Ending Silence, An Introduction to the History of Modern Ukrainian Art

By Prof. Oleksandr Fedoruk, Doctor of Art History

Rylsky Institute of Art History, Folklore Studies, and Ethnology
National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine

The Europeanization of Ukrainian art, its incorporation into the stylistic streams of European artistic mentality begins in earnest during the first decade of the twentieth century. Those years saw the rise of the Ukrainian avant-garde, an integral part of the European avant-garde art scene. The principal line of Ukrainian art in this period is strongly tied to the aesthetic tastes of European artists and also demonstrates significant overlaps with the preoccupations of Russian art. A team of dazzling personalities, among them Alexander Archipenko, Oleksa Hryshchenko, Mykhailo Boichuk, the Krychevsky brothers, the Burliuk brothers (in particular David Burliuk), Heorhii Narbut, Kazimir Malevich, Pavl Kovzhun, Oleksandr Bohomazov, Mykola Butovych, Kostiantyn Piskorsky, Mykhailo Andrienko, expressed the high-quality potential of Ukrainian art at the dawn of the twentieth century.

In December 1917, at the early stage of Ukraine’s struggle for independence, the Ukrainian Academy of Fine Arts was established, led by several prominent artists of the era (the brothers Fedir and Vasyl Krychevsky, Oleksandr Murashko, Heorhii Narbut, Mykola Burachek, Mykhailo Boichuk, Abram Manevich and others), who produced an active impact on the development of fine arts education in Ukraine. The Academy leadership’s views brought about a cardinal change compared to the conditions in the nineteenth century when to hope for development of artistic education during Ukraine’s colonial condition was simply unrealistic.

It should be borne in mind that after the Bolshevik coup of 1917 and the defeat of Ukraine’s struggle for independence during 1917–1920, a significant number of artists was forced to emigrate. Nevertheless, they could not conceive of their life and creative work without ties to Ukraine and continued working for, and in the name of, the cause of Ukrainian art.

Beginning in the 1930s, the Bolshevik system forcibly imposed within the art world the style of the so-called socialist realism, establishing absolute pressure over the development of the arts and the lives of the artists, as well as the entire creative process as such. The Bolsheviks also turned the direction of artistic thinking back towards nineteenth-century naturalism and the schematic declarations of the Russian peredvizhniki artists. But notwithstanding the totalitarian oppression, one could observe the development of the Ukrainian strain of modern art, and sense a palpable yearning for innovative forms of creativity.

Already in the late nineteenth—early twentieth century the era of national revival brought forth such first-rate talents as Oleksandr Murashko, Heorhii Narbut, Petro Cholodny, Sr., Ivan Trush, Olena Kulchytska, the brothers Vasyl and Fedir Krychevsky, Oleksa Novakivsky, and Mykhailo Boichuk, who in their work fused together the elements of modernism and great national and folk traditions, and broke through to the wide arena of cutting-edge European art. The work of Murashko, Mykhailo Zhuk, Novakivsky, Modest Sosenko, and Cholodny, was animated by the ferment of symbolism and Art Nouveau.

The multi-faceted role of the Odesa Salons of Volodymyr Izdebsky in propagating the awareness of the best and latest accomplishments of modernist art in Ukraine should also be acknowledged. During 1909–1911, in collaboration with Wassily Kandinsky, Izdebsky organized a series of art exhibits, first in Odesa, and then also in Kherson, Kyiv, St. Petersburg, and Riga, among whose participants were Narbut, Stepan Kolesnykov, David Birliuk, Ivan Bilibin, Alexandra Exter, Kandinsky, Braque, Matisse, Vlaminck, Félix Vallotton, Albert Gleizes, Kees Van Dongen, and many others.

The artists Oleksandr Murashko, Heorhii Narbut, the Krychevsky brothers, and Mykhailo Boichuk also found acclaim as outstanding educators. Boichuk in particular created a large school of disciples and followers; his synthetic method, with its roots in Byzantine and proto-Renaissance art traditions, along with folk culture and the latest European accomplishments in the form, composition, drawing, and color, granted him the rank of a true prophet of new art.

Oleksa Novakisky, the author of symbolist canvases painted in an expressionist manner, also became an outstanding representative of the modernist generation of artists. But perhaps his greatest accomplishment was in his work as a teacher of a large group of artists that later rose to considerable fame, among them Sviatoslav Hordynsky, Lev Getz, Roman Sielski, Edward Kozak, Yaroslav Lukavetsky, Mychajlo Moroz, Hryhory Smolsky, Sofia Zarytska, Ivanna Nyzhnyk-Vynnykiv, and Myron Levytsky. Many of them due to Stalinist terror were forced to emigrate to the United States, Canada, and Western Europe.

Numerous artists of Ukrainian background—such as Alexander Archipenko, Oleksa Hryshchenko, Kazimir Malevich, Sonia Delaunay, Alexandra Exter, Alexander Shevchenko, Solomon Nikritin, Vladimir Tatlin—integrated in their work the passion and power of classical avant-garde. Among the first artists to advance this trend were Oleksandr Bohomazov, Vasyl Yermilov, Anatol Petrytsky, Maria Syniakova, Oleksandr Khovstenko-Khvostov, Viktor Palmov, Vadym Meller, Alexander Tishler, Boris Kosarev, and Nina Genke-Meller.

The works of the Ukrainian artists Oleksa Hryshchenko and David Burliuk are characterized by their peculiar inner logic and careful nurturing of an original poetics; they radiate energy at the level of trans-rational enthusiasm. Along with Burliuk, Hryshchenko was among the founders of avant-garde art in Ukraine, emerging as a follower of Cézanne’s approach to constructing form and an advocate of cubo-futurism. Armed with his expert knowledge of both the Russian and the Ukrainian icon painting tradition, and asserting himself as a proponent of cubist and plasticist essence of painting with a constructivist architectonic system and a peculiar approach to marking space through structured forms, following his move to Paris in 1922 (and later to Provence) Hryshchenko founded a French school of painting that explored color through expressionist overtones. A similar approach to color was also asserted by another Ukrainian artist active in Paris, Vassyl Khmeluk.

David Burliuk’s participation in the futurist activities of the Moscow “Jack of Diamonds” group, side by side with Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, and Hryshchenko, helped him acquire the reputation of “the first futurist.” Burliuk cleared a path to future innovation by exploding philistine conventions though his creative work and public behavior, thereby affirming futurism as a crucial vision of artistic development.

The concentrated plasticity of coloristic exploration, the poetization of painterly texture and of canvas as a substance, and a favoring of plein air exploration became a dominant trend in Ukrainian art, preserving the indestructible memory of Oleksandr Murashko, ruthlessly executed by the Bolsheviks. His coloristic approach found its followers in the work of Vassyl Khmeluk, Mykola Krychevsky (Vasyl Krychevsky’s son), Mykola Hlushchenko, Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Oleksii Shovkunenko, Karpo Trokhymenko, Kostiantyn Yeleva, Mykola Burachek, Pavlo Volokydin, and Anton Monastyrsky.

A group of artists explored the decorative essence of the flat surface of painting, favoring post-Cézanne approaches to form: Ivan Kulets, Anatol Petrytsky, Mykhailo Andrienko, Margit Sielska-Reich, and Roman Sielski. The spectrum of artistic creativity expanded vigorously, and found its expression in the work of the disciples of the Kyiv school of painting, as well as in the work of the Lviv-based artists who founded the Association of Independent Ukrainian Artists (ANUM), and in 1932 organized a major international art exhibition that brought under one roof the works of such modernist artists as Mykhailo Andrienko, Severyn Borachok, Maurice Brianchon, Mykola Butovych, Marc Chagall, Raoul Dufy, Mykola Hlushchenko, Sviatoslav Hordynsky, Vassyl Khmeluk, Pavl Kovzhun, Amedeo Modigliani, Yaroslava Muzyka, Pablo Picasso, Gino Severini, Mario Tozzi, Ossip Zadkine, Sofia Zarytska and others.

A great contribution to Ukrainian art was made by artists who found themselves in emigration. The example of Mykola Butovych, for many years a penniless exile who finally was able to find a home to call his own in the US, is typical. Butovych always championed high artistic standards, spoke out against kitsch, and enriched Ukraine’s modern culture through applying his talent to numerous creative channels, among them book graphics, easel painting, ceramics, monumental painting, and decorative art. He possessed a unique feeling for form and composition, and this is particularly visible in his works based on mythological and historical themes, where an orientation towards formal simplicity was combined with compositional gracefulness. Butovych’s artistic career, alongside those of such masters as Alexander Archipenko, Jacques Hnizdovsky, Leonid Molodozhanyn (Leo Mol), Halyna Mazepa, and Mykola Krychevsky, developed outside Ukraine’s borders. To these we should also add a large group of artists who were forced to leave Ukraine in the 1940s due to Stalinist terror and settled in many Western countries, the United States among them: Sviatoslav Hordynsky, Ivanna Nyzhnyk-Vynnykiv, Aka Pereyma, Yuri Kulchytsky, Themistocle Virsta, Mykola Azovsky, Borys Kriukov, Petro Kapshuchenko, Mychajlo Moroz, Mykhailo Chereshniovsky. The younger generation of Ukrainian diaspora artists who fully developed their creative potential outside Ukraine also includes Liuboslav Hutsaliuk, Yuriy Solovij, Mychailo Urban, Mirtala, and Konstantin Milonadis. The reception of Hutsaliuk’s painting is symptomatic: his culturally sophisticated works harmoniously combine impasto with fine glazing, imparting a particular intensity of color to his landscapes and still lifes.

After 1945, with the incorporation into Ukraine of the region of Transcarpathia, the emotional surges of the painterly imagery in the works of the region’s artists—Adalbert Erdeli, Yosyp Bokshai, Fedir Manailo, Zoltan Soltesz, Andrii Kotska, Havrylo Hliuk, Volodymyr Mykyta, Yuri Herts—enriched the nation’s artistic process.

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Ukrainian artists actively contributed to the burgeoning phenomenon of nonconformist art in the Soviet Union. Among them were Hryhorii Havrylenko, Valerii Lamakh, and Anatolii Summar in Kyiv, Karlo Zvirynsky, Ivan Ostafiichuk, Roman Petruk, Zenovii Flinta, Oleh Mynko, and Liubomyr Medvid in Lviv, Yelyzaveta Kremnytska and Pavlo Bedzyr in Uzhhorod, Dmytro Stetsko in Ternopil. The new wave of emigration from Ukraine brought several artists deserved recognition in the West, among them Anton Solomoukha, Vitalii Sazonov, Volodymyr Makarenko, Anton Skorubsky Kandinsky, and Omelian Mazuryk. All of them nobly serve the cause of art and advance their individual creative vision, original in both taste and style.

The artistic map of Ukraine is continuously enriched by the graduates of the art academies in Kyiv, Lviv, and Kharkiv, and diverse art schools in these and other cities, offering the public a chance for fascinating exploration of diverse individual creative manners. The new trans-avant-garde trends have arrived in Ukraine as well, giving rise to a fresh and peculiar new wave; we witness the exhibition of numerous assemblages, installations, and introduction of new forms of visual creativity, especially those that take advantage of the computer age. The front ranks of the technologists of innovative artistic thinking include Oleksandr Dubovyk, Vasyl Bazhai, Valentyn Rayevsky, Arsen Savadov, Petro Lebedynets, Viktor Sydorenko, Marko Heiko, Petro Bevza, Mykola Zhuravel, Andrey Bludov, Viktor Moskaliuk, Roman Romanyshyn, and Vasyl Yarych. The spaces of the installations by Oleksandr Borodai, Mykola Babak, Oleksandr Babak, Mykola Zhuravel, Valerii Shkarupa, Valentyn Rayevsky, or Arsen Savadov transform into changed creative communicative channels that combine high professionalism with exuberant fantasy. Zhuravel’s explorations of land-art, the motivations behind the series of his Apiary installations which express the artistic polyphony present in such megalopolises as New York or Tokyo, were carried out with dazzling inventiveness and creative panache.

The participation of Ukrainian artists in the exhibits of the famous Venice Biennale—the forty-ninth (Rayevsky, Tistol, Solomko), fiftieth (Sydorenko), and fifty-first (Babak)—has been likewise marked by the active generation of new creative ideas.

We can observe the reflections of probing artistic contemplation in the recent works by Yuriy Savchenko from the town of Slovyansk, by Sergei Belik, Volodymyr Tsiupko, Viktor Maryniuk, Volodymyr Kabachenko from Odesa, Viktor Hontariv from Kharkiv, Serhii Hnoyovy from Poltava, Hryhorii Hnatiuk from the Kirovohrad region, and Anatolii Kryvolap, Serhii Panych, Iva Pavelchuk, and Hlib Vysheslavsky from Kyiv.

The Zorya Fine Art gallery, based in Greenwich, CT, represents and disseminates the creative achievements of Ukrainian artists who contribute through their cutting-edge vision to the spectrum of artistic value, and saturate the melodics of the global art community with new and fresh emotional intonations.

Translated by Vitaly Chernetsky