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Kyiv through Shevchenko’s eyes — Taras Shevchenko, the great poet, was also an excellent artist
Mykola SHUDRYA, a writer and Shevchenko Prize laureate, takes his own very personal look at the artistic legacy of Taras Shevchenko, a pivotal figure in Ukrainian culture.
Taras Shevchenko was an accomplished painter in addition to being an eminent wordsmith. He sang his native land in his poetry and art, he expressed his love for his land and its scenic beauty and its people in images created by words and by pencil or brush. The city of Kyiv which he called “our Kyiv, holy and great” occupies a particularly conspicuous place in his poetic and artistic legacy.
For the first time in his life he came to Kyiv, the capital city of Ukraine, with his mother when he was still a child. It was a pilgrimage to the religious centre of Ukraine with its many churches and monasteries, many of which had domes covered in shining gold leaf. The boy must have been impressed with what he saw, but a much greater impression Kyiv, with its scenic cityscapes, majestic churches and other inspiring landmarks, made upon Shevchenko when he came on a visit in later years as a young man but still a serf, a chattel in possession of a land owner.
Then Fate and Shevchenko’s talent combined to manumit him from slavery. He even became a student of the Art Academy in St Petersburg. On his first visit to Ukraine as a free man, he went to Kyiv. Probably, he wrote some poems about his impressions but none has survived from that visit. But we have a number of his drawings, sepia and water colours from his visit to Kyiv in 1843. These pictures reflect Shevchenko’s fascination with churches and cityscapes of Kyiv. Among them we find panoramic views of the hills, on which the Pecherska Lavra Monastery sits, views of the Monastery itself, of the Vydubetsky and Mezhyhirsky Monasteries, of the ruins of the Golden Gate of Kyiv, of the Tomb of Ascold, and other landmarks.
Some of the extant pictures date to 1844 and 1846. Among them we have not only pencil drawings, sepias and water colours but also etchings. In 1846, Shevchenko spent some time in Sedniv, several dozens kilometres away from Kyiv, in archaeological expeditions to that place, and on his return to Kyiv and before his next archaeological expedition, he devoted the summer of that year to drawing and painting sights of Kyiv.
Unfortunately, many of Shevchenko’s pictures with views of Kyiv have been irrevocably lost. It is known that at least one folder that contained many such pictures was taken away from Shevchenko by police at the time of his arrest in Kyiv (he was arrested for being a member of a nationalist organization).
A friend of Shevchenko’s, O. Chuzhbynsky, later said that he had accompanied Shevchenko on his strolls around Kyiv and over the hills that overlook the Dnipro River. According to Chuzhbynsky, Shevchenko liked to draw picturesque sights in the side streets of Kyiv suburbs, the interiors of churches and landscapes in the environs of Kyiv.
Shevchenko must have been spiritually inspired by the beauty of nature and grandeur of architectural landmarks, but he also drew and painted portraits of people from different walks of life. One of such remarkable portraits is that of Panko Kulish, a writer. Shevchenko also wrote poems, which reflected his moods and ideas of the mid-1840s.
In Kyiv, he met and befriended many people who were the best representatives of the then intelligentsia — among them, Mykhailo Maksymovych, a historian and linguist; Mykola Kostomarov, an ethnographer and historian; professors and lecturers of St Volodymyr’s University where he taught painting, and nationalistically minded members of the clandestine Kyrylo-Mefodiyivsky Brotherhood.
Reproductions of Shevchenko’s drawings, sepias, water-colours and paintings can be found in many art albums and editions of Shevchenko’s poetic and prose works. Currently, a new edition of Shevchenko’s complete works is being published. Some of the volumes of this edition carry reproductions of his art.
Many of the architectural landmarks that can be seen in Shevchenko’s pictures no longer exist — between Shevchenko’s time and the present day, Kyiv lived through two world wars and revolutions. However, the greatest damage to Kyiv’s architectural landmarks was done not by the ruinous impact of wars but by the barbaric, militantly atheistic soviet regime when churches and monasteries were not just shut but pulled down. Some of these landmarks have been rebuilt in recent years to their former glory.
Besides being valuable works of art, Shevchenko’s pictures of Kyiv take us back in time and make it possible for us to look at this city through Shevchenko’s eyes. At the same time, Shevchenko’s art and poetry are much more than links with the past — they are bridges in cultural and spiritual continuity, and spiritual inspiration for people of today.
Roman-Catholic church in Kyiv. Water-colour, 1846.
Vydubetsky Monastery. Etching, 1844.
View at Kyiv from Dnipro River
A place in Kyiv. Etching, 1844.
Kyiv landscape. Pencil, 1843.
Askold’s Tomb. Sepia, water-colour, 1846.
Troyitska Church of the Kytayivsky
Encolpion. Pencil, 1846.