The beginning of the twentieth century was a period of significant change for Ukrainian urban culture. The city of Kyiv was rapidly developed: its first skyscraper, known as the Ginzburg House, was constructed in 1901, not far from centrally located Khreschatyk Street; cable car routes were ambitiously plotted along complex geomorphology; airplane flyovers became fashionable, and new automobile clubs began supplementing existing shipping transportation beneath the Dnieper’s steep right bank.
Technical progress, however, coexisted alongside pastoral elements. In 1905, for example, Władysław Horodecki designed the apartment building ‘House with Chimaeras’ with a cowshed (so that residents could get fresh butter and milk for breakfast) alongside a garage for his private car. In 1913 Petro Nesterov became the first pilot to fly a loop over Syretsk aerodrome, adjacent to fields where Kyivites still grazed their horses, oxen and cows. Numerous shops with Parisian clothes, shoes, hats and lace parasols adjoined workshops owned by local craftsmen of various origins, from Ukrainian embroiderers and potters to Polish weavers and Jewish goldsmiths.
Local modernist artists soon became interested in this bizarre combination of tradition and new technology. Oleksandra Exter organised an exhibition in 1908 with the Lanka group in a shop run by merchant Jendřišek (presumably Czech) on Khreschatyk Street, Kyiv. The show, which included her own work alongside paintings by brothers David and Volodymyr Burliuk and several sketches by Oleksandr Bohomazov, sparked a backlash: the press ridiculed the artists and their works’ aesthetics, adding harsh caricatures to their reviews, much like Parisian critics had mocked impressionists in the early 1870s. But such public derision only strengthened the longing of Kyiv artists for a new means of expression. In the following years, their works appeared at the international Izdebskyi Salons (1910-1911) in Odesa, Mykolayiv, Kherson, Kyiv, St. Petersburg and Riga, and they participated in the exhibition project Circle (1914). Only much later, after decades of repression, would this movement be recognized as avant-garde.
What original Ukrainian features did artists, who had a profound understanding of European stylistic innovation from the use in their works, exposed next to the paintings of Gabriele Münter, Henri Matisse, or Henri Rousseau?
David Burliuk and Cossack Mamay folk painting
Born on a Semyrotivschyna Cossack farm (within the Kharkiv Governorate of the Russian Empire), David Burliuk considered himself a descendant of Ukrainian Cossacks. He realised quite early on that folk art possessed an exceptional expressive power for creating an extravagant image. He studied at art schools in Odesa, Munich and Paris, used to introduce himself as ‘a Tatar-Zaporizhian Futurist’, and continuously exploited ideas of the so-called folk paintings he observed in villages on the Ukrainian steppe. From 1908 onwards, David Burliuk named some of his works Cossack Mamay, incorporating stylistics from compositional and coloristic principles developed in the seventeenth century by anonymous artists. In Ukrainians, his Cubist picture from 1912, we see a horse approaching a group of moustached Cossacks in white shirts and sirwals. It is important to note that Burliuk took this stylised image of a horse from Ukrainian naïve art as well.
Oleksandra Exter and Hanna Sobachko-Shostak’s floral designs
Still floral ornamentation had an important role in providing ‘the spiritual reference of the nation’, which the Kyiv artistic community had been concerned to represent. Oleksandra Exter, familiar with Pablo Picasso’s Cubist work, experimented with combining aspects of this oeuvre with those of Italian Futurists. The ideas of folk artist Hanna Sobachko-Shostak, whose vivid compositions burst with dynamism, served Exter in liaison with her creative endeavours. Exter’s circle helped to exhibit Sobachko-Shostak’s compositions in Kyiv (1913) and Berlin (1914). She borrowed the dynamic mix of some elements and rich indigo backgrounds of Sobachko-Shostak’s paintings while working on costume sketches for a bacchic performance of Innokenty Annensky’s tragedy Thamyris the Citharode at the Moscow Chamber Theatre (1916). The outstanding stage designer caught a distant echo of classical antiquity from Archaic Greece in Ukrainian motifs. The polychrome decoration of Ancient Greek sculpture had not yet been discovered; Exter seemed to perceive it intuitively (especially evident in her unconventional use of actors’ makeup), by appropriating the bright and contrasting colours of Ukrainian flower designs.
In 1916 Oleksandra Exter founded a workshop in Kyiv to teach abstract art. Her students Vadym Meller and Anatol Petrytskyi later reinterpreted Ukrainian vertep, the folk puppet theatre with two tiers, providing the basis for a new kind of scenography. Action could take place on several levels, including ramps, ladders and extra portals. Ukrainian theatre directors exploited not only the stairs but also even more sophisticated objects such as spiralling stage design. Petrytskyi and Meller worked at the Molodyi Theatre, founded by Les Kurbas in Kyiv, which developed a new kind of show, encouraging its urban audiences to rethink the humour and suspense of folk Sokyryntsi vertep through modern storytelling. In 1925, Vadym Meller was awarded a gold medal for his set design at the International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts (Art Deco) in Paris.
Kazymir Malevich and Verbivka folk embroidery
The Verbivka artisan cooperative, founded by Nataliia Davydova in the village of the same name (Cherkasy Governorate of the Russian Empire) as part of the Kyiv Folk Centre, manufactured both traditional items and experimental samples. Artists such as Oleksandra Exter, Nina Genke-Meller, Liubov Popova and Kazymir Malevich provided full-colour suprematist drawings that were transformed by local embroiderers into decorative panels or items of women’s clothing and accessories.
Although austere compositions didn’t seem suitable material for domestic objects, Malevich took advantage of such a counterintuitive approach when working at the State Porcelain Factory in Leningrad where he made tableware. Even the basic colours of his pieces – red and black on a white background – were borrowed from the traditional embroidery designs on shirts from Dnieper Ukraine.
Heorhii Narbut and the graphic culture of Ukrainian Baroque printmakers
Heorhii Narbut, who defined himself as ‘Mazepinist from the Chernihiv Regiment, Hlukhiv Squadron, sergeant’s son, painter of emblems and coats of arms’, designed his own family coat of arms in 1912. As a member of the World of Art organization, he designed books in St. Petersburg. In 1917 Narbut moved to Kyiv to work at the newly established Ukrainian Academy of Arts, where he designed the state seal, national emblem, font, postage stamps, banknotes, postcards, charters, military uniforms, labels and packaging. Ancient Cossack cursives, relief compositions of sacred architecture, printing on textiles and etchings taken from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra printing house books served as inspiration for his works. An outstanding stylist, Narbut modernised half-forgotten motifs from previous eras as a reminder that Ukrainian national versions of Baroque, Rococo and Empire styles had been created by anonymous masters of the past.
Oleksandr Bogomazov and the Kyiv cityscape
In his 1914 treatise The Art of Painting and the Elements, Oleksandr Bogomazov analysed the interaction between ‘object’, ‘artist’, ‘picture’ and ‘spectator’. At that point, he had already depicted Kyiv and its suburbs in dozens of paintings, creating images of moving elements such as passers-by, cable cars and trains capable of dynamically modifying the urban landscape. Bogomazov portrayed the city’s oldest quarter stuck in a cleft between tall hills, its apartment blocks as if likely to fly every which way to escape from the alarming sound of cable cars, the blinding light of headlamps and the acute-angled, brisk pace of passing Kyivites. His harsh depiction of movement as a demise of form ended up even too extreme for Cubo-Futurism: Kyiv, a city with a paradoxical biconvex visual perspective, had long been regarded as a provincial place, mostly suitable for strolling.
Volodymyr Tatlin’s air bike above Kyiv
From 1925 to 1928, Volodymyr Tatlin, a colleague of Oleksandr Bogomazov, taught stage design, production design and photography at Kyiv Art Institute. According to his contemporaries, Tatlin studied bird anatomy and flight at home, which was necessary for him to produce the parts for his future air bike. ‘My apparatus could serve as both a piece of art and a useful device. Ukrainian people will be particularly interested in Letatlin which can soar over the fields and woods for hours,’ said Tatlin, who manufactured bandura himself in 1914 to sing Ukrainian Cossack songs in Berlin (for Wilhelm II) and Paris (for Picasso). The 1928 exhibition of Letatlin was very popular with the Kyiv public; a huge banner reading ‘bring art to engineering’ met visitors to the showroom.
Artists who creatively mixed technical progress with elements of folk culture did so until the 1930s, when the Stalinist regime began exterminating them in concentration camps, starving them to death during the Holodomor, and eliminating their work, forcing it into near oblivion.
This text was created specifically for the essay book UKRAINE! UNMUTED, which was published as part of the 5th triennial of contemporary Ukrainian art «Ukrainian Cross-Section» with the same-name UKRAINE! UNMUTED theme. Compiled and edited by Oksana Forostyna.
The project was implemented by the Cultural Strategy Institute together with the NGO “Institute of Contemporary Art” and “Virmenska 35” with the support of the Lviv City Council, ZMIN Foundation, the International Renaissance Fund and Lithuanian partners Kaunas 2022. Ukrainian Cross-Section was launched in 2010 and aims to present a cross-section of Ukrainian contemporary art and culture primarily abroad.