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A renaissance in Ukrainian art

BY Susan Gray

26th Aug 2022 Art & Theatre

A renaissance in Ukrainian art

Susan Gray explores the history of Ukrainian art and its development, from the impact of socialist realism to its avant-garde contemporary

Modern art’s development in Ukraine unfolds in three acts. The curtain comes down on Act I in the late 1920s when Stalin’s Cultural Revolution suppressed visual arts experimentation in favour of Soviet socialist realism. The disintegration of the Soviet Union and emergence of Ukraine as a sovereign nation in 1991 ushers in the second act, with the independent nation establishing a commercial art scene for the first time.

"When peace returns, Ukraine could emerge as an art superpower"

And the third act is playing out before our eyes, as the Russian invasion has given Ukraine and Ukrainian artists a powerful profile on the world stage. When peace returns, Ukraine could emerge as an art superpower. 

A Ukrainian renaissance

Ukraine’s new place in the global spotlight is evidenced by the attention given to practising artists, the re-evaluation of neglected 20th-century artists and the reinvigoration of the country’s museum and galleries. 

Bogomazov Dacha Framed

Bohomazov, Dacha, Framed

Contemporary Ukrainian artists, whose work responded to the social and political freedoms of post-1991 independence and benefited from cheap studio space (often in former industrial buildings), are becoming heavily represented at international art events. At this year’s Art Basel in June, Ukrainian artist Boris Mikhailov’s latest photographic series “Temptation of Death” was displayed prominently on billboards across the Swiss city’s cultural institutions and City Hall.

The Canton’s President Beat Jans said: “The Government of the Canton Basel-Stadt welcomes the initiative to give Ukrainian artists a highly visible platform during Art Basel. It sends an important signal so that we do not forget the ongoing war and the associated suffering of Ukrainian society.”

Artists to look out for

In the same month another prestigious European art event, TETAF (The European Fine Art Foundation) in Maastricht, hosted Ukrainian art specialist James Butterwick’s show “Oleksandr Bohomazov Ukrainian Renaissance.” Bohomazov’s prominence underlined the trend for under-appreciated Ukrainian Modernists to take a central, not peripheral, place in the narrative of European modern art.   

Bogomazov Self-Portrait Unframed

Bohomazov, Self-Portrait, Unframed

A childhood friend of Alexander Archipenko, one of the best-known Ukrainian Modernism artists, Bohomazov’s work boldly fuses European developments in Symbolism (using images to express emotions) and Cubism (non-figurative style made famous by Picasso), despite the artist never travelling outside the Russian empire.  

"Bohozamov’s art was organically Ukrainian and unlike anything else in the Western canon"

A self-portrait from 1914–15 redefines portraiture’s palette as radically as Matisse’s Madame Matisse, Green Stripe (1905), with the artist’s spectacle lens rendered turquoise, his moustache and jaw line olive green, crowned by purple spikes of hair. Bohomazov died in 1929 of tuberculosis, leaving his wife Wanda Monastyrska, who outlived him by 50 years, to preserve his work in a trunk. Butterwick says that Bohomazov’s early death protected his work, as he was too revolutionary to survive Stalinist repression. “Bohozamov’s art was organically Ukrainian and unlike anything else in the Western canon.” 

Anatoly Petryrsky, celebrated for his set designs, and filmmaker Sergei Yutkevich, are two further 20th-century Ukrainian Modernists, with works predominantly held in Kyiv and Russian institutions, who are ripe for wider exposure to Western audiences. 

The legacy of Cold War-era bureaucracy

European galleries wishing to exhibit artworks held in Ukraine’s state-run institutions still face Cold War-era bureaucracy when arranging loans. Butterwick says the Soviet era mentality and ensuing delays will take generations to shake off. “It’s hard to get things out of Ukraine.”

But newer organisations including the Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv and the capital’s Pinchuk Art Centre, funded by businessman Peter Pinchuk, highlight fresher, post-independence trends in Ukraine’s art world. Anna Reid, author of Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine, highlights the IZOLYATA Foundation as a symbol of Ukraine shaping its post-industrial future through art. It was founded in 2014 in the east of Ukraine, and created an arts centre from a former insulation materials factory. ISOLYATA now operates distributing aid from Kyiv, as Donetsk is no longer safe. 

"Newer organisations highlight fresher, post-independence trends in Ukraine’s art world"

Art curation also realigned Ukraine’s history with its future in the west of the country, where Lviv’s former Lenin Museum became a museum of religious art after independence. This freed Lviv’s Armenian Cathedral, used by the Soviets as a warehouse for the region’s icons and devotional objects, to resume as a place of worship

Rethinking Ukrainian identity

Bogomazov The Caucasus Unframed

Bohomazov, The Caucasus, Unframed

Worldwide, art institutions are reassessing questions of identity. Artists once labelled as Russian are being reclassified as Ukrainian. Reid points out that although prior to 1991 Ukrainian and Russian artists occupied one political space, a Ukrainian sensibility as well as geography is discernible. Internationally known modernists linked to Ukraine include Kazimir Malevich, born in Kyiv, whose Black Square (1915), a black square on white, represented the most radically abstract painting created so far.  

Avant-garde female artists Alexandra Esker and Natalia Goncharova can also be linked to Ukraine. Esker, whose works are part of New York Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, had her first studio in Kyiv. Goncharova designed for Sergei Diagelev’s Ballet Russes, and was a leading figure in Moscow’s early-20th-century art scene, coming to national attention in 1913 with her smash solo show. Goncharova’s Ukrainian sensibilities are evident in the gentle, rolling landscapes of her set designs, and costumes inspired by brightly coloured Ukrainian folk traditions

As Butterwick concludes, the current attention given to Ukrainian art because of Putin’s invasion is a beacon of hope in a global tragedy. 

Cover image: Bohomazov Wanda Monastyrska in front of a New Year Tree, Unframed

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