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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

Unbridled Ukraine

How landscapes by Serhii Vasylkivsky turned into a way to declare the victory of Ukrainian spirit and why Saint Petersburg Art Academy did not confer a title of an academician on him
17 June, 2013 - 17:58

On May 31, 2013 the opening of the exhibition titled “Serhii Vasylkivsky. Ukrainian Life of a Wild Field” from the collection of the Kharkiv Art Museum took place at Andrei Sheptytsky National Museum. The exhibition of art work by Vasylkivsky runs in Lviv within the framework of the project “Guest Museum.” The Day reported about this project in an article “Artists unite Kharkiv and Lviv” by Olha Kharchenko.

Serhii Vasylkivsky was the first artist in the Russian Empire, who managed to combine landscape genre with history of Ukrainian people. Most of his paintings were destroyed by fire during the World War II. Over 1,000 of the paintings got burned in the museums of Kharkiv and Poltava. Some of them simply disappeared. But the best ones, and there are up to 500 of them, survived. The largest collection of works by Vasylkivsky that is now presented in Lviv was preserved in Kharkiv Art Museum.

The artist was born in a small town Izium to a family of a highly respected scribe of Cossack ancestry Ivan Vasylkivsky. Soon, in 1861 the Vasylkivsky family moved to Kharkiv. This is where the artistic talent of young Serhii became evident: he had a nice voice, played bandura and pipe, and also got fascinated with painting – he drew nice illustrations to the songs he performed.

Nationally conscious intellectuals noticed the talents of the young boy. A drawing teacher from a gymnasium, fellow student of Taras Shevchenko from the workshop of Karl Bryullov, a former slave Dmytro Bezperchy got interested in the artistic abilities of Vasylkivsky. A relative of Bezperchy Volodymyr Aleksandrov let the boy use his library, which, despite the tzar’s orders and prohibitions, contained Taras Bulba, Decameron, Eneida, and Kobzar.

After having listened to lyrical songs, reading historical books, and mastering the basics of drawing taught by Bezperchy, young romantic Vasylkivsky perceived painting as a great beneficial power capable of making the Man out of a man.

Vasylkivsky successfully graduated from Kharkiv Gymnasium in 1876 and entered the Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. He was 21 then. Vasylkivsky passed a course of plaster heads in six months and already next fall he drew nude posers. In May of 1879 he received his first academic award – Small Silver Medal, for a sketch from a nude. The studies had been difficult. Vasylkivsky could not afford to pay for decent housing and that’s why lived in a sort of attic of an academic building, cold and poorly furnished to serve as a home, together with other poor students like him – Porfyrii Martynovych, Opanas Slastion, Yan Tsiohlinsky. The young artists had some random side jobs – retouching daguerreotypes and also copying the works of “pastoral romance” that were in fashion back then. Copying the works by Ivan Aivazovsky and Andreas Achenbach, the young artist also got interested in this genre of painting. Therefore, since January of 1879 he regularly attended “classes of landscape painting” conducted by professors Mikhail Klodt and Volodymyr Orlovsky.

Since that time the landscape became favorite and leading genre in the art work of the artist. Vasylkivsky was in his twenties. He completed the training program fully and successfully. He received five small and large silver medals, many awards and acknowledgement. The catalogue of the Russian Academic Art Exhibition of 1885 contains replicas of three of his works: Spring in Ukraine, Stone Beam, and On the Outskirts. All of them were presented against the background of the exhibited academic and classic landscapes – picturesque views of Ukrainian nature.

The painting Na Dintsi created the same year was awarded with the Large Golden Medal by the Saint Petersburg Art Academy and Vasylkivsky received a title of “class artist of the first degree” for “excellent knowledge of painting” revealed in it and was granted a right for “pension trip” to Europe for four years to improve skills at the expense of the Academy. In fact, this painting (unfortunately, lost and known only from the pre-war replicas and reviews of the art critics of that time) finally determined Vasylkivsky as a talented artist and nationally-aware Ukrainian citizen.

In late April of 1886 the artist went to Paris. He visited Germany, Italy, Spain, Algeria, and England, where he diligently studied classical world artistic heritage in the largest and most famous museums in Europe. While being abroad, he created a number of paintings that were highly appreciated by artistic community in France. After their first release on that famous exhibition at the Paris Salon Vasylkivsky gained recognition and the right to exhibit his works there out of competition. Very few foreign artists were honored with such privilege.

After spending two years abroad, in April 1888 the artist returned to Kharkiv. He already knew how to create beauty, he knew that the beauty was in the truth, no matter how bitter it might be, but it had to be humane… After a long stay abroad, the artist missed greatly the idealized “little white huts with straw roofs, cherry garden near every home, red roses, sprawling willow over the pond, blooming sunflower in the garden…”

Vasylkivsky somehow managed to escape the superficial admiration of Ukraine as the “new Italy,” inherent to many academic artists of the Russian Empire. He belonged to that small part of Ukrainian artists, who, after receiving professional education in the Northern Palmyra, realized that they, born and raised in Ukraine, had to live and work for their homeland.

After Vasylkivsky returned to Ukraine, his paintings became more social and nationally determined. The artist was looking for beauty not in manor houses with lined, as if with a ruler, strewn with yellow sand paths that run among flagrantly artificial trees (which were the favorite objects for drawing for the students of the Academy, who came to Ukraine on vocation), but, instead, in the motifs of the mighty woods or lush meadows. He was not attracted by the palaces of the nobility, who followed the Moscow fashion. Instead, he drew huts with straw roofs, peasant yards, outskirts of provincial towns inhabited by autochthonous population. Vasylkivsky interpreted these views not like the environment for entertainment but a place of everyday life of common people.

The artist also worked in historic genre and created his first historical painting Battle of Zaporozhian Cossacks with Tatars during his studies at the Academy. With his later paintings on historical subjects, interpreted through the prism of the landscape genre, Vasylkivsky established himself as an artist, who skillfully and subtly avoided the tsar’s prohibitions, felt deeply and accurately reproduced the images of the heroic and romantic past of the Ukrainian people.

Analyzing Vasylkivsky’s paintings presented at the Russian Exhibition Khudozhestvennye Novosti magazine wrote in 1889: “Each of these paintings is a real masterpiece” with “great artistic refined style of painting, exquisitely modest colors that perfectly convey light and air…”

For paintings created during the academic pension trip, Vasylkivsky had to receive the title of an Academician in 1890. But he was never conferred to such title, since he fell short of expectations of “the pontiffs of academic art,” who, full of chauvinism, believed that his paintings “breathed peasant, even haidamak spirit.” Angered by such conclusion, the artist broke every connection with the Academy as a sign of a protest.

In 1900 a large album From Ukrainian Antiquities was published by A. Marx Publishing House in Saint Petersburg. It’s an expensive tome in which the historian Dmytro Yavornytsky provides a thorough and interesting history of Ukraine through the major milestones and Vasylkivsky created 20 documentary portraits of peasants and city dwellers, harpers and Cossacks. Along with color portrait-types on every page, there were masterly drawings (genre scenes) by Mykola Samokysh. This book became a worthy continuation of the Picturesque Ukraine by Taras Shevchenko and it aimed at spreading the true knowledge of the historical past of Ukraine among the citizens of the Russian Empire. The same noble purpose had the book Motifs of Ukrainian Ornaments of the 17th-18th Centuries, painted by Vasylkivsky and issued somewhat later.

On July 23, 1903 grand jury, despite the Valuev Circular, approved the project for building of the provincial Zemstvo in Poltava, more commonly known in the literature as the home of Poltava Zemstvo, designed by architect Vasyl Krychevsky. Vasylkivsky was assigned to do the interior decoration of the newly constructed building. The artist decided to create three large compositions (four by ten meters) which would portray Ukraine in its historical development. One of the paintings depicted Cossack Holota, who wins Tatar warrior in a fight in the middle of a steppe (Cossack Holota), another one presents Ukrainian chumak’s path that runs across the boundless steppe (Path to Romodan), and the third one depicts Poltava Cossacks and the Commonwealth who elect a colonel at a public meeting (Elections of Colonel Martyn Pushkar). The paintings were created on canvases and then inserted into niches of special size and elegantly fringed with strips of Ukrainian folk ornament.

Although these paintings (and, unfortunately, they did not survive), more monumental in their design than required by structure, despite the large size, are closer to the easel painting, still their author can be considered a forerunner of the Ukrainian monumental painting of the early 20th century at least in the form he managed to create at that time.

By Yaroslav KRAVCHENKO, Ph.D. in Art History. Photo replicas provided by the author