Olena Kulchytska is one of the most significant personalities in Ukrainian art of the early 20th century. Her creative work is perceived as an integral artistic phenomenon, inspired by the creative intellect of the artist, who tirelessly enriched and developed national traditions.
The artist worked in painting, graphics, book illustration, arts and crafts. She is also known as a pedagogue, an ethnographer, and a public figure. Kulchytska’s versatile talent embraced various branches of plastic art, but it has realized itself to the fullest extent in graphics. The revival of the art of engraving in the west of Ukraine is connected with the name of the artist. She had mastered the mysteries of the most variegated graphic techniques (wood engraving and linocut, etching, aquatint, mezzotint), which have brought her world recognition.
Olena Kulchytska was born on September 15, 1877 in Berezhany, in Ternopil region to the family of a Galician lawyer Lev Kulchytsky and Maria Stebelska. The artist’s parents were descendants of old Ukrainian families which preserved, apart from family coats of arms, the spirit of Ukrainianness and honorable attitude to their land. Olena, her sister Olha, and brother Volodymyr spent their childhood in small district towns of Galicia – Lopatyn, Kamianets-Strumyliv (now Kamianka Buzka), Horodok – in a special atmosphere of customs and traditions which reigned in the milieu of Ukrainian intelligentsia.
After graduating form an eight-form school at the Monastery of Blessed Sacrament Convent in Lviv (1894) Kulchytska started her artistic studies at the Lviv Art and Industry School (1901), later on she continued her studies in the private school of Stanislaw Kaczor-Batowski and Roman Bratkowski (1901-03), and entered the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (1903-07), the general department, which gave her the right to teach drawing at educational establishments.
Kulchytska’s studies in Vienna coincided with the flourishing of the style of secession, which had its effect in the aesthetic views of the young artist. Kulchytska’s solo exhibit which took place in 1909 in the halls of the Polish Association of Friends of Fine Arts (Towarzystwo Przyjaciol Sztuk Pieknych), became an important cornerstone in the history of the modern graphic art in Galicia. It exhibited the etchings and aquatints, wood engravings and linocuts, for the most part colored ones, executed in quite intensive tones, as well as enamels and watercolors.
In 1911 and 1913 Kulchytska took part in the Nationwide Exhibits of Ukrainian art in Kyiv which symbolized the unification of Ukrainian lands. Her graphic works evoked total delight and brought her fame and recognition in Great Ukraine.
After the beginning of the World War I and occupation of Galicia by Russian forces, Kulchytska moved to Vienna, where she took part in the work of the Ukrainian Women’s Union in Vienna, which among other things published a number of her postcards: Black Cloud of War, Fighter’s Graves, Mother of God, Save our Land, etc. At the same time the artist created a series of the works in which she depicted the topic of the hardships of war and Sich Riflemen. This is a series of etchings including On Guard, Birch Cross – Life is Winning, Hard Times under Tartars, The Moloch of War (all dated 1915), Horrors of the War (1916), Revenge (1917). In them the artist interpretes the topic of war in generalized allegoric images, which are associated with Ukrainian folk songs, dedicated to the hard trials of the people. These works are imbued with humanism and love to people. In Vienna she worked on the cycle of paintings “Passions of the Christ.” It is executed in Modernist manner, having become a new phenomenon in the icon painting of that time.
Especially masterful are her illustrations to children’s books. The artist had illustrated and made artistic design of the textbook First Reader (1917, Stanislav), as well as the series of books “For the Youngest” and “Ukrainian Child’s Readers” (1915s-1920s). Kulchytska has asserted herself as a talented illustrator of Ukrainian classical books: Vasyl Stefanyk’s A Road, Ivan Franko’s poems Mykyta the Fox and Moses, the novelettes by Mykhailo Kotsiubynsky Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, Volodymyr Hnatiuk’s Outlines of Ukrainian Mythology, etc.
In 1919 the Polish power imprisoned the artist and her sister Olha in a camp in Baraniv, to which many Ukrainian patriots were interned. In 1921 she created in Przemysl the committee “A Brother to Brother” to help the children of emigres from the Dnipro Ukraine. On her initiative the Stryvihor Museum was established in Przemysl.
Kulchytska’s activity in applied art became an impetus for its professional revival in Galicia. Her innovatory work in this domain was based on the combination of secession aesthetics and folk art. The artist created the designs of carpets and furniture. She worked in enamel technique, and created numerous sketches of housewares. In 1909-38 Olena and Olha Kulchytsky created up to 80 highly artistic carpets, which were displayed at the exhibits of people’s crafts and that time’s art in Krakow, Prague, Kyiv, Stanislav, Kolomyia, and Lviv.
Her contribution to Ukrainian culture is immense – over 6,000 works of pictorial art she gave as a present for the people embodied by the Lviv Museum of Ukrainian Art (currently the National Andrei Sheptytsky Museum in Lviv). On April 21, 1971 Olena Kulchytska’s Art Memorial Museum was opened in Lviv, in the artist’s former apartment and creative studio, at 7, Lystopadovoho chynu Street.