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Henry M. Robert

Ukrainian art nouveau

The National Art Museum, now in the epicenter of Hrushevsky Street disturbances, has launched a new project that is drawing capacity audiences
3 February, 2014 - 17:45

Even though the National Art Museum of Ukraine is situated in the very epicenter of Maidan events at 6, Hrushevsky St., a lot of heroic spectators wished to visit the exhibit “Ukrainian Line of Art Nouveau.” Thematic excursions bring together art nouveau enthusiasts of different ages: married couples, students, pensioners, connoisseurs of art, professional artists, and art critics.

Pictures by such very gifted artists as Vsevolod Maksymovych, Abraham Manievich, Heorhii Narbut, Oleksandr Bohomazov, Fedir Krychevsky, Oleksa Novakivsky, and Petro Kholodny from the collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine, as well as from that of the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts, the Museum of the History of Kyiv, the museums of Kharkiv, Sumy, Dnipropetrovsk, Poltava, and Lebedyn, show various stages in the development of this style. The high-profile national art project, which is intended to revive the history and glory of Ukrainian art nouveau, has been supplemented with very interesting paintings and household items from the private collections of Kyiv and Lviv.

The art nouveau style, which emerged at the turn of the 20th century, found a brilliant expression in all the arts, including easel painting, book illustration, architecture, sculpture, and decorative and applied art. In every country, the “grand style” combined ornamentality, symbolism, plasticity, and decorativeness with the ethnic traditions of professional and folk art. “Ukrainian masters managed to find an ‘art nouveau line” of their own and attach authentic features to it, enrich it with Ukrainian symbols, and show its harmony with worldwide art processes,” exhibit curator Olha Zhbankova says.

What is typical of art nouveau is the “cult of beauty for beauty’s sake” and special panestheticism – sometimes a refined and beautiful form becomes far more important than the content. Ornamentality and decorativeness are the center of a composition. The color itself, very often in dissonance with reality, is artificial and gaudy for a greater effect. Book illustrations, graphics, easel paintings, and decorative objects feature such an important element as an ever-spiraling line that is justly called “whiplash.”

Even in easel-painted landscapes, linearity comes to the fore and emphasis is put on a refined coloring. A mythological scene is often the theme of a canvas. A typical examples of this kind of works is Anxiety and Wave by Mykhailo Sapozhnikov, A Sea Wave by Volodymyr Bobrytsky, and Maximilian Voloshin’s superb watercolors Lava’s Symmetry, A Tortoise-Shaped Bay, and A Sea Fantasy.

Vsevolod Maksymovych, a brilliant representative of art nouveau, advanced the idea of “beautiful sinfulness.” The British historian John Bowlt gave a very meaningful and exact description of this master’s huge pictures: “The sticky tentacles of his compositions embrace an amber-lit space filled with mad ephebes, sinful Apollos, Dionysus’s nymphs, and lustful Argonauts.”

The artist’s best known works, kept in the National Art Museum’s collection, are displayed at the exhibit “Line of Ukrainian Art Nouveau.” They are the famous Self-Portrait, the pictures Banquet, The Argonauts, and A Kiss (The Lovers). Maksymovych’s graphic works, illustrations to Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and a series of preparatory sketches, allow the spectator to have an idea about the artistic manner of the “Ukrainian Beardsley.”

Strictly speaking, Maksymovych is an epigone, but his works are weightier than the grotesque and refined pictures by Aubrey Beardsley. By contrast with the English master, he clearly preferred the powerful Ancient Greek and Roman figures rather than King Arthur-era knights and ladies. Maybe, Maksymovych gravitated to athletes because he himself was a member of the Atlantic Society and used to take a very active part in competitions.

Oleksandr Bohomazov’s oeuvre is represented by several graphic works. Audiences will be struck by the austere black-and-white laconism and a brilliantly-thought-out composition of the landscapes Finland, Lake, and Kyiv. A Landscape.

Speaking of landscapes, we should single out paintings by Abraham Manievich. His pictures show refined linearity, surprising dynamism, and the unusual combinations of a subtle gamut of colors. The landscapes Spring in Kurenivka and The Dnipro near Kyiv are the best examples of his oeuvre, which display an emphasized decorativeness of coloring – a thing typical of this author. The lyrical cordiality of the artist’s canvases cannot leave the spectator indifferent. David Burliuk has justly and very correctly called him “conductor of the orchestra, in which colors play in unison without a single false note.” Manievich not only painted the hills of ancient Kyiv, he also often depicted small Ukrainian provincial towns, such as Vinnytsia and Fastiv.

The well-known colorist Oleksa Novakivsky is represented at the exhibit by several works. When he was taught, as a student, in Krakow by the Polish artists Wladyslaw Luszczkiewicz and Jan Stanislawski, he embraced the principles of impressionism and modernism which were typical of Western Europe in the late 19th century. The master would create pictures that show an especially tense coloring typical of the artists of the Young Poland association. Novakivsky’s bold and dynamic style of painting immediately rivets the eyes of a spectator to the picture, although some of his canvases project vagueness which would look more natural in a sketch. The exhibited Portrait of a Woman is the artist’s experimental attempt to apply all the shades of white color as well as shadow effects and reflexes. For this reason, the spectator focuses more of his/her attention on the decorativeness of color and the linearity of rhythms than on the psychological message of the portrait itself. Also rather interesting in terms of composition and coloring is his picture Leda, a flower still life painted in quite a juicy and lively manner.

Incidentally, flowers are a self-sufficient theme in the art nouveau style – they occur in many works if not overtly then covertly in the shape of inventive and refined ornaments. The book illustrations, pictures, and drawings are generously studded with plant-related elements which are sometimes stylized and simplified to a schematic mark. Floral motifs occur in many exhibited pictures, including White and Black, and the sketches Lily and Chrysanthemum by the artist Mykhailo Zhuk.

Striving to show the art nouveau style in all its multiplicity, the exhibit curator Olha Zhbankova also offers audiences some interesting objects of decorative art, including a glass bead-embroidered handbag, gloves, an old-style woman’s dress exquisitely adorned with tiny glass beads, and early 20th-century custom-made embroidered items.

All the five halls of the exposition allow the spectator to discover different facets in the oeuvre of the Ukrainian masters who used to create marvelous artworks. It is also interesting that some works are dated 1914, which means that these items are 100 years old now. The exhibition of the “grand style” heritage also displays, quite successfully, some examples of architectural art nouveau, which have been restored and are in good shape now. They are shown by way of slides on a monitor in one of the halls.

The exhibit “Ukrainian Line of Art Nouveau” is open to visitors until February 9.

By Olena SHAPIRO, art critic. Photos courtesy of the National Art Museum of Ukraine