Ukrainian art: Home at last

Culture & Science
17 October 2019, 02:54

Soviet art is mostly associated with socialist realism or sotsrealizm, but this term hardly covers all the movements that took place in the early soviet decades. Although the soviet powers-that-be definitely tried to subordinate art and artists to support exclusively propagandist goals, creativity can rarely be completely forced into a straitjacket. And so there was always an alternative to sotsrealizm – a slew of works that were given a variety of different names: underground, non-conformism, other art, dissident art, and just plain unofficial art. The most widespread of these movements were underground and non-conformist art, which make clear the nature of this art – beyond the pale of official exhibitions and the broad circle of viewers, and ultimately in opposition to the official definition of art and the soviet system itself.

Indeed, this all took place, not somewhere beyond Ukraine’s territory, but was actually part of the country’s history and the development of Ukrainian painting. The very name “underground” is not something that specifically applies to art in the soviet system: this name has always referred to practices that do not fit the mainstream of mass culture or are a protest against it.

Silent painting and strict style

In Ukraine, unofficial art is associated with the post-WWII period in the Soviet Union. It emerged as an alternative to the officially enshrined “sole method” of sotsrealizm and arose because of the specific conditions under which art survived in the USSR. Unofficial art is hard to define strictly according to artistic criteria and stylistic features, because it included both the figurative and the abstract, both narrative and emotional forms. Its main feature was the free search for form and an analytical, sometimes even expressed as theorizing, approach to art. The most radical form was the abstraction that decisively rejected official soviet art as “anti-soviet.” But other, more thoughtful approaches to reflecting, including those that linked themselves to surrealism or photorealism, were criticized for being “formalist.” In Ukraine, however, there was yet another stigmatized movement, the worst of all: “bourgeois nationalism.” This phrase could be used about any image whatsoever on Ukrainian themes or any reference to traditions of baroque, the monumental synthesis of boichukism, or national variations of Art Nouveau.

In 1932, Moscow issued a Central Committee Resolution on the “rebuilding” of literature and arts organizations and for the entire decade leading up to World War II, entire layers of Ukrainian culture, both innovative and traditional, were destroyed or taken out of circulation. The establishment of a special museum fund over 1937-39, the destruction of churches, the crackdown on boichukists and their monumental works, the displacement of innovators of the 1910s and 1920s such as Vasyl Yermylov and Anatoliy Petrytskiy to the margins of artistic life were the means used to crush the very idea of creative discovery. 

The situation hardened with the official announcement of socialist realism, which was supposed to systematically take the best from all traditions and cultures, but in fact was the restoration of an academic system with its hierarchy of views and genres of art. The ideological correctness of the subject became paramount, while the language of art was supposed to be “understandable to the masses,” meaning simplified to be a masterful conveyance of illusion. Tossing aside the need to develop form, sotsrealizm literally tried to stop time.

However, even at the height of Stalin’s Terror, art managed to find ways to be free. Over the 1930s and 1940s, there was something called “silent painting,” which was very much removed from the noisy, maudlin paintings on historical and revolutionary subjects or pompous industrial landscapes and ceremonial portraits of leaders. Painters like Illya Shtilman, Volodymyr Kostetskiy, Karpo Trokhymenko, Vasyl Krychevskiy, and Mykola Sheliuto were making small-scale intimate portraits, lyrical landscapes and modest still lifes. This silent protest against the total depersonalization of art and its transformation into an instrument for propaganda gave many artists the opportunity to feel the joy of joining the community of authentic art and high culture.

Sotsrealizm represented yet another trial for artists: the need to survive completely cut off from broader world trends. The “filtration” of information from the West, or even its absence altogether, and the inability to participate in international exhibitions left its imprint on artists. For many of them, one way out was to either dive deeply into “realism,” that is, increase the meaning of their works within the range of permissible lifelike forms – which led to the emergence in the 1970s of the phenomenon called “metaphysical realism” – or using the acceptable traditions with the purpose of “enriching the language of sotsrealizm” – which was popular in the 1960s and 1970s – such as impressionism and post-impressionism, secession, the work of Rembrandt, the figurative modernism of artists like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Fernand Leger, and Giorgio Morandi.

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However, sotsrealizm never developed a timeless language of its on but was forced to mutate in response to the political climate. How official art changed in the post-WWII period is clearly illustrated by one of its phenomena, the “strict style.” Young artists of the 1960s nearly all went through this phase, regardless of what direction their creative work later went through: Viktor Ryzhykh, Oleksandr Dubovyk, Viktor Zaretskiy, Ihor Hryhori’ev, and others. Without moving even one step away from the ideological basis for official soviet art, the “strict style” hearkened back to practice of artists in the 1920s, meaning to the “romantic” period of the soviet state. While remaining within the constraints of genres established by sotsrealizm, artists proposed other interpretations: unresolved actions, generalized forms, and monumental images. Celebrations and triumphs were replaced as subjects by mundane daily life and the difficult challenges that fell on the backs of ordinary “builders of socialism.”

Even if it was possible in the practice of art to find a tiny island of freedom within the constraints of official art, for an artist to survive within the actual infrastructure of soviet art was much harder. Already at the end of the 1920s, after the New Economic Plan (NEP) was dropped, and industrialization and collectivization were launched, the state became the only commissioner and buyer for works of art. After the soviet Union of Artists was formed – the Ukrainian branch only started operating in 1939 – artists found themselves under the watchful eye of party apparatchiks. Studios, commissions, exhibitions and publications all became possible only with the approval of the Union.

In 1940, the Art Fund of the Ukrainian SSR was launched as the intermediary between artists and companies. It handled all commissions for design work, which made it possible for artists to earn decent money sculpting numberless statues of top soviet officials and painting kilometers of canvases depicting the progress of the working and military classes. This peculiarity of the way the soviets organized artistic life led to those engaged in unofficial art to very often existed between two dimensions: their official art activities such as monumental works, book designs and so on, while their underground art took place at home and in their studio, where only a select circle of viewers was involved. Most often, these two parallel worlds never intersected, but when they sometimes did, the result was unusually interesting: the artist’s reflections would result in abstract compositions that were treated like decorative elements to a monumental ensemble. Two artists who worked this way were Fedir (Feodosiy) Tetianych and Valeriy Lamakh.

Points on a map

The earliest stage of the development of unofficial art in Ukraine is roughly 1945-1955. This was an important time, when Ukraine began to realize itself as a separate republic of the USSR within its modern-day territory. Although Halychyna, Volyn and Bukovyna had been joined to it back in 1939-40, their real integration began only after the war. In 1945, the Ukrainian SSR saw Zakarpattia join and, in 1954, Crimea. From then on, polycentrism became typical for Ukraine, recognizing the individuality of artistic life and the nature of the development of both official and unofficial art in different centers, the most notable of which were Kyiv, Lviv, Odesa, Kharkiv, and Uzhhorod.

At this point, individual relations began to develop among different artists, along with the worldviews underlying their creativity, and artistic quests picked up pace. Obviously, one condition for unofficial art to emerge in Kyiv, Odesa and Kharkiv was the massive crossing of boundaries between East and West during WWII, which led to a rediscovery of the world by artists. For Lviv – and Uzhhorod – things were very different: few working artists remained who had not emigrated with the invasion of the soviets and, thanks to them, the modernist line was not disrupted. This was the point when Uzhhorod artists began their search in abstractionism. From the early 1950s on, salons began to take place in the Lviv residence of Roman and Margit Selskiy.

In 1946, the Lviv State Institute for Applied and Decorative Art was established, where reputable local art teachers like Yosyp Bokshai from Uzhhorod, Ivan Sver, Roman Selskiy and others were invited to work alongside “reliable soviet cadres.” Unfortunately, over 1958-1959, the Institute’s department of monumental decorative painting and sculpture was shut down. It had been extremely important for providing contact between the artist and the viewer in the public arena. Still, the applied decorative areas that remained continued to offer plenty of opportunity for formal creative quests.

A new artistic renaissance

The second stage, from 1956 to 1968 was the brightest and most productive period in the development of unofficial art. Carried by a wave of a political thaw, this art became public for a time. After the 20thCongress of the Communist party of the Soviet Union and Nikita Khrushchev’s exposure of the cult of Stalin, the USSR entered a period of exceptional cultural openness and rapprochement with the West. This turnaround was marked by the World Festival of Youth and Students, which took place in Moscow in 1957. For the first time, abstractionism was shown and large shows opened the eyes and sensibilities of soviet viewer to the newest art in the West: French Art of the 15th – 20th centuries in 1955, a Picasso show also in 1955, the US National Art Expo in 1959, Painting in Great Britain over 1700-1960 in 1960, and more.

At this point, artistic life blossomed in Kyiv. During the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s, artists like Anatoliy Sumar, Florian Yuriev and Valery Lamakh produced their own, original versions of abstract art. A monumental section opened up at the Ukrainian SSR Union of Artists at the Kyiv State Art Institute. Over 1960-1962, the Club of Creative Youth, an initiative of Les Taniuk run by the Lenin Communist Union of Youth of Ukraine (LCUYY), was active. Its members included Alla Horska, Viktor Zaretskiy and Opanas Zalyvakha. In 1962, the Prolisok Club of Creative Youth was established in Lviv. Among its active members were artists like Sofia Karaffa-Korbut, Emmanuil Mysko and Lubomyr Medvid. At this time, as well, informal contacts between Kyiv and Lviv grew stronger: artists like Ivan Dziuba, Mykola Vinhranovskiy, Ivan Drach, Halyna Sevruk, Alla Horska, and Valery Shevchuk visited from the capital. 

During this same period, a number of important public arts events also took place that were first in the USSR: in 1965, a one-day show took place in a Kharkiv courtyard on vul. Symska, called “Under Arches,” while in 1967 a famous “fence” show called Sychyk + Khrushchyk [Owl+June Bug] was organized in Odesa by local artists Valentyn Khrushch and Stanislav Sychov.

Bourgeois nationalism

Together with the unprecedented public visibility of free art the first worrisome signals came that the soviet system was no going to allow these developments to continue. After the ill-fated “Manezh Show” in 1962 came the announcement of a new “Struggle Against Formalism” and with it a wave of criticism against abstract art that swept both Anatoliy Sumar and Florian Yuriev away.

Interest in national traditions inspires by the partial rehabilitation of masters of the Shot Renaissance and the integration of the western oblasts, especially Zakarpattia with its synthesis of modernism and folk art, set the trend for decades. Both the “folklorism” of Tetiana Yablonska and Yevhen Volobuyev, and the “strict style” of Zaretskiy and Horska were imbued with a distinctly expressed national feeling. The peak and even a kind of manifesto of Ukraine’s 1960s was Sergei Parajanov’s 1964 landmark film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, whose artistic director was Georgiy Yakutovych.

The art world sobered up quickly. Over 1963-64, a group of authors consisting of Opanas Zalyvakha, Alla Horska, Liudmyla Semykina, Halyna Zubenko, and Halyna Severuk put together a stained glass window at Taras Shevchenko State University in Kyiv, that represented the Kobzar as a passionate defender of the Ukrainian people and language. The composition was immediately destroyed because of its “nationalism.” In the mid-60s, Zalyvakha was arrested. The decade ended with the soviet military invading Czechoslovakia, after which any hope for the free development of creativity died once and for all. The Central Committee passed a secret resolution to strengthen ideological and propaganda work, thereby expanding the powers of the KGB to counter dissent.

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For Ukraine, the breaking point was the famed Kyiv Letter, signed by 139 writers, artists, academics and journalists, in which concern was expressed over the persecution of Ukrainian cultural actors and politicized court cases. The signatories included such luminaries as Sergei Parajanov, writers Viktor Nekrasov, Vasyl Stus, Lina Kostenko, Ivan Dziuba, and Yevhen Severstiuk, and artists Alla Horska, Viktor Zaretskiy, Oleksa Zakharchuk, and Borys Dovhan. The letter caused a real stir, which was evident primarily in Moscow’s aggressive response: people were fired from their jobs, dismissed from post-secondary institutions, and their artistic and scientific work was hampered.

Finding a place at last

The outcome was the start of the third phase with a series of tragic events: the murder of Alla Horska in 1970 and massive arrests among the Ukrainian intelligentsia. From then on, unofficial art was relegated to the underground. At the same time, it was an extremely fruitful period, when artists set about creating their “individual mythologies” that they only shared with a narrow circle of like-minded individuals, when the intensity of the unofficial artistic life was measured in apartment “shows,” and meetings with their own kind.

At this time, information about new trends in western art was only available in bits and pieces, and this was interpreted in a very original manner. Meanwhile, artists were analyzing the meaning of world and Ukrainian cultural heritage, and all these ideas marked the artistic practices of the period. Many of those who went through this process would later write about the striking contrast that could be seen between social and private lives. Hopelessness and despair were widespread during the period of socialist stagnation, while work “for oneself” became a kind of escapism and search for individual liberty.

At the beginning of the 1980s, the underground saw yet another new phenomenon emerge: conceptualism, which was strongest in Odesa and Kharkiv. A new generation of unofficial artists not only established an alternative form of “non-representational” art that was unacceptable to the official system, but also distanced itself from the older generation of non-conformists.

The underground began to gain recognition only after perestroika, in the late 1980s. Numberless shows take place, among which the most significant was “Ukrainske MalARTstvo 1960-1980” held in 1989. Not only did it identify representatives of several generations from different centers in Ukraine, but for the first time, very significantly, the development of art over three decades was shown as a continuum. At this point, unofficial art finally took its proper place in museum expositions, academics begin to study it, and a wider audience begins to pay more attention to it.


Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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