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3 August, 2018

Ukrainian Avant-garde forever

When Ukraine is asked today, what it can give to Europe, it doesn’t have to go far: it had once given Ukrainian avant-garde to the world. The task today is to win it back from being associated with the Russian culture by clearly identifying where it actually comes from.

In January 1928, a postman brought a letter with foreign stamps to the office of New Generation, a Kharkiv-based magazine. This was not an extraordinary event. The magazine was subscribed to a lot of foreign press. That letter, however, moved everyone: it came from Enrico Prampolini, a Furutist artist and an editor of Noi, a bulletin of Italian Futurists.

“Mr. Deslaw [Eugène Deslawwas a French/Spanish film director of Ukrainian origin, an activist of Ukrainian emigre community. His real name was Yevhen Antonovych Slabchenko] has informed me that your magazine represents a new intellectual and artistic trend in Ukraine’s contemporary art. Please, accept my friendly greetings and wishes of all the best. I would be happy to become a contributor for your magazine,” Prampolini wrote to the New Generationteam. 

He lived in Paris from 1925 to 1937 and interacted with Deslaw there. Prampolini worked with avant-garde groups from Germany, Czechoslovakia and other European countries. He was also interested in Ukrainian Futurism which he didn’t associate with Russian or Soviet art.

In 1929, Deslaw directed Montparnassea film where Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Luis Buñuel, Enrico Prampolini and Luigi Russolo playing themselves. Alongside them there was a spot for Mykhayl Semenko — a poet, the founder and theorist of Ukrainian Futurism. But soviet policies of total cultural colonization and ghettoization, masked as Stalin’s national policy, and the era of the door to the outside world “shut tight” prevented Semenko’s appearance in it.

The New Generation somehow managed to squeeze through that door before it closed for good. As a result, both Italy and the whole of Europe discovered Ukrainian avant-garde in 1928. This happened in Cologne which hosted Internationalen Presse-Ausstellung [International Press Exhibition] from May to October 1928. The huge soviet pavilion caught the attention with giant neon USSR letters in the four arches between its columns. Its innovative Constructivist style was designed by El Lissitzkywith Sergei Senkin and Gustavs Klucis. Much research has been written about Lissitzky and the design of the pavilion. But you will hardly find anything about the Ukrainian section in it, which was extremely good.  

We can still be proud of it — no other international fair, except for book displays in Frankfurt in the recent years, has beaten the design concept of the 1928 pavilion. It was authored by artist and theatrical designer Vadym Meller, the lead artist for Berezil theater. Vasyl Yermilov made pieces displayed in the Ukrainian section. These included a series of twenty albums titled Ukraine in wooden covers decorated with plakhtas, an authentic equivalent of a skirt, weaved in a different design for every album. Also, the Ukrainian section featured books and publications of the time — Robselkor Ukrayiny [A Magazine for Workers and Peasants of Ukraine], The Agrarian RevolutionResorts and Vacation Houses and more — as well as albums from the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration, Berezil and Ivan Franko theaters, and Visty [News] government newspaper. Apart from that, Yermilov made large placard newspapers titled Generator (1927) and Kanatka [Cable Way] from 1928 with skillful photomontagefor the exhibition.

The New Generationand Avant-gardemagazine reported on Meller’s and Yermilov’s works for the exhibition in Germany, so did all of Ukrainian press. “I congratulate Vasyl Yermilov and wish him to take a trip abroad,” wrote artist Vasyl Sedliar in his article about his colleagues. Unlike Meller, Yermilov was never allowed to go to Cologne.

Soon enough, the door form the Soviet Union shut completely and irreversibly. Ukrainian avant-garde moved to attics and shelves, gathering dust in hidden corners. When it did make it into the wider world, it did so anonymously, presented as faceless yet fashionable “soviet avant-garde”. Nobody referred to it as Ukrainian any more. In 1979, Iryna Semenko, Russian literature researcher and the daughter of Mykhayl Semenko, published a two-volumed collection of her father’s poems in Würzburgunder the pseudonym Leo Krieger. In Ukraine, his works were not published until 1985. The catalogues of soviet and international art exhibitions have featured Oleksandr Bohomazov, Vadym Meller, Vasyl Yermilov and Anatol Petrytskyi. And yet, Ukrainian avant-garde seemed to never have existed in the world’s art history while Russian avant-garde got to dominate it and finally appropriated it completely.

In 2016, the design of the Ukrainian stand at the 68th Frankfurt Book Fair followed Yermilov’s concept. It was extremely successful. When Ukraine is asked today, what it can give to Europe, it doesn’t have to go far: it had once given Ukrainian avant-garde to the world. The task today is to win it back from being associated with the Russian culture by clearly identifying where it actually comes from.

Ukrainian avant-gardists created the art which the world understood without translation, the art that trespassed the borders of time or geography. That art was courageous and young, so it’s never outdated, its energy still mesmerizing us today.

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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