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Nation-building and Ukrainian modernist art

Posted on 01 Dec 2022

In this extract from ‘In the Eye of the Storm’, published to accompany the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza's exhibition in Madrid, Konstantin Akinsha explores the complex history of Ukrainian modernism.

This volume is dedicated to the dramatic story of Ukrainian modernism. The radical Ukrainian art formed in the last decade of the Russian Empire was a seismographic indicator of the tectonic changes to come, against the background of the upcoming revolution and subsequent attempts to establish an independent state. The Ukrainian modernists actively participated in nation-building, trying to create a recognizable national style. This is their story.

After nearly five years of the bloody War of Independence (1917–21), the Bolsheviks defeated nationalist Ukrainian forces and established the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic (UkrSSR). However, the initial period of Communist rule created a mere illusion of Soviet-controlled cultural autonomy. The policy of ‘Ukrainization’, initially supported by Moscow for tactical reasons, facilitated the rapid development of a national culture that very much proclaimed its own home-grown identity. The 1920s became a time of bold artistic and literary experimentation, a period of true renaissance in Ukrainian art, literature, theatre and cinema. This cultural autonomy helped Ukraine prolong its period of aesthetic experimentation in comparison with other republics in the Soviet Union. Such pivotal figures of the avantgarde art as Kazymyr Malevych (Russian: Kazimir Malevich, Polish: Kazimierz Malewicz, 1879–1935) and Volodymyr Tatlin (Russian: Vladimir Tatlin, 1885–1953), blacklisted early on in Russia as dangerous ‘formalists’, nonetheless found refuge in Kyiv. In Ukraine, as late as 1930, they still could teach, exhibit and publish freely. However, this was just a short period of calm before the inevitable storm. The policy of Ukrainization was abruptly curtailed in 1931, and there were immediate and ruthless purges of the Ukrainian intellectual elite. Numerous poets, writers and theatre directors, along with many artists, faced summary execution or imprisonment in the Gulag. Manuscripts, books and artworks were incinerated. Murals were overpainted or scraped off walls. Later, the martyrs of Ukrainian culture were referred to as the ‘Executed Renaissance’. After severe waves of repression, Ukrainian modernism was doomed to oblivion. Artworks that were not destroyed were sent to secret, purpose-built repositories.

The Great Purges culled artists and intellectuals in the length and breadth of the USSR, but in Ukraine repression started earlier and had a character all its own. In Russia at large, repressed artists and writers were classified as ‘enemies of people’, a broad and generic term. In Ukraine, they were accused of ‘bourgeois nationalism’, an altogether more emotive and destructive appellation. The scene was set, and the destruction of Ukrainian literature and art from 1931 onwards amounted to nothing less than mass cultural genocide. The period 1932–33 saw a broader form of genocide – the Holodomor, often called the Terror-Famine, an artificially induced famine unleashed on Ukraine by the Soviet regime, which took millions of lives. The double catastrophe had far-reaching effects that still resonate to this day, greatly amplified by the most recent invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

During Khrushchev’s abortive de-Stalinization period, interest in Ukrainian modernism started to renew. Some ‘formalist’ works, taboo for so long, were even reinstated in national museums. However, the process was painful and patchy – and behind it lay the ever-present accusation of ‘nationalism’ that had made the rehabilitation of so many Ukrainian artists nearly impossible. At the same time, though, the West had rediscovered the revolutionary avant-garde art of the early Soviet period. The fashion for ‘the Great Experiment of Russian Art’ led to the appropriation of Ukrainian artists, as they conveniently fell under the umbrella term ‘Russian avant-garde’, adroitly coined by the Western art market. By this market-driven alchemy, artists who had spent all their lives in Ukraine, and whose artistic experimentation was integral to the development of Ukrainian art, unexpectedly became ‘Russian’. Western art dealers and museum curators alike followed the old Russian imperialist agenda. Few, if any, attempts were made to clarify the difference between Russian and Ukrainian culture of the period within the art market. In broader terms, we know that the word ‘Russia’ was (and is) frequently used to describe the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the contemporary Russian Federation – a dangerously misleading if understandable Western generalization.

The real rediscovery of Ukrainian modernism started only after the fall of the Soviet Union and the declaration of Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Despite the publication of important research and the staging of breakthrough exhibitions, the process was not free from mythologizing. To reclaim the legacy of national art, Ukrainian art historians coined the definition ‘Ukrainian avant-garde’. Such a doppelganger of the generalized label, used for marking radical art from the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, often with complete disregard for its geographic provenance, proved to be no less misleading in the Ukrainian case. Ukrainian artists, like their Russian counterparts of the first half of the 20th century, did not use the word ‘avant-garde’ to describe themselves, preferring instead the labels of different ‘isms’ – Futurism, Suprematism, Constructivism, etc. In the case of Ukrainian art, an attempt at a ‘one size fits all’ approach proved to be especially controversial. A good example is the Boichukist school, the only truly monolithic art group in the history of Ukrainian modernism. It was united by the artistic method and ideology of Byzantine revivalism and a pronounced orientation towards folk culture, so it was retrospective in essence and had nothing in common with radical experimentation. Attempts to classify it as avant-garde seem at best naive. Apart from Mykhailo Boichuk (1882–1937) and his followers, Ukrainian art did not produce any other movements united by a definite aesthetic preference. Polyphony dominated the landscape of national modernism, with artists creating their own personal ‘isms’, such as the ‘colourism’ of Viktor Palmov (1888–1929). Others developed their versions of international trends, often quite different from the source of inspiration, a principal example being the Cubo-Futurism of Oleksandr Bohomazov (1880–1930) or the ‘Constructivism’ propagated by Vasyl Yermilov (1894–1968).

Many representatives of Ukrainian modernism escape straightforward stylistic classification. A case in point is Anatol Petrytskyi (1895–1964), who was influenced by different international movements from Cubism to Constructivism, adopting them in his work in a highly individualized manner. The polyphony of identities supplemented the polyphony of styles, so that many artists born in Ukraine continued their careers in Russia or in other foreign countries but left a strong imprint on the development of Ukrainian art. One considers the mark left by Davyd Burliuk (Russian: David Burliuk, 1882–1967) and Alexandra Exter (Ukrainian: Oleksandra Ekster, 1882–1949) on the development of the local version of Cubo-Futurism, or the influence of Kazymyr Malevych, an ethnic Pole born in Kyiv, on Ukrainian artists. A further voice in this complex polyphony was Viktor Palmov, a Russian who relocated to Kyiv at the beginning of the 1920s and became one of the most active participants in the country’s artistic processes. Bearing all these complexities in mind, one might reasonably conclude that ethnic labelling within the modernist movement in Ukraine, during the time of the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, can hardly help create an appropriately nuanced and realistic picture of the development of Ukrainian art.

Oleh Ilnytzkyj, the pioneer of research on Ukrainian literary Futurism, wrote about the reassessment of the history of the movement during the period of the Russian Empire: ‘The goal is not to place a new “Ukrainian” straitjacket on cultural activities in the empire, but to find way to do justice to the variety of sources and the myriad of cultural influences that flowed from so many directions. The recognition of Burliuk, Ekster and Malevich as Ukrainians does not diminish their relevance for either the imperial (transnational) avant-garde or for strictly Russian culture, where their impact is undeniable.’ Such an approach is also applicable to many artists of the Soviet period, from Klyment Redko (Russian: Kliment Redko, 1897–1956) to Oleksandr Tyshler (Russian: Aleksandr Thyshler, 1898–1980).

One of the main tasks for Ukrainian artists at the beginning of the 20th century was to create a national style. They were not alone. The age of nationalism, on the rise in Europe since the Napoleonic wars, provoked the nation-building earthquake following the collapse of the empires in 1917–18. Art played an essential role in the seismic shift. Art Nouveau, defined in Germany and Austria as Secession, in Italy as Liberty, and in Russia as Modern, became the last international style to produce a dominant visual language. The paradox was that similar stylistic features were used to visualize different national mythologies from Paris and Berlin to Helsinki and Kyiv. The Ukrainian version of Art Nouveau was no less of an attempt to find a national artistic form of self-expression. The cosmopolitan style of Oleksandr Murashko (1875–1919) was challenged by Mykhailo Zhuk (1883–1964), and especially by the Krychevski brothers, who opted for national topicality and found inspiration in Ukrainian folk art. In addition to folk art, there were other and no less important primary sources of inspiration for the Ukrainian Art Nouveau practitioners. Early medieval mosaics and frescoes, created under strong Byzantine influence, was one such. The Ukrainian Baroque of the 17th and early 18th centuries was another. It is not surprising, given the vigour and eclecticism of the movement, that the visual identity of the short-lived independent Ukrainian state of 1917–20, including the coat of arms and banknotes, created by Heorhii Narbut (1886–1920), was an exquisite example of the national version of Art Nouveau.

Ukrainian advocates of radical modernism were also very interested in co-opting the folk traditions. Ukrainian naïve pictures, embroideries, ornaments and painted eggs all fascinated Exter and Davyd Burliuk, both members of the Kyiv Cubo-Futurist scene. They were the pioneers of the transformation of the folklore elements into ‘radical chic’. The passion for folk art and ornament became an inherent part of ‘Ukrainian-ness’ in the country’s modernism, extending to such unexpected territory as the constructivist designs of Vasyl Yermilov. Despite this happy and inventive immersion in folklore, it is important to remember that the Ukrainian artists’ preoccupation with tradition was very different from that of their Russian counterparts, whose approach to folk art broadly proceeded in two directions. On the one hand, the Russians embraced naive village art, or the kitsch aspects of urban sub-culture, as a kind of shock tactic, a means to épater le bourgeois by glorifying ‘lower’ rather than ‘higher’ elements of culture. On the other, native folklore and folk art were often seen as a viable homegrown alternative to exotic, foreign imports from France and elsewhere – the perfect means by which Russian modernists might take a stance against Western decadence. Such calculated feelings were utterly foreign to Ukrainian artists, whose studious attention to folk art and ornamentation was quite devoid of irony or strategy. However radical Ukrainian modernists were, they felt they had inherited the task of establishing a national visual language from their predecessors, and took it very seriously. Unfortunately, Ukrainian modernism in all its aspects, aside from folklore influences, has been historically analysed predominantly through the lens of comparison with Russian art. Perhaps now is the time to look at it in the context of the development of modernist traditions in such Central European countries as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, where the local schools who sought a national art style were no less influenced by folk tradition than those in Ukraine.

If the Ukrainian art of the 1910s–20s has already been reasonably researched and analysed, the enforced transition to Socialist Realism still requires profound conceptualization. The attempts of leading modernists like Oleksandr Bohomazov and Viktor Palmov to find their place in the new, politically imposed frame of reference, resulted in masterpieces characterized by a new and sometimes uncomfortable hybridity of styles that certainly requires further investigation. In the same vein, the efforts of Boichukists to adjust their art to the changing demands of the time also requires fresh analysis. Their status as martyrs of Ukrainian art often precludes a dispassionate discourse on the transformation of their style, and their participation in the development of Stalinist propaganda and iconography. Whether such a shift was the result of a Faustian pact or sincere political belief remains to be answered, case by case. Fresh territory for research and discussion in Ukrainian art history is being mapped out year after year. The ground-breaking exhibition ‘Spetsfond’ (Special Secret Holding), organized by the National Art Museum of Ukraine in 2015, resulted in the rediscovery of Ukrainian art of the early 1930s. For the first time, numerous paintings, hidden for more than half a century for political reasons, were returned to public display. The show restored to Ukrainian art history the names and reputations of such painters as Kostiantyn Yeleva (1897–1950), Semen Yoffe (1909–1991) and Yurii Sadylenko (1903–1967). This was just a start, and so much more is yet to be done. For example, the influence of such trends as Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and Il Novecento Italiano on Ukrainian artists still requires fundamental investigation – and while research into Ukrainian cinema has been greatly stimulated though the activity of the Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, the history of Ukrainian photography from the 1920s and early 1930s remains largely terra incognita. This volume and the exhibition that accompanies it constitute an attempt to introduce the international public to the complicated history of Ukrainian modernism, an essential but little-known part of European culture.


Extracted from In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900–1930s.

In the Eye of the Storm

Modernism in Ukraine, 1900–1930s Konstantin Akinsha, Katia Denysova, Olena Kashuba-Volvach Out of stock