Art & Ukraine (Part 1)

Gosia WlodarczakSunday, 15 August 2010

Dear Diary,

Recently I have had a pleasure of being invited to the studio of renowned Australian artist Gosia Wlodarczak and her husband, photographer Longin Sarnecki. Both Gosia and Longin were born in Poland, and over a delicious cup of tea brewed especially by Longin, which included up to seventeen different blends, and seated at a table which virtually groaned under the weight of treats, fruits, and cheeses, we got to discuss our Eastern European roots. I was interested to learn that Gosia and Longin, together with a number of other Polish-born artists living in Australia, continue keeping in close touch with museums, galleries, and exhibition centres in Poland. In fact, they are currently organising a major exhibition in Szczecin, with a huge support from the Polish government.

View of kiev 02

Gosia inevitably asked me whether I have kept in touch with the art establishments in Kiev, Ukraine, where I was born and lived until I was seventeen. I confessed that I had not, even though I volunteered at one of the museums from 1986 to 1989. At that time, Ukraine was still officially known as Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and together with other fourteen states formed the mighty empire of the USSR, or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, had three public art museums – those of Russian art, Ukrainian art, and Western and Oriental art. There was also a smaller museum space for changing exhibitions of art from private collections, and another exhibition space adjacent to the Ukrainian Academy of Arts.

National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kiev

Innumerable paintings, sculpture, photography and applied art were to be seen in Kiev’s other museums and collections – history, natural history, theatre, ballet, performing arts, the famed Lenin museum, as well as home-museums of Ukrainian literary and artistic figures, such as Taras Shevchenko or Lecy Ukrainka. (I should also mention ancient mosaics, important murals, and religious artefacts in Kiev’s churches and cathedrals, which have miraculously escaped destruction during the communist rule.)

From time to time we enjoyed visiting travelling exhibitions, such as those from the collection of American billionaire Armand Hammer from Los Angeles, the collection of Baron and Baroness Thyssen-Bornemisza from Lugano, Switzerland, and contemporary (though heavily weighted towards Social Realism) art exhibitions from Germany and Italy to name but a few.

Khanenko Museum Interior

To the best of my recollection, there were no commercial galleries at the time. Soviet artists had to belong to an artists’ union in their city, region, or state. The centralised governmental system bought their artworks, which inevitably had to celebrate the Soviet system through portraits, landscapes, historical and subject pieces of communist progress and joyous labour. These were in turn distributed among museums and galleries throughout the Soviet Union, and I recall a crate load of them arriving at one of the museums.

While they were inevitably quite homogenous in their look and appeal, among the best things about this system was that every artist was guaranteed income and a steady flow of commissions. Furthermore, this sheer circulation of art meant that works by artists even from the most remote regions of the Soviet empire were to be seen throughout the country, and their works were to be placed within its most prestigious art collections.

Tatiana Jablonska - Bread

The artistic freedom can only be repressed so much, and many of the official Soviet artists did paint in private works that differed stylistically and subject-wise from the officially prescribed aesthetic ideology. I still recall a sensationalised article about one of the most prominent artists, known for his grandiloquent scenes from Soviet history, who, in private, painted – oh horror of horrors – bathing female nudes (very much in the style best described to the Australian audiences as that of Ivor Hele or Max Middleton). Those who refused to compromise their artistic integrity and chose to exist outside the official system did not fare so well. Without the governmental support they struggled financially and had to rely on infrequent sales of artworks from their studios or market stalls to a meagre and virtually non-existent local collectors’ market or to a chance international visitor.

… to be continued…

[© Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg 2010. This article is copyright, but the full or partial use is WELCOME with the full and proper acknowledgement.]

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Eugene Barilo v. Reisberg

August 2010


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