The period since the proclamation of Ukrainian independence and democratic has seen many positive changes in art, which have had a beneficent impact on the creativity of professional artists. At the same, the vulnerable social status of artists in Ukraine have led to specific changes in their lives and creativity.
The destinies of several professional painters from Chernivtsi (Bukovyna) — Valentyna Prokopenko, Klavdia Hrytsyk, Klavdia Hrebinshchyk, Zhanna Bashuk- Kirnadz, Elaida Neiman, and Lilia Shebriakova — are emblematic of the lot of many women in Ukrainian society. Although these artists differ in terms of style and technique, they are united by several undeniable characteristics: talent, individual creative approach, and above all a shared fate. Post-Soviet realities in Ukraine forced them to leave their forefathers’ land and resume their creative work abroad.
She came to Chernivtsi from Minsk after graduating from the Belarusian Drama and Art Institute in 1985. She plunged into her creative work and became a member of the National Artists’ Union of Ukraine in 1990. Her favorite genres are landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. She also created a series of figurative compositions. She never missed a single regional art exhibit and has taken part in nationwide shows. Her first solo exhibit was held in 1990.
Bashuk-Kirnadz’s decorative style is marked by restrained and harmonious color combinations. She spent a lot of time painting from nature, turning her sketches into full-fledged works of art in her studio. She lived in her husband’s rural home — she met him in Minsk, where he was serving in the army. Zhanna came to his native village of Ridkivtsi, Nova Selytsia raion, and settled in his parents’ home. After giving birth to two children, she and her husband started building a home of their own.
Bashuk-Kirnadz’s studio was in Chernivtsi, where she created beautiful poetic landscapes, canvases filled with wildflowers, and portraits. Her images were inspired by her village sojourn: “I live in a village, in open country. I go into the fields. Everything is gray and yellow there. I return home with a bouquet. I am fond of colors that are not too bright, like wormwood — I have painted it many times, but it seems that I still haven’t succeeded in conveying the silvery shade that so moves me...I have my own attitude to the Carpathian Mountains, which is different from Beklemisheva’s or Neiman’s, who have also portrayed them. I can choose a place for making sketches and immediately start ‘putting everything in a different place’ — I want to convey the state of nature, capture a particular moment...this is more of a recollection than anything concrete.”
The artist’s creative individuality quickly evolved while following a consistent course. The evolution of her painting showed that in depicting nature, this artist was rising to the level of image-bearing generalizations and embodiments of the supreme truth in her best works. Among her still-lifes and landscapes (Evening, Autumn, Bukovynian Motif, Crows, etc.) are programmatic works whose content is defined not so much by the subject as by a sharply emotional approach to the image. Decorativeness, artistry, as well as substantial and dense coloring, which replaced her sky-blue canvases (By a Drinking Well) define the plastic language of her latest creative period.
Ten years passed since Zhanna’s first solo exhibit. Devoted to her calling, she worked at an intensive pace, but material hardships were becoming harder to ignore. She could not expect any support from the Artists’ Union, which was experiencing an organizational and financial crisis. The price of paint, stretchers, brushes, and frames were soaring, and she had to struggle to survive. Zhanna began selling herring at the Kalynivka bazaar. For a while this work helped support her children and her husband, who had lost his job. There was no time and energy left for the studio or for making sketches from nature.
After every encounter with her I was saddened by what I saw in her eyes, which burned with the question, “Why?” Then, like most of our desperate and hard-working women, the 40-year-old artist from Bukovyna left for Europe — Italy. There she started working as a cleaning woman at a cafe; eventually the owner asked Zhanna to decorate the interior of the cafe with her works, which she was allowed to sell.
She admits that Bukovynian landscapes and flowers are still alive in her heart. With her powerful artistic potential, Zhanna thirsted for creativity. Working in Italy, she found the strength to paint landscapes and still-lifes while thinking about her native Bukovyna and acquainting emotional Italians with her native land.
Meanwhile, her studio in Chernivtsi was taken away from her.
The Bukovynian artist Valentyna Prokopenko arrived in Italy a bit earlier than Zhanna Bashuk-Kirnadz. She lives and works in Peruggia, where she owns a small ceramics workshop. After graduating from Vyzhnytsia’s College of Decorative and Applied Arts, Valentyna was first professionally drawn to ceramics.
After graduation she worked as an artist at a factory in the city of Hertsa. Then she was captivated by painting. Starting in the 1970s, she participated in art exhibits in Chernivtsi. As a young artist, she traveled to the House of Creativity in Sedniv as a member of an artists’ group sent by the Chernivtsi branch of the Artists’ Union. The scenic landscapes, the Snov River, pine forests, and boundless fields awakened her talent. She had a debut show together with Liubov Revutska, at the editorial office of the newspaper Molodyi bukovynets (The Young Bukovynian). After that, Valentyna’s paintings were regularly shown at regional art exhibits and later in Kyiv.
Her first solo exhibits took place in 1990-91. These works were marked by burgeoning colors, a sparkling game of sunshine, illuminated space, and the fragrant world of flowers. A new name had appeared in the circle of Bukovynian landscape artists.
She began working intensively to assert her talent. Valentyna continued her creative quest with great enthusiasm, painting new landscape series, sometimes giving preference to still-lifes marked by colorful and rich color interpretations and materiality. Her paintings became more balanced, and her image-bearing expressions grew more eloquent, governed by a certain plastic manner. Her artworks were soon recognizable in terms of style and other subtle overtones that make up an artist’s individuality.
With time it became apparent that her works were disappearing from exhibits. The reason was that Prokopenko, together with her daughter Iryna (also an artist), had challenged her fate by leaving Ukraine and settling in Italy. In 1998 she sent back a catalogue of her solo exhibit in Peruggia. It lists her earlier exhibits in Bulgaria and Italy, particularly in Corciano (1997), Peruggia, and Rome (1998).
Leafing through Prokopenko’s catalogue, you realize that a new series of still-lifes mark the artist’s evolution. Her paintings have acquired expressive decorativeness and pastosity (thickness and heaviness of the color layer). Some still-lifes feature a local color range: green-blue and ocher. In other floral compositions the canvas is packed with colorful petals forming a picturesque plane. What is clearly apparent is the artist’s self-sustaining capacity, the aesthetic level of her building brushstrokes, and temperamental blows of the paintbrush. Her hand has become surer and her manner less inhibited.
She wrote in a letter dated 1999: “I have mastered a pottery technique that was new to me: applying decorations on unfired smalt [ground glass of blue color]. I found myself captivated, so much so that painting is now of minor importance.” Iryna works in the Quattrocento style and specializes in large decorative platters, multi- character compositions of battle scenes.
The Bukovynian artist Valentyna Prokopenko continues to work creatively under new conditions and in a new environment. Let us hope that the Italian artistic mecca gives rise to another phase of her creative life.
The destiny of Elaida Neiman (1926-2003) followed the usual course, in accordance with the realities of post-Soviet Ukraine. She lived and did her creative work in Bukovyna for 43 years. Massive Jewish immigration to Israel, Europe, and the US, was typical in the 1970s and continued throughout the 1990s. Neiman left Bukovyna in 1993 and settled in New Orleans.
In 1951, after graduating from the Odesa Art College, Elaida moved to Chernivtsi, where she gradually made her name as a Ukrainian painter, mostly owing to her talent as a landscape artist. Bukovyna landscapes make up the bulk of her creative legacy, in which she used her undeniable talent to glorify her Carpathian Mountains, producing expressive images reflecting the scenic environs. Her works hang in a number of museums in Ukraine, Moldova, and Russia.
Neiman’s creativity covers half a century. She brought to life and at the same time defended her extraordinary talent through constant innovative work, always boldly perfecting her imagistic system and means of expression. Among her works are numerous landscape series (Across Bukovyna, Trees, The Baltic States), cityscapes) as well as a number of memorable portraits. The artist also painted many still lifes. Among these is her unforgettable and symbolic Memory (1982). Elaida talent comes through in her masterful watercolors and ceramic pieces. Her many admirers are moved by her refined sense of color and the power of emotions created by the artist’s masterful brushstrokes.
Artistic New Orleans made Elaida Neiman welcome. She writes: “They staged an art exhibit in honor of my 70th birthday. The college provided a hall with an area of 350 m?. It was large and sunlit. There were paintings on the walls and watercolors on the stands. The exhibit was a great success, and it was attended by representatives of the city and the mayor’s office.”
Shortly afterward, the 73-year-old Ukrainian painter made her first trip to Italy to explore its world-renowned museums. That was where she saw masterpieces of world art that are always reproduced in textbooks. Her impressions were tempestuous. She was overwhelmed with emotion after visiting Venice. Such emotions are germane to individuals raised in a closed society, people who have lived in Soviet times, most of whom were denied an opportunity to travel the world.
Bukovyna continued to knock at Elaida’s heart. In one of her letters she complained that she missed Chernivtsi and was planning a visit so that she could “pay homage to the graves” and “walk the streets, maybe get closer to the Carpathian Mountains, Shurdin Pass.” She wrote that she was working hard: “There are many themes. There is much that I would like to say with color on canvas. I have a lot of fantasies. God give me strength. But it is fading all the time. I am losing my eyesight, I have arthritis, but I am not complaining. I am still here. I am alive.”
Despite her illnesses, the artist continued to paint. She planned a project to mark her jubilee, which she called “Women and Flowers.” She was preparing for it, painting more pictures. On photo reproductions we see luxurious bouquets of flowers against an imaginary landscape. The coloring is chosen from nature: brilliant red roses are harmoniously paired with lilac-blue flowers similar to our irises. Her transparent yellow and orange flowers proudly tower over a white clay pot on a windowsill. Beyond them you see a fantastic seacoast painted with light brushstrokes, which is strongly reminiscent of her Baltic series. But the white and yellow chrysanthemums send an alarming signal against the backdrop of a restless, cloudy sky.
Neiman’s last exhibit of landscapes was held at a local art museum when she was recovering from surgery. It remained on display for more than three months, and Elaida lived to see it.
During her 10 years in the US the artist became aware that her creativity was forever connected with Bukovyna and Ukraine. She often mentioned this in her letters: “I am taking part in art exhibits by submitting my landscapes that show Bukovyna and the Carpathian Mountains. I am an artist from Bukovyna in Ukraine, and the label reads ‘Ukraine.’ No matter where I travel and no matter where I am, I am an artist from Bukovyna in Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian artist Elaida Neiman died in 2003 in New Orleans, a city located across the ocean from Ukraine. Bukovyna inspired her talent until her dying day.
Note: Today millions of Ukrainians are earning a livelihood abroad. Most of them are women, including a considerable number of artists.