Ukraine Special

In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s

Tommy Thiange 2 November 2023 min Read

The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels is currently hosting an exhibition titled In the Eye of the Storm—Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s. This captivating exhibition illustrates how artists from this period were skillful in forging their artistic presence, seamlessly blending their tradition with the influences of the Western avant-garde. Boasting a total of over 60 works, the exhibition provides a platform for their bold creativity to shine through, even amid complex histories. Furthermore, it evoked a past that echoes the present reality of Ukraine.

modernism in ukraine: Vadym Meller, Composition, 1919-1920, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Vadym Meller, Composition, 1919-1920, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Bold Art for Tough Times

Against the collapsing empires and the chaos of World War I was the Ukrainian modernist movement. Through the turmoil of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the short-lived independence of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (1917-1920), preceding the establishment of Soviet Ukraine came a pivotal moment. Well aware of culture’s role in asserting their identity, Ukrainian artists spearheaded a genuine revival in literature, theater, and the visual arts.

This flourishing period saw an explosion of artistic styles, from figurative art to constructivism and social realism, each offering a unique perspective. Artists embraced various techniques, including oil paint, gouache, watercolor, and tempera, creating a patchwork of artistic expression. Consequently, history and the people made Ukrainian art stand out, with its rich color palette inspired by the vibrant hues from Ukrainian folk traditions and decorative art.

modernism in ukraine: Davyd Burliuk , Carousel, 1921, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine.

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

Forgotten Treasures

Notably, the exhibition deep-dives into an art scene lesser known in Western Europe. It recovers some forgotten treasures. These exceptional pieces would have hardly ventured beyond Ukraine’s borders if not for the curatorial efforts. Behind these visionary works, we find versatile talents like Alexandra Exter, David Burliuk, Anatol Petrytskyi, and Mykahilo Boichuck.

Take Anatol Petrytskyi, a multitalented creator who seamlessly transitioned from theater and ballet design to painting. Petrytskyi studied in Alexandra Exter’s studio. During her training, she painted, crafted theater sets, designed costumes, and even imparted her wisdom through stage design courses. In her art, we can discern traces of her time in Paris, where she resided before permanently settling in Kyiv. The imprints Cézanne and Cubism left are palpable in some of her works; both were crucial influences on her artistic journey.

AdVertisment

The March of History

In the Eye of the Storm – Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930 is housed in two expansive halls. The first hall resembles a lengthy corridor, while the second is a cube organized around a circular light well. This structural set produces an arrangement that feels light and airy, creating an enjoyable tour experience in stark contrast to the weighty repercussions of ideological aberrations mentioned on the walls.

AdVertisment

There are, indeed, several poignant cases confirming history’s relentless march within the exhibit. An example of this is the Kultur Lige. Once the most vital Jewish cultural organization, it yielded to the Soviet government’s mounting pressure and dissolved by the mid-1920s. Their art section combined Jewish creative traditions with European avant-garde influences and had the prominent El Lissitzky among the members.

Another notable figure is Mykhailo Boichuk, founder of a workshop on frescoes, mosaics, and tempera at the Ukrainian Academy of Arts in Kyiv. At the dawn of the Soviet era, Boichuk and his apprentices took many state commissions, only to be later stigmatized as “bourgeois nationalists.” Sadly, Boichuk and his close colleagues fell victim to the brutal Stalinist purges, but they were were not the only few to undergo state oppression.

AdVertisment

History is Still in the Making

After a warm reception in Madrid at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza and in Cologne at the Ludwig Museum, this itinerant exhibition has made its way to Brussels. Here, it will remain on display until January 28 before embarking on the next leg of its journey to Vienna at the Belvedere Museum, then to London’s Royal Academy of Arts.

Previously, most of the artworks were often mislabeled as “Russian avant-garde.” But two prestigious institutions based in Kyiv, the National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU) and the Museum of Theatre, Music, and Cinema of Ukraine, have been keeping them before their evacuation on November 15, 2022. Relocating the artworks is a strategic move essential to shield them from the perils warfare can bring; it is also a collaborative effort to safeguard these invaluable works during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In the Eye of the Storm – Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930 remains on view at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium until 28 January 2024.

 

modernism in ukraine: Viktor Palmov, The 1st of May, 1929, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine.

Viktor Palmov, The 1st of May, 1929, National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv, Ukraine.

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