First published: Fall 2019
The personal Soviet iconography within Olga Frantskevich's memory rugs
“There was no paint, no paper. I wanted to express myself, to share all these emotions, all these horrible things which had happened to us.”
Olga Frantskevich is a storyteller whose vibrant hand-woven tapestries fill us with the narrative of youth. They are personal, familial stories, spoken by a child of war. They could have been imagined at any moment during or since World War II. Yet they only came to life in the twilight years of their 81-year-old Belarusian author.
When taking in Frantskevich’s embroideries, the graphic imagery is striking, as is the role played by tragedy in the artist’s life. A selection were exhibited as part of “Of a Life/Time” at The Gallery of Everything in London, earlier this year. Here were landscapes of conflict, weapons and gravestones, where mothers clutched the hands of children as the flames closed in. Yet here, too, were moments of joy and serenity, as animals fed, lovers embraced, and war-weary soldiers played accordions for the dead.
War! (Война!), 2018, acrylic thread on cloth, 45 x 55 in. / 115 x 140 cm, The Gallery of Everything, courtesy: Olga Frantskevich
Born in the USSR in 1937, Olga Frantskevich knew violence and horror from her earliest days. She was just seven when she witnessed her father being executed by German forces. She spent much of her childhood hiding in a forest; and, on liberation, in 1944, saw dead bodies hanging from the gallows and littering the deserted streets of her village.
It was the women of the country who had to rebuild and recreate some kind of normality. Frantskevich recalls their daily struggle to rise above not only the destruction of war but the injustice of its aftermath. Their heroism left its mark. The artist pledged that one day, somehow, she would tell their story: “Our mothers saved us. They confronted the enemy – without heat, without food, without clothes, without shelter. They saved us, their children. There should be monuments to them everywhere, but we have forgotten about them.”
It was several decades before Frantskevich felt able to fulfil her promise; and, when she did, the medium of choice took her friends and family by surprise. Tapestries were a traditional format in the USSR, used primarily as decoration and insulation. As a child, Frantskevich had been taught how to embroider by her grandmother. It was a hobby which she had forgotten about over the years, until – at the age of 40 – she wove a large carpet for her new State apartment. It was a big step for a maker who had never had the time to make before. Although this piece, like her other early experiments, spoke primarily with the visual language typical in the region, it hinted at the potential of her untapped and untrained imagination.