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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

Yurii Khymych’s GENIUS LOCI

The Museum of Kyiv History displays works by a master of architectural landscape
26 February, 2014 - 17:21
ST. SOPHIA’S CATHEDRAL, 1964 / Illustration courtesy of the Museum of Kyiv History

Sixty two items of the exhibit “The Artist and the City” offer the spectator a most valuable retrospective review of the works the well-known Ukrainian master Yurii Khymych did from the 1940s until his death in 2003. Having chosen urban landscape as his mission, Khymych went through several artistic stages. He would radically change his manner of painting and views on the landscape genre’s essence. In each of his works, he strove to depict not only a physically visible object, but also a certain subtle atmosphere, an isolated nature of architecture. “The Artist and the City” displays works from the collection of Khymych’s son. The exhibit shows audiences a no longer existing city: you can see landscapes of the 1940s postwar Khreshchatyk and small houses on Andriivsky Uzviz, which were torn down long ago. The exposition’s idea is to show a close lyrical and emotional mutual penetration between the city and the artist.

“In my view, this exhibit is unique in that it displays, for the first time, his earliest works which are in fact very timid first attempts,” the artist’s son Mykhailo Khymych says. “For example, we have shown spectators father’s first self-portrait, where he is just 20 years old. He painted himself in 1948, when he was a student. And here, next to it, are quite professional watercolors of 1955. It is astonishing that his level of mastery grew noticeably in just a few years. In this short period, father managed to become one of the best watercolorists of his time. He belonged to the artists whose works have been recognized as classic today. Antiquarians highly esteem Khymych’s landscapes because they are of not only artistic, but also historic value. Artists like his works just because they are “painted well.”

It is difficult now to name any architectural landscape masters who can fill Yurii Khymych’s niche or even just come closer to his professional level. The most surprising thing in this artist is not only a virtuoso-style technique, but also a very particular gift to see architecture in his inimitable way. This rare capability testifies to his high standards as a personality, and it is not mere chance that nature vested him with not only an artistic, but also a poetic and musical, talent. As a subtle artist, Khymych used to pass his vision of architecture through an inner, strictly individual, prism and present the spectator with “his” St. Sophia’s, Lavra, Podil, and Andriivsky Uzviz.

He used to travel widely, and, thanks to his years-long efforts, Khymych’s descendants inherited a most valuable pictorial expression of the architectural treasures of Chersonesus and Bosporus, Bakhchysarai and Sudak, Lviv, Chernihiv, Uzhhorod, Drohobych, and Pereiaslav-Khmelnytsky, the Polish cities Krakow, Lublin, Wislica, as well as Helsinki and Prague.

Yet a precise, scrupulous, photography-like depiction of architecture had never attracted the artist. He could feel an inimitable essence of every building or complex, and in his easel pictures the artist strove to convey the living spirit of architecture. It is easy to trace the evolution of Khymych’s style at the exhibit “The Artist and the City,” if you compare his early watercolors and later pieces done with the gouache technique. The maestro’s late works are as uninhibited as can be – we can see an inimitable, grotesquely underlined “face” of an ancient building, which brilliantly conveys the very mood and atmosphere. Next to a decoratively generalized and summer-bright St. Sophia’s Cathedral, you can also see a dark, sleepy, and languid Kyiv Cave Monastery in the dusk light.

“The early 1960s saw a serious crisis of artistic values,” the artist’s son says. “Many artists opted for different ways. At the time, father suddenly stopped painting watercolors in a realistic manner and began to use other materials – in general, he changed his style. All his 1960s works were vaguely decorative, and I think it is the result of father’s friendship with Serhii Otroshchenko who was 15 years his senior. This change of manner was a very bold step then – moreover, it was a daredevil challenge of sorts. Many old-school artists interpreted this as something absolutely savage. Father’s abstract pictures became very well known, but, paradoxically, the next stage was the return to realism. However, it is an altogether different level – the 1980s works bear the traces of his early watercolors and a respectful attitude to nature, so typical of the previous years, but they also clearly outline heritage of the decorative period. I will add that, even though father was not an officially “banned artist,” his works sold badly and were looked down upon by many colleagues and critics. In other words, his works were destined to gather dust in a storeroom. He only earned a living by teaching. His students were architects, not artists, because father worked in quite a narrow and particular genre of architectural landscape. Father has pupils and followers, such as the now active restorers Yurii Losytsky, who has restored the Guest Yard and the fountain Samson, and Dmytriievych, the restorer of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral.”

Adherence to professional principles and true interest in his work accompanied Yurii Khymych through his lifetime. It is significant that, after the end of the exhibit, the collection of the Museum of Kyiv History will acquire dozens of works by the famous master of architectural landscape. This will enable next generations’ Kyivites to see the historically valuable pictures of the Kyiv they do not know. It is only natural for a museum that is supposed to preserve the history of Kyiv to expand its collection, for Yurii Khymych’s works are widely known in Ukraine and have been properly filling museum collections in Russia, the Baltic states, and Poland for many years as well as are part of the private collections of William Miller and Carlos Pascual, the former US ambassadors to Ukraine.

Yurii Khymych’s oeuvre, which brilliantly reflected the city’s atmosphere, will remain open for visitors in two halls of the Museum of Kyiv History until March 4.

By Olena SHAPIRO, art historian