A Renaissance Assassinated

Natella Voiskounski

Magazine issue: 
#2 2012 (35)

But the plan of action is determined,
And the end irrevocably sealed.

Boris Pasternak

Boris Kosarev
Photo. 1918


Kharkov, the capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic from 1919 to 1934 was a hub of political, as well as cultural, life, where modernism flourished exuberantly, like lilacs in spring, sprouting Futurism, Constructivism, Cubism, Primitivism and branching off into all arts, including visual art and applied art, literature, theatre, cinema, and the organisation of open-air mass celebrations. The "golden age" of Kharkov modernism did not last for long, giving way, in the 1930s, to cruel persecution and killings of cultural figures: the surviving members of the creative community later called this period a "Renaissance assassinated". The titans of the Kharkov Renaissance were either sent to the gulag or to execution, or suppressed their creative impulses and accepted the restrictions of the new times, a period that might be called the dark days of the avant-garde, surviving through times that trampled them underfoot.

The name of Boris Kosarev is largely missing from the ranks of prominent avant-garde artists and even from passing references to the artist and his group, although his outstanding talent revealed itself in painting, graphics, book illustration, photography, and theatre. Kosarev himself took considerable care to have himself "struck off" such listings and "to retreat far from sight", into a relatively safe place. The New York exhibition's curator Myroslava Mudrak writes about the phenomenon of "Kosarev's withdrawal": "One of my most memorable interviews was with the artist Boris Kosarev. I met with him in the early spring of 1978 to learn more about his collaborator, studio-mate, and colleague, the illustrious Constructivist and well-publicized figure Vasyl' Yermilov. I assumed it was a safe topic for conversation since several monographic studies of the artist had already been issued under the Soviet regime. Indeed, Kosarev was generous in his remembrances of his friend and relayed the ebullience of artistic life in Kharkov of the 1910s and 1920s with great enthusiasm... As I had expected, however Kosarev was reticent when asked to elaborate about himself.... My impressions of that meeting were of a modest, clearly talented individual, committed to his artistic calling, but guarded." A similar story is told by Olga Krasilnikova, who interviewed Kosarev in 1984: "'There's no use writing about my art. Write about the times, not about me. I am interesting because I lived in those times.' Boris Vasilievich adds the word 'please', but the oldest living Ukrainian stage-designer pronounces it masterfully and urgently, a far cry from a humble request."

Undoubtedly, Vasily (Vasyl') Yermilov is rightfully considered a key figure of the Ukrainian avant-garde. In parallel to the avant-garde in visual art, literary avant-garde too thrived in Kharkov, counting within its ranks eminent figures who created an association of pan-Futurists, which was initially called, in keeping with the traditions of the time, "Aspanfut". A characteristic of the theatre avant-garde was supplied by John E. Bowlt in his article to the catalogue to the New York exhibition "Ukrainian Modernism. 1910-1930" (2006). "The momentous importance to the development of the avant-garde in Kharkiv," Bowlt wrote, "was the sequence of theatrical productions undertaken by such directors as Nikolai Foregger, Les Kurbas, Samuil Margolin, and the artists whom they employed. In 1926 Kurbas moved his 'Berezil' Theatre from Kyiv to Kharkiv in a search for an ambience more inducive to artistic experiment... Kharkiv also provided a forum for the Association of Contemporary Artists of Ukraine and sanctioned important monographs such as Khmury's de-luxe album 'Anatoly Petritsky. Teatralni stroi' (1929) and R. Kute-pov's 'Novi techii v Maliarstvi' (New Trends in Painting, 1931)."

Kosarev talked about this in his interview with Krasilnikova: "Kharkov in the 1920s had a very rich theatre scene. New theatres opened regularly. Performances were accompanied by heated debate. Premieres were written up as lavishly as the launch of the tractor-production plant. The plant was built by discharged Red Army soldiers and peasants from remote villages - our potential spectators. The task was to tell them the truth about their reality, as well as to create a fascinating performance. But first the spectators had to be lured in..."

This goal was achieved by innovative and daring productions. According to Valentyna Chechyk, who wrote an article about Kosarev's theatre work for the catalogue of the New York exhibition: "... one can say with certainty that, together with such Ukrainian masters as Anatoly Petritsky and Vadim Meller, Boris Kosarev stood at the cradle of the Ukrainian school of theatrical set-design art. His name is linked with the first-ever examples of avant-garde set design, and it is no exaggeration to say that the set design projects that Kosarev undertook in 1917-1919 in collaboration with his friend and fellow-thinker Volodymyr Bobritsky (born 1898 in Kharkov, Ukraine, who died in New York in 1986) served as a brilliant prologue to the turbulent rise of the Ukrainian theatrical avant-garde on the stages of Kharkov during the 1920s." (There is a surviving graphic image of Vladimir Bobritsky created by Kosarev in 1921).

It appears that Kosarev's work for the stage enabled him to pursue simultaneously his Cubo-futurist, Constructivist, Suprema-tist, realist, romantic, and maybe even eclectic or post-modernist interests. As a film and stage designer, he created sketches for make-up, costumes and backdrops for many theatre productions. The list of Kosarev's theatre projects (both independent and accomplished in co-operation with Bobritsky) is long, including "Again on Earth", adapted from Saint-Georges de Bouhelier's "The King Without a Crown" (Le Roi sans couronne) (1917); Henrik Ibsen's "Brand" (together with Bobritsky, 1918); Lope de Vega's "The Gardener's Dog" (£1 perro del Hortelano, together with Bobritsky, 1919); Charles Dickens's "The Cricket on the Hearth" (1920); Carlo Goldoni's "The Servant of Two Masters", and "The Star Child" adapted from Oscar Wilde's story (both in 1922); Anatoly Lunacharsky's "Faustus in the City" (1923); Richard Pobedimsky's (Alexander Biletsky's pen-name) "Khubeane" (1924); Nikolai Erdman's "The Mandate" (1925); Ivan Koc-herha's "Mark in Hell"; and Mykhailo Staritsky's "Chasing Two Hares" (1928).

In 1929 Kosarev created a sketch of the banner of the state-run "Chervonozavodsky" (Red Plant) Theatre - a red banner for a red plant. The exhibition in New York explores Kosarev's artwork up until 1931; nevertheless, it must be mentioned that after that cut-off year Kosarev would work as a stage designer for several decades, so successfully career-wise that in 1947 he was awarded the Stalin prize for the sets to Ivan Kocherha's "Yaroslav the Wise" (1946) at the Shev-chenko Theatre of Ukrainian Drama in Kharkov.

Kosarev also did some work as "an eye-witness of the times", pursuing the passion for photography which swept over his nation early in the 20th century, and he left behind many photographs. It seems natural to suppose that the eye of a true artist helped him to create his amazingly expressive shots: he captured the beauty of the Crimean landscapes, the architecture of old Kharkov, the 1929 "So-rochintsy" Fair - the last of its kind to take place during the Soviet period; working as an assistant to a cameraman, he preserved for posterity many rare moments on the shooting locations of Alexander Dovzhenko's film "Earth".

The small and carefully considered exhibition explored not only the diverse artistic talents of Boris Kosarev (1897-1994) - as painter, graphic artist, illustrator, designer, stage-designer, photographer, but also his gigantic creative potential, which he preferred not to realize in a sustained and purposeful manner in any public arena, settling down behind the scenes instead: he stopped exhibiting his paintings and drawings and immersed himself in theatre work and teaching. From 1931 onwards he taught at the Kharkov Art Institute, now the Institute of Arts and Crafts. Apparently he understood, either earlier or more clearly than others (most likely, both earlier and more clearly), that the days of the avant-garde were numbered. The destinies of Kosarev's colleagues and close friends were to take a sharp turn for the worse soon: the persecution of champions of "formalism in art" warped the lives of many artists. The best and brightest of the Ukrainian intelligentsia either died or were sent to Siberia, and some of them - Vasily Yermilov the most notable case -were treated in their motherland as pariahs.

Kosarev went his own way: he stepped aside. So it is no surprise that this prominent artist is seldom mentioned by scholars, and that his works, until recently, were only rarely featured at exhibitions of Ukrainian avant-garde artists. According to his daughter, Na-dezhda Kosareva, "while still very young he was infected by the bacillus of fear" - not a fear for himself, but a fear for the destinies of art. He insulated himself not from the world around him - he was very active throughout his life, even at an advanced age - but from free verbal expression in art, which, as the destinies of his numerous friends had shown was far from safe. Arguably everyone who came in contact with him in different years could "read" his attitudes without mistake: "It looks like he always feels persecuted, and he has obviously been set in these ways for a long time, this feeling became habitual... His only salvation is irony, scepticism, a sense of humour and, apparently, innate optimism. This doesn't mean that he is fearless - quite the opposite: he has been through the school of hard knocks, which made him cautious to the point of being uncommunicative, becoming mistrustful..." (from an interview with Kosarev by Vladimir Yaskov in 1985).

One might sincerely regret that Boris Kosarev chose "art for himself", but he had too many reasons for such a choice. At the same time, the artist was endowed with a great talent, had impeccable taste and outstanding craftsman's skills. The leader of the Kharkov Constructivists Vasily Yermilov - Kosarev's close friend and contemporary who worked side-by-side with him (to the point of sharing a studio in the garret where they painted the walls) and shared many of Kosarev's opinions about avant-garde art, as well as many of his doubts about conventions and techniques that they had mastered - expressed his opinion about his friend's talent, as Kosarev's daughter remembered, extremely pithily: "If I had painted like Kosarev, I would have become an Ukrainian Picasso". On September 25 1931 Kosarev painted an ink portrait of Yermilov in a kosovorotka (a Russian-style pullover blouse for men reaching down to the mid-thigh, with a slit at the collar): "the eyes turned into the soul" gaze intensely, and an ear sticks out detecting like radar the hint of changes to come... The poet Boris Slutsky called the old Yermilov a long-suffering "Job from Kharkov":

An Ukrainian Job, brandishing his fists,
He uttered threats to Cod.
In the first winter after the war
He showed me a basket
Where his sketches were fading away
And let me touch them with my hands,
And muttered 'I would rather go blind',
And whispered 'I would rather go deaf.

(The art scholar Alexander Parnis believes that this poem was written no earlier than November 1965).

In the 1920s, when the issue of the choice of a way to go was not yet so urgent as it would become later, Kosarev was at the centre of an environment where art was truly a synthesis. He spent time with the likes of the outstanding reformer of poetry Velimir Khlebni-kov (who came to Kharkov on a number of occasions), the Sinyakov sisters -painters and muses of the Kharkov modernists, and the brilliant writers Valentin Kataev, Isaac Babel, Ilya Ilf, Yury Olesha, the poet and translator Georgy Shengeli, the artists Vasily Yermilov, Geo-rgy Tsapok and other members of the "Union of the Seven", as well as the famed book illustrator Georgy Narbut and his brother, the poet Vladimir Narbut, and the theatre directors Les Kurbas and Nikolai Akimov. It happened that most of them died much earlier than Kosarev, and there has been a steady increase in interest in their art, while the relevant documents were largely lacking, so people interested in the subject approached Kosarev: he was one of the few witnesses, who not only had an excellent memory but was also obviously capable of appreciating the greatness of his old friends and understanding their ideas and accomplishments.

Kosarev's reminiscences about Khlebnikov are most interesting. When he was interviewed in 1985 by Yaskov, the artist recalled how the poet had told him, in a tone of voice indicating that he would brook no argument: "Books are needed". Kosarev meekly tried to counter: "Viktor, where are books to be found now? The Whites are in the town. The libraries are closed. And besides everything else, it's plain dangerous." In response to which came the mysterious phrase: "If you value it, you'll find it". There was nothing to be done but to oblige. Kosarev went into town, reached the university library and having decided that "there's no use contacting the girls", headed straight to the bibliographer, an old lady. The woman looked through the listing and mumbled to herself, 'Well... well... And why do you need this one?', and, giving him a look full of respect, disappeared. The list included seven books: two on statistics, one on advanced mathematics, a fundamental treatise on philology, a brochure containing either a reflection on poetry or a collection of poems, and two other volumes of uncertain character... it still remains a mystery why this assortment seemed so unusual to the old librarian, but she dug out everything there was to find in the library and handed the books to Kosarev; she made him write a note about borrowing these books, even if she hardly hoped for their return. Thus Khlebnikov's instruction was successfully fulfilled." In 1921 Kosarev created a vibrant collage in a fairly abstract vein titled "Portrait of Khlebnikov" (a twin piece to the "Portrait of Picasso" produced in the same style and in the same year - both works on loan from Nadezhda Kosareva) and an illustration to Khlebnikov's early poem "A Vila [a Slavic nymph] and a Wood Goblin" ("A brook sang, playing with the froth,/And a dove flew into the thicket", 1918) - also an item from Kosareva's collection.

The Kosarev exhibition in New York explored in some depth the "Union of the Seven". The seven artists infected with futurist ideas (Boris Kosarev, Vladimir Bobritsky, Vladimir Dyakov, Nikolai Kalmy-kov, Nikolai Mishchenko, Georgy Tsapok and Boleslav Tsibis) acquired fame in 1918 by publishing an album "Seven Plus Three": the "three" were Alexander Gladkov, Vasily Yermilov and Immanuil Maneh-Katz, its cover and typeface designed by Kosarev. With a print run of 200, this publication became a sort of manifesto of the "Seven". The members of the group participated in the 1918 exhibition of the "World of Art" in Kharkov, for which Kosarev designed playbills, posters and placards. 1918 was an eventful year: Kosarev and Tsapok developed an interior design scheme for the Cabaret of Artists, which became a favourite meeting place for Kharkov bohemians. The art-works printed in the volume (like Vasily Yermilov's "A Night Cafe", Nikolai Mishchenko's "A Music Showcase", Boleslav Tsibis's wooden statues, Alexander Gladkov's "Horse Rider", and Kosarev's "Portrait of Yevrei-nov", and sketches for theatrical productions and splendidly designed frontispieces and letterpress type characters) are remarkable illustrations to the main exhortations of the manifesto of the "Seven": to connect the avant-garde with daily life (the publication of the late 18th-century "Kilim [a flat tapestry-woven carpet] with a Black Square" is an example of this), to enrich its roots in the folkloric tradition, to bring together and integrate the foundations of Oriental and Western art (it was no accident that the manifesto had the word "friendship" in Arabic in its text) in order to produce a universal language of art.

The artist Boris Kosarev re-appeared on the international art scene only in the 21st century, mainly thanks to the efforts of his daughter Nadezhda Kosareva, who preserved her father's archive and priceless artwork, and generously shared all this with the exhibition organisers and the compilers and publishers of the catalogue. The contribution of The Ukrainian Museum in New York, Kharkov Art Museum, Rodovid Gallery and Press (Kiev), the curator of the New York exhibition Professor Myroslava Mudrak (Ohio State University), and some private collectors was invaluable.

But most of all we owe a debt of gratitude to Kosarev himself, who preserved over the decades memories of his associates and fellow artists. The creative life of this talented artist was scorched by the horrendous events of the 20th century, which affected almost all of his adult life. He kept company with cultural dignitaries of the age, later becoming a treasure trove of knowledge about them which would be used by whoever was interested in particular figures, be it Yermilov, or Khlebnikov, the Sinyakov sisters, or Dovzhenko. Boris Kosarev readily extracted from the recesses of his tenacious memory minute but priceless bits of information about his friends, but was very private about himself, keeping quiet even on those occasions when he had every reason to speak, if only to say that such-and-such a piece was accomplished by me in such-and-such a year, and the currently presumed authorship is incorrect.

Precisely such recollections about others became a symbolic monument to him and the starting point for his return into our century, into our present day. In March 2012, a Yermilov Centre opened in Kharkov, Kosarev's home town, and quite naturally, the first event that it organised was an exhibition "Construction. From Constructivism to the Contemporary". It seems equally logical that this show features art by Yermilov and Kosarev - in the words of the press release, the latter "a founder of the Kharkov group of Cubo-futurists who is called 'the father of the Ukrainian avant-garde', a contemporary and a friend of Vasily Yermilov. They spent much time together in the studio on Dmitrievskaya Street". One wishes to end this article by saying that "the great master is back" - but his return is only beginning.


The author extends special thanks to the artist's daughter Nadezhda Kosareva, and to Vladimir Yaskov, who readily shared materials related to the life of Boris Kosarev, and to RODOVID Press and personally to Lidia Lykhach for cooperation in the preparation of the article and for provided illustrations.





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