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National Art Museum of Ukraine
Culture tourists, when they come to Paris, always pay a visit to the Louvre; when they come to St Petersburg, it’s a must to go to the Hermitage Museum; and when they come to Vienna, they are sure to go to see Die Gemaldegalerie. Kyiv does not have a museum of comparable fame or size, but it does have a museum which pictorially reflects the history of art in Ukraine. It is the National Museum of Art which celebrated its one-hundredth anniversary in 2004.
Oles PASICHNY, WU journalist, presents a brief history of the museum.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, when the revival of the Ukrainian national movement commenced, the Ukrainian intelligentsia began making moves to have a national art museum established. But the then Russian Imperial authorities invariably gave one and the same answer to their requests — “At present, we see no need to have such a museum established.”
But the Ukrainian cultural elite persisted and in 1897, the Society of Antiquities and Art, headed by Bohdan Khanenko (1848– 1917; a wealthy industrialist and patron of art), started work in earnest, collecting money, working out the museum charter and actively acquiring art works. The Kyiv Duma (City Hall) provided a plot of land opposite the Tsarsky Sad (a big park) for the construction of the museum. A contest for the best design was held and it was won by the architect P. Boytsov from Moscow; the actual construction was supervised by the best known and arguably most talented architect in Kyiv, Vladyslav Horodetsky (1863–1930).
In August 1899, the first exhibition was held in the newly built museum, which at that time was called the Museum of Antiquities and Art. The public opinion was favourable; the local press praised the imposing design — the majestic facade with the classical-style pediment and columns, wide staircase leading to the front door, stone lions on both sides of the stairway. People came to see not only art shown in the museum but to look at the building, which immediately acquired the status of an architectural landmark. The sculptural group, Triumph of Art on the pediment, was particularly admired.
During the early years of its existence, the museum was financed by private donations. The museum curator, Mykola Bilyashivsky, did a lot to make the museum a prominent cultural centre. The official opening of the museum took place in 1904 and the museum acquired a new name — The Kyiv Art, Industrial and Scientific Museum Named after His Imperial Majesty Nicholas II. At the opening ceremony, Bohdan Khanenko made a speech in which he delineated the major directions in the work of the museum — searching for art works, their collection, their preservation and popularisation of the cultural heritage of Ukraine. These directions in the work of the museum have changed but little since then. The Ukrainian culture enthusiasts Danylo Shcherbakivsky and Vikenty Khvoyka, archaeologists and ethnographers by occupation, involved scholars, teachers and students in the work of the museum and it did become a major cultural centre. In addition to permanent and temporary exhibitions, lectures and conferences were held in the museum.
The first exhibitions showed works of decorative and applied arts; they were followed by exhibitions of paintings. Among the artists exhibited, there were such prominent figures as P. Levchenko, M. Pymonenko and M. Vrubel. In 1901, a big exhibition of the works by the artists from the Myr Iskustva (World of Art) Group, the first exhibition of Ukrainian art and an exhibition to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Shevchenko’s death were held. Thanks to the museum, Ukrainian art was becoming much better known and the number of Ukrainians culture supporters and enthusiasts grew.
One of such enthusiasts, Danylo Shcherbakivsky, regularly went on ethnographic expeditions to the Ukrainian Lands of Kyivshchyna, Podillya, Volyn and Slobozhanshchyna looking for works of Ukrainian fine and folk art — icons, paintings, wood carvings, sculpture, ceramics and embroideries. During the First World War, Shcherbakivsky, who served in the army at the Halychyna Front in the Western Ukraine, never missed an opportunity to look for works of art. The collection of icons from Halychyna of the fifteenth-eighteenth centuries that he brought from Western Ukraine after the war remains to be one of the biggest of its kind in Ukraine.
The Kyiv Art, Industrial and Scientific Museum encouraged scholars to write popular and scholarly papers about various aspects of Ukrainian culture represented in the museum. But the years of WWI, of the revolution and civil war that followed disrupted the cultural life. The governments of Ukraine during its short-lived independence took steps to preserve the cultural heritage. It was not a simple task. Museums and their collections, private collections, and valuable icons had to be protected from physical destruction and looting. Some of the art works were taken abroad for safe keeping. The Kyiv Art, Industrial and Scientific Museum was the place to which priests brought precious icons from their churches fearing their destruction by the “revolutionary and atheistic masses.”
When Ukraine was forcibly made a soviet republic, the attitude to the Ukrainian culture and ancient art drastically changed. The museum curator Mykola Bilyashivsky, whose sustained efforts contributed so much to making the museum a centre of Ukrainian culture, was replaced by A. Vinnytsky, a person of little culture and poor education who waged war against “bourgeois nationalist” (in the soviet newspeak it meant “Ukrainian”) art. In 1927, Danylo Shcherbakovsky, another prominent figure associated with the museum who could not resign himself to the soviet power which was hostile to culture in general and to Ukrainian culture in particular, committed suicide. In the nineteen-thirties a great number of Ukrainian intellectuals, writers and scholars were arrested and physically destroyed in concentration camps.
When Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, a part of the collection was evacuated to the city of Ufa in the east of Russia. The Nazis took many art works to Germany. It took a lot of effort to bring together all those art works that had survived the war and to restore the damage. In the nineteen-sixties the restoration of the museum was completed and in the seventies, the museum, which came to be called The State Museum of Ukrainian Art, became one of the major tourist attractions in Kyiv. The museum kept holding exhibitions which generated a lot of interest — paintings from the private collection of Armand Hummer, US billionaire; Tutankhamen gold decorations; French tapestries of the 16th–20th centuries, art and gold from Pre-Columbian America, and others along the same lines.
Art museum after independence
In 1994, the museum was given still another name and it became The National Art Museum of Ukraine. In 1999, the one-hundredth anniversary of the first exhibition held at the museum was celebrated, and in 2004, another celebration marked the hundred years since the official opening of the museum. In 2001, the National Art Museum of Ukraine Development Fund was set up by patrons of art.
The museum’s collections now include 37,000 items — icons, paintings, drawings, and sculpture from the medieval times down to our days. The oldest item is the twelfth-century icon of St George with Scenes from His Life. This icon is one of the very few that were preserved since before the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century.
After the invasion, the cultural and political centre of Ukraine shifted from Kyiv to the Halytsko-Volynsky Principality where the Ukrainian features in icon painting became more pronounced. The Byzantine heritage in icon painting gradually acquired obvious Ukrainian features. The imagery, the colour schemes and general treatment changed considerably moving towards greater lyricism and darker colours.
In the late sixteenth century, the cultural centre of Ukraine moved back to the east. The National Art Museum of Ukraine possesses a rich collection of Ukrainian Baroque art. The principles of Baroque art went in Ukraine through a transformation too but its bright colour, lavishness and richness of forms and shapes, metaphorical symbolism and other features fit the Ukrainian mentality of those times. Paradoxically, Baroque art in Ukraine, in contrast to Western Europe, developed not as an artistic support of the Counterreformation but as a way of fighting the spread of Catholicism.
The icon painting in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to acquire features borrowed from secular art. The traditional saints, martyrs and prominent Christian figures in the icons of those times began to look more like flesh-and-blood characters from life rather than like ascetic representations in line with the established older cannons.
The portrait was a new feature in the Ukrainian art of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The National Art Museum held a large exhibition of Ukrainian portraits of those times within the framework of marking the museum’s hundredth anniversary. The portraits reflect the changing attitudes in the Ukrainian society and new social realities. The portraits of prominent Cossack leaders and wealthy persons who commissioned the portraits, show these people with their attributes of power (mace, orb, and others), and at the same time they are emotionally restrained as in most cases they were to be hung in private chapels in churches. There are still echoes of icon painting in these portraits.
Folk paintings are also well represented in the museum collections. One of the most popular subjects was Kozak Mamay. Its simple and easily understood symbolism accounted for the popularity of Kozak Mamay representations.
The hopes and aspirations that emerged in the seventeenth-century war of independence were dashed in the eighteenth century when the last vestiges of Ukraine’s independence were removed and Ukraine became a part of the vast Russian Empire. Philosophers, scholars, musicians, writers and poets moved in considerable numbers from Ukraine to Russia where they were Russianized and contributed to the development of Russian culture bringing in new ideas and new themes. Among the most prominent Ukrainian painters who lived and worked in Russia in the eighteenth century were brothers Borovykovsky and Dmytro Levytsky whose works are to be found in the museum’s collections. At the same time, Russian painters (V. Tropinin; K. Trutovsky, L. Zhemchuzhnikov and others) began to be coming to work in Ukraine, giving the Ukrainian painting new directions. The subjects of their paintings were Ukrainian people, the Ukrainian countryside and nature.
The museum possesses several etchings created by Taras Shevchenko, the poet, painter and pivotal figure of the nineteenth-century Ukrainian culture, from the series known as Picturesque Ukraine.
The end of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century saw an upsurge of interest in Ukrainian culture and flourishing of Ukrainian painting. Such painters as Serhiy Vasylkivsky and Oleksandr Murashko introduced new subjects, new approaches, new visions and new techniques to keep abreast with the latest developments in European painting of those times.
In the late nineteen-tens and nineteen-twenties avant-garde art rapidly developed in Ukrainian painting with such artists as Oleksandra Ekster, Davyd Burlyuk, Kazymir Malevych, Oleksandr Bohomazov, Oleksandr Arkhypenko (in sculpture) and others making their artistic breakthroughs and expanding the boundaries of art. Totally new principles of what art of painting should be were developed and the final rapture with traditions occurred. The work of these Ukrainian artists had an impact on the avant-garde art in Europe and America, and the National Art Museum is a proud owner of many works by the most prominent Ukrainian avant-garde artists.
Heorhy Narbut, a graphic artist of versatile talent, deserves a special mention as a very prominent original figure of Ukrainian art of the first half of the twentieth century. The museum’s collection of his art can be considered quite representational.
The soviet period in the development of Ukrainian art was marked by an almost total suppression of traditional Ukrainian features; ethnic elements were eliminated and replaced by “socialist realism” universal for all soviet art. In spite of the fact that Ukrainian art was subjected to the harshest repression, it survived, and even in the darkest soviet times some artists (Tetyana Yablonska, Serhiy Shyshka, Mykola Hlushkov, Mykhailo Derehus, Heorhy Narbut) managed to create works of high artistic merit worthy to be shown in the museum. Their art reflects the dramatic destiny of talented artists in a totalitarian society.
The transition period, which followed after Ukraine had regained her independence, produced a number of artists who, though they had formed as artists in the soviet totalitarian society, left behind the dogma imposed on them and moved on to create new art of the globalization era. Oleh Holosy, Pavlo Makov and Oleh Sukholiy are such artists and their works can be found in the museum’s collections.
The new generations of artists have started to come onto the art scene and the museum will surely continue to acquire the best of their works.
Photos have been provided by the National Art Museum of Ukraine
National Art Museum of Ukraine
is open daily, except Monday, from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.
Tel./fax: 380 (44) 278-7454
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Spring in Ukraine by S. Vasylkivsky.
Portrait of Yelizaveta Daragan by M. Bryansky.
Cossack the bandura-player by an anonymous folk artist.
Portrait of Colonel Hryhory Gamaliya
Cossacks in the steppe by S. Vasylkivsky.
The cover of the magazine Nashe
A guest from Zaporizhzhya by F. Krasytsky.
Gilt Silver Chalice by I. Ravych.
The intercession with the portrait
Great martyrs Anastasia and Yuliana.
Harvester by M. Pymonenko.
Still life by I. Padalka.