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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Oleksandr Murashko’s quiet impressionism

9 June, 2011 - 00:00

May you be sincere and spontaneous in your creative work, just like children.

Oleksandr Murashko

 Sometimes a couple of strokes and touches suffice to render essential human truths. However, the search for those strokes might take a whole life, and one’s moral forces. It would be better to think that Oleksandr Murashko (1875-1919) became famous too late. It would also be a mistake to think that Europe acknowledged the unique impressionism of the Ukrainian artist as much as Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir or Paul Cezanne. Neither the artist’s tangled destiny nor the refined European public, not even the 19 years of Ukrainian painter Oleksandr Murashko’s creative work are to blame.

Whilst still a child the future artist attentively listened to fairytales and fantastic stories, Ukrainian legends and stories about Cossacks told by his grandmother, a simple peasant from Chernihiv region. However, the boy’s imagination pictured the stories on his own. A couple of motifs sufficed for Oleksandr to be able to create a whole epopee with bright and inimitable details. Back then the boy didn’t even suspect that he owned such a rare gift, enabling him to create whole worlds — unlimited, mysterious and unique.

Later, after his mother got married, the family moved to Chernihiv. His step-father Oleksandr accepted Sasha and even gave him a place in the iconographic workshop where the boy gradually adopted the artists’ practices. However, this was not what pushed him to become an independent artist, though the event changed his life dramatically. At the end of the 1880s their family moved to Kyiv. His step-father received an order for painting and had to leave Chernihiv, where little Sasha had started to settle in. Life in Kyiv beat to a strong rhythm, if only one could catch it. The young man witnessed miracles that seemed to be the realization of his dreams and fantasies. He met Viktor Vasnetsov, Mikhail Nesterov, and Adrian Prakhov who was in charge for the internal decoration of the newly built St. Vladimir Cathedral. The lather noticed the abilities of young Oleksandr Murashko and did his best to help him develop his talent in St. Petersburg. Later, as a mature artist, Murashko would paint the portrait of Prakhov, the wise and kind mentor who easily sat in his cabinet as if he was ready to attentively listen to everybody.

The Art Academy was the first step to realize his dreams. Less than two years later Oleksandr met Ilya Repin; previously Mykola Murashko, Oleksandr’s uncle, studied with Repin. Not only did Repin and Oleksandr’s uncle study together, but they remained friends for all their life. Murashko’s first attempt to enter the Academy was unsuccessful. But he got another chance: they just opened the High Art School at the Academy. Repin, who was known all over the Russian Empire, was not only a perfect teacher, but also his colleague, friend, and adviser. Murashko admired Repin’s creative energy. Students would spend nearly all of their time in the teacher’s studio and there Oleksandr adopted not only Repin’s realistic manner of painting but his lifestyle as well. Later the Ossetian artist Makharbek Tuganov would write about Repin and the realists: “The Cossacks give the key to the realists’ understanding of the historical painting. However, their aspiration to the historical truth and dropping painting tasks leads the realists to doubtfull photographic accuracy and to topics that are boring, both in their form and colors.” This gave Murashko an opportunity to go beyond the realistic conventions as the young artists won the trip to Europe.

However, before setting off at the turn of the century the painter created his program canvas The Ataman’s Funeral. Actually, this painting brought him a scholarship for his trip abroad. Repin definitely influenced his choice of the topic, the Cossacks’ culture and history. Unlike the masterpiece Cossacks Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan, Murashko’s heroes are absorbed by the anguish for their ataman. The woods around them seem to resonate with general sadness. Each detail is thoroughly painted and corresponds to a historical reality, the reflection of the funeral candles strengthens the tense atmosphere among the Cossacks. Not without reason Murashko attended his native Chernihiv region to copy the ancient clothes, arms and the color of the past. A couple of years later the artist would refuse from divulging excessive details: “Details don’t matter. What is essential is to understand the soul.” The sadness was quickly replaced by the joyous atmosphere that reigned back then in the cultural and artistic European environment.

The bright and concentrated Paris colors filled the artist’s soul. Murashko was amazed by the cultural contrast with gray and cloudy Petersburg. The first thing that moved his soul in Paris was the Louvre. Aside from Diego Velasquez’s and James Whistler’s works, young Murashko was keen on the academic impressionists and addressed their favorite themes: Paris streets, cafes and shops.

In Murashko’s opinion, French impressionists lacked austerity: their strokes were much too chaotic and the object was often hidden behind a veil of emotions. Prakhov had already told him about it: “Sasha will become a perfect painter but he needs to discipline his talent.” Finally, the young man had so many creative bursts and ambitions that he decided to go to Munich, where art nouveau reigned and quickly won the European public. The peculiarities of Munich art nouveau could be found in their use of a united concept, their thorough details, and addressing folk traditions and myths. Interestingly, the depths of old folk culture could inspire art nouveau. Certainly, Murashko improved his drawing at the Munich School, but the first thing that he memorized was the people. He synthesized the impressionists’ instructions concerning the real life and searches of the Munich modernists in folk culture and created his own unique style that didn’t resemble any of the ones presented in European art. Murashko created something phenomenal: he united directions that differed aesthetically and even often contradicted each other.

His painting Carousel (1906) brought him European renown and gold medal at the 10th International Munich Exhibit. This amazing canvas won over the Paris elite, the severe Munich, the avant-garde Vienne and other European cultural centers. In Carousel Murashko addressed his favorite folk theme, presented through the bright welcoming colors that gradually became his device. “I wanted to render the whole vortex of the carousel’s movement, the whole luster of its decorations, the embarrassment and joy of the village girls that came to the town,” he said. Murashko rendered the amazing depth of life through the quick episode from the perspective from ordinary people’s lives. We can say that Murashko’s impressionism had the modern exquisiteness yet didn’t lose the quiet light of life in the people’s eyes.

When Murashko came back to Kyiv he also depicted the city as a solar and light place. The artist always loved this city and never forgot that he started off. In Kyiv Murashko created his main portrait masterpieces without betraying Repin’s instructions and improving his own findings. The portrait of George Murashko, which his cousin painted in 1906 is like the canvas Annunciation Day.

The story of that painting is quite interesting. The Murashko family often received guests, which is why a girl that appeared on the porch wasn’t something extraordinary. The girl quietly moved the curtain aside and tripped into the living room. This prosaic episode made the artist consider the un-prosaic theme of the Annunciation. The girl on the porch was the prototype of the archangel Gabriel telling Maria about the Savior’s birth. Blue and yellow colors prevail and the events of cosmic scale are rendered quietly and even noiselessly; the everyday gestures prove the interconnection of the world. The Bible scene is somewhat surrealistic since Murashko managed to paint the visible and the invisible, both reality and mystical phantoms.

A couple of years after Annunciation Day was painted, in 1913 Murashko opened his own studio in the Ginzburg house in Instytutska Street. He taught at a high level there; it was close to Mykola Murashko’s pedagogic principles. Aside painting, they ran lectures on art history and philosophy that brought Murashko’s studio closer to the Petersburg environment and the European methodological teaching principles. The dreams and fantasies of the boy were realized. In 1917 they opened the Ukrainian Art Academy. It gathered such outstanding people as Mykhailo Boichuk, Heorhii Narbut, Fedir Krychevsky and Oleksandr Murashko, who headed one of the studios.

The life and canvas are alike. Murashko finally found a place where he would like to live. He even asked his friends painters to settle around his house in Lukianivka, trying to create an ideal world of pure art this way. Murashko made a lot of effort to create a Ukrainian artistic environment. Many didn’t like it as it openly contradicted their own plans, which didn’t coincide with the naive project of “some painter” even if he had gained European renown. Murashko was killed near his house on a quiet summer evening: nobody heard the shot in the back of the head. A shot in the back of his head took him away from this planet, and the colors of his worlds slowly cooled in the quiet hues of the permanent light.

By Maks KARPOVETS. Photos courtesy of the National Ukrainian Art Museum