The range of artistic styles, from Sots Realist, Impressionist and post-Impressionist and the avantgarde, not to mention the folk art and the experimental psychotronic art of Andre Siderksy, encapsulate, as if in microcosm, some of the major developments in Western 20th century painting. Yet given its geographical location, there is an unmistakeable presence in the art's colour, light and tone, of the strong natural contrasts of the Eastern climate, of the fertile earth of Asia and the sun blistered vistas of the lands across the Black Sea.
As in most European countries, the culture of Ukraine was subject to varied influences over the centuries. The country's religious ties to Byzantium left a deep and long lasting impact on its art and architecture which were later enhanced by the exposure to Catholic influence from Western and Central Europe.
The Renaissance, reaching Ukraine at the beginning of the 16th century, brought influences from Western and Central Europe first to architecture and sculpture and then to painting. The baroque period of the 17th and 18th centuries was a golden age of Ukraine painting as Byzantine traditions were slowly replaced by secular themes, descriptive colours and realistic representation. Portraiture became popular, mirroring social and historic changes.
The Cossak aristocracy commissioned paintings of battles and historical themes to decorate their new Western style residencies.
By the end of the 18th century, the destruction of Ukrainian autonomy by Tsarist Russia resulted in wide spread cultural decline. Many Ukrainian artists gravitated to the new Academy of Art in St. Petersburg, absorbing the influence of informal English poets and French Classicism. An exception to this was the poet and artist Taras Schevchenko, who, although studied at the Academy, devoted most of his writings to Ukrainian interests. His works have become symbolic of Ukrainian culture. Romantic idealism shaped 19th century Ukrainian painting as artists depicted country people leading ordinary lives in harmony with nature. This portrayal of Ukrainian life became an important tradition with vast popular appeal and it continued well into the 20th century.
Landscape painting was also popular at this time, with styles ranging from 19th century realism to impressionism and post-impressionist influences. Bold international influences were obvious in figurative art.
The 1920's were a particularly fertile time with the development of a distinct Ukrainian Avant-garde. Many artists associated with Constructivism and Suprematism (the apogee of so-called Russian Avant-gardism) began their careers in their native Ukraine. Interestingly, the number of Ukrainian women artists who became part of the cutting edge of the Avant-garde had no parallel in Western Europe.
With an opening of the Ukrainian Art Academy in Kiev in 1917, Ukrainian artists were no longer forced to go to St. Petersburg, Vienna and Paris for their training. In the early 1930's, Ukrainian artists working in Paris, Munich, Prague and Warsaw helped artists at home to keep in touch with the newest developments in Western and Central Europe. However, the Avant-garde movement came to a halt later in the decade when Socialist Realism was introduced as the only permissible art style. For all the failure of imagination of this period, technique was never let slip by the academies, as in the way it was in the West. And in spite of the State restrictions on the artists, the 1934 imposition of Socialist Realism, Impressionism managed to flourish.
Professor Tetyana Yablonska, prominent artist of the former Soviet Union and Ukraine, was born in February 1917 and entered the art scene in the early 1940's, soon to establish herself as an original and outstanding artist. When still young, she was awarded two of the USSR's highest State prizes and other honours and awards, but never felt content with herself. She became the leader of many young Ukrainian artists in pursuit of new styles and it is this thirst for novel imagery and plastic means which makes her work fresh and consistent with time. The phenomenon of innovation which accompanies Yablonska's creative career never failed to impress her public including art historians and critics. In spite of the painter's unconventional solutions which later were discarded by the artist herself for the sake of new ones, Yablonska's legacy presents an uncompromising single whole born of the time and of a genuine artistic temperament which never ceases to seek and question.
Her most recent project is a freedom of the palette - it has grown lighter - where the texture is skillfully differentiated through subtle shading to lend it translucence. The contours recede in the play of light and colour. Yablonska strives to capture an elusive moment of nature's ever changeable state, to convey its unique beauty to the viewer.
Another Ukrainian artist Grygoriy Shyshko (1923 - 1994) has risen to the top of his profession with his painterly but accurate rendering of the "Beauty of Work in the Service of the State". There was, however, a clandestine Shyshko with his own subjective vision, who turned the hard won skills and disciplines of official depiction to painting the personal and poetic landscapes of his native Ukraine. There is a frontier element to this work; nature is wild, colourful, apparently exuberant and yet grandly still, its unfettered power dominates these paintings in a way Western art can no longer evoke.
He maintained a frugal post-impressionist style throughout his mature painting life, and dignified the hard labour of heavy industry as well as the beauties of nature with an honest and dramatic flourish.
It is important to stress this sombre reality whilst in the presence of works that are celebrations of colour and poetical evocations of the scenes they depict. Colour as well as the composition blend of buildings and settings together: there is an intimacy with the sites depicted and they cease to be social realist fact.
Were it not for his name, Petro Magro (born 21 June 1918) might be regarded as a late Victorian English painter, and indeed his work, emblems of rustic tranquillity, will appeal immediately to lovers of well painted escapism.He is a good representative of a genre painter that carries much weight in identifying the nature, culture and customs of the Ukraine. What better way to demonstrate the Ukrainian identity, for instance, than with the emblematic image of the white-washed and thatched khata (peasant home of artist's datcha) and churches with their onion domes nestled so comfortably against pure and luscious nature as in Magro's paintings. After being an artist of the State, forced to follow its demands to be a conscientious promoter of Socialist Realism for much of his life, Magro went back to the traditional Ukrainian "genre" with his best works produced in the latter half of the 20th century.
1. Grygoriy Shyshko Street in Chernigiv. 1991 Oil on board. 70 x 48 cm
2. Grygoriy Shyshko Sedniv 1978 Oil on canvas. 50 x 70 cm
3. Grygoriy Shyshko Country Cottage 1971 Oil on canvas. 70 x 60 cm
4. Grygoriy Shyshko Winter. 1965 Oil on board. 90 x 63 cm