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Art to be proud of

Jesus Christ by an unknown master from the village of Velyka Kamyanka, Ivan-Frankivsk Oblast. 18 century.

On August 23 2009, there opened an exhibition at the Mystetsky Arsenal Art Center in Kyiv which was given rather a resounding Latin title — De Profundis, which translates as From the Depth. It was from the depths of history — and even pre-history — that some of the art displayed at the art center dated.


In sharp contrast to Oscar Wilde’s letter known as De Profundis, which is full of sorrow, the exhibition De Profundis was full of esthetic joy.

It was sculpture in its various forms and materials that dominated the exhibition. The time span that the displayed pieces of sculpture covered was immense — from some pieces that dated from several thousand years ago to the sculptures created in the twenty first-century.

The sections, into which the exhibition was subdivided, included:
Trypillya culture sculptural artifacts — from the fifth to the third millennia BCE (Before Common Era);
Sculptural artifacts from the second millennium BCE to early centuries of the Common Era (CE);
Ukrainian folk sculpture of the 17th-19th centuries;
Baroque sculpture in Ukraine of the 17th–18th centuries;
Oleksandr Arkhypenko — avant-garde sculpture of the 20th century;
Sculpture by Ukrainian artists of the 21st century.


The underlining feature that united all these different manifestations of the art of sculpture was their origin — all of them were created in the territory of the country now known as Ukraine, or by the artists born in Ukraine.

As an independent state, Ukraine is both a recent and very ancient phenomenon. It emerged as a state with all the most important characteristic features of a sovereign state in the ninth century. Within a century Kyivan Rus-Ukraine became a powerful state presence in Europe.

But long before a distinct state was formed, in Ukraine’s territory there had existed cultures (or civilizations in the opinion of some historians) of Trypillya and Scythians, to mention the two most important ones.

At its heyday in the eleventh century CE, alliance with Kyivan Rus-Ukraine — or confrontation with it, was sought by many European countries. Its medieval glory proved to be rather short lived — in the twelfth century it broke up into several principalities under the nominal rule of Kyiv, and then gradually declined into becoming part of other states — Lithuania, Poland, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. A bid for independence in 1917– 1920 failed and ended in disaster. In 1991, Ukraine regained her independence and thus can be considered “a young independent country.”

In Ukraine a lot of art was created in the past several thousand years. Some works of art — or rather artifacts which are now recognized to be art — are more durable than others. Sculpture is more durable than any other art form, and it is thanks to what has been salvaged from archeological excavations, or to what has been very much in evidence and has not been destroyed by time or human vandalism. Creations of more recent times make it possible for us to learn more about culture and human aspirations and visions and emotions embodied in sculpture of the centuries that make up our history.

The section of the exhibition De Profundis that displayed the earliest samples of what later would become “the art of sculpture” took the visitors several thousand years back to the times when much of the present-day Ukrainian territory was occupied by people whose culture was in much more recent times given the name of Trypillya (the place where important finds of that culture were unearthed). Though yet primitive, these ancient artifacts suggest a rather well-developed esthetic sense of the Trypillya people. Some historians read into them profound religious and existential ideas but even at the most obvious, “appearance” level it is easily noticeable that some of the typical features in decorative elements have lived through the millennia to be present in many works of the decorative and applied arts in Ukraine and remain easily recognizable in the twentieth century.

During the post-Trypillian times, the territory of Ukraine was a field on which many historical cultures have left their traces. Nomads of various origins roamed the Ukrainian space and when they stayed at one place for some time they erected their pagan idols, some of which still dot the boundless Ukrainian steppes. The nomads clashed with the indigenous settlers and these clashes lasted well into the first millennium CE. In fact, as late as the eleventh century CE one of the powerful Christian rulers of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine, Yaroslav, had a church built in commemoration of his decisive victory over the invading nomads. Christianity gave art a totally new direction; a lot of art was brought in, a lot was created locally.

In the thirteen century the invading hordes of the nomadic Mongols and Tartars delivered a crushing blow to what was left of the once powerful state of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine. The language of sculpture is very much different from the language of the chronicles, and its message may be difficult to read but those who have eyes and proper knowledge can see a lot in the medieval sculpture to make cultural conclusions.

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw the development of new trends in architecture and in the other visual arts, with the style of Baroque exercising a particularly profound influence. The existing churches were re-fashioned in accordance with the changing tastes, new ones were built, and sculpture was in evidence as one of the major decorative elements, particularly in the western parts of Ukraine (in the eastern parts of Ukraine, which were and are dominated by Orthodox Christianity, sculpture did not seem to flourish as much as it did in the west, probably because Orthodox Christianity appears not to have encouraged the creation of sculptural images).

Works by Johann (or Jan or Ivan) Pinzel, a mysterious eighteenth-century sculptor, whose creations can be seen in some museums and churches of western Ukraine, were the focal point of the Baroque sculpture section of the exhibition. Pinzel’s works are so original that they hardly fit any art trend of the eighteenth century and no other sculptor of his time can be found who would rival the power of his images. There are echoes of High Baroque in Pinzel’s works, and at the same time they look like precursors of the twentieth-century art movement of Expressionism. Pinzel produced works of unrivalled virtuosity, completely emancipated from the material in which they were created — plasterwork, stone and wood.

The works displayed in the section of the exhibition which was devoted to the wooden folk sculpture of the past ages find some echoes in the sculptures shown in the section that presented the art of sculpture of today. The Ukrainian sculptor Mykola Malyshko prefers wood for his creations and it visually links his creations with the nameless creations of folk sculptors, though his idea is totally different.

Between the contemporary art section and the art of the past there was a section given to the works of the avant-garde artist Oleksandr Archipenko (1887–1964), a Kyiv-born sculptor, one of the most innovative sculptors of the early 20th century.

Walking through the exhibition was like taking a trip through time. The attentive visitors could not fail to notice that in spite of great differences in style and material and execution there was something common that underlay the works exhibited. This something would be probably impossible to describe in words, but which I would call the spirit of the land where these works were created, or where their creators were born.


The exhibition that lasted from the end of August all through September was organized jointly by the Mystetsky Arsenal Art Center and the Ukrayinsky Dim Culture Center. Among the lenders to the exhibition were various museums from several cities of Ukraine as well as private collectors.

The idea to create a modern art center in the city of Kyiv belongs to the President of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko. The abandoned premises of an old factory, Arsenal, began to be turned into a vast art center in 2006. The work is still underway but enough has already been done to make it possible to hold exhibitions and other art events. When completed, the Mystetsky Arsenal Art Center will have modern art, music, performing arts and other museum facilities, as well as a hotel, parking lots and other services. Inaugurating the Mystetsky Arsenal Art Center project in February 2006, President Yushchenko said in part: “Every European capital has something it can be proud of. I’m convinced that this project, when carried out, will give the capital of Ukraine — or even the whole of Ukraine — something that it can be proud of.” 


A zoomorphic cup with the head of a bull — a Trypilla Culture artifact.  Baked clay. Unearthed in the village of Sushivka, Cherkasy Oblast. Mid-fourth millennium BCE. From the National Museum of History of Ukraine, Kyiv.


Torso by Oleksandr Archipenko. Marble. 1914. From the private collection of Ihor Voronov.


Abraham’s Sacrifice by J. G. Pinzel. c. 1760 (from a church in the village of Hodovytsya). Museum of Sacral Sculpture, Lviv.



A roadside stone cross. The village of Veryn. 18 century. From the National Andriy Sheptytsky Museum in Lviv.


Female by Oleksandr Archipenko. Bronze.


An allegorical figure (The Virgin?) by Frantisk Olendzky. Wood carving. 18 century. From the Art Gallery of Lviv.


Blue Dance by Oleksandr Archipenko. Bronze. 1913.


Standing and Curving by Oleksandr Archipenko. Bronze and stone. 1925.




Photos by Olena KURSHYN and Serhiy HOROBETS

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