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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

Painting will make us free

The works of the legendary Alla Horska are on display in Kyiv’s Dukat Gallery
18 September, 2017 - 17:32

Today, when we say “Alla Horska,” we often mean the life story of this remarkable person, but we ought to mean her painting legacy. After all, the life of any artist, the meaning of their existence, their ticket to Eternity is precisely in it – in their creative legacy. For that matter, Horska herself fought the KGB in defense of freedom: the freedom of thought, the freedom of self-expression. After all, creativity is the supreme form of human freedom.

Unlike Horska the human rights activist, Horska the artist is, paradoxically, little known even in Ukraine itself. This statement is proven once again by a recent Kyiv scandal around the unique monumental panel Wind (1967) by Alla Horska, Viktor Zaretsky and Borys Plaksii on the facade of the former restaurant Vitriak (The Windmill), located in Akademika Hlushkova Street. The mosaic had been boarded-up for a long time. Meanwhile, this May, the new owners of what has become a modern restaurant in the VDNKh neighborhood attached its signboard on top of the panel. The “unnecessary” image was hidden under a special gypsum layer. Thank God they did not dismantle it, like the stained glass panel Shevchenko. Mother was in the Red Building of Kyiv University in 1964. Art expert Yevhenia Moliar sounded alarm. As a result of protests by intellectuals, Wind has been opened for viewing (Den wrote about it in “We Are in the Art Wilderness,” No. 86, May 24, 2017).


However, do we really care about Wind (even though this is the only work of Horska the monumental artist in Kyiv)? The legacy of Horska the graphic artist, the painter, the scenographer, too, is hardly ever displayed in the capital. So how can modern regular citizens know who she was at all? Some paintings by the artist pop up here and there in various museums, especially when they are holding thematic collective exhibitions of the Sixtiers. (By the way, the family archive and collection of works by Horska and Viktor Zaretsky were donated by the son and biographer of the creative pair Oleksii Zaretsky to the National Museum of Ukrainian Literature in 1996). Even more frequently in recent years, they can be seen at Kyiv art auctions. But... Despite her creative legacy being well-preserved, Horska does not have even a small permanent exhibition of her own, unlike Kateryna Bilokur and Maria Prymachenko. It is impossible to make an idea of the artist’s work in general, to get a “monographic” impression.

This is very sad. Indeed, judging by even a small but solo exhibition at the Dukat Gallery in Kyiv (there are only 34 works on display there, a considerable part of which are theatrical sketches, plus wood collages which are exhibited for the first time), Horska is quite comparable, for example, to the Mexican Frida Kahlo who is currently super-popular the world over. The similarity goes beyond their colorful and tragic fates. As in the case of Kahlo, the scale of talent, the shining quality and the extraordinariness of the works themselves are not inferior to the biography of the human rights activist herself. However, as long as one does not see these pictures with bold lines and pure colors borrowed from folk art, the very life story of their author seems to be fading, becoming schematic and... false. After all, freedom is creativity.


The comparison with Kahlo comes to mind not by chance, nor was it by accident that we mentioned the mosaic, Horska’s “public art.” It was in the early 1960s (the artist’s works on display at the Dukat belong to this period) that she discovered muralism for herself. Horska then began to dream of creating a Ukrainian school of monumental art. When she was expelled from the Union of Artists and denied the right to sign her own works, she joked sadly: “Long live the underground activity in monumental art!” Some influence was exerted by Hryhorii Synytsia, a pupil of the Boichukist Mykola Rokytsky. (But, nevertheless, it was an independent choice for Horska, logical in terms of the evolution of her work which was just as introspective as the artist herself.) Synytsia saw “not the size, but the philosophical content” as a “sign of true monumentality in art.” He tried to combine the ideas of Mykhailo Boichuk with the works of Mexican muralists Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros, and Jose Clemente Orozco. In particular, instead of drawing upon the fine arts tradition of Byzantium and frescoes of Kyivan Rus’, as the Boichukists once did, he and other like-minded artists turned to the traditions of folk culture, only it was our, Ukrainian culture instead of that of the Mexican Indians.

What could the modern Ukrainian muralism look like (if Horska, the Sixtiers movement, and before that Boichuk were not killed just as they were taking off), can be imagined also only after visiting a more or less representative exhibition of the artist, like that in the Dukat. Yes, these temperas and even graphic works are surprisingly reminiscent of contemporary murals. Only scales are too small, and the creator’s talent, on the contrary, is much too large if compared with what we see in contemporary Kyiv. Also, the subjects and colors of the images are purely Ukrainian. Boichuk and his school were several years ahead of the Mexican muralists when they painted the Lutsk barracks in Kyiv in 1919. But we can say that, based on three traditions at once – that of Boichuk, folk art, and Siqueiros with Rivera and Orozco – the Kyivan Horska anticipated the neo-expressionism of Jean-Michel Basquiat. One gets an incredible impression after seeing the works from the gallery of portraits of national heroes “from Yaroslav the Wise to Vasyl Stus” which was conceived by the artist in 1965. (The exhibition includes famous portraits of Ivan Svitlychny and Vasyl Symonenko.) And, of course, Wrathful Taras depicts an angered Taras Shevchenko. Surprisingly, sketches for the stained glass panels Shevchenko. Mother and Starry Integral (based on Lina Kostenko) look entirely Basquiatan (although we are not speaking here about literal similarity, of course). They were created only a couple of years after the birth of the Brooklyn genius. When you look at the blue-and-yellow female figure in the work Near the River, you forget about Basquiat (unfortunately, he was unlikely to be very interested in Ukraine) as well as about the brilliant pair of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. No comparisons really work anymore. Were our public space to become decorated with such murals, Ukraine itself would have become another country a long time ago. It would have become free. Meanwhile, politics and everyday life are all just derivatives of freedom...

The exposition “Alla Horska: Paintings and Graphics” can be visited till October 1.

By Hanna PAROVATKINA. Photos by Artem SLIPACHUK, The Day