The joke “Russia is a country with an unpredictable past” applies acutely to the current reassessment of art from the former Soviet Union. The Ukrainian painter Grigory Shyshko (1923-1994) spanned the lifetime of the USSR , and his work is a vibrant example of how a highly individual artist in those times negotiated a path to create a distinctive language all his own.
Formed both within and against the constraints of late-Socialist Realism, and taking from Russian, Ukrainian and international art history its broad outlines, Shyshko's vocabulary evolved over three decades, from the 1950s to the 1980s, into a compelling body of mostly landscape paintings which are, like all significant landscapes, as much inner visions as depictions of exterior reality. Their rich, dense quality comes from the tension between the two, and from the way Shyshko anchored and united his flamboyant colour, near-constructivist compositional impetus, and love of the thick materiality of paint for its own sake – all qualities which in the heyday of Socialist Realism would have branded him a formalist, and still during the postwar thaw had to be kept in check – within his overarching subject: the industrial and urban environment of the mining town of Kryviy Rih.
This was his home since adolescence – his peasant parents had escaped the worst of the Ukrainian famine by becoming building workers in the early 1930s – and his achievement was to make this familiar, everyday world transcendent yet still recognisably itself, without sentimentality, nostalgia or communist idealism. Shyshko thus stands as an artist of the timeless central European experience of nature, whose extreme seasons - brief, intensely hot summers and long steady grey-white winters - are viscerally evoked by his high-chromatic yet subtle palette: the Fauvish turquoises, pinkish clouds and violet-tinged greens of the blistering “Mine 'Gigant', Hot Day” or the luscious, over-ripe purples, crimsons, yellows, against the pale blue ground of “Still Life with Melon”; the streaked creams and velvet greys of “Winter Colours of Sagsagan” or the sparkling layers of white, slapped on in fat gestural strokes, in “First Snowfall, Sedniv”.
The resonance of reconstruction and human endurance, of course, made Kryvih Rih's mines and furnaces, roads and bridges, a classic postwar Soviet subject. “Strength of the Mining Industry”, “Open Cast Mining”, “Evening on Mine Gigant”, “Excavation”, “Twilight on the Mine” are typical themes for the 1960s-70s. But Shyshko's painterly treatment , the instant impression that the motifs of towers, cranes, block-like buildings, are also forms which give his work an abstract structure and inherent compositional geometry, the vertiginous perspectives that make a painting such as “Mine Shaped in Pink Colours” loom up dizzyingly as you approach, the sense of airy emptiness and the lack of narrative rhetoric, all go against the Socialist Realist grain.
Most of the landscapes are unpeopled, moreover; some are hallucinatory in their echoing sense of wide space, and where there are people, we feel their solitariness and the distance between them, emphasised by blurs and long shadows – as in the figures on the road in “Gigant Deep” – or their detachment from us, as if they are actors on stage, such as the monolithic three workers, their stocky monumentality reminiscent of Malevich, in “Strength of the Mining Industry”. This is theatrical realism: Shyshko never lets us forget that, just as the landscape he depicts is a constructed, man-made one, so his paintings are artful reconstructions of it. “Old Mine”, focussed on a shimmering pool of scarlet-rose reflections, is about poetic transformation rather than a mere portrayal of derelict buildings; “Iron Ore Mining Landscape” is a Cezanne-like patchwork of ochres, reds, oranges, its surfaces built up before our eyes around the factory edifices which tower like a mountain peak under a rippled sky.
Essential to Kryvih Rih's cityscape are the natural features - broad undulating river, scarred hills, clusters of trees – which Shyshko depicts in harmony with the man-made environment, so tapping into older, pre-revolutionary concerns with landscape, and suggesting too a celebration of Ukrainian identity. The landscape-as-pleasure trope of western painting never took root in Russian or Ukrainian art; rather, landscape here, from 19 th century realists such as Ivan Shishkin and impressionists such as Isaac Levitan onwards, always engaged with history and the quest for national self-definition. During the thaw of the 1950s, this aspect returned. According to cultural historian Boris Groys, across literature and the visual arts in the Soviet Union after Stalin's death in 1953, “socialist realism began to give way to traditional realism…Utopian dreams of the 'new person' were replaced by an orientation towards conservative 'eternal values' residing in the Russian people”.
Shyshko determined for himself a particular place in this story. Trained at art school in Odessa in the late 1940s and early 1950s when meticulous figuration, high finish and a narrowed emphasis on academic realism as a model were de rigueur, he was an immediate beneficiary of the post-Stalin Thaw when he graduated in 1953. As with many innovative Soviet artists, he used his superb draughtsmanship and rigorous training – comparable in discipline to that of the Bolshoi and Kirov ballet schools – to underpin an art which became increasingly expressive, subjective and modernist within a figurative framework.
Impressionism was a decisive influence here; as the movement, at once influential on Socialist Realist technique and suspect for its subjectivism, ebbed and flowed in and out of favour and repression in the late 1940s, it retained in the Soviet Union a relevance and topicality long last in the west. In 1948, for example – the year Shyshko began at Odessa - Moscow's Museum of New Western Art, featuring Impressionist masterpieces, was closed down, and in 1949, Arkadi Plastov's impressionist “Haymaking”, hailed as a masterpiece in 1946 and awarded a Stalin Prize, was criticised by leading art journal “Iskusstvo” as “not free of a superfluous dappled effect that interferes with perception”. Yet six years later an important show of impressionism, Gauguin, Cezanne and Matisse opened at the Pushkin Museum in 1955, intensifying interest and debate.
Shyshko was then at the outset of his career; though in Ukraine he was removed directly from these dramas, still their effects percolated through. As in the work of many painters in the Soviet Union at this time, impressionist features – broad brushstrokes, the play of light and shade, most palpable in the glare and shadow of “Bridge over Ingelutz, Summer” and “Stroll along Inguletz, Summer”, canvases separated by two decades – are his starting point. Shyshko, however, took impressionism beyond what one Soviet critic called “hypertrophied decorativeness”, following through its investigation into the nature of perception, relativism, the breaking up of the pictorial surface, which was the movement's legacy to cubism, and led on to the territory – still forbidden in the Soviet Union – of abstraction.
From the start, his works of the 1950s and early 1960s here show an exhilarated experimentation with styles that push towards abstraction: the thickly impastoed, sketchy, unfinished outlines of “Dusk”; the wide bands of modulated blues of sea, sky, low-lying hills in the finely tuned “On Black Sea, Odessa” and “Evening on Black Sea”; the blocks and slices of pure colour in “On the Slopes of the River Inguletz ” and “Rich Colors of Ore”, where naturalistic representation of the river valley has almost disappeared.
In 1954, the critic Alexander Kamenski reviewed a post-Stalin exhibition of contemporary painting at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery with the cautious suggestion that the show was “in some ways unlike similar exhibitions of previous years” because its determining characteristic was “works whose entire inner structure renders them poetic, allusive”. This describes the imaginative vision which colours Shyshko's entire oeuvre, from the closely observed little studies, “Clouds” and “Windswept Day” of 1953, enlivened by fluttering passages of paint but recalling Levitan in their quiet, sombre tonality, to the brilliant colour harmonies and destabilising perspectives of tumbling pots and tilting towers in “A Window View from the Textile Factory” (1984), a rare example of a classic motif from western modernism, the view from the window, with its implications of a distinction between an interiority of being and the outer world, which owes a debt to Matisse. Between these two, looking both back and forward, stand the masterly compositions of Shyshko's maturity which could be by no one else, such as the overview “Mining Complex” (1960), where pipes, bridges, rails , roads provide layers of horizontals against which soar the verticals of the mining buildings, telegraph poles, autumnal trees: landscape on the verge of becoming an abstract grid, and animated by the governing tension of how far it dares to leave figuration behind.
It is intriguing to see how a painter removed from the battle between abstraction and figuration which dominated mid-century western Europe and America – it is the central feature of pioneering artists of that epoch from Bacon to de Kooning - nevertheless replicated that tension in his own engagement with modernism. These trends are apparent in all Shyshko's work, but are pronounced from 1970 on, when his canvases take on the profligacy, extravagance of tone yet pared-down forms which often characterise an artist's late style. The blues and golds of autumn, his favourite season, dominate: the linearity of ripened field, layers of copper trees and cornflower sky in “Autumn in Sedniv”; gold against the crimson-plum mine and azure sky in “Autumn View of Terricous”; the stained luminosity and dynamic flurry of sulphur-lemon marks, set off by swathes of deep red pigment in “Autumn Colours of Kryvorizhzhya”, or by dissolving green-blues in “River Pier with Boats”.
*Jackie Wullschlager is chief art critic at the Financial Times