Reclaiming Ukraine’s Heritage: A Closer Look at HUS’s Ukrainian Modernism Issue

September 29, 2020
Pages 392-3 of the HUS modernism volume

This volume of the journal Harvard Ukrainian Studies speaks to one of the core motivations for founding HURI: to know and protect Ukraine's heritage from erasure, both at home and abroad. HUS 36, no. 3–4 is available in print and in digital form on the HUS website. See the issue's front matter, including contributors and table of contents.

What is "modernism"? For starters, it encompasses a number of smaller “isms”: symbolism, futurism, cubofuturism, constructivism, expressionism, to name a few. An artistic movement that affected the look, feel, and ideology of art in all of its forms, modernism could generally be described as a rejection of the literal sensibilities of realism in exchange for a focus on the art itself as an expressive form. In literature, it allows the author to show off his or her skill with language and doing literature as a craft (albeit often with a message). In visual art, it incorporates everyday objects into art and uses shapes, colors, varied planes, and adaptations to focus more on the art itself than the subject it presents. It has, in other words, a self-awareness that celebrates the skill of the hand (and mind) that made it. It highlights the author and problematizes his relationship with the audience—and it is particularly open to experimentation.

Modernism as an artistic movement emerged world-wide at the end of the 19th century. Within the Soviet Republics, by the end of the 1920s, modernism faced repression and ‘purging’ in favor of the party line, or “socialist realism.”  In the modernist art that did assert itself before that obligatory shift, many Ukrainian artists were later cast as part of the Russian tradition: the Russian avant-garde in particular. Their works, however, manifestly speak to their national heritage, to the complex colonial relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and to the diversity of identities in Ukrainian society. 

HUS journal cover mockupHUS 36, no. 3–4 reclaims these artists and their works for Ukraine, positioning them within the context of their Ukrainian roots and showcasing their unique contribution to the broader global tradition of modernism. By doing so and by presenting analyses of these artistic works in one of the premier academic forums in Ukrainian studies, HUS puts these artists and their work on the map as an important piece of Ukraine’s cultural tradition. Furthermore, it encourages Ukrainians to claim them as their own and to internalize these works as core components of the country’s artistic development, as an expression of Ukraine’s modernity, and as a foundation on which to build and explore Ukraine’s culture.

The articles in HUS are not the first step in this project; rather, they build on work that has been done over the course of several decades. In his introduction to the issue, George G. Grabowicz traces this process of identifying artists and examining their Ukrainian context, calling special attention to exhibitions in Germany and France in 1993-4 and in Chicago and New York in 2006-7. Following the latter, HURI hosted an international conference on Ukrainian modernism organized by the then HURI director Michael S. Flier and his colleague John Malmstad of Harvard’s Slavic Department; its proceedings are the foundation of this special journal issue edited by Flier.

Many of the artists studied in the issue are familiar names—Kazimir Malevich, David Burliuk, and Alexander Archipenko, for instance. This collection is unique in how it presents the Ukrainian historical context, brings together discussions on various forms of art, and showcases the development of these artists over time and in conversation with their influences.

Here, we take a closer look at the issue, which contains 112 high-resolution images of the artwork discussed in these articles across a full spectrum of art: paintings, sculpture, book design, theater, and literature. We asked HUS editor Halyna Hryn and Prof. George Grabowicz to offer additional insight into why this issue is an especially important contribution to Ukraine’s national identity and for Western academia’s understanding of Ukraine. 

What is Ukrainian modernism? 

In his concluding remarks at the 2007 conference, Malmstad noted, “Ukrainian modernism and Russian modernism have a great deal in common. [...] They share concerns: with what is identity, what is national, what is international. They share styles in a way that Russian and Ukrainian art share with no other art.” However, he continued, modernist art “undeniably took on national characteristics in Russia and Ukraine.”

Referring to Georgy Kovalenko’s article, Hryn pointed to the choice of color palette and use of color as a distinct feature of the work of Ukrainian modernist artists. Kovalenko writes: 

“The differences lie, above all, in the area of color content. The foundation for [Alexandra] Exter’s color was the canons of Ukrainian folk art: its color patterns and compositional principles. Moreover, she used them consciously and programmatically: in Exter’s view, the new [abstract] painting was not at all an ‘international style’ but rather art that logically developed the national traditions of art of the preceding epochs.” (p. 391)

This use of color was not limited to Exter nor to painting; other artists from Ukraine, such as Burliuk and Malevich, incorporated a palette inspired by traditional arts and crafts, and the trend also appeared in theater set design, as well as in book design. 

Anatol' Petryts'kyi's set design for Gogol's Vii
Anatol' Petryts'kyi's set design for Gogol's Vii. Watercolor and gouache on paper (1924). Collection of the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine, Kyiv. Featured on p. 395 in Georgy Kovalenko's article.
Vasyl' Iermilov's cover art for journal Avanhard
Vasyl' Iermilov's cover art for the journal Avanhard. Paper, India ink, gouache (1928-1929). Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Featured on p. 382 in Olga Lagutenko's article.


Kazimir Malevich's The Carpenter
Kazimir Malevich's The Carpenter. Plywood, oil (1928-1929). State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Featured on p. 303 in Jean-Claude Marcade's article.
Oleksandr Bohomazov's Sharpening Straws
Oleksander Bohozamov's Sharpening Straws (Pravka pyl). Oil on canvas (1927). Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Featured on p. 305 in Jean-Claude Marcade's article.

Yet despite the presence of traditional arts and crafts characteristics in modernist artwork, the tradition as a whole transcends stereotypes and essentialist understandings of what it means to be “Ukrainian.” Grabowicz describes a vital paradigm shift this volume makes and requires:

“A common assumption is that ‘Ukrainian’ describes an object or person in an ethnic way. Further, some people think that influence from Russia—such as artistic training—makes the resulting work less Ukrainian, or that different ethnic groups within Ukraine—the Jews, for example—are not part of the Ukrainian tradition.”

This leads to a narrow view of Ukrainian art that excludes important works, artists, and processes that are rightfully part of Ukraine’s cultural heritage.

“The paradigm shift this volume makes is very important because it reflects reality. It is, in a sense, implicitly post-colonial, and it shows a very vibrant and interesting phenomenon which, because of an inability to properly assess it or to know how to look at it, was previously not noticed. Here we have a tradition of Ukrainian modernism not as ethnic art, not as something nativist or derivative, but as skilled, as contemporary, and at the same time as a development of native traditions.”

Letting go of an essentialist, let alone nativist, view of what is ‘Ukrainian’ does not mean the artists in question ignored or rejected their ethnicity and culture. On the contrary, as noted, many of them incorporated elements of their heritage into their work. This, and especially the historiography that is applied here, reflects a turn toward civic instead of ethnic nationalism. It broadens the category of ‘Ukrainian,’ and enlarges the canon of cultural works.

Traversing modernisms

HUS’s Ukrainian Modernism uniquely “serves up the full spectrum of modernism, from symbolism to the avant-garde,” Hryn said. “Myroslava Mudrak’s article on symbolism is particularly interesting in how she draws the connection between symbolism and art nouveau, with its elegant stylized flowing foliage and floral elements, through folklore and historical legend, to the Hylean futurism of David Burliuk and his circle."

Mykhailo Zhuk's White and Black, 1912-14
Mykhailo Zhuk's White and Black. Paper, gouache, pastel, watercolor (1912-14). Private collection of Taras Maksymiuk, Odesa. Image courtesy of Pavlo Gudimov Ya Gallery Art Center, Kyiv. Photography: Oleg Synkov. Featured on p. 310 in Myroslava Mudrak's article.

“At the other end of the spectrum is the avant-garde, which includes artists like Burliuk (a futurist) and Iermilov (a constructivist). As it developed in the Soviet Union, the avant-garde often focused on the practical aspect—furniture, pottery, architectural design, and so on (as did, of course, the Bauhaus movement in Germany)—as well as on futuristic industrial constructions. The simplest objects are incorporated into the artistic tradition,” Hryn explained. The theater sets discussed in Kovalenko's article show both a dynamic use of color in Kvostenko-Khvostov's "eclectic constructivism" and the more industrial constructivist design of Vadym Meller.

Khvostenko-Khvostov's curtain design, from Kovalenko's article
Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov's curtain design for Vladimir Mayakovsky's play Mystery-Bouffe, Heroichnyi Theater, Kharkiv (1921). Gouache and pencil on cardboard, collage. Collection of the A. A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatre Museum, Moscow. Featured on p. 411 in Georgy Kovalenko's article.
Production scene showing set design, from Kovalenko's article
Production scene from Ernst Toller's The Machine Wrechers. "Catastrophe." Director Favst Lopatyns'kyi. Set design Vadym Meller. Berezil' Theater, Kharkiv (1924). COllection of the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine, Kyiv. Featured on p. 409 in Georgy Kovalenko's article.

Many of the HUS articles address the whole creative lifespan of the artists. In other words, they show how these artists progress through the multiple “isms” of modernism—with illustrations incorporated into the articles to demonstrate these various transitions.

Halyna pointed to Vasyl’ Iermilov (in Olga Lagutenko’s article) as an example, showing his early expressionist first painting, Fear, which has elements that, Lagutenko argues, “bear close affinity to expressionist works” and are “reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893)" (p 353). This is in juxtaposition to Iermilov's late-career constructivist works, such as Plate, Bread, Knife, Matches (1921).

Vasyl' Iermilov's Fear, from Lahutenko article
Vasyl' Iermilov's Fear. Paper, etching (1913). Collection of the Kharkiv Art Museum. Featured on p. 354 in Olga Lagutenko's article.
Iermilov's collage, from Lahutenko's chapter in HUS volume
Vasyl' Iermilov's Plate, Bread, Knife, Matches. Gypsum, wood, metal, oil (1921). Collection of the Sepherot Foundation, Liechtenstein. Reproduced from the catalogue Vasilii Ermilov, 1894-1968. Featured on p. 377 in Olga Lagutenko's article.

“So there’s a great variety from one end to the other. Modernism runs the gamut from art nouveau flourishes to the very practical pieces of wood and cardboard of a constructivist collage," Hryn said. "This volume shows that entire spectrum.”

Beyond the visual: Modernism in literature

Portrait of Tychyna by Zhuk Mykhailo
Portrait of Pavlo Tychyna by Zhuk Mykhailo, 1919. Photo source: Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine.

George G. Grabowicz’s article on Pavlo Tychyna reveals how literature went through the same phases of modernism as did visual art.

“Our literature article is a wonderful parallel,” Hryn said, “because Tychyna begins with symbolist poetry. It’s beautiful and refined, lyrical and prophetic—a response to horrors of World War I and the post-war fighting that occurred in Ukraine for years afterwards. By the time you reach the 30s, Tychyna’s writing resembles constructivist artwork, with ‘collages’ comprising snippets of conversations he overheard or newspaper headlines—in fact anticipating ‘found poetry.’”

Tychyna’s work also demonstrates the fine line artists had to walk during the repressive Stalinist years when Soviet realism was the only acceptable kind of art. Although the two traditions were in essence antithetical, artists found ways to infiltrate modernist elements into their “realist” art.

“Tychyna was remarkably adept at bringing modernist elements in through the back door—and it was hardly noticed. People didn’t like the late Tychyna because they thought he had become merely a tool of the party apparatus, writing the way the party wanted him to write,” Grabowicz said. “But he was often experimenting with parody and even self-parody.”

A case in point appears at the end of Grabowicz’s article in the journal. He discusses a moment in Tychyna’s poetry when chirping birds begin to repeat the slogans the main hero is thinking about. This shift of ideological slogans into the language of birds is not only funny, it also blows up the Stalinist project. 

“If even a small bit of modernism is smuggled into a work that purports to be socialist realist, the whole thing begins to implode,” Grabowicz explained. “It shows that the author is somehow ideologically deviant, or just not serious. This also provides insight into how complex that process of negotiating with Soviet strictures was.”

Behind the curtain: Creating HUS 36, 3–4

The Modernism issue’s 112 high-resolution, full-color images of the artwork come from museums and libraries all over the world, uniquely gathered in one volume where they can be viewed in one sitting. 

“A lot of care was taken both by the authors and by the HUS editorial team to use the images constructively. Each article makes an academic argument; the illustrations are integral to those arguments,” Hryn said.

Kovalenko’s article “Constructivism in Ukrainian Theater,” for example, contains 23 images that are discussed in the text. Placed near the relevant passage in the article, the images allow the reader to see the features Kovalenko points out as he compares, contrasts, and traces influences and evolution. 

Photo of illustration spread in print volume of HUS journal

In addition to putting great care into the layout of the journal so that the images best serve the arguments (masterfully executed by HURI’s former manager of publications Marika Whaley), the HUS team strove to attain the highest quality print of each image. This offers readers the chance to view the artwork in greater detail and faithfulness to the original than through images usually found on the internet.

“The various arguments are very well illustrated,” Hryn said. “It's both an art book and an academic book. The two merge here.”

Anna Chukur, HUS editorial assistant, played a vital role in obtaining the images and the rights to use them, Hryn said. This often involved something of a treasure hunt: she had to find the images in books, discover which museum held the original, contact the correct person at the museum, and make the arrangement to obtain and use a high quality copy or photograph in the journal. Since many of the originals are in Ukraine or Russia, this required Ukrainian and Russian language skills as well as the ability to convey the importance of copyright procedures.

In some cases, the original works had been lost, requiring the editorial team to find prints of the artwork in other publications. This, of course, created additional layers of permissions that needed to be obtained, as the copyright can belong to artists, photographers, institutions, and publishers. All in all, the journal issue received permissions from 53 museums, libraries, foundations, and individuals. 

HUS modernism acknowledgments p1 (see linked PDF for accessible version) HUS modernism acknowledgments p2 (see linked PDF for accessible version)

Most of the time, the process also involved payment to obtain reproduction rights. Our Financial Associate M. J. Scott was thus also involved in the project, as well as Executive Director Tymish Holowinsky, whose assistance was required for large contracts, legal documents, tax numbers, and other details. Our manager of publications, Oleh Kotsyuba, drew on contacts in the Russian and Ukrainian publishing world to help with securing permissions and images.

Another essential but complicated step in producing this volume was translation. Written by art experts from Ukraine and Russia, most of the original articles needed to be translated into English. Although HURI has a strong network of translators, this project required subject matter expertise to accurately convey very technical discussions. Lacking a translator who is also an art specialist, the next best strategy was to put the articles through several rounds of translation and revision. 

“We had multiple layers of translation and would then need to work with an art specialist or refer to relevant source material, including other works translated into English,” Hryn said. 

The original articles were written by excellent scholars in Ukraine, but the discourse and writing style is different in American English. So, the facts and arguments had to be translated accurately not simply into English but into the phraseology and specific vocabulary that an American art specialist would use in scholarly publications.

“We devote a great amount of time and effort to ensure that the same quality of academic writing is also present in our translations,” said Hryn. “We feel that it's part of our mission to make Ukrainian scholarship available and accessible to the North American scholar.”

On the horizon: What’s next in studies of modernism

Despite the breadth of content covered by this issue, there’s still plenty to explore in the realm of Ukrainian modernism. There are some papers from the original 2007 conference whose publication was deferred because of particular difficulties with translating them. The publications team is planning to turn the HUS Modernism issue into a book, which would include additional chapters, as well as a full index. Dmytro Horbachov’s paper from the 2007 conference, “Sharovary-Hopak Culture as a Source of the Avant-Garde,” is one example of additional content that could be including in the book. 

In his paper, Horbachov examines burlesque techniques and comic devices particularly evident in Gogol. “These techniques were often utilized by the futurists, such as Burliuk and Semenko. It was a form of épatage, of mocking the straight-laced and of parody,” Grabowicz explained. “But it also highlights an important cultural element, the way in which Ukrainian modernism appropriated ethnic traditionalist moments and made them comical, inserting them into the modernist frame.”

For example, Horbachov points to sharovarshchyna, a Ukrainian term associated with the sharovary, a specific type of baggy pants that are tight around the ankles and have a low seat—a style that is more commonly worn in Central and East Asia. Although the term sharovarshchyna in common usage has peasant, provincial connotations, the style was originally Cossack and was borrowed from the Turks (whose pants are called şalvar).

David Burliuk's Cossack Mamai
Example of sharovary in David Burliuk's Cossack Mamai, 1616. (Image featured in Myroslava Mudrak's article, p. 317. From the collection of the M. V. Nesterov Bashkir State Art Museum, Ufa (The Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia.)

Horbachov, however, isn’t exploring textiles or fashion. Rather, he examines the tradition of sharovarshchyna through the lens of burlesque style. “His paper focuses on the way in which what was considered to be ‘ethnic’ was really avant-garde in its own, peculiar way,” Grabowicz said. “Sharovary were transcultural, and yet they reflected a culture within the Slavic realm that was different and unique; the Russians don’t have them, nor do the Poles or Czechs, but they were perfectly normal in, say, the southern reaches of Ukraine. This is the steppe area, a place of contact with other cultures. It’s an instance of cultural influence that gave Ukrainian folk art a curious nuance, and that makes it interesting in its own right.” 

One of Grabowicz’s current projects is a translation of and monograph-length introduction to Bazhan’s long poem “Blind Bards” (Sliptsi). This work directly illustrates the complex interface of modernism and socialist realism. Even as socialist realism was becoming obligatory (the poem appeared in 1931, on the eve of the Stalinist repressions and the Holodomor) Bazhan still managed to write and publish a work that fully engages a modernist poetics and also the exceedingly fraught topic of national memory.  Long considered unfinished, the poem, Grabowicz argues, may be so by design: the poet left it unfinished in order to preserve the integrity of its message.  “It avoids the deadening Stalinist interpretation of culture,” he added. “It still sings to us.” 

There’s much still to be discovered in the Ukrainian works of the 1920s and early 30s; many complex but important works from this period remain unknown even to educated Ukrainians. “The process of discovering Ukrainian culture is ongoing,” Grabowicz said, “and Harvard and HUS are at the forefront of this work.” 

In carrying out this important task, HURI adheres to its original, core mission, helping to preserve the cultural legacy of Ukraine and encouraging Ukrainians to reclaim their heritage—and to build on it. 

Attend our online panel on Ukrainian modernism with the authors of three of the articles in this volume. Live on YouTube on Nov. 18 at 12:00 noon EDT/Boston. More information; link to YouTube video.