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Ukrainian Painting from the 19th to the early 20th c.
I. Pokhytonov communicated his penchant for small forms and interest in the art of the Barbizon school to his friend – the outstanding Ukrainian landscapist Serhiy Vasylkivksy, who became a worthy follower of their traditions.19
Vasylkivsky's Spring in Ukraine is a specimen of his early landscapes in which the composition structure is thoroughly thought-out and the motif is generalized. This imparts the images of nature a feeling of magnitude and stable balance independent of the fleeting time. The artist felt the dynamism of life first and foremost in the sky expanses, the most important element of his poems of nature. The contemporaries justly called S. Vasylkivsky 'a painter of the sky.' The sky is always different in his works, even in those several represented in the album – now it is calmly blue, high, saturated with summer warmth, now frozen, wintry; sometimes it is disturbed, covered with heavy leaden clouds, and sometimes flaming, purple from the glow of the setting sun.
In his numerous small sketch-like works as well as large-size compositions, the artist reproduced the picturesque image of Ukraine, in which lyrical and epic, ordinariness of everyday life and historical moments have naturally interlaced. The artist often introduces in his landscapes genre motifs from the peasant life or scenes from the heroic past of the Zaporozhian Sich, as we see in his Cossacks in the Steppe. Vasylkivsky's great interest in historical themes was realized in numerous paintings notable for their life authenticity and spirit of elated romanticism, as well as in the publication of the famous album From Ukrainian Antiquity.20 He executed drawings to the album in collaboration with his friend, Mykola Samokysh – the famous battle-painter who knew well the material and reproduced both past and contemporary military events (he was in the front-line forces at the Japanese-Russian War as an artist). His paintings bring out convincingly the heroic spirit of people, of ordinary soldiers who won victories, and the dramatic character of the evils of war. M. Samokysh had a keen feeling for expression of the movement of great masses of people and, especially, horses that also were the rightful 'characters' of his canvases. The artist brilliantly painted them both in battle and genre compositions, for instance in the canvas Newlyweds.
The Ukraine's past attracted also Opanas Slastion, a friend of S. Vasylkivsky and M. Samokysh from the time of their studies at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts. The creative heritage of the artist who excellently knew Ukrainian antiquity and folklore is versatile: painting and graphic works, landscape as well as history and genre painting. All this is permeated with an extraordinary national feeling, which determined the originality of the artist's works. To the artists close to S. Vasylkivsky belonged Mykola Sergeev, whose creative endeavour was directed to the assertion of realistic principles and national spirit in Ukrainian landscape painting in the late nineteenth – early twentieth century.
In Ukraine, the progressive ideas of the Peredvizhniki were advocated by the Society of South-Russian Artists founded by Odesa painters in 1890, among whom were M. Kuznetsov and K. Kostandi. In the last third of the nineteenth century, Odesa, with its own art school (opened in 1865), became an important cultural centre that defined in many respects painting innovations of the time. In Ukrainian painting searches for ways to solution of problems in recording the effects of light and colour began in Odesa (though much later than in Europe). This was favoured not only by its southern nature permeated with maritime air and sunlight but the status of a seaport, which opened wide opportunities for contacts with the world. Odesa artists always were prominent among the Peredvizhniki. I. Repin called them talented artists, "colourists with keen feeling for form."21 Regrettably, the museum collection of works of the Odesa art school is not large; nevertheless, it permits to feel the originality of artistic trends and peculiarities of individual manner of many artists belonging to different generations. Among the eminent figures in the Peredvizhniki movement in Ukraine we should mention Mykola Kuznetsov. His canvas In Search of a Living is a gem of national painting. In it, the artist successfully joined two motifs: a genre motif that tells about the rural life after the 1861 reform (the abolition of serfdom) and a landscape in which he skilfully shows the character of the boundless southern steppe. The warmth of nature and the soft light of the sun that imbues the canvas introduce a lyrical note into the dramatic in its essence scene. The artist sought to achieve the emotional subject saturation of the landscape through the means of plein-air painting, interpreting it in his own way. In fact, the plein-air technique of M. Kuznetsov was pre-Impressionistic: it lacks chiaroscuro effects and feeling of air shimmering and the form is rather rigid.
A decisive step in mastering atmospheric effects was taken by Kiriak Kostandi. He abandoned the monochrome colour gamut of the Peredvizhniki peculiar to his early works (Out into the World) in favour of the bright painterly idiom in which the sunlight with its rich colour reflexes became the determinative factor (Sunny Day, Geese). Art of the painter, the son of a poor fisherman from near Odesa, synthesized in itself democratic traditions of the Peredvizhniki and painting innovations of the Impressionists. By the example of his works it is evident that Impressionism in Ukraine did not appear in its 'pure' form. It manifested itself in the creation of the effect of fortuity of the composition, in brightening of the colour scheme, in free brushstrokes. Brought up on high spiritual ideals of national culture, possessed with the searches for the truth and the good, Ukrainian artists shifted their attention from the painterly system to the theme of the work. That is why the solution of a natural motif in which Impressionistic principles are most keenly felt is always defined semantically – it intensifies the character of images and expressiveness of situations depicted. Works by K. Kostandi, like by the majority of Ukrainian artists – adherents of Impressionism, differ from paintings of their French colleagues in their ideal and ethical dominant, their more profound view on the world, whose time parameters reflect not the transience of a moment but the stability of objective reality.
The landscapist Hennady Ladyzhensky, who masterfully portrayed southern nature – steppe expanses and seascapes, and Mykola Bodarevsky, represented in the museum collection with a sketch to his famous picture from folk life Wedding in Little Russia marked by extraordinary keen characterization of images, belong to the older generation of Odesa artists.
The younger generation of Odesa painters is represented by Petro Nilus who began his creative endeavour as a true adherent of the Peredvizhniki ideals. The subjects of his works, however, reflect signs of new times, where the attention to the theme of the city and its dwellers prevails. P. Nilus maintained by his works that any event or situation, even the simplest, in the life of 'a humble man' could bear much more information than a socially important subject. Fully confident that the being of his characters "is mirrored in trivia," he depicted the objective realities of interiors that reveal expressively the character of their owners with special thoroughness. These small genre scenes, full of keen psychologism and life observations, expressive characterizations and everyday situations, are congenial with A. Chekhov's stories whom the artist knew – an unfinished portrait of the writer made by P. Nilus is in the museum collection. There are also canvases dating to the early twentieth century where instead of craftsmen, petty officials, or Odesa tramps appeared lonely ladies in fashionable attire of the Art Nouveau style and in luxuriant crinolines, who stroll along the dark alleys of deserted parks. By their treatment of images and elegiac melancholy of mood, they are akin to works of symbolism that was spreading in the literary-artistic circles at the turn of the twentieth century. Their ephemeral poetic world overshadows the prose and contradictions of the contemporary life.
Genre works by Odesa artists S. Kyshynivsky, H. Holovkov, and Y. Bukovetsky kept on traditions of the Peredvizhniki genre picture with social content, psychological development of images, and restrained colour scheme. However, other works by these artists illustrate their remarkable painting skills. Yevhen Bukovetsky in the Portrait of the Singer Resgal skilfully confronts soft plasticity of a female face with dynamic forms of a generalized background, which answered decorative tendencies in art of the early twentieth century. The similar plastic and painterly manner characterizes the Portrait of the Artist's Wife by Oleksandr Stilianoudi. The decorative riot of bright saturated colours of a natural motif that create a real 'symphony in green' makes up an organic background for the image of a woman, enhancing her physical and spiritual beauty.