In the Eye of the Storm Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s Royal Academy – Sue Hubbard

In the Eye of the Storm Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s Royal Academy - Sue Hubbard

Ukraine has long held a fascination. Family lore has it that my great-grandfather left Odessa in the 1890s, driven out by pogroms, to settle in the East End of London. Then, in 2012, I visited Kyiv–at that time to see the city’s first Biennial housed in the magnificent Arsenal.

Kyiv is a beautiful city with golden domes and wide Parisian-style boulevards. The art fair included many international artists, such as Yayoi Kusama and Phyllida Barlow. Then came the war, and everything changed. Watching the Russian tanks muster, I decided to open my home to a Ukrainian refugee. This brought everything closer as I learnt about the complex struggles of that war-torn country.

Kazymyr Malevych Landscape 1927 Photo: Artlyst In the Eye of the Storm Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s
Kazymyr Malevych Landscape 1927 Photo: Artlyst

Ukraine has been divided between various Empires for centuries. Ukrainian modernism unfolded against the complex historical backdrop of the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After the bloody War of Independence 1917-23, the Bolsheviks defeated nationalistic Ukrainian forces and established the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic. The ensuing ‘Ukrainisation’ policy, initially supported by Moscow for pragmatic reasons, became the catalyst for a period of artistic, literary, cinematic and theatrical experimentation. This Ukrainian Renaissance attracted many avant-garde figures, such as Kazymyr Malevych and Vladimir Tatlin, who were blacklisted in the Soviet Union but found refuge in Kyiv. There, they could teach and exhibit freely until, in 1931, the ruthless Soviet purges denounced Ukrainian intellectuals as ‘enemies of the people’, accusing them of ‘bourgeois nationalism’.

In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930, highlights the fusion of Ukrainian, Polish, Russian and Jewish communities that made up the rich mix of Ukrainian modernist culture. In the days when Ukraine was divided between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia, those from the Russian-controlled territory mainly graduated from the Imperial Academy in St. Petersburg but slowly the focus shifted to Paris and Munich that provided new artistic languages: Cubism with its fractured lines and compositions, and the energetic movement of Futurism. Cubist constructions are evident, here, in Vadym Meller’s 1919-29 Composition with its dynamic angles and perspectives.

Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous Contrasts 1913 In the Eye of the Storm Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s
Sonia Delaunay Simultaneous Contrasts 1913 Photo Artlyst

This binary pull between the European avant-garde and a more sentimental Ukrainian nationalism defines the period and is illustrated in the very first painting that opens the show, Alexandra Exeter’s Three Female Figures, 1909-10, with its Cubist and Fauvist sensibilities; it’s bold use of colour combines radical avant-garde elements with the traditions of Ukrainian decorative art, particularly, embroidery. Sonia Delaunay is another whose painterly rhythms and rich complementary colours suggest a relationship with Ukrainian folk traditions. This yearning for a national identity, something rooted and timeless, set alongside a hunger for the new and the dynamic, characterises the period. Oleksandr Bohmazov’s Landscape, Locomotive 1914 and Landscape Caucasus 1915 embody a fascination with the sense of continuous motion – loved by the Italian Futurists – alongside a more mystical sensibility. In Volodymyr Burliuk’s Ukrainian Peasant Woman 1910-11, a woman stands in traditional dress with a cross around her neck against a swirling blue background. Despite its Post-Impressionist and Pointillist influences, it portrays an obvious nostalgia for the traditional. There is something here of German Völkisch art built on German purity, ‘blood and soil’ and much favoured by National Socialism. This pull between totalitarianism on the right and the left never seems far away.

One of the most dynamic sections of the exhibition is that of theatre design. There was a revolution in theatrical productions thanks to the combined talents of experimental writers, directors and stage designers. Anatol Petrytskyi’s delightful costume designs for the ballet ‘Eccentric Dances’ at the Moscow Chamber Ballet are a witty take on Constructivism. While you can almost hear the strains of Stravinsky and other avant-garde composers in Vadym Merller’s kinetic Sketch of the ‘Masks’ choreography for Branislava Nijinska’s School of Movement done in 1919.

Manuil Shekhtman In the Eye of the Storm Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s
Manuil Shekhtman Jewish Pogrom 1926

Perhaps one of the most surprising elements is the contribution to the cultural mix of Kultur Liege, founded in 1918 to promote the development of Jewish-Yiddish culture. This flourished under the short-lived government of the Central Rada (Council) that, for a short time, recognised Ukraine’s rich, multicultural and multilingual society. Issachar Ber Ryback’s potent painting City (Shtetl) depicts the disappearing world of daily Jewish life. While surprisingly, Manuil Shekhtman was to show his powerful and poignant painting, Jewish Pogrom 1926, in the Venice Biennale. It’s salutary, therefore, to remember that it would only be another 23 years until Babyn Yar, the largest massacre in the history of the Holocaust. Over 33,000 of Kyiv’s Jews were shot by the Nazis at the bottom of Kyiv’s Babyn Yar ravine with the support of the Ukrainian auxiliary police and local collaborators. The exhibition, surprisingly, makes no reference to this atrocity.

During the short period of Ukrainization – the concession to appease local nationalism – members of Mykhailo Boichuk’s studio, known as Boichukists in the late 1920s, produced murals for public spaces and buildings. However, this movement, with its portrayal of peasant workers influenced by Byzantine art and Italian Pre-Renaissance frescoes, was to be short-lived. In 1937, one of the organisation’s members Ivan Padalka, whose wonderful painting Photographer 1927 combines social realism with the immediacy of folk art, was arrested as a member of  Boichuk’s fictional nationalist terrorist group and executed.

Oleksandr Bohomazov’s Sharpening the Saws In the Eye of the Storm Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s
Oleksandr Bohomazov’s Sharpening the Saws 1927

Oleksandr Bohomazov’s Sharpening the Saws is a particularly arresting work. Intended to be part of a three-part cycle depicting the labour of sawyers, this is one of the two canvases he completed. Its experimental spirit can be seen in his use of geometric lines and bright colours – blue, green and red for the saws  – placed within a figurative context that made the work more widely available to a proletarian audience. In the 1920s and 1930s, the last generation of Ukrainian modernists flirted with international art movements such as New Objectivity and Italian Novecento. This was tragically cut short by the political climate. From then on, the only official artistic style allowed in the Soviet Union was social realism.

With the purges of the Ukrainian intelligentsia in the 1930s, hundreds of writers and painters were executed as ‘bourgeois nationalists’, and manuscripts, books and paintings were burnt or otherwise destroyed. An opening out in the 1960s and 1970s of Western cultural horizons spurred an interest in the revolutionary art of the late Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Ukrainian art had not been regarded as separate and was lumped under the term ‘Russian avant-garde.’ The Eye of the Storm rectifies this and highlights the story of Ukrainian modernism at a time when, once again, the country is fighting for its political independence and cultural autonomy.

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Sue Hubbard is an award-winning poet, novelist and freelance critic. Her fourth novel, Flatlands, just out from Pushkin Press, can be bought here: Flatlands by Sue Hubbard | 9781911590743 | Pushkin Press and her latest poetry collection, God’s Little Artist: poems on the life of  Gwen John Here





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