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Ukrainian painter Karlo Zvirynsky — the last of the Mohicans


He was a painter whose art and whose name are very much revered in the artistic circles of Lviv. His uncompromising stand during the harshest times of the Soviet era is a source of a particular respect and admiration.


Karlo Zvirynsky was born in the village of Lavriv, in the land of Halychyna in 1923. For the Halychans of the first half of the twentieth century, their world outlook and culture were formed by the Greek Catholic faith and Ukrainian national traditions (Western Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union in the fall of 1939). For centuries, the political situation in Western Ukraine was such that the only place where the ethnic Ukrainians felt at home was their faith and their families. The Church and the family were the oases where the Halychyna Ukrainians could speak their native language and uphold their national traditions without being humiliated by the “more prestigious” Polish, German or Russian milieu, and without feeling to be “second-class citizens.”

Young Karlo was a lover of books and a voracious reader, and an access to the library of nearby monastery was a great boon to him he was sincerely grateful for. “Books have formed my personality to a greater extent than the circumstances of my life did. I looked at life through the prism of books, and it was both a blessing and a curse,” recalled the painter later.

Karlo’s obvious talent for drawing and painting was revealed early enough, but had he stayed in the village, he would have made hardly more than an icon painter. Destiny ruled different — he moved to Lviv, the biggest and most important cultural centre of Western Ukraine, where he was admitted to a decorative and applied art college. It was in Lviv that Karlo met the Selski couple, Roman and Margit, both painters. “Probably, in the life of every person there are people meeting whom influences the whole course of later life. Without them, things would have developed in quite a different way. These people help us see what we have not seen before,” recalled Karlo Zvirynsky years later. “Roman Selski looked like a character from a painting by El Greco. The artists and intellectuals who regularly gathered at his apartment talked about modern art practised in the west, which the Soviets condemned as ‘decadent.’ Guests explained the latest trends in art, described exhibitions of modern art held in London, Paris and New York. It was exhilarating.”

Margit had studied in the Krakow Art Academy, in the Vienna Art Academy and later in the Academie Moderne of Fernand Leger (1881–1955; French painter, one of the founders of the Cubist movement, who developed a personal style that used rounded and cylindrical forms) in Paris. Roman Selski had studied at the Krakow Art Academy and later in Paris. The artistic couple and their friends were Bohemians in the sense which this word acquired in descriptions of the Paris art life of the 1910s and of the 1920s. The Soviet occupation greatly hampered — or even put an end to — the free movement of people and information across borders, and it was thanks to the Selskis, that the young student and budding artist was exposed to the latest trends in the European art. He was fascinated with Cezanne, but at that time, with Lviv having become part of Soviet Ukraine, Cezanne and “bourgeois art in general” was frowned upon. When Zvirynsky publicly said that “One apple in a painting by Cezanne is worth more that the entire art of Socialist Realism,” the repercussions were not slow to follow — he was expelled from college. The year was 1949.


By that time, the city of Lviv and Western Ukraine in general had been almost totally adapted to the ways of the Soviet regime. The repressions had peaked in 1939, 1941 and 1946 when entire villages were deported to Siberia and untold number of people were shot by firing squads. By early 1950s, the resistance to the Soviet regime that still smouldered in the mountain forests, died down. The monument to Lenin was erected in front of the Lviv Opera House, but the monument to Stalin never disgraced Lviv — the dictator died in 1954, and the people of Lviv rejoiced — not openly, of course. On the surface, there were all signs of Western Ukraine becoming an integral part of the Soviet Union and of the Soviet style of life — the empty Soviet slogans, communist party meetings and rallies, the drabness and dullness of life. The population of Western Ukraine had lived under different empires and regimes since the 18th century and was accustomed to having to adapt to each new one. Even the new “official” languages seemed to be taken in stride. But under the thin veneer of conformism, which was forced upon the people, the life of those who had not been imprisoned or exiled, went on almost the way it did in the previous times, and, what is of particular importance, this conformism did nothing to change the general negative attitude to the Soviet regime. The life of so many people in Western Ukraine, intellectuals and artists in particular, was divided into ‘the official line” and “private line,” and these lines did not cross.

In contrast to the rest of the Soviet Union where the Soviet power had been established in the late 1910s, and where the new generations learned facts of history doctored by Soviet historians, the people of Lviv still remembered “how it was for real.” In many of the apartments even the furniture was a good reminder of “the good old times.” The people who lived in those apartments had studied in Poland, Germany, Austria and Paris (something that was completely denied to the people in the east of the country). There were direct cultural links with Europe; most of the people could talk and read Polish; many spoke German and French. The Iron Curtain had holes, through which all kinds of information leaked from the western world. Very many people had relatives abroad and letters “from there” brought news and ideas. The foreign radio broadcasts were avidly listened to and discussed. “Literary and artistic salons” which were held in the privacy of the homes of “former” aristocrats, artists and intellectuals were the centres of “quiet opposition” to the Soviet regime. Only trusted people were admitted into the artistic and intellectual circles — the omnipresent KGB secret police was vigilant and every precaution was to be taken to prevent KGB infiltration.


In the late 1950s and early 1960s there appeared the first signs of the intellectual and cultural “thaw.” In 1959, the USA National Exhibition, which was held in Moscow, was attended by thousands upon thousands of people who had a chance of not only trying coca-cola in cans, but looking at the art of J. Pollock, M. Rothko, A. Albright, Y. Tanguy, A. Colder, W. de Cooning and other abstract and surrealist painters. It was a culture shock and many artists began to drift away from the rigid concepts of sterile Socialist Realism. The then Soviet premier and party boss Nikita Khrushchev summed up the Soviet attitude to art which was different from the one allowed in the Soviet Union: “When you look at those paintings, you can’t understand where there is a face and where an ass.” The first exhibition of dissident art held in Moscow was bulldozed.

Karlo Zvirynsky was influenced by the abstract impressionism of Jackson Pollock. His “Reliefs” are a sort of tribute to this influence. Instead of copious use of paints, the way Pollock did it, Zvirynsky used the materials which were not too hard to come by even in the Soviet Union where everything seemed to be lacking. The artists used pieces of wood, fabrics, plaster, cords — the materials to be easily found in everyday life. Paradoxically, the artistic search of the poor artist from Lviv coincided with the contemporaneous searching trends in western art. It is another proof of the proposition that the free development of ideas is not determined by political doctrines — it is the Zeitgeist that causes them to appear.

It was this Zeitgeist that prompted Zvirynsky to develop his style of painting. His was a way to work independently of the prevailing ideology. He had absolutely no wish to be an obedient servant of the regime and created his own world, into which the Sovietism had no entrance. His world of Now and Forever lay somewhere between music and literature, and meditation, serenity and intellectual concentration were both the guiding motif and the very sense of his work (writings of St Augustine were among his favourites, and, in a certain sense, the artist may have derived artistic inspiration from them). The banality of everyday life disappeared in the shimmering light of his mystical and metaphysical canvases. Zvirynsky’s art seeks harmony along the ways different from those of Nature and the world around us, the passions and dramas he depicts cannot be retold in words.

Painting was always a sort of “an ivory tower,” into which he escaped from the pressures of the Soviet regime. But he was not alone there — he always had like-minded people for his friends and disciples. When he worked as a teacher at the Lviv Institute of Decorative and Applied Art, he let those of his students who, in addition to being talented, shared his views, become members of his circle — his “clandestine academy.” The very fact that he did his best to acquaint them with the latest trends and developments as well as with the classical achievements of world art, music, literature, philosophy and religion — subjects, in many respects drastically curtailed or twisted to suit the official ideology, was a challenge, an act of civil disobedience. His was a sort of spiritual schooling, not just teaching art. Thanks to Zvirynsky’s efforts, a number of Ukrainian painters of the second half of the twentieth century possessed a high level of culture, in addition to their talents.


Karlo Zvirynsky had been painting for many years without any hope of having his art exhibited. He earned his living by teaching and by painting icons for the churches of Lviv and of the land of Lvivshchyna, and for the Ukrainian diaspora. His first one-man exhibition was held in 1995, only two years before his death. His first exhibition came to Kyiv as recently as 2002. It came to the capital so late not only because the painter himself had worked “clandestinely” for years, but also probably because the culture of Western Ukraine, which had stood in opposition to the official Soviet line, had tended to be isolated from the official culture — and thus even from those who potentially would be interested in it — for a long period of time. The exhibition made a splash — it was a discovery and realization that art of great significance was created not only in the capital. Zvirynsky’s art linked the Ukrainian avant-garde of the 1920s with the art of today, and showed that Ukrainian art of the second half of the twentieth century was an integral part of the world’s creative process rather than just imitation and plagiarism.


Natalya Kosmolinska introduces the Welcome to Ukraine
readers to the art and personality of Karlo Zvirynsky,
an avant-garde painter from Lviv.

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