz — noting how these different sensibilities contributed to a lively political dialogue.
This graceful article made me reflect on the paintings my wife, Janina, and I have collected over 40 years, while living in New York and Princeton, residing in Brussels and working in Moscow. These images enhance our home in different ways, acting as a kind of living memoir, reminding us of important relationships and turning points.
Why does a particular painting catch the eye? Why do we surround ourselves with different images? If we consider the pictures we look at every day, we will find that each work has something to tell us, not just about the artist’s point of view but about the arc of our own lives.
In Flanders' Fields
This lone cypress on the fields of Flanders, by S. Tressaert in the early 20th century, is the first painting my wife and I acquired in 1984, when I was based in an international law firm in Brussels. The flat vista with a single tree is emblematic of the region. Jacques Brel’s beautiful ode, Mon Plat Pays (translated here) celebrates a country in which the soaring stone cathedrals are the only mountains, and the earth bows humbly before the rising sun. The people are hardy, sea-faring folk who built the great medieval trading centers of Bruges and Ghent.
Many associate Brel with Paris, where he made his fame and fortune as poet and performer, but he was, of course, Belgian, and his work evokes the brumes or mists of the North Sea. This painting has graced the space above our living room mantle for many years, elegant in its simplicity, with bold horizontal and vertical lines. The view extends indefinitely to the horizon. Whenever I gaze at it, I am taken back to our early days in that lovely country, our home for 30 years, where we passed from youth into middle age. Our own perspectives seemed infinite then as well, but grounded like this cypress in a well-tended landscape.
Message in the Fan
This handsome portrait is of an opera singer, a star of the European theater in the 1920s. The painting (dated 1926) is by Philippe Swynkop (Belgian), and the subject is likely dressed as Carmen. A number of portraits by Swynkop can be seen in the grand foyer to the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels. This one was my gift to Janina on her 40th birthday.
When I first saw the painting in a gallery near Brussels, I could not turn away from it. Something about the woman’s pose reminded me of Janina, the characteristic straight posture with hand gracefully at the hip – as she would often sit, especially when slightly annoyed. In the weeks of negotiating with the gallery, I began to see deeper into the work. The cool shades of blue, gray and green, and the graceful fall of the singer’s diaphanous veil, tell us that this is a person of breeding and reserve; there is nothing common about her. But then the artist gives her a fan in a riot of bright, clashing colors — pink, orange, yellow, red — suggesting that beneath this exquisite poise is a woman of passion and power! Once I perceived this in the painting, I absolutely had to have it. Now each time I pass it in the hallway, I see my wife as a young woman, and get an approving nod from Mr. Swynkop for having understood, finally, his intent.
Woman of the Earth
This old village woman by Georges Pierre (Belgian), likely from the 1920s, was my gift to my wife for her 50th birthday. There is no trace of Janina in this woman’s stern, direct gaze—but I could not resist the implied humor in the contrast between her 40th and 50th years. Janina appreciated this as well, but there is more to the painting than that. It reflects my wife’s aesthetic and her favorite color is used to great effect. The painter shows that particular light that illuminates the countryside of northern Europe each summer, in all its subtle shades of green.
The woman’s broad-brimmed hat indicates that she has been working alongside her husband in the fields. The village houses in the background have the orange tile roofs characteristic of Belgium. The Spaniards learned the art of making tile with egg yolks as a binder from the Moors. They brought the method to Flanders as that land was absorbed into the Spanish Netherlands under Emperor Charles V. If you drive one hour north into Protestant Holland where the armies of Spain did not penetrate, you’ll find the brick and tile are uniformly red, made from local clay and straw. We noticed this curious architectural difference when traveling from Belgium to the Netherlands, as we often did on bicycle. It is apparent the moment one crosses the border from one village to the next.
This Belgian farm woman has become a beloved companion. She is characteristic of the solid, no-nonsense folk who have cultivated the rocky soil of Wallonia for aeons. We have placed her on a wall in the dining room, where the bounty she laboriously produced can still be celebrated.
Abundance on the Table
Another addition to our household — a bouquet by Boris Parkhunov, dated 1998, after the demise of the Soviet Union, as the old Russian spirit was re-emerging in the culture at large. As an outside legal adviser to a Russian Ministry working out the country’s sovereign debt, I spent over a decade in Moscow, witnessing the extraordinary transformation of that city from the 1990s into the first years of this century.
This painting does not merely speak of Russia, it shouts it out loud with the sheer exuberance of its composition. Surely no such flower arrangement has ever or ever could exist. It is a gesture to the untamed vastness of Russian space, and its profusion of simple wildflowers is a testament to the wild beauty of the countryside.
Parkhunov has skillfully used color against a dark green background to provide richness and depth. This work also hangs in our dining room. It is not merely decorative — it draws the viewer in. Friends entering the room sometimes gasp as candle light flickers on its surface and it becomes a subject of conversation at the table.
I found this painting at a show in Moscow. Though it wasn’t difficult to purchase, it was challenging to export. Many official forms had to be completed, many stamps obtained from cheerless Soviet-post-Soviet “guardians of the patrimony.” Finally, Nikolai S, an associate at my law firm’s Moscow office, was recruited to roll up the canvas and bring it by plane to our home in Belgium. I will always be grateful to Nikolai, whose youthful face I can see if I look carefully among the flowers.
After all those years working in Russia, I felt I needed some tangible representation of this country. I found nothing more evocative than this painting. It gives voice to the boundless ambition and deep spirituality of Russian culture, as did Tolstoy and Chekhov, more than a century ago
A Return to Roots
Janina was born in Sokal, a town that has deep roots in Polish culture but was annexed by the Soviet Union during the Second World War. When we visited in 2005, it was Janina’s first sight of the town since she left, at eight-years old, as a “displaced person.” Ethnic cleansing was rampant in this region, and Janina’s mother was the only one of her family to escape the camps in Siberia, by happenstance, as she was working nights at a hospital when the NKVD descended on her village. She promptly married a Ukrainian soldier, who had been wounded in the first weeks of the war, and for a time, that brought her some security.
This painting was done by Cynthia M., an amateur artist of Ukrainian descent as a thank you to Janina for translating her family’s letters into English. Cynthia’s parents had some 120 letters in Polish and an older form of Ukrainian that they had carefully preserved for many decades but could not read. After Janina helped this young woman recover her past, she did this painting to help my wife reconnect with hers.
This may look like a simple representation of a village, but there is something unusual about it. This it not a “real” view of Sokal. It is a collage of different places pieced together to convey the meaning of the whole. The cemetery at the center right is, in fact, about a kilometer from the Church and does not abut the town square as pictured. But Janina’s father is buried in that cemetery and so it is central to the theme.
One reason for our visit was to find his gravesite, which Janina visited as a young girl. She had also played in the grassy alleys of that cemetery with other local children. To capture those memories, our artist friend moved the cemetery into the center of the painting, just next to the church. She also added a statue from another part of the village — one of Taras Shevchenko, the national poet of Ukraine and a symbol of resistance to Russian domination.
While this painting speaks to the rich history of a region, it also reminds us of my wife’s family and of our friendship with the artist. It hangs in our family room where we see it every day. Not the most valuable of our paintings, but one of the most valued.
A Village through Time
I first saw this painting while it was still in process. The artist, Andre Turner, was standing at the side of a road that winds down into the town of Lasne, busily working on this composition. I stopped my car, looked, and made arrangements to purchase it on the spot.
This is a winter view of the Belgian village, southwest of Brussels, where we lived for 17 years. Turner was a member of the art department at St. John’s International School in Waterloo, where our sons were students, and where Janina also taught. What better way to recall those formative years when we raised our children and deepened our marriage?
The Church at the center is 17th century, quite typical for a small town in Brabant. No soaring cathedral here, just a village church named for an obscure local saint (Gertrude). Farther in to the town is the principal tavern and watering hole — one that has stood for centuries and serves the village people still. On the hill in the middle distance stands an 18th century fortified farm, worked now by the fifth generation of the same family; the venerable M. Gillis and his adult son tended the property while we lived there. Its thick white walls are a reminder of the days when marauding bands descended as suddenly as a cloudburst. Then, as the church bells rang in warning, the village people fled to the safety of the farm.
You cannot see our house in the painting, but we lived next to that farm, just over the top of the hill. The Delano in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s family was originally de Lasnois, and they, too, came from this region. The name became Delano when the region fell under Dutch control and local gentry found it prudent to adopt names that were “less French.”
As in Sokal, with its Polish/Ukrainian mix, so in Lasne at the other end of Europe. These cultural overlays and antagonisms are constants in European history. This clash of ethnicities ties these two very different paintings together, reminding us that life wasn’t always easy in these villages.
An Icon of Friendship and Healing
Some years after we returned to the States and I began teaching at university, I became ill and had to undergo chemotherapy. At the time, I was given this Icon of St. George slaying the dragon by one of my former colleagues in Moscow. It is Russian, probably 19th century, and likely done by an artisan working in a monastic community, surrounded by a birch forest.
St. George and the dragon form part of the heraldic arms of the City of Moscow. This image was first used in the 9th century, when the country formally adopted Orthodox Christianity. The icon is finely worked with raised embossed gilt, and it clearly has a voice of its own. My Russian friend was of course aware of my health issues, and I believe he intended it as more than just a souvenir of Moscow. It was both a token of friendship and a sacred object meant to carry energy and healing. The icon now hangs like a talisman in our entry hall on a deep purple velvet mat that my wife made especially for it. St. George offers a promise of support to all who enter our home, and certainly he speaks of that to me whenever I come through the door.
I hope this essay will encourage other readers to engage in the same sort of reflection on the art they have collected. A painting isn’t just something we choose to match the sofa, or to add some interest to the room. Each piece has a story to tell, a special memory to evoke. Art, over time, can serve as memoir—illuminating our loves, our friendships, our travels, while it also serves as a bridge between our modern sensibility and another place and time.
Leo M. Tadek (a pseudonym) holds degrees from Princeton and Harvard. He has worked as an international lawyer based primarily in New York and Brussels. Since retiring from practice he has taught at Princeton University and lectured at other universities.