Renewing and Displaying our Ukrainian Collections
By Jamie Copeland
Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (24 January 2022), the Sackler Library has maintained a book display celebrating Ukrainian culture and presenting a selection of the material held in our collections that can enrich awareness of Ukraine’s art, architecture, archaeology and history. It was also intended to refresh this display periodically, both to mark events such as Ukraine Independence Day and to guard against the impression that attention has moved on. The change of material is also an opportunity to address areas that may not have been as prominent in previous displays, while drawing on the expanding collection and resources available.
The first anniversary of the invasion was an obvious moment both to reflect upon the events of the past year and to address some of the issues that I have become aware of. One of the difficulties that I had encountered was in finding material featuring contemporary artists and their responses to the ‘special military operation’ and the preceding near-decade of Russian hostilities. Although many cultural institutions and journals have commemorated the war many of the articles and institutional resources remain online only. I was able, however, to find a physical issue of the journal Artforum that has a description of an artist’s experience of the onset of the war and images of their reaction to it.
The second issue that I wanted the display to address was a response to Putin’s speech denying Ukraine’s statehood, and his preceding essay “On the historical unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, something I had considered during the display’s previous iteration but had learned more about over the last year. The publication ‘Postcolonial Europe?: essays on post-communist literatures and cultures’ was useful in this regard, especially the chapter titled ‘Ukrainian Culture after Communism’.
One of the major figures of Ukrainian nationhood is Mikhail Hrushevsky, historian and President of the Central Rada (Central Council of Ukraine) before its overthrow by German backed forces in April 1918. Hrushevsky continued his efforts to claim a historical legitimacy for Ukraine independent of Russia for the rest of his life, despite mounting repression. One of his more popular works was The Illustrated history of Ukraine, a single volume edition derived from his ten volume Survey of the History of the Ukrainian People, the first major work on Ukrainian history. The early 1913 version can be contrasted with the revised, post-independence 1997 edition.
A complication in selecting publications for the display was the definition of a Ukrainian. From various perspectives (for example frequent border and regime shifting) the list could include people of Ukrainian heritage, such as Hrushevsky himself, who was born in Chełm, then part of Poland subject to Imperial Russia, to a family of the Ukrainian aristocracy. There are also artists such as Abraham Manievich, born in Belarus to a Jewish family, who studied in Kiev and was a co-founder of the Ukrainian Academy of Fine Arts. Although primarily resident in Kiev, he travelled throughout the Russian Empire and Europe before emigrating to the United States after the murder of his son in a pogrom during the Russian Civil War. A similar example is Sonia Delauney, also Jewish, born in Odessa, but who moved to St. Petersburg in her early childhood. She then moved to Paris at the age of fifteen. Would it be justifiable to include an important artist, the first living female artist to have a retrospective exhibition of her work at the Louvre (1964), just because her birthplace was in Ukraine although her education and career took place abroad? One of the quotes about her work addressed the subject of Ukraine as a formative influence upon her work.
“About 1911 I had the idea of making for my son, who had just been born, a blanket composed of bits of fabric like those I had seen in the houses of Ukrainian peasants. When it was finished, the arrangement of the pieces of material seemed to me to evoke cubist conceptions and we then tried to apply the same process to other objects and paintings.” Sonia Delaunay.
The recent exhibition In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s (Madrid, Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum, 29/11/2022 – 30/04/2023) displayed works from their the museum’s collection in conjunction with works from the national collections of Ukraine; this was a response to the Museums for Ukraine initiative, providing a cultural protest to both the invasion and Russia’s denial of a separate Ukraine culture. In the accompanying publication Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza addresses this subject, stating that the war is ‘not only about controlling territory, but also about owning the narrative’. In the introduction, the curator and art historian Konstantin Akinsha traces the history of modern Ukraine from the culturally tolerant early years of the Bolsheviks, through the terror of the Stalinist years, the relative calm of Khrushchev and the re-emergence of Ukraine as a nation state. In parallel with this political history runs a cultural history with the idealism of Ukrainian modernism experiencing both genocidal suppression and Russian appropriation as the Western art markets made modernism useful to the USSR, then the post-Soviet attempt to rediscover and exhibit the ‘Ukrainian Avant-Garde’. The lives of various artists, as they experienced fates ranging from execution, imprisonment, exile to suppression,were restricted as they saw their works confined to the ‘Spetsfond’ a sealed archive for works produced by ‘formalists’, ‘nationalists’ and other ‘criminals’. In the Eye of the Storm is broadly divided into parts, with the first three – on Kyiv, Karkhiv, and Odesa – following the various regions and associated schools with distinctive but connected experiences as they attempted to preserve the expression of their selves in the face of an overwhelming hegemonic power. The fourth part, ‘Aftermath’, follows the lives of the surviving artists. An essay, ‘From Oblivion to Glory’, discusses the Spetsfond and its function as an inadvertent resource for the subsequent study of Ukrainian art; with works held by the State Ukrainian Museum then divided among five categories, determining (for example) whether they could be exhibited, used for scientific work or transferred. The final paragraph of the book notes:
‘Almost all works from the spetsfond were allocated to the fifth group, the so-called zero category, with the majority being taken out of their frames and rolled up. As luck would have it, this eventually saved them from destruction. Because the zero category did not belong to the Museum’s primary collection it never featured in official reports and was not subject to further checks. All works from this group, therefore, remained intact in the Museum’s vaults to be discovered by future generations of curators and art historians.’
With this in mind I wanted to display the work of artists not restricted by artistic schools or questions of identity, but to focus on their response to Ukraine as a nation. Zinaida Serebryakova, was born in Kharkiv in 1884, her family prominent in the artistic establishment of the Russian Empire. She spent much of her life in exile, often in near poverty after the death of her husband and her reluctance to conform to depicting the preferred subjects of the Soviet establishment, preferring instead to paint landscapes, scenes of rural life and domestic portraits, often of her children. Unable to afford the materials for her preferred technique of oil painting she then worked with cheaper materials such as pencil and charcoal, learning to sketch rapidly. In 1924 she was given a commission for a mural in Paris, leaving her four children under the care of her mother. On completion of this work she was unable to return to the Soviet Union and was separated from her family, although she retained her Soviet citizenship until the Nazi occupation forced her to abandon it in order to gain a Nansen passport. In 1947 she was granted French citizenship and was able to bring two of her children to Paris but was unable to meet the rest of her family until the so-called Khrushchev Thaw. In 1960 she was reunited with her daughter, now an artist at the Moscow Art Theatre. Her daughter was able to help arrange a series of major exhibitions in Moscow, Leningrad and Kyiv, which took place in 1966. The success of these established Serebryakova’s reputation in her homeland after half a life in exile. She died in 1968.
I chose to show, as openings in the book display, several paintings from Serebryakova’s earlier work. On the Terrace in Kharkov (1919) shows a peaceful family scene, with the strong use of blue and yellow, emphasizing the theme of Ukraine. The below landscapes of Ukrainian countryside, with sunflowers, rolling plains, and Crimean hills offering a counterpoint to the images of devastation we have seen since the invasion.
Contrasting with with Serebryakova’s peaceful landscapes, the paintings of David Burliuk have the unstable energy typical of Futurism. Born in Riabushky, part of the Kharkov Governorate, Burliuk’s family was a mixture of Ukrainian Cossacks with a Belarussian mother. His portrait of fellow futurist Vasily Kamensky draws on the Byzantine tradition of icon painting normally used to depict the divine serenity of saints, an effect undermined by the clash of colours and almost vibrating shapes. The painting Dnieper Rapids is barely recognisable as a landscape, the land and sky merging into broken reds. Burliuk’s early life was a flurry of travel through Russia and Europe and a string of movements and manifestos. After the end of the Bolsheviks’ initial tolerance for dissent by prominent figures on the left he was forced to flee via Japan, eventually settling on Long Island, New York. Despite persistent campaigning he was refused permission to revisit the USSR until the Khrushchev years.
The revival of interest in Soviet avant-garde movements following the Khrushchev Thaw notwithstanding, the art markets of the West had only an outside view of the influences prevalent in their creation. In his above-mentioned essay, Konstantin Akinsha quotes Oleh Ilnytzkyz, an early proponent of Ukranian Futurism: “The goal is not to place a new ‘Ukrainian’ straitjacket on cultural activities in the empire, but to find a way to do justice to the variety of sources and the myriad of cultural influences that flowed from so many directions. The recognition of Burliuk, [Aleksandra] Ekster and [Kazimir] Malevich as Ukrainians does not diminish their relevance for either the imperial (transnational) avant-garde or for strictly Russian culture, where their impact is undeniable.”
In a similar attempt to recognise cultural specificity, the National Gallery recently renamed its Degas pastel drawing formally known as Russian Dancers to Ukrainian Dancers.
A brief section titled ‘Note on Transliteration’ (p. 8) in the publication In the eye of the storm: modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s (2022) – often used as a resource for this display – discusses one of the issues encountered when discussing Ukraine and its culture. While recognizing the complex identities of artists from this period and area, the project shows that the individuals discussed belong to the narrative of Ukrainian art history. The editors have therefore favoured the transliteration of Ukrainian versions of artists names, except for emigrés with previously well-established reputations in the West. While using various sources to research this book display I found the question of whether to use the Russian or Ukrainian versions of names and places increasingly problematic. Although current resources tend to use Ukrainian names, many/most printed materials, especially those published before the break-up of the USSR, use Russian versions. Many artists themselves may have used Russian versions, including in place names and titles of their works. Unwilling to impose a choice I largely stayed with the version used in the source material I was discussing. The modern history of Ukraine and its relationship with Russia has itself led to several linguistic variations. In contrast with Imperial Russia’ imposition of ‘Russification’ on its provinces, Lenin supported korenizatsiia (nativization), a policy encouraging indigenous cultures and languages as a means of increasing support for the Bolsheviks beyond Russia itself. This policy was abruptly brought to an end by Stalin, whose purges destroyed symbols of Ukrainian culture such as the Kobzars (travelling singers) and had so effective an impact on Ukrainian artists that they became known as the “The Executed Renaissance”.
Although later policies were less harsh, the Soviet regime still used imprisonment and censorship as tools to suppress potential dissent. Under these conditions conformity to approved approaches such as ‘Socialist Realism’ became a necessity for many artists, with even coded references such as colour or national symbols risking censure.
Like Burliuk, several other artists’ work was influenced by Byzantine icon painting and nativist art. An example is the poignant, folk art-inspired Portrait of a Woman by Mykhailo Boychuk who, in 1936, along with two of his students and four months later his wife, was executed by the NKVD. Boychuk’s work, described by his killers as ‘bourgeois nationalism’ and largely destroyed, was an influence on the later artist and regime opponent Alla Horska, who was herself killed by the KGB in 1970. Much of the work of both of these artists, often in the form of murals, mosaics and other large public works drawing upon Byzantine sources, was destroyed by the Soviet authorities, with some of the work only surviving in preliminary sketches or photographs. Others were preserved by fellow artists and archivists, such as Yaroslava Muzyka, who kept most of the paintings Boychuk left in Lviv after he was forced to abandon them.
In my attempt to select publications and show artists’ works for the display, and also learn of the fates – exile, appropriation, suppression or attempts to erase from history – of the works and their creators it became impossible not to admire the resilience of people currently struggling to preserve themselves as a nation, however varied. One of the claims put out by the Kremlin, was that Russia and Ukraine are one people separated by a Western coup, thus justifying a ‘special military operation’ to reunite them. Author Andrey Kurkov’s Ukraine diaries, detailing his experiences in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv, as he and others struggled to resist the 2014 attempt to permanently bind Ukraine to Russian vassalage, was also an inspiration for the display. The PEN Ukraine book Treasures of Ukraine, for which Kurkov wrote the foreword, was similarly invaluable in providing a cultural history and a guide to more contemporary work.
The following gallery and list of publications on display can show only a small section of the Sackler Library’s collection of material celebrating Ukraine.
Publications on display
Aĭvazovskiĭ, Ivan Konstantinovich. 2011. Aiwasowski : Maler des Meeres / herausgeg Ostfildern : Hatje Cantz
Akinsha, Konstantin. Denysova, Katia. Kashuba-Volvach, Olena. 2022. In the eye of the storm : modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s. London : Thames and Hudson
Balashova, Olha [editor-in-chief]. 2021. The art of Ukrainian sixties. Kyiv : Osnovy Publishing
Delaunay, Sonia, 2014, Sonia Delaunay. London
Grushevskiĭ, Mikhai. 1913. Illi͡ustrirovannai͡a istorīi͡a ukrainskago naroda. vyp. 1. S.-Peterburg : Tip. T-va “Ekateringofsk. Pechatnoe Di͡elo
Grushevskiĭ, Mikhail. 1997 Illi͡ustrirovannai͡a istorii͡a Ukrainy. Kiev : MPP “Levada
Hnatenko, Stefania. 1989. Treasures of early Ukrainian art : religious art of the 16th- 18th centuries New York : Ukrainian Museum
Kadan, Nikita, 2022. Project
Artforum international. v.60: no.8(2022: Apr.)
Kruglov, Vladimir, 2004. Zinaida Evgenʹevna Serebri͡akova = Zinaida Serebryakova
Kurkov, Andrey. 2014. Ukrainian diaries: dispatches from Kiev. London : Harvill Secker
Marko, Olya [Editor] 1991. Spirit of Ukraine : 500 years of painting : selections from the State Museum of Ukrainian Art, Kiev : an exhibition organized by the Winnipeg Art Gallery in honour of the centenary of Ukrainian settlement in Canada. Winnipeg : Winnipeg Art Gallery
Monti, Matteo de. 2011. Colour moves : art and fashion by Sonia Delaunay London : Thames & Hudson
Morozov, A. I. (Aleksandr Ilʹich), 2007 Sot͡srealizm i realism Moskva : Galart
Mudrak, Myroslava M. “The Painted Surface in the Ukrainian Avant-garde: from Facture to Construction.”
Pantheon 45 (1987): 138–43. [München] : [Bruckmann]
Pensler, Alan. 2001. Abraham Manievich, Manchester : Yivo Institute for Jewish Research : Hudson Hills Press
Petrova, Yevgenia. [editor-in chief], 2001. Abstraction in Russia, XX century
Russian futurism : and David Burliuk, “The father of Russian Futurism”
Petrova, Yevgenia [editor-in-chief] 2008. XX century in the Russian Museum: painting, sculpture 1900-2000 Sankt-Peterburg : Palace Editions, 2008.
Pucherová, Dobrota [editor-in-chief]. 2015. Postcolonial Europe? : essays on post-communist literatures and cultures Part V: Between the East and the West: the colonial present — Ukrainian culture after communism: between post-colonial liberation and neo-colonial subjugation. Riabchuk, Mykola. Leiden : Brill Rodopi
Shulʹkevich, M. M. 1982. Kiev : arkhitekturno-istoricheskiĭ ocherk. Kiev : “Budivelʹnyk”
Teboul, David. 2011. I’ve been here once before. Boris Mikhailov interviewed by David Teboul. München : Hirmer
Surudz͡hiĭ, N.M. 2016. Pysanky nashykh babusʹ : zibranni͡a pysanok I͡Urii͡a Ferenchuka = Our grandmothers pysankas : pisankas collection of Yuiy Ferenchuk / avtor proektu ta upori͡adnyk. Chernivt͡si : Misto
Ukrains’kiĭ modernizm 1910-1930 = Ukrainian modernism. 2006, Kyiv : National Art Museum of Ukraine
Versari, Maria Elena (Curator), 2022 Archipenko and the Italian avant garde London : Estorick Foundation