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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

From Siberia to Polissia

An artistic portrait of monumental painter Hryhorii Dovzhenko
5 June, 2014 - 11:27

Hryhorii “Hrytsko” Dovzhenko was born on April 22, 1899 in the picturesque village of Poltavka near Mykolaiv. On finishing the local school in 1913, the 14-year-old boy and his parents move to Siberia, near Akmolinsk. A keenness on painting brought him to the Fine Arts Courses, where he spent 1916-17 studying under Yulian Kurtukov and Valentin Volkov and made his first acquaintances with the Itinerants’ realistic oil painting technique.

In the fall of 1921 the Dovzhenkos returned to Ukraine, settling in the village of Bashtanky. Next year Hryhorii enrolled in the Arts Institute in Odesa, where he studied under Professor Danylo Krainiev. As a third year student, he transferred to the department of monumental applied art, to the workshop of Professor Komar, an experienced monumental artist who followed in the tracks of Italian Renaissance masters. During his numerous visits to Kyiv, Dovzhenko got acquainted with the artistic practices of Professor Mykhailo Boichuk’s monumental workshop and befriended monumental art students from the Kyiv Arts Institute. There Dovzhenko found himself in a circle of like-minded people, as he too shared the Boichukists’ principles of “the development of monumental and various forms of industrial decorative and applied art.” In 1925 Dovzhenko joined the Association of Revolutionary Art of Ukraine (ARMU).

The young artist, who had won a sketch competition, together with Professor Komar participated in painting the Eastern Chamber of Commerce in Odesa in 1927. A number of ornamental decorative compositions and eight scene paintings were executed in egg tempera al secco. The graphic sharpness of figures felicitously combined with the wealth of traditional Ukrainian color scheme and the rhythm of Eastern miniatures.


In the summer of 1928 Dovzhenko, together with a group of the Odesa Arts Institute graduates, was invited to execute monumental paintings in the Peasants’ Sanatorium at the Khadjibey Estuary. The acquaintance with Boichuk and a group of his pupils (Mykola Rokytsky, Maria Yunak, Kyrylo Hvozdyk, Manuil Shekhtman, Onufrii Biziukov) greatly influenced the young painter. According to his later reminiscences, the peasants who entered the new sanatorium for the first time admired the murals: “As beautiful as inside a church!”

After his graduation in 1928, Dovzhenko worked as an artist at the First National Film Factory in Odesa, where he met outstanding masters of the Ukrainian cinematography, Oleksandr Dovzhenko and Ivan Kavaleridze. In 1930 he was invited to teach drawing and painting to architecture students of the Kyiv Arts Institute. However, the political situation and the tensions among the faculty had negative consequences for the artist, who was fired in 1936.

In the first days of the war Dovzhenko was evacuated to Tajikistan. He returned to Kyiv in 1945 and began working at the newly created Institute of Monumental Painting and Sculpture under the Ukrainian Academy of Architecture on the “developing the issues of synthesis of arts.” Dovzhenko invented the technique of carving on raw plaster with PVC resin-based paintings. Meanwhile, he advocates the revival of the tempera fresco and mosaic techniques. Thus, the late 1940s and 1950s become the years completely devoted to monumental art.

Under the influence of his old-time friends (in particular, Serhii Kolos, Ivan Vrona, Okhrym Kravchenko, and Onufrii Biziukov), who returned to his circle of fellow artists in the late 1960s and 1970s, Dovzhenko tackles the themes of the nation’s historical past. So were created the mosaics and murals with themes of Kyivan Rus’ and Khmelnytsky’s rebellion. A special place among the works of this period belongs to the mosaic Kyi, Schek, Khoryv and Their Sister Lybid on the facade of Rovesnyk Cinema in Kyiv (1971), where the author relied on the optical coloristic properties of smalt, the favorite material of ancient Ukrainian masters. In the artist’s studio, next to the easel paintings (landscapes, still lifes, and portraits of artists) stood miniature frescoes and sketches, made “just for himself” and strikingly reminiscent of the painting techniques of his Boichukist friends in the 1920s.

Dovzhenko passed away one day before his birthday, on April 21, 1980. The public was able to appreciate his artistic heritage at his posthumous personal exhibit in 1983, organized by the painter’s family and friends. I saw last these gems of Boichukism a couple of years ago at the studio of Dovzhenko’s daughter at Zhylianska Street in Kyiv. However, Lesia Dovzhenko is no longer with us.

By Yaroslav KRAVCHENKO, Ph.D. in Art History. Photo replicas of the paintings courtesy of the author