The Art of Freedom. A Brief History of Modern Ukrainian Art
As Ukraine continues to heroically resist Russia’s military aggression, the world admires Ukrainians’ aspiration for freedom and is learning that freedom is at the core of Ukraine’s culture, deep-rooted in history. These cultural values are reflected in the outstanding and original Ukrainian art of the 20th and 21st centuries, which has flourished despite Russia’s repeated attempts to suppress it.
Ukrainian Avant-Garde. Energy Blast and the Executed Renaissance
In 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed. The same year, leading artists of the time founded the first Ukrainian Academy of Arts, a melting pot for the artistic community, in Kyiv, the capital of the newly created Ukrainian People’s Republic.
The list of its professors alone would be enough material to study art history. Mykhailo Boichuk combined world art trends with ancient Byzantine icon painting and created an entire school of muralists. Boichukists’ murals have adorned a wide variety of buildings, from theaters to barracks (most of the works have not survived). Olexandr Murashko, who fascinated audiences of the Munich Secession and the Venice Biennale, taught in the portrait studio. And the head of the graphic studio, Heorhii Narbut, became the father of Ukrainian design, having developed a project of Hryvnia banknotes and the national emblem.
But it is the Ukrainian avant-garde that has become a real break from traditional art. Despite its international character, in Ukraine this movement had distinct national features.
Ukrainian avant-garde artists have always sought inspiration in folk art, ancient artifacts and history. Kazymyr Malevych, who changed the world of art with his doctrine of Suprematism, wrote in his memoirs about the influence of the Ukrainian countryside on his work, such as the geometry of the fields and paintings on the walls of houses and stoves. Along with the innovative scenography, the “amazon of avant-garde” Oleksandra Exter, together with Malevych, created sketches of embroidery for the guild of folk craftswomen.
Ukrainian art would have continued its rapid development if not for the Bolsheviks’ rise to power. In 1919, Olexandr Murashko was killed; the case of his death is still unsolved. And later in the 1930s a mass executions of artists, writers, and dissidents began. Those who did not leave the country and showed the slightest sign of resistance to the Soviet regime were shot or sent to camps. Hundreds of artworks were destroyed at the time, and the official style of socialist realism reigned for a long time in the art of the Soviet Union.
The Unbreakable Art of the Ukrainian Sixties
After Stalin’s death, the official Soviet regime showed the first signs of weakening. Ukrainian artists took advantage of the moment and released their suppressed creative potential. Bright colors, bold topics, and new forms flooded the Ukrainian art space.
Soviet society at the time was fascinated by technological progress and futuristic dreams. The first flight into space, the development of cybernetics – all this formed a new type of artist who was interested in science, looking in to the future and combining different disciplines in their works.
A classic example of such an artist is the architect, musician, and researcher Florian Yuriev. He formulated the theory of “color music” and designed the first light and music theater in Ukraine. The color music pieces were to be performed on instruments, invented by Yuriev. Unfortunately, the music hall never fulfilled its function.
Oleg Sokolov was engaged in similar experiments – this artist of a broad worldview combined abstract graphics, collages, poetry, and references to music in his intimate works.
The history of the Ukrainian Sixties ended dramatically: the Soviet government became afraid of bold artistic experiments and began to punish artists. For instance, the artistic duo Ada Rybachuk and Volodymyr Melnichenko worked on the monumental sculptural panel “Wall of Remembrance” near the Kyiv crematorium for 13 years. The wall featured colorful allegorical reliefs and was 200 meters in length. But when most of the work was completed, Soviet officials ordered the Wall of Remembrance to be covered in concrete.
However, the fates of some artists of the sixties were even more tragic. Artist and activist Alla Horska, who spread awareness of the massacre of Ukrainians in the Bykivnia Forest, was killed in 1970. The same fate awaited the iconic Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus: he was sent to a labor camp for his human rights activism, where he died in 1983. Stus’ lawyer Viktor Medvedchuk, who contributed to his imprisonment, is now one of Vladimir Putin’s closest allies.
Ukrainian New Wave. Sprouts of independence
Artists were among the first to feel the imminent end of the Soviet Union. In 1990, a group of young artists settled in an abandoned house in the center of Kyiv. The squat was called the “Paris Commune” and became the center of creative experiments.
Artists created large-scale expressive paintings, installations and outrageous performances. The most memorable one was the exhibition “Alchemic Surrender” on the intact warship “Slavutych” in the Crimea – with sailors in ballet tutus and real embryos in the portholes.
Meanwhile, Kharkiv has formed its own school of photography with a critical view of social reality. Its most famous representative, Borys Mykhailov, captured in his photographs the disintegration of Soviet society without embellishments.
Thanks to their radical directness and unique point of view, the artists of the Ukrainian New Wave became recognized classics. In 2000, Borys Mykhailov received the Hasselblad Foundation Award and became a visiting professor at Harvard University. Arsen Savadov, a member of the “Paris Commune”, also received international recognition. His scandalous photographs ridicule the remnants of Soviet society.
Contemporary Ukrainian art. What’s next?
30 years of Ukraine’s independence have passed, but Ukrainian art has not lost its spirit of protest. One of the most prominent representatives of the Ukrainian art scene is the group R.E.P. led by Nikita Kadan, Zhanna Kadyrova, Lada Nakonechna and others. The group was formed in the wake of the 2004 revolution and was distinguished by political activity and intellectual works that reflect on Ukrainian history.
Despite the fact that some Ukrainian artists are successfully building international careers, Ukrainian art as an independent phenomenon is still insufficiently represented in the world. This is in part due to Russia’s cultural appropriation as the “successor” of the Soviet Union.
Numerous Ukrainian avant-garde artists are still known in the world under the common umbrella of the “Russian avant-garde” (one example is the exhibition “A Revolutionary Impulse: The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde” at the MoMA in New York). And the pavilion of the Venice Biennale, built at the expense of the Ukrainian philanthropist Bohdan Khanenko, now belongs to Russia, while Ukraine still does not have a permanent exhibition space at one of the most important artistic events of our time.
Today, many Ukrainian artists are fighting on the military and cultural fronts. However, in the cultural events that Western institutions are organizing to support Ukraine, the rhetoric of “deep historical ties” between the two countries is still spreading. Usually this rhetoric does not mention that Ukrainian-Russian relations were marked by confrontation rather than by friendship.
By inviting Ukrainian and Russian artists and intellectuals to speak side by side, the West continues to see Ukraine through the Russian colonial lens. And thus it robs itself, because the independent voice of Ukrainians are able to enrich the world with the values of freedom and courage.