Ukraine - Land of inspiration

the contribution of Ukrainian artists to European culture
February 4, 2022
Yuri Sivirin, Girl, (2016), acrylic painting on canvas, Private collection of Ludmila Bereznitska
Yuri Sivirin, Girl, (2016), acrylic painting on canvas, Private collection of Ludmila Bereznitska

Ukraine has been attracting media attention for several weeks now. At issue is the recrudescence of tensions in the Eastern regions of the country. Admittedly, the political situation has remained unstable since 2014, but it would be regrettable if the current events – as worrying as they may be – prevented us from taking another look at this booming country. 


In the field of visual arts, street art, music, design, or fashion, Ukraine, and especially its capital Kyiv, is indeed crawling with exceptional cultural venues, talented artists and creators, who are eager to show another image of Ukraine to their European neighbors. Together, they build a dynamic and outward-looking cultural center in eastern Europe that other Europeans should absolutely rely on to lay a solid foundation for future cultural exchanges. In this aspect, Germans and the Berliners, known for their openness, curiosity and historical ties with eastern Europe, have a specific role to play in strengthening a cultural bridge and developing artistic exchanges. Berlin and Kyiv are two very comparable capital cities, and they can lead to a fruitful connection between two regions of the same continent that still have so much to learn from each other.


Ukrainian culture and Ukraine in general have not always been as far removed from the western cultural and artistic scene as they seem to be today. Ukraine has been the cradle of many artists and a great source of inspiration. Voltaire has made his readers travel through the Ukrainian steppes (in “History of Charles XII, King of Sweden”). This book, first published in 1731, has inspired a few decades later the romantics and introduced Ukraine into western European culture. One can cite the legend of the Cossack horseman Mazepa, that inspired the English romantic poet Lord Byron at the beginning of the 19th century and gave rise to a number of works throughout Europe, whether literary (Victor Hugo, Les Orientales, 1829), pictorial (among French painters like Delacroix for example) or musical (Liszt with his “Transcendental Etudes” in 1852). 


During the same century, the famous French writer Honoré de Balzac chose to settle in Ukraine. There, in Berdychiv, a small town located in the Russian Empire, he married the Polish Countess Hanska and wrote a part of his great work “The Human Comedy”. It is also in Ukraine that Joseph Roth, one of the greatest German-speaking authors, was born in 1894, precisely in Easter Galicia, on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His life was very similar to that of other great European literary figures, such as Joseph Conrad, born in 1857 in Berdychiv, or Paul Celan, born in 1920 in Czernowitz.


While until 1991 Ukraine was bound to different political entities, in which ethnic, cultural, and religious influences of great diversity were mixed over the past centuries (Cossacks, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans, Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish), it is precisely the diversity of these influences that makes its culture so fascinating today.



It was especially at the turn of the last century that Ukrainian art began to substantially enrich European art, at the time of modernity, of which Paris was then the capital. In less than 20 years, around 1870-1880, a metamorphosis of artistic expression occurred in the two parts of Ukraine, which was then divided between Austria-Hungary in the West and Russia in the East. This metamorphosis took its roots in political and social changes: the abolition of serfdom, the questioning of the imperial order, especially in the Russian part of the country, revolutionary movements, industrialization, the awakening of a national consciousness – in spite of the division of the country or precisely because of it – and the rediscovery of tradition and folklore.


These changes partly explain the crisis of academism and the birth of new artistic movements: Realism, of which Ilya Repin was an active member, turned to social issues from 1870 onwards before leaving the field open to the experiments of impressionism and the Secession. Later, the Avant-Garde movement went further in its quest for radical transformation.


Few people know that the country of birth of Ilya Repin, Kazimir Malevich, Mychajlo Boychuk, Sonja Delaunay, David Burliuk, Aleksandra Ekster and Alexander Archipenko is actually Ukraine. They all grew up in contact with Ukrainian culture and, – with the exception of Repin and Delaunay, who studied in Petersburg and Karlsruhe –, respectively, earned their degrees in Kyiv, Odessa, or Lviv. Sonja Delaunay was inspired by the cheerful colors of her Ukrainian childhood and recounts them in her memoirs. The richness of colors also characterizes the compositions of numerous artists from her environment.


Just as many artists of the Parisian avant-garde have turned to "primitive" art forms, the Ukrainian artists also take folk art and traditions into account. Thus, Aleksandra Ekster uses Ukrainian craft techniques, such as embroidery or weaving, which she learned in handicraft cooperatives that appeared from 1910 onwards. These objects of a new kind (pillows, rugs, scarves…), with which Malewich would later work, were a great success in Berlin! As for Boichuk, he draws his inspiration from the Orthodox heritage and presents in 1910, at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, a "Byzantine revival", which will become the spearhead of a real attempt to create a national Ukrainian aesthetic. This project, which gave birth to Ukrainian monumentalism, came up against Soviet pressure during the great purges of the 1930s and Boichuk himself was executed. 


Since the School of Paris and the Avant-Garde movement, Ukrainian art has been considerably enriched by the political and societal upheavals that the country has faced. Throughout the 20th century, numerous schools and trends appeared, developed, prevailed or were supplanted by others. The Ukrainian art scene is composed mainly by young and dynamic artists with a solid education. Although most of them are based in Kyiv, yet many studios are spread over the country, especially in Odessa, Lviv or Kharkiv. Ukrainian artists work very well together and have good networks that they enrich by collaborating with foreign artists as well. What makes the Ukrainian art scene so special is precisely its great ability to constantly reinvent itself, to break rules, to experiment, to take risks, in short: to be innovative. 


Discovering Ukrainian art means discovering an entire nation, each generation of which has experienced famine, war, severe crisis, conflict or revolution, and whose art history is still being written by artists and historians. It also means understanding that Ukrainian artists, just like their European colleagues, contribute to enriching European and international art with their infinite creativity and inventiveness.


Excerpts published in German in:  Die Stadtteilzeitung / Februar 2022


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