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Art Nouveau, Ukrainian style

The Khrennikov building in Dnipropetrovsk. Detail.

The end of the nineteenth century produced a style in art which in many ways was revolutionary, particularly in interior design and architecture. Andriy VLASENKO, a Ukrainian Orthodox priest, takes a closer look at this style which in Ukraine is known as Modern, and which, in his view, acquired features of a truly national style.

At the end of the nineteenth century there developed a style in the fine and decorative arts and in architecture, which has been labeled “Art Nouveau”.
It is basically an ornamental style that flourished between about 1890 and 1910 throughout Europe and the United States. Art Nouveau is characterized by its use of a long, sinuous, organic line. It was widely employed in architecture, interior design, glass design and jewelry, posters, and illustration. Art Nouveau (the term was coined by a gallery in Paris that exhibited much of this work) developed first in England and soon spread to the European continent, where it was called Jugendstil in Germany, Sezessionstil in Austria, Stile Floreale (or Stile Liberty) in Italy, and Modernismo (or Modernista) in Spain. In Russia and in Ukraine this style is known as Modern. According to Andriy Vlasenko, many elements of this style developed in Ukraine earlier than anywhere else and quite independently.
The distinguishing ornamental characteristic of Art Nouveau is its undulating, asymmetrical line, often taking the form of flower stalks and buds, vine tendrils, insect wings, and other delicate and sinuous natural objects; the line may be elegant and graceful or infused with a powerfully rhythmic and whiplike force. In the graphic arts the line subordinates all other pictorial elements — form, texture, space, and color — to its own decorative effect. In architecture and the other plastic arts, the whole of the three-dimensional form becomes engulfed in the organic, linear rhythm, creating a fusion between structure and ornament. Architecture particularly shows this synthesis of ornament and structure; a liberal combination of materials — ironwork, glass, ceramic, and brickwork—was employed, for example, in the creation of unified interiors in which columns and beams became thick vines with spreading tendrils and windows became both openings for light and air and membranous outgrowths of the organic whole. This approach was directly opposed to the traditional architectural values of reason and clarity of structure.
After 1910 Art Nouveau appeared old-fashioned and limited and was generally abandoned as a distinct decorative style. According to Andriy Vlasenko, in Ukraine, in various modifications, it lasted a couple of decades longer.

Ukrainian Modern seems to be a thing of the past with only art and architecture historians paying some attention to it. Thousands of people enter and leave the central building of Kyiv’s railroad terminal without being aware of the building’s apparent Ukrainian Modern features and without paying the least attention to its architecture — they are not moved in any way by its esthetic qualities. There is a number of other buildings in Ukraine which were built at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and later, in the style of Ukrainian Modern (which bears a lot of traits typical of Art Nouveau), and which have survived. Many of them have been rebuilt or reconstructed so that little remains of their original appearance. Many have been destroyed by wars and revolutions — and by housing development projects. The survivors get little attention either from art historians or the general public.

For a number of reasons, the soviets were hostile to Ukrainian Modern which they branded as “a decadent style.” There was very little written about it by art historians, and the Ukrainian version of Art Nouveau was ignored altogether.

Things have not changed much after Ukraine’s independence. As far as I know, there’s been only one scholarly study, Ukrayinsky arkhitekturny modern (Ukrainian Architectural Modern), which was devoted to Ukrainian Modern and which was published, in a very limited number of copies. The book was authored by Viktor Chepelyk, an architect and a great enthusiast of Ukrainian culture (it was thanks to the efforts of his relatives and disciples that the book got published).

There is also an art album Mystetstvo lvivskoyi setsessiyi (Art of Sezessionstil in Lviv) which visually presents some aspects of Ukrainian Modern specifically in Lviv rather than across Ukraine.

At least 500 buildings are known to have been built across Ukraine in the style of Ukrainian Modern. Hardly a hundred artists, architects and designers worked in the style of Ukrainian Modern and their legacy deserves to be studied and preserved. Most of these artists and architects (some of whom were not even of Ukrainian descent but who created in the Ukrainian spirit) were either arrested by the Stalinist regime and executed, or dispatched to concentration camps where they died; only a handful of them survived fleeing abroad.
Ukrainian Modern as a style lived considerably longer than in the rest of Europe, probably because Ukrainian artists and architects felt they could adequately express the Ukrainian spirit through this style.


The roots

The roots of Ukrainian Modern go back to the middle of the nineteenth century. By that time, Ukraine had long lost the last vestiges of its autonomy (for all intents and purposes, Ukraine lost its independence to Russia in the second half of the seventeenth century). Ukraine’s arts, architecture included, were in decline. Typical Ukrainian white-washed peasant huts with straw roofs and buildings — palaces and churches among them — built in the seventeenth and eighteenth century in the style known as Ukrainian Baroque seemed to be the only surviving elements of Ukrainian architecture.

But it so happened that Hryhory Halahan, a liberal millionaire and a patron of art, commissioned an architect, Evgeniy Chervinsky, an architect from St Petersburg, Russia, to design and build “a house for the guests” at one of Halahan’s estates in Ukraine. The millionaire and the architect went to several of Halahan’s estates in Poltava Province, choosing a proper place for the new house. They found such a place in the village of Lebedyntsi. The Guest House was built in 1854–1856, and at first glance there was nothing special in it that would differ it from other similar houses. But the second glance would reveal decorative, stylized carving in the interior, tasteful arrangements of colors, sophisticated elements of architectural design, and other unusual features which made the new house stand out among the bland architectural creations of that time.

One of the guests of the Guest House at Halahan’s estate was Taras Shevchenko, the great nineteenth-century Ukrainian poet, who appreciated the innovations: “A nice looking house, somewhat too rich, but of a design that is worthy of being immolated.”

The Guest House at Halahan’s estate proved to be the harbinger of changes that would eventually lead to the emergence of a style now known as Ukrainian Modern.


The next step

Shevchenko’s injunction was heeded — in the year 1874, in the village of Kozelets, Chernihiv Province, there arose a church which was a far cry from the standard design in the pseudo-Old Rus-Byzantine style, imposed by the Moscow Patriarchy on all the churches to be built in the vast Russian Empire, Ukraine included (incidentally, Kozelets used to be an estate that once belonged to the last Hetman of Ukraine Kyryl Rozumovsky). The Voznesenska (Ascension) Church in the central square of Kozelets with its Ukrainian-style domes, rounded angles and arched windows was the first church in Ukraine since the times of Ukrainian Baroque which was Ukrainian in style and in spirit. This House of Worship was at last a truly artistic creation that inspired religious feelings by its very appearance. “God should be praised by Ukrainians in a church that looks Ukrainian.” Unfortunately, we do not know the name of the architect who designed this church.

Another creation in the budding new style can be found in the village of Bilorichytsya, not too far from Pryluky, which used to be an estate of the landowners Rakhmanovs. Of the Rakhmanovs’ buildings only one has survived (it has recently been adjusted to function as a church). It was built in 1878, years before the Art Nouveau style took shape, but it has a number of features which can be regarded as direct precursors of Ukrainian Modern. Majolica decorative elements in blue-and-yellow, Ukrainian national colors, certain elements of the interior design, wrought-iron stylized chimerical birds, and graceful lines of the roof were the features that would later become the trademark of Art Nouveau, Jugendstil and Sezessionstil.

The design was made by Oleksandr-Eduard Yahno. He was born in Russia, was educated in Italy and worked all his life in Ukraine where he died. It is known that he designed and built three palaces, two churches, a chapel and several iconostases in which he used ceramics for decoration. Unfortunately, none of his creations, except the one in Bilorichystya, has survived, but the design of the surviving building suggests that Yahno was an outstanding architect, much ahead of his time in his architectural visions.


The church that epitomizes Ukrainian Modern

In the village of Plishyvtsi, in the vicinity of Halych, there stands a majestic nine-dome church, Pokrovska. The church, which is dedicated to the Protective Veil of the Holy Virgin, was built in 1902–1906. The construction was commissioned by the Archbishop Parfeniy (Levytsky), a native of Plishyvtsi. The archbishop’s friend, Dmytro Yavornytsky, a historian and a great enthusiast of Ukrainian culture, contributed his ideas as to what the church should look like. The architect, who was commissioned to do the design, one Ivan Kuznetsov, was not endowed with a great talent, but he was told what kind of things should be introduced into the design to make the church look distinctly Ukrainian. And a miracle happened — the mediocre architect created a church which epitomized the best in Ukrainian Modern.

The early twentieth century saw an unprecedented flourishing of the arts inspired by Ukrainian Modern. It was not only architecture that thrived — interior design, graphic and decorative arts, painting and sculpture were the fields in which Ukrainian Modern had remarkable achievements. Designs for rugs, stained glass, theater and decorative architectural elements followed the trend. Among the artists who contributed most to the development of Ukrainian Modern were Oleksa Novakivsky, Mykhailo Zhuk, Heorhiy Narbut, Anatol’ Petrytsky, Olena Kulchytska and a group of artists known as Boychukisty. Yet, Ukrainian Modern manifested itself most fully in architecture.

Alas, it is difficult now to fully assess the artistic achievement of Ukrainian Modern simply because very little has been preserved. Wars, revolutions, negligence and soviet “cultural” (or rather anti-cultural) policies have done their destructive job. Whatever little is left suggests that Ukrainian Modern was an artistic phenomenon of a major proportion.


Ukrainian Modern in Poltava

The building of Poltavskoho hubernskoho zemstva, (Poltava Province Administrative Center) which was built in 1903–1908, can’t help producing an impression even on a person who knows little about Ukrainian Modern. It combines the riot of well-arranged colors with a well-balanced overall composition, sophistication of details and generosity of outlines. The architect Vasyl Krychevsky, who designed the building, and the artist Serhiy Vasylkivsky who decorated the interiors, consciously introduced Ukrainian motifs to make the building look definitely a Ukrainian creation rather than a variant of Russian-style Modern or of international Art Nouveau. The Ukrainianness of the building caused a sort of consternation among the locals but luckily the building was left to stand as it was built and decorated.

It was the best creation of the architect Vasyl Krychevsky who, similarly to Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret, 1887– 1965, Swiss-born French architect and writer; the most powerful advocate of the modernist school, he designed numerous functional concrete buildings and high-rise residential complexes), did not have a specialized architectural education but had a prodigious talent. Later, the writer Yury Yanovsky, called him “the captain of the ship of Ukrainian Modern.”

There was also a theoretician of Ukrainian Modern — Opanas Slastion, a true polymath. In addition to writing scholarly and popular works in support of Ukrainian Modern, he designed schools and other buildings which were built in the 1910s in Poltava Province. It is not known for sure how many schools he designed and how many were built to his design — anywhere between 80 and 140! Each design was highly individual. There were a lot of ornamental features, trapezoid windows (typical of Ukrainian Modern); some of the houses had little towers topped with metal spires. A number of Slastion’s buildings have survived and are used for various purposes; some have retained their original school purpose. Four buildings, which were designed by Slastion for a spa in Myrhorod, were demolished as late as in the 1970s (the buildings were functional and could be easily adjusted to the new purposes but the local authorities deemed that it would be “better” to knock down the remainders of what was so transparently Ukrainian in style).

The architect Yevhen Serdyuk designed buildings “for agricultural purposes” thus widening the scope in which Ukrainian Modern was used as a style. One of the weaknesses of this style was a certain discrepancy between the general plan of the building and its facade. Serdyuk removed this discrepancy in his designs. Some of his creations have survived in the city of Kharkiv and in the village of Nosivka in the Land of Chernihivshchyna where you can still see breeding and selection nurseries built in 1909–1913. These unpretentious buildings, surrounded by age-old trees, are amazingly elegant particularly in view of the purpose they were built for.

Serhiy Tymoshenko’s designs for private houses are among the best done in the “private house” line of architectural design. Among Tymoshenko’s close relatives were artists, scientists and scholars; he himself was a person of vast knowledge. The House of I. Boyko, built in 1911–1913 with the interiors decorated by Serhiy Vasylkivsky and Mykola Samokysh, was an imposing mansion with architectural features which could be described as “dynamic”. The building has been “renovated” and much of its Ukrainian Modern spirit is gone but some of the original Ukrainian Modern decorative elements have survived.

The architect Dmytro Dyachenko mixed “neo-Baroque” elements into his Ukrainian Modern designs. His tasteful designs were often provided with neo-Baroque pediments, majolica and moldings. A recently restored hospital, designed by Dyachenko and built in Lubny in 1913– 1914, is an impressive representative of the Ukrainian Modern style. In his design, the architect used Ukrainian national motifs which he must have borrowed from his extensive collections of drawings and photos of various architectural landmarks and buildings which he had made in his travels across Ukraine.

Oleksandr Lushpynsky, an artist and architect with the soul of a poet, lived and worked in Lviv, in the west of Ukraine. He was employed by a construction concern, which was run by his teacher, Ivan Levynsky, to provide decorative designs for the buildings the concern erected. Lushpynsky combined in one design elements of the Hutsul ornaments, Byzantine echoes, and romantic features borrowed from elsewhere. The building of the Ukrainian Pedagogical Society in Lviv, which was built in 1906–1909, is a good example of Lushpynsky’s refined taste (the building was built with the money collected among the locals).


Ukrainian Modern between the wars

The western parts of Ukraine after WWI found themselves in Poland, Hungary and Rumania. In the Ukrainian lands under Poland, there were many graceful wooden churches built in the design of which one can see elements of Ukrainian Modern. The architects Yevhen Nahrinny and Serhiy Tymoshenko, who has been already mentioned, followed the canonized patterns but introduced many elements into their designs of churches which gave these churches a feel of being creations in the general framework of Ukrainian Modern. For example, the Illinska Church in the village of Dora, in the Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna, which was built in 1930, boasts the decorative elements which were created by carving and pyrography.

In eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian Modern murals of 1910–1911 still can be seen in the Church of St George in the village of Plyasheva (it is a memorial church at the site of the Battle of Berestechko), and in the All-Saints Church Above the Gate in the Pechersk Lavra Monastery in Kyiv.

In the eastern parts of Ukraine where the Bolsheviks had established their stifling power two decades earlier than in the western parts, Ukrainian Modern, fighting a rearguard action, gradually gave way to the style called “constructivism.” The architect Viktor Trotsenko from Kharkiv, who hailed from the countryside, designed the Ukrainian Pavilion for a major agricultural exhibition which was held in Moscow in 1923. It was a daring innovative design which was said to have greatly impressed the leading Russian architect Shchusev. Later, in 1924–1926, Trotsenko was commissioned to design housing projects for workers in Kharkiv (which at that time was the capital of Ukraine). The architect introduced some elements of the style of Ukrainian architecture of the seventeenth century into his designs that gave the buildings laconic outlines and yet making them rather picturesque.

Surprisingly enough, it was in Kyiv at the end of the twenties that the last prominent buildings of Ukrainian Modern were erected. The architect Dmytro Dyachenko, who has been mentioned before, designed a complex of buildings of the Ukrainian Agricultural Academy in the part of Kyiv known as Holosiyiv (1925–1927). This architectural project caused a lot of controversy. Dyachenko came under attack. He was arrested, released, and arrested again. He moved to Moscow in the vain hope of finding a refuge there, in the heart of the “evil Soviet Empire,” but it did not save him — he died in a concentration camp. The light-blue buildings of the Academy “one of the last tributes to Ukrainian Modern,” that he designed, still stand.

At the very last stage of Ukrainian Modern in Ukraine, Vasyl Krychevsky, “the captain of the ship of Ukrainian Modern,” designed the Museum of Taras Shevchenko at Chernecha Hora in Kaniv (the museum was built in 1934–1939) at the end of his architectural career. It does not have the vigor of his earlier creations, but there is wisdom and timelessness in it, the things that come only with age.

I’m sure that in Ukraine which I find to be the most beautiful land in the world, there will arise buildings designed in a style which will be truly and fully Ukrainian in spirit. I believe in the glorious future of this land. 


The Khrennikov building in Dnipropetrovsk. Details.

The Gogol City School in Chernihiv.

The building of the Zemska school in the village of Zapadyntsi, Land of Poltavshchyna. Detail. (Zemstvo — local administration; zemsky — adjective of Zemstvo).

The Khrennikov building in Dnipropetrovsk. Details.

The portal of a school in Chernihiv. Detail.

The electric power station in Nizhyn. Detail.

The Dvoryansky i Selyansky pozemelny (Nobility and Peasantry Land) Bank in Chernihiv. Detail.


The Khrennikov building in Dnipropetrovsk. Details.

The building of the Zemsky hospital in Lubny. Details.

Photos by the author

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