Katie Tobin

Konstantin Akinsha and Katia Denysova on Modernism in Ukraine

In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900–1930s at the Royal Academy, 29 June – 13 October 2024.

I’d be interested in hearing about the broader significance of the modernist movement in Ukraine – particularly given the historical backdrop of the time. How does this context inform the artists’ practice?

Katia Denysova: At the turn of the 20th century, Ukrainian lands were divided between two empires – the Russian and the Austro-Hungarian. The modernist movement in Ukraine, therefore, pursued a twofold agenda of recovering and creatively reconstituting national pictorial traditions to assert Ukraine’s cultural autonomy within the imperial context while also seeking to integrate local practices into the modernist idiom. While engaging in a degree of retrospectivism, Ukraine’s artists were nevertheless part of an international artistic community, attuned to the latest developments and trends across the European continent.

Alexandra Exter, Composition (Genova), 1912. Oil on canvas, 115.5 x 86.5 cm. Alex Lachmann Collection.

What kind of unique characteristics or styles emerged in Ukraine around this time, and how did they reflect ideas of cultural identity during this period?

Konstantin Akinsha: Since the early decades of the 20th century, Ukrainian artists endeavoured to establish a distinct national art style, drawing inspiration from the abundant heritage of Ukrainian folk art. The influential art group known as the Boichukists also delved into the legacy of Byzantine art, particularly medieval mosaics and frescoes. It is noteworthy that even Vasyl Yermilov, a pioneering figure in Ukrainian constructivism, integrated Ukrainian ornamentation into his compositions. This emphasis on the tradition of national art characterizes Ukrainian art during this period.

I was wondering if you could highlight some of the pieces you feel best capture the spirit of Ukrainian modernism and its evolution?

KA: In the early Cubo-Futurist period, it’s crucial to examine the works of Alexandra Exter and Oleksandr Bohomazov. Representing the Ukrainian version of constructivism in the exhibition is the self-portrait of Vasyl Yermilov, one of the artist’s most significant works. Diary Maid, a painting by Mykhailo Boichuk, stands as one of the few surviving examples of his oeuvre, showcasing stylistic traits of Neo-Byzantinism and the influence of medieval fresco painting. Among the theatre designs, perfect examples include costume sketches by Anatol Petrytskyi. Notable in the late 1920s, during a period of return to figurative painting, is the masterpiece Sharpening the Saws by Oleksandr Bohomazov.

The exhibition features works from well-known artists like Kazymyr Malevych and Sonia Delaunay, as well as lesser-known figures. How does the inclusion of these lesser-known artists contribute to our understanding of Ukrainian modern art?

KD: It was important for us to explore the local Ukrainian context in the oeuvre of some of the well-known pioneers of modernism, such as Alexander Archipenko, Sonia Delaunay and Kazymyr Malevych. At the same time, we wanted to highlight their links with artists who continued their artistic careers in Ukraine and are, therefore, not as familiar to British and European audiences. By displaying the works of these lesser-known figures, the exhibition showcases the wealth and variety of artistic practices that originated in Ukraine while placing them within the broader trajectory of European modernism.

Davyd Burliuk, Carousel, 1921. Oil on canvas, 33 x 45.5 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine © The Burliuk Foundation.

Collaboration and exchange were significant aspects of the modernist movement. How did Ukrainian artists engage with their counterparts internationally, and what impact did this exchange have on their work?

KD: Due to the cultural colonialism of the empires that controlled the Ukrainian lands in the 19th and early 20th centuries no Ukrainian city was allowed to have its own art academy. This compelled aspiring artists from Ukraine to move elsewhere to complete their studies and increasingly they went to European artistic capitals, such as Vienna, Munich and Paris. Alexandra Exter, for example, spent a lot of time in Paris, while Davyd Burliuk exhibited together with the Der Blaue Reiter group in Munich; Mykhailo Boichuk, meanwhile, studied in Vienna, Kraków, Munich and Paris, where his art was noticed and admired by Guillaume Apollinaire. This allowed artists from Ukraine to develop their practice in dialogue with international counterparts and become well-versed in all of the latest trends, while also infusing their art with elements derived from local folk and decorative traditions.

Theatre design plays a significant role in the exhibition. Could you talk about the intersection between visual art and theatre during this period in Ukraine, and how it influenced artistic expression?

KD: In the 1910s, Ukraine experienced a real boom in theatre productions, conditioned by the changed socio-political situation following the revolutions of 1917 and the attainment of statehood with the proclamation of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic. After decades of prohibition, Ukrainians were finally allowed to stage plays in their own language, which prompted experimentation with both the repertoire and formal characteristics of scenography. All the artists presented in the exhibition’s theatre section – Alexandra Exter, Vadym Meller, Anatol Petrytskyi, and Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov – worked in theatre alongside other mediums. This confluence proved enriching for their artistic practices and the quality of theatre productions staged in Ukraine; we can explore how they translated some of the latest trends, such as Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism into costume and stage designs.

Considering the political and social context of the time, how did Ukrainian modernist artists navigate themes of nationalism, identity, and the search for cultural autonomy in their work?

KA: The Ukrainian school of modernism, akin to many other national schools in Central and Eastern Europe, showcases a creative tension between radical artistic forms and the pursuit of a distinct national art style. This blend of cultural retrospection and daring artistic experimentation, fusing the international visual language of avant-garde art trends with distinctive national themes, characterizes Ukrainian art of the period. It reflects the quest for national identity articulated through contemporary artistic expression.

Tymofii Boichuk, Women under the Apple Tree, 1920. Tempera on cardboard, 54 x 40 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine.

Many of the works on display are on loan from institutions in Ukraine. Can you discuss the significance of bringing these pieces to a UK audience and the impact it may have on cross-cultural dialogue and understanding?

KA: The significant presence of artworks from Ukrainian museum collections in the exhibition holds profound importance. Amidst the backdrop of Russian aggression against Ukraine and relentless bombardments, the task of safely transporting these masterpieces out of the country was no small feat. On the one hand, these works found refuge within the secure halls of European museums. On the other hand, they assumed the role of cultural ambassadors for a nation grappling with Russian invasion. Ukrainian art remains relatively unfamiliar in the UK, making our exhibition a pioneering effort to acquaint the British public with the rich legacy of Ukrainian modernism. Due to Ukraine’s tumultuous 20th-century history — marked by revolutions, wars, and Stalinist repressions — much of its art was either destroyed or concealed in secret repositories, remaining unknown in the West until the fall of the Soviet Union. Today, we aim to reintroduce it into the narrative of European modernism, thereby illuminating a vital yet overlooked chapter in art history.

KD: We envision this project as part of Ukraine’s efforts in cultural diplomacy, seeking to familiarise international audiences not only with the country’s rich modernist artistic output but also its complicated history, including the centuries-long struggle against Russian aggression and imperialist pretensions. We also want to share the beauty and wealth of Ukraine’s cultural heritage, for the preservation of which Ukrainians have been fighting so defiantly for the last two and a half years.

Konstantin Akinsha is an independent art historian, curator and journalist. He received the George Polk award for cultural reporting in 1991. Akinsha’s curatorial projects include ‘Russian Modernism: Cross-Currents of German and Russian Art, 1907–1917’ (Neue Galerie, New York, 2015), ‘Permanent Revolution: Ukrainian Art Today’ (Ludwig Museum, Budapest, 2018) and ‘Between Fire and Fire: Ukrainian Art Now’ (Semperdepot, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna, 2019). He is the founding director of the Avant-Garde Art Research Project (UK) and the author of several books, including Beautiful Loot: The Soviet Plunder of Europe’s Art Treasures (1995).
Katia Denysova is a PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. Her research investigates the influence of socio-political factors on early 20th-century art in Ukraine. She has contributed to the H-SHERA, ArtHist and Dash Arts podcast series, and the journals Arts, Art and the Public Sphere and immediations.

Image credit: Alexandra Exter, Three Female Figures, 1909-10. Oil on canvas, 63 x 60 cm. National Art Museum of Ukraine.

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