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From Ukraine with love

A country’s art legacy escapes oblivion.



Vsevolod Maksymovych, Self-portrait, 1913. Details....


Vsevolod Maksymovych, Self-portrait, 1913.

Many of the paintings on display in the Chicago Cultural Center’s “Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910–1930” have not been shown in the States. In fact, they have rarely been seen in public. Until just a few years ago, the canvases were in a museum basement in Kiev. Museum officials stored them decades ago after the Soviet government ordered all non–social-realist works destroyed. Fortunately, stripped off their stretches and rolled up, these paintings slated for destruction were forgotten.

One of the few who knew they existed was art historian Dmytro Horbachov, who for many years was a curator at the National Art Museum in Kiev. After unearthing large paintings by Viktor Palmov and others in the 1960s, he displayed them in the museum storeroom and shortly after that was fired.

Meanwhile London-based art collector Russian Prince Nikita Lobanov-Rostovsky, who was interested in the banned work of the avant-garde, began to acquire pieces. Lobanov-Rostovsky and Horbachov eventually crossed paths, and this exhibition is due, in part, to their sleuthing. The two of them searched the country for other surviving masterpieces. Then Lobanov-Rostovsky contacted Greg Guroff, president of the Foundation for International Arts and Education in Bethesda, Maryland, to fund a traveling exhibition.

It would be so easy to dismiss the work in this exhibition as derivative: At one glance it’s a blur of futurism and Cubism with a little dash of Chagall. But you would be doing yourself (not to mention the represented artists) a disservice by not taking a closer look. There are treasures to be found here, among them Lobanov-Rostovsky’s collection of costume- and stage-design sketches.

And the work of Vsevolod Maksymovych is astonishing. Sure, we are reminded of the English Art Nouveau illustrator Aubrey Beardsley. But Maksymovych’s six large canvases of mostly lounging nudes against a densely patterned background of bubbles in black, red and white carry their own weight. His story, what little we know of it, is also compelling. He was part of a body-building, nudist group and he committed suicide at age 20 because of a failed romance. These works were created in 1913, a year before he died. Included here is a self-portrait in black and white with the only other color being a dab of red on his lips.

There are quiet works of charm here, too, such as Oxana Pavelenkos’s A girl with Apples painting on wood. It’s a simple figurative piece that subversively plays with forms and shapes under the guise of folk art.

Perhaps the only known artist here is Supremacist Kasimir Malevich, whose geometric abstractions have been included in many exhibitions on the Russian avant-garde (not to mention his own retrospective in the 1990s at the National Gallery of Art). But Malevich, who was born in Ukraine, has always identified as a Soviet painter. In the exhibit, he is underplayed—engineered, it seems, not to put him in his place but to put him in some sort of larger context; Malevich here is part of the fabric of Ukraine art rather than its only star.

The effort behind this exhibition goes beyond a cultural exchange. Chicago, with its large Ukrainian population, was an obvious choice to display the work before it travels to the Ukrainian Museum in New York. But the goal is to bring the work home permanently. Those details (i.e., funds) have not been worked out. Perhaps along with the acknowledgment the show receives in the States will come the support for the safe placement of this neglected legacy back home.

“Crossroads: Modernism in Ukraine, 1910–1930” is at the Chicago Cultural Center through October 15.



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