"They Dipped Their Brushes into Virtually Every Paint Can"

Natella Voiskounski

Magazine issue: 
#3 2007 (16)

“Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930”, the first major exhibition of early 20th century Ukrainian art was shown in Chicago at the Chicago Cultural Centre, and in New York at the new Ukrainian Museum. Featuring the best of high modernism from Ukraine, the exhibition included more than 70 rarely seen works by 21 Ukrainian artists; each of the works was shown for the first time in the United States. The avant-garde, art nouveau, impressionism, expressionism, futurism and constructivism movements were presented in a new light. Americans - the general public and art critics alike - were equally enthusiastic about the exhibition.

This show of the Ukrainian art of the 20th century appeared of great importance not only for Ukraine but also for Russia. The painters who followed, developed and proclaimed avant-gardism shared the same fate were they "velikoross” or "velikoruss” - Great Russian - or "maloross” (or "maloruss”) - Little Russian (the term that has been used to name Ukraine since the middle of the 17th century); they were stigmatized as "formalists”, deemed harmful and ideologically hostile, forbidden, with artists persecuted and in not at all rare case executed during the Stalinist purges in the gloomy 1930s.

It should be noted that it is Russian modernism that is recognized in the world - Russian moderne to a lesser extent, and the Russian avant-garde, to a greater extent. As a result - as published data shows - nearly 2,000 works by Ukrainian artists were confiscated in the late 1930s, and only 300 remain extant today - of which the best were shown at this exhibition, some for the first time outside Ukraine. The selection was made by Professor Dmitry Gorbachev, an international expert on this period, and Nikita D. Lobanov-Rostovski - the latter being the initiator, the moving force and the organizer of the exhibition.

The show was organized by the Foundation for International Arts and Education with the National Art Museum of Ukraine. The exhibits were given from private collections, the National Art Museum of Ukraine, the Theatre Museum, the Museum of Folk Art of Ukraine, and the Art Museum of Dnipropetrovsk.

For a long time Ukrainian avant-garde art was looked at in the context of the Russian avant-garde. To distinguish Ukrainian from Russian avant-gardism is very often really not an easy task. And the problem lies far from its roots and origin - both were to a certain extent inspired by folklore traditions and native art. Nevertheless the exhibition "Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930” alongside other exhibitions like "Ukrainian Avant-garde of the 1910s-1930s” (Zagreb, Croatia, 1990-1991), "The Avant-garde and Ukraine” (Munich, 1993), "The Phenomenon of the Ukrainian Avant-garde, 1910-1935” held in Canada in 2002 or "The Odessa Parisians” in Israel (2006) give answers to the question. ... According to Dmitry Gorbachev - a key figure, organizer of the "Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930” exhibition, the notion of "Ukrainian Avant-garde” was introduced by the Parisian art critic, Andrei Nakov, in reference to the exhibition "Tatlin's Dream”, held in London in 1 973. For the first time ever, the West saw at this exhibition world-class works by Yermylov and Bogomazov, two obscure avant-gardists from Ukraine. Thus some Western historians of Russian art became historians of the Ukrainian avant-garde as well (the Marcades and Nakov from France, Boiko from Poland, Bowlt and Mudrak from the USA).

In spite of a large number of such representative exhibitions "Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930” - according to John Bowlt, editor and a key contributor to the catalogue, it is "the first comprehensive exhibition of the Ukrainian avant-garde in the United States - a surprising record, given the substantial number of exhibitions devoted to the Russian avant-garde that American museums and galleries have organized since the late 1970s ... But until this moment exclusive exhibitions of the radical concepts that transformed the cultural physiognomy of Kyiv, Odessa, and Kharkiv in the 1910s and 1920s have taken place in many [European - N.V.] cities ... but not in the United States.”

To group all the artists in this showcase, those who were born and lived in Ukraine should be named first (Bogomazov, Yermilov, Boichuck, Petrytsky, Palmov, to mention just the most important); and those who were born in Ukraine but then left it to start an AllRussian and/or international life, who were until recently regarded as Russian artists (Malevich, Archipenko, Exter, David Burlyuk, Sonya Delaunay). As for the artworks, there were some real discoveries of national and international level.

The inclusion of the word "crossroads” in the title of the exhibition proved a happy idea, since "the term 'crossroads' appropriately describes the modernist period of Ukrainian art history,” writes Professor Myroslava Mudrack. "In the early 20th century, Ukraine's territories became the site of thriving centres for what was then generally called 'New Art' - centres of practice, training, exhibition, and debate. Here, the progressive trends of Western art were reevaluated and reinterpreted in terms of local experience, and a vital, unprecedented artistic environment took shape that underscores the autonomous nature of art.” John Bowlt develops the same idea: ". matters are complicated by the ethnic and geographical density of Ukraine bordering on Russia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania and by the density of her culture, affected by both Western and Russian trends, from the Neo-baroque of Oleksa Novakivsky to the Constructivism of Vasyl Yermilov, from the Byzantine legacy of Mikhailo Boichuk to the Art deco of Mykola Kasperovich.”

Just that Ukrainian "crossroads” became the meeting place for the cosmopolitan artists who then gained Russian and international art fame. Here we come across an international phenomenon of the "arrogation” of the artist by the countries of their settlement. Everybody knows the French artist of Russian (to be exact, Byelorussian) origin Marc Chagall, another French artist Sonya Delaunay of Russian (to be exact, Ukrainian) origin, or Pablo Picasso of Spanish origin, or Amadeo Modigliani of Italian origin, etc. - the list can easily be continued. The names of Malevich, Exter, Burlyuk, Archipenko, Rodchenko, Lentulov, Sonya Delaunay, and Tatlin have not until recently been associated with Ukrainian art. The fact is that the best and most well known works of these artists are far beyond Ukraine's borders. Therefore it seems quite natural that at the core of the exhibition are many high-quality works by lesser known, or completely unknown artists.

It is only natural to start the review of the exhibition with the most renowned artists. Kazimir Malevich, the quintessential painter of the 20th century, came to teach at the Kiev Academy in 1928. It is of particular importance that in Kiev he switched from abstraction to figurative art, which made a dramatic change in his style. At the exhibition he is represented with "A Composition in Suprematism” of the 1920s and a sketch of interior design for the AllUkrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev. Alexander Archipenko - a son of the professor of the Kiev University - moved to the USA in 1923 and is one of foremost sculptors of the 20th century. With his solo-exhibition "Alexander Archipenko: Vision and Continuity” the Ukrainian Museum in New York in 2005 celebrated the opening of its newly completed building, making this exhibition an inaugural show. The "Crossroads” shows Archipenko's bronze "Female Figure” of 1914.

Alexandra Exter, a magnetic figure in Kiev artistic life and a toast of the town - her studio was crowded with men of letters (Ilya Ehrenburg, Benedikt Livshits, Osip Mandelshtam, Viktor Shklovsky and Natan Vengrov), future film-makers (Sergei Yutkevich and Grigory Kozintsev), artists and theatre designers, and figures who later became "glorified” Soviet artists (Alexander Tyshler, Anatoly Petritsky, Isaak Rabinovich, and Kliment Redko, to name only a few). Exter also organized her studio in Odessa. It is noted that in Kiev Exter - though no portraitist - made evidently the first of the many portraits of Odessa-born Anna Akhmatova (then Gorenko). Exter is presented at the exhibition with a variety of artworks, both oils and graphics: the cubist "Bridge. Sevre”, futurist "Still-life with a Bottle', and abstract "Objectless Composition”, and "Abstraction”. The famous canvas "Bridge. Sevre” is one of the major attractions. Alexandra Exter's "Three Female Figures” (1910) depicts "an unsettling trio of blank-faced women who look resigned to the fact that a brisk wind has just made off with their facial features”, states Stephanie Murg in his article published in "The Villager”. There are also her sketches - dynamic and colourful - for ballerina Bronislava Nijinska ("Spanish Dance”), for "Romeo and Juliet” ("Figure with a Dagger”), for "Phamira Kiphared” ("Bacchante”). These sketches are shown alongside the graphic works of Exter's students - followers of her lyrical cubism style: Anatoly Petritsky, Vadim Meller, Alexander Tyshler and Alexander Khvostenko-Khvostov. Visitors had a good chance to see brilliant watercolour portraits by Petritsky ("Composer's Portrait: P Kozitskiy” of 1930, and "Portrait of the Writer: Y. Savchenko” of 1 929) - happily not all of his portraits of the Ukrainian intellectual elite were destroyed, following the executions of its elite members.

Another prominent exponent is the Ukrainian "father of Russian Futurism” - David Burlyuk whose eye-catching canvas "Time” is a genuine example of Cubo-futurism. According to Myroslava Mudrak, "Burlyuk's orchestration of 'Futurist' events in Kiev, Kharkiv, Odessa and out- of-the-way places in Crimea encouraged colonies of experimental artists to break all the canons of academic and bourgeois art.” Burlyuk - an innovator, a leader by nature and adventurer - involved his friend, the unfortunately much less known talented artist Viktor Palmov in his travels in the Far East and Japan. Their joint exhibition in Japan became the first show of Russian avant-garde in that country. The works of a neo-primitivist and brilliant colourist Viktor Palmov were a real revelation to viewers ("Rendezvous”, 1926; "Fishing”, 1928; "May 1”, 1929; "A Smith”, 1923). Palmov's transparent deep blue colour brings lyricism
and a special emotionally resonant effect to his works.

There is just the only one work by Sonya Delaunay shown - her "Orphism” from the 1930s; it is really a revelation enough in itself, for those ignorant of her almost century-long creative activity, expressing as it does the idea of herself as an artist, and of Orphism as a style.

Special attention was quite naturally given to those artists who lived and worked in Ukraine, given that they are lesser known, but no less interesting than their internationally recognized contemporaries. Vasily Yermilov whose "Relief a” is on the cover of the catalogue, is honoured with an article alongside Mikhail Boichuk, Alexandra Exter and Kazimir Malevich - only four of the 21 artists whose work is shown. The ideas of Constructivism found in Yermilov an ideal adept. The artist was one of the founders of the "Educational-Industrial Workshops” - something analogous to Vkhutemas and Bauhaus. Infected with revolutionary ideas to make futurism a phenomenon of life Yermilov was engaged in "street art” - as Olha Lahutenko in her paper "Vasil [Vasily - N.V.] Yermilov and Constructivism” indicates, "Yermilov burst on to the scene with his painted propaganda trains, his poster designs, political parades and agit-automobiles ... As a result, the post-revolutionary development of art in Kharkiv is often referred to as the 'Yermilov' period.” Yermilov's reliefs and double reliefs, his cubist canvases (he was inspired by Parisian PostImpressionists after viewing Shchukin's collection in Moscow) are an absolute attraction at the exhibition.

Maria Siniakova should be mentioned in connection with Yermilov, since both were members of the "Budiak” (Weed) group in Kharkiv. She accepted Futurist ideas and as many artists of that period was characterized by her close contacts with the intellectual elite. Maria Siniakova was on friendly terms with Velimir Khlebnikov, the poet-leader of Russian Futurism. He dedicated some poems to Maria and her sisters. Siniakova absorbed Ukrainian folklore motifs, and the artist's watercolours are very poetic, colourful and narrative ("Tree of Life”, "Lovers”, "Eve”).

A Cubo-Futurist Alexander Bogomazov is another notable figure of the Ukrainian avant-garde, who, with Alexandra Exter, united Ukrainian avant-gardists in the group "Zveno” (The Link). Bogomazov's art is diverse, as it reflects numerous artistic trends of the beginning of the 20th century. The artist generalized his attitude to modern art and to the relation between art and reality in a theoretical treatise in which he "reduced the process of painting to its intrinsic elements - line, colour, mass, volume, rhythm,” writes John Bowlt. The artistic results of Bogomazov's search for the new art are represented at the exhibition. His "Daughter's Portrait” of 1928 demonstrates the idea of a spiral as a symbol of turbulent Cosmos; "Sharpening Saws” of 1927 with its rhythmical composition confirm the artist's idea of the "musical” component of painting. Some of Bogomazov's works are in the collection of the MOMA and Guggenheim Museums in NY thanks to Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, who bought them in Kiev in 1970.

Any panoramic review of Ukrainian art of the first quarter of the 20th century would inevitably include the tragic figure of the artist Mikhail Boichuk, whose legacy would have been considerable if he had not been accused of being an agent of the Vatican, arrested and executed. Many of his followers and disciples shared his fate. Boichuk was a talented muralist and is considered to be the founder of the Ukrainian school of monumental art and monumental religious painting. His presence at the "Crossroads” with the painting "Dairy-maid” from the 1920s undoubtedly attracted the attention of the American public and art historians to this artist. A group of his followers (such gifted artists as his brother Timofii, and his wife Sofia, Pavel Ivanchenko, Oksana Pavlenko, Ivan Padalka, Antonina Ivanova, Manuil Shekhtman, Nikolai Rakitski and others) was called the "Boichukists”. They "looked back to the golden age of medieval Kyivan Rus' ... The Byzantine inheritance - from fresco to iconography - became the hallmark of Boichukism, with pronounced emphasis on the ancient techniques and fresco,” states Myroslava Mudrak.

The pictorial works of the representatives of the Ukrainian Secession were an exhibition inside the exhibition itself. It became a real sensation and brought a number of real surprises. Vsevolod Maksymovych became a trump card, called the phenomenal "Ukrainian Beardsley”. Not only the fine large-size filigree panneaux of the artist but his life itself fascinated the public to a great degree (Maksymovych committed suicide at the age of 20 of a drug overdose). At the "Crossroads” six of his paintings were exhibited, and among them his "Self-portrait” - a black and white canvas with a single red spot on the subject's lips (from 1914, the last year of his short, hectic and furious bohemian life) - is a kind of a variant of "homme fatal”. His "Kiss” resembles Klimt's passionate painting in which a couple against the vibrant red richly ornamented background takes the form of a heart.

The works of other Ukrainian representatives of the moderne or Secession (Krichevsky, Novakovsky, Zhuk) were shown next to Maksymovych. Three works of Fedor Krichevsky: "Portrait of Nataliya P. Krichevska” (the artist's wife), from 1926; and two parts ("Love” and "Family”) of the triptych "Life”, from 1927 - a success at the Venice Biennale of 1928, were like a quiet Ukrainian folk song - lyrical, harmonious and touching. The third was Oleksa (Alexei) Novakovsky with his expressive "Leda” (1 924 ) and "Self-portrait” (1934). And last but not least Mikhail Zhuk - a painter, graphic artist, ceramist, and writer: he made a portrait gallery of Ukrainian cultural leaders such as Ivan Franko, Vladimir Sosiura, Pavlo Tychina, Natalia Uzhvii. At the exhibition he was represented with his large-size symbolist panneau of 1912-1914 and two graphic portraits.

The search for national identity and an artistic language of self-expression in Ukraine and in Russia led to the interconnection of different tendencies and trends of art: West and East, Past and Present, folklore, native and foreign - all could be found in the creative efforts of the artists at the beginning of the 20th century. Both Ukraine and Russia - due to the historical and geopolitical situation - were at a crossroads of Place and Time, and the crossroads became a crucible in which the art of the 20th century was born. According to Kevin Nance (from the Chicago Sun Times), "They dipped their brushes into virtually every paint can of the avant-garde, from Cubism and Futurism to (belatedly) Art Nouveau and (early on) Constructivism.”

The exhibition "Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930” was no doubt informative and not only interesting for American viewers little familiar with the Ukrainian avant-garde and modernism, and for those Russians who happened to be in Chicago or New York and who did not miss the chance to visit it. Such exhibitions of national artistic heritage are universally informative since it is always interesting to come to know the unknown artworks of world-renowned painters. In addition, it proved a really lucky chance to discover new names of outstanding masters and to realize what was kept hidden behind the Iron Curtain, and how many iron curtains and iron bars existed inside the great Soviet power. Such an exhibition as "Crossroads” is another proof of the destruction of any such barriers on the way of cross-cultural communication on the international and intra-national level.





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