Ascent to Beauty

By Valentyna Ruban-Kravchenko

Doctor of Art History, Corresponding Member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Ukraine

Vasyl Hryhorovych Krychevsky’s journey towards the Beautiful is the ascent of a uniquely talented self-taught individual. Born in 1873, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine, Vasyl displayed an exceptional talent for the visual arts from early childhood. In painting, as in other genres, Krychevsky was open to experimentation in his search for new ideas pertaining to color, line, plasticity, and technique. Krychevsky had a refined use of expressive line and an impeccable sensitivity for the flat plane. The artist commanded a powerful painterly gift for constructing space by means of color, saturating it with shimmering sunlit air. His masterful skills were well grounded in a thorough appreciation for the rules of composition and coloristics. A virtuoso watercolorist, Krychevsky was a master practitioner of oil painting using a painting knife (mestichino), while his black-and-white ink compositions are noted for their meticulous detailing and sophistication. Krychevsky’s bright, limpid colors, his resonant palette and artful expressiveness, his temperamental yet relaxed strokes embody the emotional fullness and penetrating harmony of his images, which appear as if they were spilled out onto the canvas in one breath. His rich, life-affirming painterly works, united by the running theme of the beauty and majesty of nature, attract viewers by their joyful color scheme and poetic expression of human emotion.

The paintings and graphic art works in this exhibition can be divided into three thematic cycles: 
(1) Ukraine; (2) motifs from the artist’s difficult and dangerous journey to the West during the final months of World War II; and (3) works focusing on the natural beauty of Venezuela and the urban landscapes of Caracas, the master’s final abode. The exhibition includes important paintings from the artist’s early period before World War I and from the interwar period.  These works reflect pleasant memories that were a form of consolation to Krychevsky during his émigré period. Two paintings from this collection, both executed in 1941 (the year of the Nazi invasion of Ukraine), Spring on the Dnipro and Wild Flowers, Kyiv Region, appear to be a premonition of future tribulations that awaited the artist and his family. The works from the artist’s final year in Ukraine are saturated with muted anxiety. The landscapes dating from his journey to the West, such as Labova, May (1944), are a moving testament to his joy of being closer to nature, yet they are tinged with sadness and bitterness at being separated from the natural beauty of Ukraine. The artist greatly missed his homeland, and his spiritual wounds would not heal. Krychevsky continued painting the rural landscapes of East Central Ukraine, the cityscapes of Kyiv, and the views of Crimea of which he was also very fond.

Among the oils and graphic works created by Krychevsky during his years of emigration, Ukrainian landscapes form the largest body of work. Krychevsky’s Ukrainian landscapes and interiors of traditional peasant dwellings, all painted from memory, impress by their faithfulness and create a powerful contrast to the works painted from nature in Bohemia, France, and Venezuela. Each work depicting the artist’s native land reflects the great emotional link Krychevsky and his family felt for Ukraine. Thus the painting The Shcherbakivsky House (1947), a radiant white homestead surrounded by gentle greenery, reflects the artist’s feelings for this house in the village of Shpychentsi. It was here that he found his great love and spent many happy days. This composition embodies the heartfelt memories of his wife Yevhenia, who would write in 1956 to her brother Vadym Shcherbakivsky in London, “I keep recalling our childhood, our Shpychentsi, our garden. . . a circle of yellow lilies and acacia bushes by the gate, a tall young spruce. . . the old linden trees that surrounded the church and the two pines on the northern side of our house. . . What joy used to fill my heart when, coming back home from Kyiv, I first saw the bell tower, the linden trees, and these two pines, their crowns intertwined in a brotherly embrace. . . Shpychentsi. . . The longer I live, the more I lose faith in people, the brighter and better my image of our Shpychentsi, our family circle, and the days of the springtime of our lives.”

In both peaceful and difficult times, Krychevsky returned again and again to the images dearest to his heart—tree-hugged peasant homes above quiet-flowing Ukrainian rivers, the changing colors of the sky above the open spaces of green fields, the powerful surge of Crimean mountains, or the boundless blue of the sea. These small-scale harmonious works are monumental in their imagery, perfect in their composition and color scheme. In them, the artist’s soul sings like an Aeolian harp, open to the expanses and colors of his native land. In the lines of the far-away horizon, in the unhurried outlines of buildings or clusters of trees, in the smooth undulation of hills and valleys, in the bends of slow, calm rivers, the artist sings the beauty and nobility of the Ukrainian landscape, the humane warmth of its proportions. The earth and the sky, the trees and the rivers, and the village homes in the midst of the expanses of earth and sky emerge as symbols of the meaning of life in this generous land. Painting Ukrainian villages or individual country homes large and small, Krychevsky, rather than focusing on the details, depicted them from a distance, emphasizing in these familiar images the value of the eternal, the preciousness of living under the wing of one’s native land.

A special place in Krychevsky’s work is occupied by ornamental motifs. The ascetic monochromatic ornamental works created during and after World War II deserve particular attention. In these small compositions on paper, made of stylized plant and geometric forms, one finds encoded the power of the natural world. The tensely rhythmical works are remarkably laconic, but their measured and dynamically moving imagery merges into expressively assertive, joyful symphonies of lines and rhythms, a graphic representation of uplifting music that powerfully resonates with the modern world. His ornamental works can be compared to a great orchestral composition, starting with one particular motif, enriching it with insightful variations, and then bringing them to a harmonious synthesis, creating a leitmotif that runs through the entire work. Krychevsky’s masterful ornamental works, created more than half a century ago, retain their innovative and contemporary feel to this day.

In his final years Krychevsky devoted considerable attention to the genre of still life. His Venezuelan still lifes abound in natural motifs, the flowers and fruit of his adopted home. The artist frequently painted roses, of which he was fond. The bright colors of the flowers, whether arranged in modest bouquets or painted individually, are saturated with light, capturing their intense beauty. His study of the hibiscus, one of Venezuela’s national symbols, is an unhurried exploration- a play of colors and refined forms. In his landscapes, Krychevsky displays a sensitivity to the characteristic features of Venezuela. The contrasting colors, the three-dimensional impasto technique add drama to these works. The dense, shiny, and flowing olive-blue and red ocher tones sometimes spread in rounded planes, sometimes intertwine into fantastic ornaments, rising in a disturbing rhythm, with dark space dynamically pierced by dispersed light.

The landscapes of Caracas and its environs are strikingly different from the Ukrainian landscapes painted from memory during the same period. Krychevsky’s works depicting his native land are like deeply emotional painterly poems, filled with resonant lucidity. They embody the artist’s conviction that art should bring joy and inspire one to love life. The distinctive blues prominent in all of Krychevsky’s work are symbols of his native land. They vary from the near-lavender lightness above morning fields to the dark boundless seas by the Crimean shores. The entire spectrum of shades of blue flow and pulsate in his Ukrainian landscapes, which emerge as a confession of inextinguishable love for his native land.

Krychevsky lived during an era of great change. Born during tsarist rule, the artist was a witness to Ukraine’s struggle for independence. He was a participant in the renaissance of a Ukrainian national culture in the early years of the twentieth century. During the quarter century that he lived under Soviet rule, he continued to work tirelessly in the name of Ukraine. Krychevsky’s friends and formative influences in Kharkiv included many prominent Ukrainian intellectuals. Among them were the writer and lexicographer Borys Hrinchenko, the ethnographer Vasyl Horlenko, the cultural historian Dmytro Bahalii, and the pioneers of modern Ukrainian theatre, the Tobilevych brothers. In Kyiv, Krychevsky was in contact with close friends such as the great historian and Ukraine’s first president, Mykola Hrushevsky, the composer Mykola Lysenko, and the prominent intellectual and statesman Dmytro Antonovych. All these important figures helped nourish the artist’s spiritual growth and develop his strong sense of national identity. 

During the brief period of Ukrainian independence from 1917 to 1919, Krychevsky was commissioned to design the official state coat of arms, state seals, bank notes, and other documents.  As an architect of great originality, Krychevsky’s work reflected the artistic traditions of Ukraine. His greatest accomplishments are the design of the building of the Poltava Zemstvo (regional council), now the Poltava Museum (1903), an outstanding example of the synthesis of Art Nouveau and the national revival style, and the design of the Taras Shevchenko Museum in the city of Kaniv (1929), a unique example of Ukrainian Art Deco architecture. Krychevsky is also recognized for his large impact on the revival of interest in the folk arts of Ukraine. He created his own designs for kilims, printed fabrics, embroideries, ceramics, and furniture based on traditional motifs. In 1940, more than 1,100 examples of Krychevsky’s work were displayed at an exhibition in Kyiv. Unfortunately, a large portion of his work was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1918 and by the Soviet regime during World War II.

Krychevsky’s life was filled with many difficulties. He accepted the trials of life as an émigré during the final years of his life in Caracas, Venezuela, where he died in 1952. Sensitive to the legacies of the past, yet open to the promise of the future, he forged his unique, individual path. Krychevsky dedicated himself to his work, giving himself completely to art. From his early youth, until his last breath, art remained his great passion. This exhibition presents a full and diverse vision of the artist’s multifaceted talent and his creative energies, which endured until the end of his life. Vasyl Hryhorovych Krychevsky’s masterworks belong among the treasures of world art and ensure his lasting reputation as a great artist.

Valentyna Ruban-Kravchenko
Doctor of Art History
Corresponding Member of the Academy of Fine Arts of Ukraine
Principal Researcher at the Maksym Rylsky Institute of Art History, Folklore, and Ethnology
National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine                                   

Translated by Dr. Vitaly Chernetsky
Assistant Professor of Russian Studies
Miami University, Ohio

Edited by Zorianna L. Altomaro
Zorya Fine Art Gallery