Humanitarian Aid is the series of offline charitable events in Kyiv by Ukrainian magazine Platfor.ma aimed at those whose school lessons on History, Ukrainian Studies, and Art were insufficient. Every week, top humanities experts are invited to share their knowledge of where to search for the roots of Ukrainian art, how the Russian Federation stole our artists’ works and strived to destroy any mention of them, and why Ukrainian culture is not about the past, but about the future. Olga Balashova, an art critic, curator, and head of the NGO Museum of Contemporary Art tells the story.
🇺🇦 Text in Ukrainian is available here 🇺🇦
Story No. 1. About the People of Art
This is a story about the people who created the art history of the 20th century and thanks to whom we are aware of our artistic heritage today. We should remember that museums, which we need to preserve and see our heritage, are crucial, and if we look at the artifacts arising in different parts of Ukraine and tell stories through them, we’ll be able to see the history of Ukraine itself.
Fedir Ernst was one of the people who created this history. He provided a key to understanding what Ukrainian art was in the early 20th century, and defined it as follows: first of all, it is about the works of Ukrainian artists of all nationalities living and working here; secondly, it is about the art of Ukrainian artists for various reasons working beyond Ukraine; thirdly, it is about the art of foreign artists in Ukraine, which we consider important for us. In this sense, as we recognize the artistic value of Banksy’s recent works, they become part of our cultural heritage. And, finally, Ukrainian art is about separate stories related to Ukraine, which could be created not in Ukraine and not by our artists, but in one way or another are tangential to what we call Ukrainian. That’s what Ernst suggested calling “Ukrainika.”
Meanwhile, Olesko and Pidhirtsi Castles are the life work of the prominent man Borys Voznytskyi. Back in Soviet times, he took these already declining buildings away from polytechnic institutes and tuberculosis dispensaries located there and collected funds for their restoration.
Another crucial figure is Liudmyla Miliaeva, who taught all art critics in Kyiv. One of the incredible passions she managed to pass on to them was a passion for searching. Back in the 1960s, together with the art critic Hryhoriy Lohvyn, she went to Mariupol to see her students and find the Byzantine icon “St. George in Life,” the traces of which were lost in the early 20th century. Coming from Cappadocia, the icon stayed in Crimea for a long time, but when Catherine II evicted the Greeks from the place, they took the icon with them to Mariupol and built a new cathedral there.
When the art critics arrived, they failed to find anything for a long time, but then suddenly, while signing documents at a local museum, Hryhoriy saw a small room, in which the cleaning lady kept her belongings. He noticed that the room’s floor was quite strange, reached out his hand, and realized that it had a relief — the very same icon turned out to be part of the floor for years. They took it away, brought to Kyiv, registered, and sent for restoration. Thus, they managed to find and save the icon with a unique polychrome relief, of which only three have survived in the whole world. Hence, everything that museums keep is not just about artifacts, but also about destinies and stories of the people bringing them there and studying them for all their life.
Story No. 2. About an Obsession with Kyiv
Located in one of the richest states (with many resources) of that time [the Middle Ages], the city of Kyiv developed extraordinarily fast. However, it was after the adoption of Christianity in 988 that ideas about what these resources could be invested in emerged.
St. Sophia of Kyiv, which was the second brick temple on the territory of Rus and was erected by architects from Byzantium together with local architects and artists, provides a vivid testimony. Another important artwork in this regard is Oranta, a mosaic image of the Mother of God in St. Sophia. With the image of Saint Mary being 6 meters [19.66 ft] high, the artists required much skill to keep its proportions and, furthermore, create an original golden background for it. For the background to shine and sparkle, it had to be wavy rather than flat, enabling the light to be reflected at different angles. Oranta can hence be called the first artwork of the Kyiv school.
All the princes who came to Kyiv from Chernihiv or Novhorod dreamt of ruling exactly in this city — because of this architectural grandeur in particular.
Story No. 3. About Russia Integrating Ukrainian Heritage into Its Narratives
The Russian Federation is doing horrible things, using art and artistic practice as a tool in its ideological struggles — by appropriating them and completely changing their focus. For example, the exhibition Ilya Repin: Painting the Soul of Russia, which took place in 2021 in Paris, Helsinki, and several other cities, was specifically named so to make Repin, who comes from Ukraine, himself, as well as all the images and contextual things related to Ukraine in his works, model Russian culture.
Another huge exhibition taking place at the Louvre in 2010 — Holy Russia — was an incredible success while involving a huge number of works. Still, should you open the exhibition website, literally the first paragraph talks about the year 988 and the baptism of Rus. That is the way the history of Russian art appropriates the fragments of Ukrainian history that it finds beneficial and distorts them, while, on the other hand, bypassing the complicated ones to avoid showing the uniqueness of those peoples that used to be part of the empire.
What else do Russians do? For example, once the mosaic of the St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral was demonstrated at an exhibition in Moscow, and afterwards, it just wasn’t returned. Hence, in the future, every time it will be demonstrated to the public, it will always be indicated that since the mosaic is kept in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it is part of Russian heritage — and no one can prove the contrary. That is why they strive to take everything from our lands.
Story No. 4. About Ukrainian Baroque
When we talk about Ukrainian art and our identity, this topic cannot at any rate be avoided, for Baroque is the moment of truth, when we become who we really are. This story is also a Christian one, as in general, the history of Europe is the history of Christianity. In our case, this is about Orthodoxy, which was constantly faced with challenges, since Ukraine was constantly “changing hands.” But the people remained the same, and it was important for them to reproduce this tradition and preserve faith as one of the most important identity markers.
And though it is quite difficult to talk about national identity prior the 19th century, we can say that the people living in our territory have always had this need to protect the Orthodoxy and their own tradition. The nature of relationships between the people was largely determined by quite obvious things — climate, landscape, and everyday life. All these factors led to the formation of a certain artistic quality, which in the 17th century manifested itself in what we call Ukrainian, or Cossack, baroque.
Back then, the Cossacks had already become an important part of society that influenced its organization and internal laws. They realized their responsibility for Orthodoxy, which at that time — unlike Catholicism — was extremely traditional and somewhat rigid. The Cossack elite was a military aristocracy who had a good education, spoke many languages, and had ties with European elites of that time. They had a vision of how society and knowledge could develop, and, therefore, wanted to bring it here by influencing the development of Ukrainian religious tradition.
Thus, Ukrainian baroque borrowed its form from the Western tradition. Baroque aimed to react to the Counter-Reformation. Back then, the process was led by the Jesuits, who realized the need to speak to the heart, impress people, and elevate them to the highest emotional state, which led to the development of a new form appealing to these highest feelings. Within the Ukrainian tradition, this feeling is joy, reflected by a peculiar combination of bright colors, golden background, floral ornament, etc.
For example, the icon portraying the Cossack Leontii Svichka, which dates back to the 17th century, seems to reflect all the experience we got from Europe, while at the same time producing a completely different result. The same is true for the Byzantine tradition: while borrowing, we saturated it with our own image peculiarities. The icon mentioned above reflects such a combination as well: the image of Leontii Svichka is as large as those of the saints. The only thing that distinguishes them is that the Cossack is depicted against a real landscape in the background, while the saints — against a sacred gold backdrop, with the spaces being combined in the picture.
Alas, during Soviet times, Ukrainian cultural heritage was being mercilessly destroyed due to its religious background, for instance, the Ascension Church in the village of Berezna in Chernihiv region, which had a seven-tiered iconostasis with more than 100 icons on it. While being an ordinary wooden Cossack church, it was a unique artefact of our culture. Besides, wooden churches were one of the most important contributions to the world’s architecture due to the ability of our craftsmen to particularly develop the wooden construction space in height.
Story No. 5. About the Modern State and Artists’ Role in Its Creation
As a modern project, our state was conceived by Ukrainian intellectuals in the 20th century — that is, it was not just a process of evolution from monarchy to democracy. First of all, they established the Ukrainian Academy of Arts and Sciences and, being inspired by historical samples, developed the state coat of arms and money. For example, Heorhiy Narbut relied on historical artifacts in his own work, while his alphabet turned into a true brand book of our state, with the senses embedded in it being still relevant and crucial for us.
Story No. 6. About Self-Organization
A very important story that we should remember is brotherhoods. In general, Ukrainians’ ability to unite is part of our cultural DNA, which first manifested itself in the 16th and 17th centuries. Examples include the history of Orthodox brotherhoods — for example, the Dormition Orthodox Brotherhood or the Kyiv Brotherhood Monastery, which was the center of political, economic and social life but was destroyed by the Bolsheviks. These were associations of secular people united by a common idea and goal related to the Christian faith and protection of the Orthodox tradition.
But not only brotherhoods reflect the history of self-organization, but also zemstvos (local governments), with the story of the Poltava Zemstvo being an exceptional one. Its building provides a beautiful example of Ukrainian modernism and was developed by Vasyl Krychevskyi, who combined Ukrainian folk architecture, everyday life, and decorative art, used their key ideas and senses, and developed a distinct style. Back then, a competition for the design of Poltava Zemstvo building was announced, but was won by another architect. However, realizing that the project should reflect Ukrainian identity, intellectuals and artists intervened and involved Krychevskyi, who, ultimately, erected the building and created Ukrainian architectural modernism.
Besides, at the end of the 19th century, the Russian Empire announced a decentralization reform, also involving the education reform, which was to be realized by zemstvos. This reform was implemented nowhere but in the Poltava Governorate, thanks to a strong local community and unions involving intellectuals and artists.
Story No. 7. About the Challenges of the Ukrainian Avant-Garde and Ukrainian Soviet Art
The major challenge is that it is quite difficult to impose the Ukrainianness of the avant-garde, although we constantly have to do this to win it back from the Polish and Russian avant-garde. On the other hand, the avant-garde is an absolutely international phenomenon that disregarded nationality. Still, we can definitely say that a peculiar feature of all art that we call Ukrainian is a special attitude to color — we are extremely sensitive to bright colors and their combination. Bogomazov, for example, was a color theorist, and Malevych is similarly credited with Ukrainianness in his works due to his sense of color. The same applies to the works of Boychuk, Palmov, Exter, and Krychevskyi. But why is color so important to us? On the territory of Ukraine, most people used to be tied to agricultural cycles and land. As for the landscape, it has always mainly involved white and black colors with constant climatic changes, which, naturally, affected artists as well.
The same is true of Soviet art, which was part of the monumental propaganda plan, and at a closer look, there was nothing Ukrainian in it. However, when we look at the artists themselves, we can see that they were dissidents in love with Ukrainian culture, like Alla Horska, — that is, in fact, this art was created by dissidents. So when we get to know the story, the works cease to be mere propaganda, but become the reflection of our struggle.
Story No. 8. About the Warship Art and the Need to Pay Attention to It
The main task of an artist is to be a modern person, understand, be interested in, and scan everything happening around, turning this knowledge into certain images. In 1994, the Black Sea Fleet was being divided in Simferopol, and the Ukrainian art critic Oleksandr Solovyov was offered to arrange an exhibition on the warship Slavutych. Though he refused, Marta Kuzma, a Canadian cinematographer of Ukrainian origin, who helped import all modern artistic practices to Ukraine, learned about the opportunity.
She decided to hold an exhibition of modern art on the navy ship and invite the best artists to participate — Arsen Savadov, Georgii Senchenko, Illia Chichkan, etc. Living on the ship for two weeks, as part of the “Alchemic Surrender” art project, they could create anything they wanted. For example, Arsen Savadov for the first time used the image of males — sailors and performers — wearing ballet tutus. This was quite a capitulation to the future, to what is important when you renounce the terrible Soviet past.
Another important work is a Box for Three Letters created by an art community Rapid Response Team. Ukrainization, taking place back then, was sometimes resisted by the society. The Rapid Response Team made a performance — its artists took three letters that differ in the Ukrainian and Russian alphabets, put them in a box, and presented them against the background of a yellow-blue sign.
Paradoxically, this rejection of militarism and self-defense leads to the same attitude towards language and culture. In this sense, the work of the Masoch Fund artists, who weren’t invited to the exhibition, was extremely prophetic. They made leaflets to hand them out to festival-goers — in them, they warned that the threat is still here and that we were simply surrendering our positions and celebrating a future that we might simply have not. However, the warning was ignored.
Story No. 9. About the Image that Shevchenko Left Us
Taras liked to dress up and try on different masks — we, therefore, don’t know him very well and mostly deal with myths. Since he is a figure that couldn’t be simply taken and removed from our consciousness, it was constantly being filled, like an empty form, with different senses. For example, in Soviet times, we could see Shevchenko as a revolutionary angrily attacking his enemies and leading his people. And though in the 1960s artists didn’t define themselves as dissidents and didn’t oppose the system, the latter pushed them out and turned them into dissidents.
Take the story of the stained glass Shevchenko. Mother, which Ukrainian artists created for his 150th anniversary at the Kyiv National University. Back then, the stained glass, which was already supposed to be presented to the public, was destroyed, for, allegedly, Shevchenko was depicted on it behind bars, Kateryna looked like Saint Mary, and the whole composition echoed the Byzantine art.
When we celebrated Shevchenko’s 200th anniversary, he became noticeably younger — a naive romantic young man, depicted so on the banknote. During the Maidan, his image was constantly updated, with Shevchenko appearing in a bunch of memes and images that do not have much artistic quality, but still present him as part of our culture.
In 2017, illustrator Oleksandr Grekhov created a series of works called Shevchenko’s Quantum Leap. Back then, young people, who used to feel themselves part of a completely different reality, started to perceive Taras as its part, exactly through these images — for instance, Darth Vader or Captain Jack Sparrow. A recent tie to Shevchenko was established on the day when our soldiers entered Balaklia. Back then, a video was shoot, showing the Russian flag being torn from a billboard and Shevchenko’s image with his poem’s lines emerging behind. It was kind of a meeting with the prophet, when we finally realized his messages and the worth of his words.
Story No. 10. Ukrainian Culture is not about the Past, but about the Future
Ukrainian culture is about the future, for we still know very little about it — there are many discoveries about our past that are awaiting us. Every piece of our land is an archaeological treasure. And archeology is, in fact, not about the past, but about the future, as artifacts remain hidden underground for a long time, and they begin to influence us only when they are unearthed.
But treasures are also hidden in museum archives. In 2019, a sensational icon exhibition Revelation. Masterpieces of the Kyiv Brotherhood Monastery was arranged. Prior that, due to the lack of material evidence, it was believed that we had no icons of the Kyiv school of the 17th century. However, Halyna Belikova, keeper of the ancient art collection at the National Art Museum, managed to find these icons in the museum’s own collection.
The same goes for baroque music — Musica Sacra Ukraina, performed by Open Opera Ukraine. Such singing was performed in baroque environments and churches, but for several centuries the notes were kept in the archives of the National Art Museum and Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. We also needed people who could read, play, and sing them. That’s what culture is about — about having people who know what to do with the notes that have been kept in archives for hundreds of years and have now become part of our culture. And we are to have many such discoveries in the future.