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Opanas Zalyvakha a painter with a clear-cut national Ukrainian spirit


Bohdan Horyn, a writer and art historian, is of the opinion that Opanas Zalyvakha is one of those Ukrainian painters who can be ranked among the most remarkable painters of the twentieth century  the only problem is to make his art better known in the world.


Opanas Zalyvakha can be called a painter with a clear-cut national Ukrainian spirit. He expresses the Ukrainian national idea in his art, and in this sense his art is not cosmopolitan.

He has traveled a long and winding road to become the artist we knew. In his childhood he saw the horrors of the famine, and some of his paintings (The Ghost of Communism; Famine, or The Year 1933) reflect his attitude to the soviet past and his pain.

His father, running away from the famine in Ukraine, took his family  three sons and a daughter  to the soviet Far East. It was there that Opanas began to realize that his calling was art. He went to study at an art school in the city of Irkutsk; then he moved to Leningrad (now St Petersburg) where he first studied at an art school attached to the Arts Academy, and later he became a student of the Repin Institute of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. He met many students there of various ethnic backgrounds, and he was troubled by the fact that he was not sure whether being a Ukrainian was as good, as far as the ethnicity goes, as being, say, a Georgian? When in 1957 he was to choose where to go to do some plain air painting as part of his training program, he chose to go to the town of Kosiv in the Land of Halychyna in Western Ukraine. This decision proved to be momentous. After many years of living outside Ukraine, out of touch with the spirit of his native land, he felt the energy of his roots permeate his soul. It was like waking up from a long lethargic sleep. He enjoyed listening to the Ukrainian language being spoken around him, he enjoyed the scenic beauty of Hutsulshchyna, he liked the faces of the Hutsuls which looked as though there were cast in bronze; he was fascinated with the Hutsul arts, wood carving, weaving, tapestry, earthenware and music. The shadows of the forgotten ancestors came to life to give him back his Ukrainianness. After graduation he was sent to Tyumen in the north-east of Russia where he was obliged to spend some time but as soon as he could he returned to Ukraine, to Halychyna. Four years, from 1961 to 1965, Opanas lived in the city of Ivano-Frankivsk and these years turned out to be the happiest years for him. The first half of the 1960s is known as the time of a political and cultural thaw in the Soviet Union when the rigidity of state and secret police control was softened a bit and writers and artists could create works which reflected their true feelings rather than dead soviet dogmas. One of these artists and authors was Opanas Zalyvakha. Some of the Ukrainian writers who worked then in Halychyna had come there from the steppe regions of Ukraine and it was in Halychyna that their talents flourished, inspired by the people and Land of Halychyna. One of such writers was Yevhen Malanyuk whose writings were among Zalyvakhas favorites. Zalyvakha was a man of a great personal magnetism and there gathered around him a circle of intellectuals from Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv and even Kyiv.

The thaw proved to be short lived. A massive crack-down on intellectuals began in 1965 and the period of good work and inspiring socializing came to an abrupt end  Zalyvakha was arrested on charges of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism and sentenced to five years in a concentration camp in Mordovia, Russia.

There is a certain similarity between the renaissance of Ukrainian culture in the 1920s and the tragic end of it in the 1930s when the whole generation of Ukrainian intellectuals was wiped out (it was much later called the executed generation) and the short-lived cultural thaw of the 1960s. Most of the Ukrainian intellectuals who were part of the cultural movement of the 1960s (shestydesyatnyky) were destined to spend various terms in prisons and concentration camps.

Zalyvakha, even under the inhuman conditions of a concentration camp, never stopped drawing whenever and on whatever he could; he wrote letters to his friends who were not arrested yet on lofty subjects of art and philosophy. It helped him sustain his spirit and intellect in the dehumanizing environment.

I had met Zalyvakha some time before his arrest; at that time I worked at the Museum of Ukrainian Art in Lviv, and I joined the circle of his friends. After my own arrest, I found myself in the same concentration camp with Zalyvakha. There were quite a few Ukrainians there and we also formed a secret circle of people who shared our ideas and ideals. Once we managed to get together at a sort of a party to celebrate one of Zalyvakhas birthdays. What I said at that party was later put into the foundation of my essay Opanas Zalyvakha. Vybir Shlyakhu (Opanas Zalyvakha. The Choice of the Road) which was published almost thirty years later.

Zalyvakha was released in 1970 and he returned to the soviet Ukraine which differed but little from the concentration camp that he had left. He created his art under the tough conditions of constant KGB surveillance which did not prevent him from creating works filled with philosophical ideas about the place of man in this world. His art dealt with profound issues of being and of the destiny of Ukraine and of Ukrainians. He read a lot but there was one book to which he kept returning again and again  it was Kobzar by Taras Shevchenko. Together with Shevchenko he was searching for answers to such questions as Why have we been brought into this world? For good or for evil? What are we living for? What do we want from this life? One of the prints Zalyvakha made in 1993 was called Odyn u odnoho pytayem(We Ask One Another)  he just took the first line of one of Shevchenkos poem. The painter searched for answers to many similar poignant questions through his art.

By the end of the 1990s the situation in the Soviet Union had changed to such an extent that Ukraines independence from an impossible dream began to turn into reality. Zalyvakha created then a number of works in which he symbolically showed his hopes and aspirations for the future. One of such works is his Self-Portrait of 1989.

Zalyvakhas art made people who saw it search for answers together with him, it made people think of Ukraines past and future. Zalyvakha, with millions of other Ukrainians, rejoiced when the coveted independence was finally regained in 1991 but he was dismayed to see the ruinous processes that had led to the political upheavals of the mid-2000s and which threatened the very existence of the undivided Ukraine. What was happening in his native land caused him a lot of worry and pain, and his questions Who is to blame? Why has the situation deteriorated so badly? Could it have been prevented? May he himself has not done enough? gnawed upon his soul. Such thoughts and worries led to a sharp deterioration in his own health and the artists heart failed. Zalyvakha, the artist-philosopher, died on April 24 2007.

It was a big loss for Ukraine and for the people who knew and admired him. May he rest in peace.


Oil on canvas. 50 x 40. 1989.


At a meeting.
Oil on canvas, 69 x 86,5 cm. 1980s.


Composition (mixed media).
42 x 53 cm. 1989.


Inspired silence.
Oil on cardboard, 102,5 x 96 cm. 1996.


Hold on!
Oil on canvas, 92 x 68 cm. 2000.


We ask one another.
Paper. 9,2 x 18. 1983.


A ghost.
Oil on canvas, 43 x 70 cm. 1988.


Oil on cardboard. 61,5 x 47,8. 1991.


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