Some of modern art's great innovators, including Kazimir Malevich, Alexander Archipenko and Alexander Rodchenko, are usually described as Russian artists. But these painters and sculptors were actually born or raised in Ukraine, and thought of themselves as Ukrainian. Their mislabeling is a lingering result of decades of Soviet repression of Ukrainian culture. Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930, on view at The Ukrainian Museum in New York City, is one attempt to correct the record.
When you think of Ukrainian art, works of folk religious art may come to mind: naïve paintings and rough-hewn sculptures of Christian saints and angels, of Christ and the Madonna. A roomful of such works, many of them from the private collection of Ukrainian president Viktor Yushenko, is one of two exhibits now on display at The Ukrainian Museum in New York.
The Museum’s other current exhibit, of Ukrainian modernist art from 1910-1930, is at first glance, radically different. But as museum director Maria Shust says, a closer look shows the imprint of Ukrainian folk art on the modernists.
"You can see how that [folk] work influenced this,” she said in a recent interview. “The strong sense of colors, the flatness of the surfaces, but also the deepness of the spirituality."
The show recovers the overlooked Ukrainian heritage of some modernist masters, including Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of abstract painting. He’s represented by two works in the show. Shust said that Malevich was the one of the first painters to use geometric shapes alone in his work – shapes that aren’t meant to represent particular objects in the natural world.
Those images may have been partly inspired, she said, by the geometric abstractions of Ukrainian folk embroidery, and by the simple shapes of village life: a church cross, white-washed houses, the square black opening of a stove.
Like Malevich, Alexandra Exter, Alexander Archipenko and other Ukrainian-born or bred artists are often lumped in with Russian artists of the time. Yet they were born or raised in Ukraine, where early in the 20th century, Kyiv, Kharkiv and other cities were centers of innovation in painting, theater, sculpture and other arts. Ukrainian artists were at the forefront of international modernist art movements such as Cubism and Futurism.
That ended with Stalin. In the 1930s, Ukrainian nationalism and language were forbidden. Only "heroic realism," propagandistic art in service to the Soviet state, was permitted. All else, including abstract art, was considered decadent, subversive.
"Most of the intelligentsia during this period was eliminated,” Shust said. “They were sent to gulags, they were executed. Others were stopped. Others were just forced to change the way they created."
Some artists fled to Paris and other cities in the West. The Soviet government confiscated 2,000 modernist works in Ukraine. Only about 300 survive today. Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910-1930, features more than 70 such works, including many not previously seen outside Ukraine. It opened last year at the Chicago Cultural Center and is on view in New York at The Ukrainian Museum until April 29.