A black-haired guy is staring at his fingers and playing lazily with a stick. It is Pontius Pilate as imagined by the Polish artist Jacek Malczewski. I read in the prospectus that the artist drew such an unusual Roman procurator off his friend, painter and restorer Mieczyslaw Gasecki. Christ himself, a bound-up man who supports his chin with his hand and seems to be looking nowhere, shows some features of the author. The picture Christ before Pilate (1910) is now displayed at the exhibit “Polish Painting” held at the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts as part of the European Dimension project.
THE ART THAT FORMED NATIONAL MEMORY
The exhibited items – about 20 canvases by 18th-early-20th-century Polish artists – are from the collection of the Lviv National Borys Voznytsky Art Gallery. The gallery keeps Ukraine’s and Europe’s largest and most valuable collection of works by Polish artists. Among them are pictures by the abovementioned Jacek Malczewski, Henryk Siemiradzki, Jan Matejko, Olga Boznanska, and Wojciech Kossak, et al. It is the first time these treasures, so rarely exhibited and little known in this country, are being displayed in Kyiv.
HENRYK SIEMIRADZKI. CHRIST AND SAMARITAN WOMAN, 1890
“Lviv is the city that saw, in the early 20th century, three national renaissances – Ukrainian, Polish (with no Polish state), and Jewish,” says Taras Vozniak, director general of the Lviv National Borys Voznytsky Art Gallery. “Accordingly, each of these milieus was forming a canon of its own. In the conditions of statelessness, art is a way to declare that we exist and develop. This formed not only national memory – you can see historical pictures as well as national myths at the exhibition. And, as Lviv was a center of national renaissance, a lot of true masterpieces of Polish art remained behind there. Only one or two collections in Poland can rival all the Lviv museums.
Take, for instance, the picture Following the Example of the Gods by Henryk Siemiradzki, on which a couple of lovers have got off the boat and embrace like the marble Eros and Psyche beside them. Horse-riding warriors are horrified at the semi-decayed remains of French soldiers against the backdrop of white snow – it is Spring 1813 by Wojciech Kossak, a master of historical painting, who liked the theme of Napoleonic wars. And, next to it, flowers among the snow or, to be more exact, a woman in flowery attire in the picture Winter Sun in the Carpathian Mountains by Wladyslaw Jarocki. For this reason, “Polish Painting” stirs up a host of mixed emotions.
DIFFERENT AND BEAUTIFUL
“No museums in this country have such a perfect collection of Polish paintings!” Olena Zhyvkova, curator of the “Polish Painting” exhibition, deputy director general of the Khanenko Museum for research, says in rapture. “There in none at all in Kyiv. Incidentally, we are displaying at this exhibit a Polish author’s picture from our repository because we haven’t had an opportunity to show it in a certain context before. It is Bystra in the Spring by the outstanding Polish landscapist Julian Falat. Next to it is his work Snow from the Lviv collection.”
Artists from the neighboring Poland are less known in Ukraine than French, Italian, or Dutch masters. Yet the authors of the pictures exhibited at the Khanenko Museum are well known in many countries because they studied and worked all over the world. The abovementioned Julian Falat studied at the Munich Art Academy, traveled across Europe and Asia, and spent 10 years in Berlin at the personal invitation of Emperor William II, while the works of experimenter artist Olga Boznanska, who spent most of her lifetime in Paris, were exhibited at the Salon des Tuileries and at regular Paris exhibits of female artists. She was also awarded the French Legion of Honor. The artist is famous for her portraits, and her Portrait of Children is exhibited at the Khanenko Museum.
WOJCIECH KOSSAK. GABRIEL HOHENDORFF ON THE WAY TO BORYSOW, 1889
“We decided to show Polish art as one of the powerful schools of the 18th-20th-century European art,” Zhyvkova comments. “We tried to show all the trends and various artists, including classicists, realists, and modernists. It is difficult to display so different works in the same space, but I think we’ve managed to do so – in particular, because Taras Vozniak allowed us to choose the best.” Incidentally, it is possible to learn the history of a certain picture and the context in which its author worked in the specialist abstracts prepared by Ihor Khomyn and Viktoria Susak, research associates at the Lviv National Borys Voznytsky Art Gallery.
THE UNKNOWN TREASURES OF UKRAINIAN MUSEUMS
The European Dimension project, topical since it appeared in 2012, is assuming still greater importance in the light of Russian aggression and Ukraine’s integration into the EU. “In the Yanukovych era, when Russia was bent on bringing Ukraine back to Soviet ways, Moscow staged an exhibit of European paintings from the museums of Ukraine. Not only politicians, but also professionals worked on that project. We selected 100 masterpieces from nine Ukrainian museums to show in Russia. But the Russians called that exhibit ‘The Return of St. Luke’ after the name of Frans Hals’ picture from an Odesa museum, and this has a subtext of sorts,” Zhyvkova recalls. “When the exhibit in Moscow was over, we relocated it to our halls and called it – to spite the previous name – ‘European Dimension.’ For Ukraine’s museums really keep the enormous treasures of European art. We are Europe also because we keep a part of the European cultural heritage.”
“Polish Painting” is a third exhibit as part of the European Dimension project. In addition to the abovementioned exhibit in 2012, Kyiv hosted three years ago “The Treasures of Barons de Chaudoir,” an exposition of European paintings from the Zhytomyr Museum of Local History.
“There are masterpieces in Ukraine, which every European city would be proud of. But these artworks are almost unknown in this country,” Zhyvkova continues. “Everybody could travel to Lviv to see George de La Tour, to Lutsk to see the original and marvelous Hubert Robert, and to Odesa to see the works of Frans Hals and Alessandro Magnasco. I can continue to name the masterpieces our regional museums could collect. But our people would rather go to the Louvre or travel to Amsterdam to see the same Hals, but they won’t travel to Lutsk for some reason. And the European Dimension project was launched to make our masterpieces, which represent European culture in Ukraine, fashionable and well-known.”
JOZEF MEHOFFER. EUROPA JUBILANS, 1905
In Europe, major exhibits are often organized to tour the cities. “They always find sponsors for this kind of projects,” the Khanenko Museum deputy director general points out. “It is expensive, and, as a rule, the state is not the sponsor of these projects. Yet this thing is gratifying and popular in Western Europe. I hope the time will also come, when somebody in our country will agree to sponsor such a project.”
So let us discover our European treasures – for example, at the exhibit “Polish Painting” at the National Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts. The exhibit will remain open until September 3.