How Ukraine saw ‘a period of real artistic flourishing’ in the early 20th century

As a touring exhibition at the Royal Academy in London examines the spread of modernism in Ukraine between 1900 and the 1930s, Alastair Smart finds out why, despite great upheaval, the country was such a hotbed of innovation

Davyd Burliuk, Carousel, 1921, National Art Museum of Ukraine

Davyd Burliuk (1882-1967), Carousel, 1921 (detail). Oil on canvas. 33 x 45.5 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine

In 1957, around the time of his 70th birthday, the Kyiv-born sculptor Alexander Archipenko produced a bust of his compatriot Taras Shevchenko, the esteemed 19th-century poet. Archipenko was enjoying a fruitful career in the US at the time and donated the bust to Soyuzivka, a Ukrainian heritage centre in upstate New York.

At its unveiling, he insisted that it was ‘the bound duty of every Ukrainian’ to preserve their national culture and conscience — in a period when, essentially, Ukraine was subsumed within the Soviet Union.

A similar impulse lies behind In the Eye of the Storm, an exhibition that has been touring European art institutions since November 2022 and is now at London’s Royal Academy. It features work from the early decades of the 20th century by a host of artists who made Ukraine a hotbed of modernism.

Oleksandr Bohomazov, Landscape, Caucasus, 1915

Oleksandr Bohomazov (1880-1930), Landscape, Caucasus, 1915. Oil on canvas. 41.9 x 40.6 cm. Zurich, Private Collection

‘These are important objects of cultural history,’ says the show’s co-curator, Katia Denysova. ‘And with the Russian invasion [of Ukraine in February 2022], they risked being destroyed. We had to get the pieces out, or potentially lose them for ever.’

Fifty-one works were duly despatched in trucks from Kyiv: from the National Art Museum of Ukraine and the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine. The trucks were escorted by the military to the Polish border, some 560 miles west.

Rescued artworks form In the Eye of the Storm’s core, supplemented by pieces from private and public collections abroad. The artists in question include Archipenko, Kasymyr Malevych (also spelt Kazimir Malevich — Ukrainian spellings of artists’ names have been preferred in this feature), El Lissitzky and Alexandra Exter, as well as slightly lesser-known figures such as Mykhailo Boichuk and Oleksandr Bohomazov.

Mykhailo Boichuk, Dairy Maid, 1922-23, National Art Museum of Ukraine

Mykhailo Boichuk (1882-1937), Dairy Maid, 1922-23. Tempera on canvas. 95 x 45 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine

‘There has long been a tendency in Western circles,’ Denysova says, ‘to use the word “Russian” as an umbrella term to describe any art that was made in the Russian Empire [1721-1917] or the Soviet Union [1922-1991]. This generalisation is misleading, as it denies many figures their distinctly Ukrainian roots. It’s a narrative pursued, in more dangerous fashion, by today’s Kremlin, which insists that Ukraine has no culture of its own, separate from Russia’s. We aim to counter this narrative head-on with In the Eye of the Storm.’

What of the works themselves? What made the period between 1900 and the mid-1930s so radical? There was no single style that united these artists. (Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Denysova’s co-curator, Konstantin Akinsha, speaks of a ‘polyphony’.) Very broadly speaking, however, the Ukrainian avant-garde entailed some fusion of native traditions with recent advances in European art.

Alexandra Exter, Three Female Figures, 1909-10, National Art Museum of Ukraine

Alexandra Exter (1882-1949), Three Female Figures, 1909-10. Oil on canvas. 63 x 60 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine

Exter, for example, spent time in Paris in the years running up to the First World War, coming across the likes of Picasso and Filippo Marinetti, whose respective innovations in Cubism and Futurism impacted her. In a painting such as Three Female Figures (above), she portrays a trio of women with fractured, simplified forms — yet does so using a mix of exuberant colours that owe a debt to the intensely bright palette of Ukrainian folk art.

Boichuk was in Paris at around the same time, but took inspiration from different artists — the Nabis — and, above all, their decorative visual language. He produced easel paintings and murals in a style that was also influenced greatly by Byzantine art — with solemn, stylised figures located in shallow space, in the manner of an icon painting. (Byzantine art had flourished in Kyivan Rus — the medieval state whose land included much of present-day Ukraine — after Orthodox Christianity was adopted there.)

For his part, Archipenko lived the second half of his life in the US, but as a young man had hit upon a style of sculpture that drew on both Cubism and the figurines of the local Neolithic culture, known as Trypillia.

The work isn’t included in the exhibition, but some have also tentatively suggested that Malevych’s landmark abstract painting, Black Square (1913), was inspired by the geometric patterning on ancestral Ukrainian embroidery.

Alexander Archipenko sculpted two busts of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko

Alexander Archipenko (1887-1964) sculpted two busts of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko: one in 1935 (illustrated above with the artist), which was presented to the Bishop of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Constantine Bohachevsky; and another that was given to the Ukrainian centre Soyuzivka in upstate New York in 1957. Image courtesy of the Archipenko Foundation

Reflecting Russian imperial limits on Ukrainian freedom of expression, no city in Ukraine had its own institution for higher art education at the turn of the 20th century. As a result, artists commonly took up formal study in St Petersburg, Moscow or Western European cities such as Paris and Munich. One of the significant changes in the period covered by In the Eye of the Storm was the establishment in Kyiv in 1917 of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts (later renamed the Kyiv Art Institute) after the country declared independence.

Perhaps it’s worth recapping a little history. The storm metaphor of the show’s title refers to the socio-political context in which the artists operated. In a relatively short space of time, there occurred the 1905 Revolution, which led to modest liberalisation across the Russian Empire; the outbreak of the First World War; the two Revolutions of 1917 (February and October); the Russian Empire’s collapse; the proclamation of the Ukrainian People’s Republic; that republic’s demise after defeat in the Ukrainian War of Independence; and the establishment in 1922, by the Bolsheviks in Moscow, of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.

‘Despite such upheaval, this was a period of real artistic flourishing,’ says Denysova. ‘In fact, one might even argue that events helped fire the artists’ creativity in some way.’

El Lissitzky, Composition, circa 1918-1920s, National Art Museum of Ukraine

El Lissitzky (1890-1941), Composition, circa 1918-1920s. Oil on canvas. 58 x 71 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine

The exhibition’s full title is In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s. The phrasing ‘Ukrainian Modernism’ was avoided on grounds that it was too restrictive. Consider the background of three of the artists on show. Exter grew up in Kyiv — with a Belarusian father and a Greek mother. Malevych had Polish parents, was born and raised in Ukraine, and spent most of his working life in Moscow. Viktor Palmov was born in Russia but settled for good in Kyiv in the early 1920s, after accepting a teaching job at the Kyiv Art Institute.

‘Given such diversity, we didn’t feel ethnic labelling would be either accurate or helpful,’ Denysova says. ‘Our goal isn’t to put a straitjacket on artists of this period and call them all Ukrainian. It’s to emphasise the energy of the cultural activity that was flowing then, in and out of Ukraine.’

The exhibition has a section devoted to the Kultur Lige, a Jewish organisation founded in 1918 to promote Yiddish culture. It soon had dozens of branches across the country, and the artists associated with it included El Lissitzky, who incorporated Yiddish text into his semi-abstract compositions.

Volodymyr Burliuk, Ukrainian Peasant Woman, 1910-11, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Volodymyr Burliuk (1886-1917), Ukrainian Peasant Woman, 1910-11. Oil on canvas. 132 x 70 cm. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Photo: © Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. The brother of Davyd Burliuk, Volodymyr began his artistic career at the Kyiv Art School, whose other alumni include Archipenko, Bohomazov and Exter, among others

Modernism in Ukraine manifested itself in different art forms, from cinema to theatre. However, it’s the visual arts that are the main focus of In the Eye of the Storm. Influenced by what they saw happening elsewhere in Europe, artists began staging provocative exhibitions. Especially noteworthy in this regard was Davyd Burliuk (whose work is illustrated at the top of this article), someone who was dubbed a ‘wonderful wild Steppe horse’ by his teacher at Munich’s Academy of Arts, and was fond of wearing a top hat, monocle and gaudy waistcoat.

A master of (self-)promotion, Davyd helped organise a number of shows, including the landmark Izdebsky Salon in Odesa in 1909, which featured 800 works by local and foreign artists side by side. Exter and Burliuk counted among the former; Pierre Bonnard, Giacomo Balla and Wassily Kandinsky among the latter. The salon is credited with swelling Ukrainian interest in modernism by showing cutting-edge work from Europe’s heart for the first time.

Another interesting figure from this era was Wladimir Baranoff-Rossiné. Fascinated by analogies between art and music, he regarded rhythm as the most important element of a picture. In a vaunted series of paintings of Adam and Eve, he constructed Paradise out of a rhythmic layering of concentric and eccentric circles. Baranoff-Rossiné’s experiments in bridging the visual and the musical culminated in his invention of an instrument that combined both: the optophonic piano. When played, it generated dynamic colour shapes on a screen, the movements of which were synchronised with the music.

Oleksandr Bohomazov, Sharpening the Saws, 1927, National Art Museum of Ukraine

Oleksandr Bohomazov (1880-1930), Sharpening the Saws, 1927. Oil on canvas. 138 x 155 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine

In the years immediately after the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was founded, the Kremlin’s attitude to artistic activity there was fairly permissive. Over time, however, proletarian themes started to be preferred. Bohomazov’s painting Sharpening the Saws portrays workers at day’s end honing their tools for the following day’s labour.

The cultural climate turned infinitely darker in the mid-1930s with the onset of Stalin’s purges. Modernist experimentation was now forbidden, and all art practice needed to fall into line with state diktats. Dissenters risked unemployment, imprisonment or — in some cases, such as Boichuk’s — execution.

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‘It was here that a vibrant period of activity came to a horrid end,’ Denysova says. ‘With the exhibition, we’re keen to stress the positives, though. We hope to raise awareness and show visitors that Ukraine has a rich cultural heritage, one of the peaks of which came at the start of the 20th century.’

In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 13 October 2024

Organised by Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, in collaboration with the Royal Academy of Arts, London; Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels; Belvedere, Vienna and Museums for Ukraine. The exhibition has been made possible thanks to exceptional loans from the National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU), the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine, and private collections

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