Ukrainian Modernists, All Alone, Here at Last

NEW YORK, NY -- Don’t mistake them for Russians: Kazimir Malevich, El Lissitsky, Alexander Rodchenko, Alexander Archipenko and Alexandra Exter were actually born, or identified themselves as, Ukrainian.

“Relief A” oil on plywood, by Vasyl Yermilov, from the 1920s

According to a new exhibition at the ambitious Ukrainian Museum, it was the Ukrainian-ness of some of the greats in modern Russian art that informed their contributions to the Modernist movements of the 20th century.

“Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930” displays more than 70 works by 21 artists — each shown for the first time in the United States. The exhibition was organized by the National Art Museum of Ukraine in Kiev with the Foundation for International Arts and Education.

Ukraine, a nation of nearly 50 million, regained its sovereignty from the Soviet Union in 1991 and has been eager to acquaint the world with its own considerable cultural strengths. One, of course, has been art, with a history going back to the Greek and Byzantine eras.

Ukrainian classicism and folk art were carried over into 20th-century avant-garde creations, but within the two decades covered by the show, there was also stellar participation in experimental work.

The painter, idea man and exhibition organizer David Burliuk (1882-1967), for example, embraced a “primitivist” approach that became allied with Italian Futurism; Archipenko produced Cubist sculpture; Malevich developed the nonobjective movement known as Suprematism, which for all its abstraction was partly inspired by Ukrainian folk themes; and Rodchenko associated himself with the architecturally oriented art known as Constructivism.

Partly because most of their works are in collections outside Ukraine, these leaders are skimpily represented in the show: Burliuk by his clamorous “Time” (1910), a whirl of Cubist and Futurist elements; Archipenko (who had a full-scale show at the museum last year) by a small Cubist standing female figure of 1914; Malevich by a Suprematist composition of 1920, along with two very rough sketches from 1930 for the All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kiev; and Rodchenko by a 1919 Constructivist composition of bars and circles in red, black and white on a green ground.

Happily, a bit more of a spread is given to the work of Exter, who studied in Paris and had a firm grasp of the new European art. Her rhythmic color abstractions and her exuberant designs for ballet costumes are a dazzling mix of Cubist forms and Futurist dynamism with Ukrainian motifs like icon-derived colors, patterns from village embroideries and weavings, and bright peasant costumes.

But what makes this show well rounded is the inclusion of other, far less familiar talents — some, to be sure, more interesting than others. The effort made to expose the period’s wide range of styles has produced a couple of wonderful surprises.

One is the brilliantly “decadent” work of Vsevolod Maksymovych (1894-1914), a painter drawing on Symbolist sources who represented the Ukrainian “style moderne,” or Secession.

Heavily influenced by the campy erotica of the British graphic artist Aubrey Beardsley, Maksymovych did mural-size paintings drawn from classical themes, but his most striking creations use stark black-and-white schemes and sinuous lines.

They are seen here in a fierce, quirky self-portrait against a backdrop of bubbles and in a high-comedy masquerade scene whose focus is a bewigged, semi-nude, queenly figure attended by courtiers, a peacock and a kneeling genie. A drug user, Maksymovych committed suicide at 21 after the failure of his one-man show in Moscow.

Also eye-grabbing are the “Experimental Compositions” done in the ’20s by Vasyl Yermilov (1894-1967), a leader of the Constructivist school in Kiev and a crucial figure of the avant-garde. His four works here — three of them designs for graphic mediums — consist of simple geometrical figures, letters and other elements, in combinations of materials and textures.

They derive from folk art and primitivism as well as from contemporary movements. The most striking here is his relief painting, a cool composition of painted geometric elements in wood on a bright blue ground.

A serendipitous discovery is Anatol Petrytsky (1895-1964), little known in the United States, who made a major contribution to stage design. A creator of opera and ballet sets for both classical and avant-garde performance groups in Moscow, Kiev and Kharkov, he was also a painter, working in several styles.

In the late 1920s and early ’30s he produced more than 150 portraits of Ukrainian modernists, meant for an album; three are shown here.

When Stalin began his operation against “nationalist deviation” in the early 1930s, he exterminated many of the subjects of Petrytsky’s portraits. The artist destroyed several of the canvases, and the majority of those remaining were lost during World War II.

Most engaging, though, are his lighthearted, collage-like sketches for various operas and ballets. He shows his Constructivist tendencies in “Europeans,” a delightful costume sketch of a couple for the ballet “The Red Poppy” in 1927.

Being an artist with anything other than a Soviet agenda was dangerous in the later years of Stalin’s regime. A case in point was Mykhailo Boichuk (1882-1937), an influential teacher at the Ukrainian Academy of Arts, who envisioned creating art for the masses based on Ukrainian traditions.

He pushed for Ukrainization via the study of medieval frescoes, folk art, Italian Renaissance painting and Byzantine art (a major influence on Ukrainian culture), rather than adopting the heroic realism clich├ęs favored by the Soviet leadership in the late 1920s.

At the same time, he and his followers, known as the Boichukisty, were keenly aware of international Modernism, though his painting in this show of a dairy maid from the early 1920s would indicate that his teachings were perhaps more vital than his art.

But with the beginning of collectivization, the state turned hostile toward the rural and ethnic content of Boichuk’s and his students’ work, and he was denounced as an agent of the Vatican. Amid the purges of the late 1930s, he and some disciples were declared enemies of the people, arrested and executed.

This show, for all its spottiness, surely proves the importance of Ukrainian participation in Modernist art. For American viewers, its significance lies as much in its exposure of lively talents, largely unknown.

Source: New York Times

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