Harvard Ukrainian StudiesInc 36,ident no. 3–4al modern (2019): 307–49.ism 307
r iginally a literary concept, symbolism’s emphasis on sub- jective ideas and poetic form as opposed to the conventions of Orealistic depiction and imitation championed by academic painting offered an alternative, if elusory, entrée into modern visual expression. Because symbolist art utilizes visual metaphor to chart the transition from mimetic (or naturalistic) representation to the ideational level, it appealed to many artists across the European expanse whose philo- sophical relation to their socially and politically complex world could be expressed in a conceptual, rather than literal, manner. Indeed, the use of visual metaphor and pictorial metonymy—the key features of symbolism—functioned artistically to express the undercurrents of a modernist awakening among many national cultures seeking to define themselves in the years leading up to the Great War, not least of all in Ukraine. Since the turn of the century, many artists of Ukrainian origin living under the dominion of foreign powers found the use of picto- rial symbols helpful in braving the more ineffable aspects of cultural belonging. For some, symbolism helped to expose intangible, oftentimes deep-seated tensions lodged in their nation’s longstanding aspiration for modern statehood; for others, the philosophical aspects of symbolism spurred movements reacting against the status quo in order to staunchly define cultural singularity. Concerned less with process, and more with allusion, symbolism’s bent toward the intellectual appealed especially to a younger generation of Ukrainian painters, for whom to be modern was inextricably interwoven with the psychology of cultural self-identity. 308 Mudrak
More often than not, this meant reconciling a fragile and vulnerable modern self-awareness with the legacy of a robust national cultural past.
The Symbolism of National Revival and the Ukrainian Modern Stylе
To the extent that before World War I Ukraine was divided between different imperial powers, artistic influences flowed from Poland, Rus- sia, and Austria as well as from Western Europe and were impossible for Ukrainian artists not to absorb. For those living in the Western Ukrainian lands, the vibrant Polish cultural revival directly informed their aesthetic choices. Specifically, the Młoda Polska (Young Poland)1 movement, which gained currency at the end of the nineteenth century, personified the enduring spirit of Poland in various hypostases—from nostalgic melancholy to a contemporary ideal of a unified nation. For as long as Poland was not a fully integrated polity (and wouldn’t become one until after World War I), the sense of cultural dislocation was pal- pable in the coded imagery used by the literary-artistic élite who formed the movement. Stanisław Witkiewicz’s (Witkacy’s) chaotic worlds and Witold Wojtkiewicz’s macabre depictions of children at morbid play point to a politically fractured country, while Jacek Malczewski’s trope of the country manor house implies a subversive insurgency over lost governance. Notable among such coded works is the wintry scene of Stanisław Wyspiański’s The Planty Park by Night: Straw-Men (1898– 1899) (fig. 1, at right) (the park was a popular summer gathering site in the center of Kraków). Here rosebushes, sheltered from the frost in casings of straw and looking like bogeymen, await their season of flowering. What appears to be an innocent postimpressionist landscape is transformed through symbolist inference to project an empyreal sense of hope. Its covert message reveals that the upcoming season will free the hibernating nation from its bindings. Indeed, the theme of springtime rebirth constituted a kind of belief system for artists who found redemption in an awakening civic con- sciousness. Expressing it through the metaphoric language of art was
1. Młoda Polska originated as a literary movement in Poland in the 1890s and expanded to accommodate visual artists as well. It lasted through World War I. Ukrainian poets formed a similar organization, Moloda Muza (Young Muse), in Lviv in 1906. It shared Młoda Polska’s goals: to experiment with artistic form and to employ synaesthetic imagery and the metaphysical as a means of addressing the decadence of bourgeois conformist attitudes while awakening a nation, through the mode of neoro- manticism, to its own, uniquely identifiable self-representation. Incidental modernism 309
not lost on Ukrainian painter and writer Mykhailo Zhuk, whose large- scale painting White and Black (1912–1914) (fig. 2, below) shows the direct influence of Wyspiański, with whom Zhuk had studied at the Kraków Academy of Arts (his other teacher was the Polish symbolist Józef Mehoffer). Wyspiański had completed a famous cycle of stained- glass windows for the Franciscan Church in Kraków, which no doubt filtered into Zhuk’s own formalism. Combining separate sections of canvas (rather than segments of glass) to suggest the ramified lines of tracery, Zhuk pays particular homage to Wyspiański’s cross-medial method by building his painted composition along the principles of medieval stained glass construction. The fluid, almost calligraphic treat- ment of Zhuk’s flowers unifies the otherwise compartmentalized units of the composition and camouflages the sutures between the discrete forms. Dominant within the imagery is tender foliage that begins as naturalistically rendered tendrils but gradually transitions into small and separate abstract shapes of singular colors and flowing lines. A conspicuous transition from a mimetic representation of nature to pure abstraction brings together other dualities in Zhuk’s art that capture 310 Mudrak
Figure 2. Mykhailo Zhuk. White and Black. 1912–1914. Paper, gouache, pastel, watercolor. 207 x 310 cm. Private collection of Taras Maksymiuk, Odesa. Image courtesy of Pavlo Gudimov Ya Gallery Art Center, Kyiv. Photography: Oleg Synkov.
the very nature of symbolist expression. From the empirical to the sen- sorial, Zhuk registers oppositions and contrasts, along with slippages between space and time. In White and Black he paints two figures—a virginal female and her male counterpart moving from dark to light, from barren landscape to luscious garden, ultimately from botanical exactitude to nonreferential abstract units. The subtle depiction of the couple’s cadenced movement orchestrates the mood of the work as if to underscore a nebulous existential rite of passage. Indeed, the figures appear to be entering the thick of a lush Eden, the threshold to some kind of a paradisiacal abyss below the picture’s edge and part of the viewer’s own space.2
2. Zhuk’s positioning of the youthful (angelic) figures at the bottom of the compo- sition leaves open the question whether this work was designed as part of a specific commission, in which case its position in situ, as, for example, Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze in the exhibition hall of the Secession building in Vienna, would provide context for the enigmatic scene. The model for the youth was the young symbolist poet Pavlo Tychyna, who was known to play the flute as depicted in the painting. See Mykhailo Zhuk: Al´bom, ed. I. I. Kozyrod and S. S. Shevel´ov (Kyiv: Mystetstvo, 1987), 11. Incidental modernism 311
Zhuk’s rural setting representing a phantasmagoric sanctuary of over- sized flowers through which the winged figures pass brings to mind the mystical and entranced landscapes of Mykhailo Kotsiubyns´kyi’s Tini zabutykh predkiv (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, 1913), which centers on chimeric ritual in the fantastic surroundings of the Carpathians. Black and White also relates, albeit tangentially, to Kotsiubyns´kyi’s Fata morgana (1903–1910), set in the season of autumn against a tempest of social change and describing, in a psychological treatment, the senti- ments of a confused agrarian population facing a brewing revolution.3 Indeed, the enchanted setting of Zhuk’s painting (whose own writings were modeled on Kotsiubyns´kyi) can be read symbolically as a refuge from the darkening turbulence pressing upon the horizon. On the other hand, the artist’s precise outlining of the contours of his forms, the meticulous treatment of the petals, stamens, and veined leaves of his succulent flowers removes us, as it were, from any outward connection with the encroaching menace and instead transports us to the realm of invulnerable interiority. Here Zhuk exposes the power of line to project “the critical essence of internal experience”4 and we enter the realm of sheer abstraction through his exquisite and refined drafting style. Zhuk’s abstraction of botanical motifs and febrile forms characterizes the aesthetic of a larger arts and crafts revival that originated in England and spread eastward far into the Russian Empire in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By hand carving his own frames or using collage strips of embroidery as borders for the portraits of his contemporar- ies, Zhuk exploited such symbolic ornamentation to express his own nativism—an idea widely embraced in the national art revival move- ments of French art nouveau, German Jugendstil, Viennese Secession, and, most especially, the Ukrainian Modern Style. Launched by Vasyl´ Krychevs´kyi in the first years of the twentieth century, the Ukrainian
3. Zhuk was close to the circles of modernist literati, including Mykhailo Kotsiu- byns´kyi, who commissioned Zhuk to design the cover for his famous Tini zabutykh predkiv. Zhuk’s macabre design carries the symbolist leitmotif of Mikhail Vrubel’s tormented demon. In the revolutionary year of 1905, Zhuk moved to Chernihiv, where he contributed to local newspapers and published stories and poems in the journal Literaturno-naukovyi visnyk. In 1918, he belonged to the symbolist literary organization that published the journal Muzahet (1919)—a reference to Apollo as the leader of the nine Muses (Mousagetes). See Mykhailo Zhuk: Al´bom, 9. 4. “Віддати у досконалій формі критичну есенцію внутрішнього переживання— завдання тих ліній.” Note by Mykhailo Zhuk, Kyiv, 27 June 1916. Quoted in Vsevladnist´ krasy: Do 130-richchia z dnia narodzhennia khudozhnyka i pys´mennyka M. I. Zhuka; Kataloh vystavky (3 hrudnia 2013–15 sichnia 2014, Odes´kyi literaturnyi muzei), ed. O. Iavors´ka and K. Ierhiieva (Odesa: Odes´kyi literaturnyi muzei, 2013), 3. 312 Mudrak style moderne brought together the clarity of modernist design and a longstanding indigenous handicraft tradition. Krychevs´kyi’s attention to the material culture of the Poltava region in particular elevated the vernacular to the status of high art and formulated a model of Ukrainian revival art on a par with contemporaries in Great Britain, the Baltics, and Central Europe. Translating recognizable ornamental motifs, from embroidery to woodcarving, into symbolic templates and meshing them with baroque heraldry, Krychevs´kyi introduced symbolic valences into a visual expression of a unified national spirit. Akin to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s influence in bolstering Scottish pride through a modernist revival of regional traditions, the symbolic aspects of Krychevs´kyi’s project involved civic commitment along with historical preservation. It all came together in the emblematic public project called the Poltava Zemstvo (1903–1909) (figs. 3a–c, at right and below).5 The entire struc- ture—both on the inside and the exterior—was based on principles of cleanly articulated features that simplified and stylized traditional folk motifs, while expressing the modern union of art and industry to express the soul of a nation.
Symbolism: The Ancient Past and the Rural Present
Alongside the material aspects of the national revival, which manifest themselves mostly in architecture and the minor arts, another kind of nativist resurgence captured under the umbrella term of neoprimitivism presented its own symbolist tropes in the genre of painting.6 Tapping
5. See Myroslava M. Mudrak, “The Poltava Zemstvo: Expanding on a Modern Museum Typology,” Centropa (New York) 12, no. 2 (May 2012): 162–78. The features of Krychevs´kyi’s “modern style” articulated in the Poltava Zemstvo building are far too involved to be undertaken in this paper as they belong to a larger discourse about the function of the zemstvo as a symbol of limited self-governance and the promotion of a regional cottage industry of handicraft. In this regard, it might be worth noting that Zhuk’s abstract flowers and bands of reductive natural form, and his designs for porcelain factories, reflect a Ukrainian version of an industrial neonational revival that expanded on Krychevs´kyi’s ideas in the period just after the founding of the Ukrainian State Academy of Arts in December 1917. Zhuk, like Krychevs´kyi, was a founding member and original faculty of the academy. 6. The term “neoprimitvism” came into use retrospectively after the publication of Aleksandr Shevchenko’s influential essay; see Aleksandr Shevchenko, Neo-primitivizm: Ego teoriia, ego vozmozhnosti, ego dostizheniia (Moscow, 1913). Summarizing the explo- ration of unadulterated peasant culture by painters over the previous five or so years, Shevchenko’s essay advocated for a more scientific analysis of primitive art forms as a way of promoting a “profoundly national phenomenon.” Incidental modernism 313
Figure 3a. Vasyl´ Krychevs´kyi. Poltava Zemstvo. 1903–1909. Façade. Photo credit: Myroslava M. Mudrak.
into a cultural heritage that ranged from the lowbrow to the cultivated, neoprimitivism would seem to have no relation to the methods and expressions of symbolism. Yet through similitude, by openly appropriat- ing and freely replicating the expressive attributes of a panoply of native sources—from naïve forms of regional painting to the Byzantine norms of Orthodox iconography—this orientation branded the Ukrainian avant-garde with an identity separate from that of its counterparts. An important aspect of neoprimitivism was the quest to connect contemporary art to the archaic cultures of Ukraine’s territories. The ancient Hellenized north coast of the Black Sea, an area referred to as “Hylaea,” conjured up myths of Homeric proportions.7 Herodotus is
7. “Hylaea” is an ancient Greek reference to the colonies that inhabited the fertile coastline along the perimeter of the Black Sea peninsula (present-day Crimea). Adopted in 1912 to identify a group of futurist writers, artists, and poets, the term also bore refer- ence to the militant spirit of the ancient Greeks and coincided with neoprimitivism’s use of the rugged, the vulgar, and the tactile in visual imagery, and a mostly onomatopoeic argot in their poetry. Figure 3b. Vasyl´ Krychevs´kyi. Poltava Zemstvo. 1903–1909. Interior View of Main Staircase. Photo credit: Myroslava M. Mudrak.
Figure 3c. Vasyl´ Krychevs´kyi. Poltava Zemstvo. 1903–1909. Façade View of Windows. Photo credit: Myroslava M. Mudrak. Incidental modernism 315 known to have written about this archaic site and some of Hercules’s deeds were thought to have taken place there, making it a region replete with a mythical symbolism that fed the imagination of David Burliuk’s fledgling group of avant-gardists. The Black Sea or Hylaean futurists8 (as they came to call themselves) were united by their shared interest in reimagining the long-expired cultures of the Ukrainian steppes, not with nostalgia but with a rekindled passion and belief in the exalted potential brought on by modernity. The exotic warrior culture of the Scythian horsemen fed their imagination.9 This, combined with the lore of the Greeks and their cultivation of animal husbandry in the south- ern territories of present-day Ukraine, led to identifying the horse as a symbolic image of strength, power, and freedom in Ukrainian modern art.10 Burliuk conflated this motif with the popular and naïve image of the wandering Cossack rider. Like a talisman signifying guardianship over village dwellers, the “Cossack Mamai” evolved into a popular motif of Ukrainian folk culture and became ubiquitous during the late eigh- teenth and nineteenth centuries, after the demise of the Zaporozhian Host under Catherine II. The image of the Cossack Mamai was usually painted on plain wooden panels or a crudely framed canvas, or oth-
8. There were two kinds of futurisms that developed on Ukrainian territory in the early part of the twentieth century: one was that of the Burliuks and the Hylaeans that drew inspiration from local peasant customs and the culture of ancient settlements; the other was launched by poet Mykhail´ Semenko, who disparaged rural “home- steadedness” (khutorianstvo) and called for revolutionary action by dislodging the poetic conventions of the “people’s” poet, Taras Shevchenko. Though both futurisms took shape before World War I, David Burliuk’s impact was felt mostly in the decade of the 1910s and waned after the war. His influence was significant both in Russia and the outlying regions of Ukraine, especially the eastern and southern reaches of its territories. Semenko’s futurism was formed by a triplet of artists-poets, which included his painter-brother Vasyl´ and the symbolist artist Pavlo Kovzhun. Their castigation of local traditions coincided more directly with the destructive note of the Italians as echoed in the strident tone of F. T. Marinetti’s manifestos. 9. The Hylean futurists regarded themselves, symbolically, as modern-day combatants fighting the timorous complacency of the bourgeoisie, hence their association with ancestral warriors. It is worth noting that in 1911, David Burliuk became a member of Wassily Kandinsky’s Blaue Reiter group. These artists, organized by Kandinsky and Franz Marc, placed symbolic emphasis on the horse as emblematic of spiritual powers that transcended historic periods. 10. The horse epresentedr the kind of raw energy that drove the actions of the Italian futurists; it also pointed to an ideology that elided modern dynamism with animal power (i.e., machine horsepower). Despite the intervention of technology, the horse still carries the impact of conventional symbolism: a magical creature whose unharnessed powers show him (as in the expressionist paintings of Franz Marc) to be a wild, free, and untethered beast—an eternal and lucid image of freedom and independence. 316 Mudrak erwise directly on the façades of peasant houses or on their shutters. As a formulaic composition, the Cossack Mamai included a nominal steed flatly outlined in profile similar to the linear two-dimensional renderings of wild horses on Attic Greek vessels. Sometimes tethered to a tree or standing freely, the trusted horse served as an accompanying figure to the Cossack—the main personage in the scene—shown sitting cross-legged on the ground. Various discrete objects—the wandering hero’s scabbard and sword, a water canteen, a whiskey flask, his stringed instrument (the kobza), and a satchel that holds his only belongings, a pipe and a tobacco pouch—are exaggerated in scale and distributed independently like the elements of a still life on a flat plane, heightening the metaphoric impact of the work.11 Burliuk’s modernist version of the Mamai, poignantly captioned My Cossack Ancestor (1908, 1916) (figs. 4a–b, at right),12 makes clear his symbolic identification with this stock image and thematic trope. Given his own peripatetic lifestyle, it is no wonder that Burliuk would frequently return to paint this subject at various points in his career. His repeated use of the horse motif would continue to have symbolic import for him throughout his life, and especially in the 1920s, when he worked closely with futurist fellow traveler Viktor Pal´mov.13 The Burliuk family was responsible, in large part, for giving rise to futurism in various locations within the Russian Empire, most notably in Kharkiv, Odesa, and Kyiv, as well as in Kherson on the Black Sea coast. Their efforts coincided with the Milan-based Italian movement declar- atively launched by F. T. Marinetti in Paris in 1909. Although futurism’s radical stance in Italy and in Russia rose from a staunch antisymbolist position, by setting up a new and avant-garde paradigm the move-
11. There are a number of attributes that have become standard in Cossack Mamai imagery and speak symbolically to the qualities of the Cossack: for example, the powder flasks made of animal horns are universally regarded as symbols of masculine physical strength; the pennant and spear refer to the Cossack’s spiritual side and symbolize not only the glory of victory, but also respect for the military brotherhood, both living and deceased. 12. For alternate title and dating of fig. 4b, see Camilla Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, 1863–1922 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1971), 112, ill. 76. 13. Viktor Pal´mоv (1888–1929) explored rural themes of man’s harmonious rela- tionship with humble domesticated animals not unlike the color-suffused imagery of German expressionist and fellow Blaue Reiter member Franz Marc. Like Marc Chagall’s shtetl paintings, Pal´mov’s oneiric images render the forms weightless and completely abandoned to sensorial effects. Pal´mоv was a close friend to David Burliuk and traveled eastward with him to Vladivostok and Japan where they organized futurist exhibitions. After the revolution he taught in the Kyiv Art Institute (formerly the Ukrainian State Academy of Arts). Figure 4a. David Burliuk. Cossack Mamai. 1908. Oil on burlap. 78.5 x 94 cm. Collection of Mary Clare Burliuk. Photograph: Ernest Mayer, courtesy of the Winnipeg Art Gallery.
Figure 4b. David Burliuk. Cossack Mamai. 1916. Oil on canvas. 62.6 x 93 cm. Collection of the M. V. Nesterov Bashkir State Art Museum, Ufa (The Republic of Bashkortostan, Russia). 318 Mudrak ment unwittingly articulated an inherently symbolic platform, which the Hyleans exploited. The sentimentalism of late nineteenth-century Italian art was incompatible with the urban energy of the futurists, but Burliuk’s futurism, directly connected to locale and specifically recog- nizing an ancient territory abundant with the crude artifacts of settlers and nomadic tribes, allowed for very different avant-garde possibilities, enunciating the very same verve of the Italian movement, yet growing out of a symbolist base. The poet Benedikt Livshits, who witnessed firsthand the activities of the Burliuks in Crimea at the Chernianka estate where they congre- gated, recorded how the physical and aggressive approach to painting by David Burliuk, the Ukrainian “father of Russian futurism,” was in and of itself a “symbolic” artistic gesture. In his memoir, The One and a Half-Eyed Archer—a title, it should be noted, that identifies Burliuk metaphorically as a Scythian warrior—Livshits describes the deliber- ateness with which the painter threw wet canvases into the fertile soil of the Ukrainian steppeland, picking up clods of moist earth and making them an organic part of his work. The incorporation of the clumpy and rich texture of black earth (chornozem) into the actual artwork proved to be more than just a futurist antic. As a palpable associative symbol, this demonstrably visceral connection to the land of the artist’s ancestors rose to the level of synecdoche, its signification realized by the concept of faktura. “The ancient Hylaea,” wrote Livshits, “trod upon by our feet took the meaning of a symbol and had to become a banner.”14 The emphasis not only on the material aspect of the artwork’s making (i.e., painting over clods of soil), but the inherent associations it con- jured up was as genuinely “symbolic” as were the truculent industrial sounds of noise music (bruitismo) of the Milan futurists.15 Unlike the Italians who vehemently discarded Italy’s past, Burliuk resurrected the archaeological, mythological, and the folkloric of his native land. His militant stance was mitigated by the impulse of a crude primitivism that bridged the seemingly opposing forces of symbolism and futur- ism. Essentially, Hylaean futurism brought about a synthesis of their inherently dialectical natures. Primitivism mediated the relationship between the two and afforded a directness of vision that synthesized
14. As quoted in Vladimir Markov, Russian Futurism: A History (London: Macgibbon and Kee, 1969), 33. 15. See Nikolai Burliuk, “Faktura,” in Poshchechina obshchestvennomu vkusu, by David Burliuk et al. (Moscow: G. L. Kuz´min, 1912), 102–10. See excerpts in English transla- tion by John E. Bowlt in The Avant-Garde in Russia, 1910–1930: New Perspectives, ed. Stephanie Barron and Maurice Tuchman (Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1980), 130. Incidental modernism 319 both the coarse and refined aspects of native Ukrainian culture (as also seen in Zhuk’s ornamentalist products). Among the Burliuk siblings, the brothers Volodymyr and David were so closely aligned that it is often difficult to identify their separate roles in shaping the process of a developing modernism in Ukraine; yet in different ways they availed themselves of a fecund symbolism on their way to becoming the radical futurists on which their reputation rests. As avant-gardists who broke with all conventional norms of painting, they responded to the dramatic shift in art that turned its back on the tendentious narratives of realist painting and engaged in a conditioned confrontation with present-day societal values. By the early twentieth century, symbolism’s bent toward the conceptual propelled them to use the formal properties of art as a metaphoric, rather than a narrative, lex- icon. This was evident in Volodymyr Burliuk’s unusually large (128 x 207 cm!) canvas, a detailed painting he called Spring: Decorative Panel (early 1910s) (fig. 5, below), which reveals active, motile shapes as if seen from under a microscope; vibrant specks of paint create an overall coverage of the painting’s surface. The breaking up of the compositional elements discloses rimy units of individual shapes moving about like bacteria on a petri dish. The forms are not flat and inert, but metabolic and mobile, even spontaneous and perfunctory. They swirl about like molecules in an unspecified and limitless arena, constricted only by the edge that contains the form. The top half of the composition has the appearance of bubbling forth; it projects forward as the space between individual circular elements grows wider; but then its implied convexity, created by the adjustment of the shapes in relation to each other, recesses back into space, collapsing the edges of the spatial plane, reducing them into flat, jagged units—the very shards that comprise Volodymyr’s “stained glass” technique. Livshits likened Volodymyr’s obsessive method to the apprenticeship practices of the medieval guild system: painting “the ‘cloisons’ and ‘stained-glasses’ with one hand and his school studies with the other,”16 as if he were seeking to unveil a liminal truth buried within natural form. As seen through a dense web of lines in the painting Landscape (1912) (fig. 6, below), Volodymyr’s cloisonnist style runs par- allel to Paul Gauguin’s “synthetism” and to the twining technique of the Belgian and French symbolists, whose works also found inspiration in the wholesome simplicity and grittiness of peasant life. It goes without
16. Benedikt Livshits, Polutoraglazyi strelets (Leningrad: Izd-vo pisatelei, 1933). Quoted in Russian Futurism and David Burliuk, “The Father of Russian Futurism,” ed. Yevgenia Petrova, trans. Kenneth MacInnes (St. Petersburg: State Russian Museum and Palace Editions, 2000), 46. Figure 5. Volodymyr Burliuk. Spring. Decorative panel. Early 1910s. Oil on canvas. 128 x 207 cm. © State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Figure 6. Volodymyr Burliuk. Landscape. 1912. Cardboard, oil. 59 x 95 cm. Private collection of Valeri Dudakov. Reproduced by permission from the catalogue Ukrajinska avangarda, 1910–1930 (Zagreb: Muzej suvremene umjetnosti, 1991), 83. 322 Mudrak saying that Volodymyr’s sources, like his brother David’s, were also close to home and to the Ukrainian cultural inheritance, this time invoking the techniques of Byzantine enamelwork of ancient Rus´ and the highly skilled metalwork of their Scythian precursors who worked in gold and silver, adding enamel inlay with precious stones or leaving a rhythmic display of openwork ringlets as seen in their ornamental artisanry (figs. 7a–d, below). While both Burliuk brothers tapped into the mythical aura of Ukraine’s Black Sea region, Volodymyr’s foray into symbolism offered abstract images evocative of antediluvian subterranean energies and visions of a vital biological reality submitted to clinical scrutiny as if under a microscope. In keeping with the universalizing nature of modernism as a whole, Hylaean futurism freed up the image to become an exotic combination of legend, myth, and Oriental material inheritance. That this form of modernism found its inspiration not in the city, but in the biocentrism of rural life and the refined craft of Byzantine goldsmithing, harness- ing every primordial energy—geological, organic, cosmic, and biolog- ical—and that these connections are traceable on the canvas through textural execution (i.e., faktura), suggests an even closer connection of Ukrainian futurism to the generative ideas of symbolism than is ordi- narily acknowledged. On the one hand, the symbolist underpinnings of primitivism adopted the visceral and vulgar as visual metonymy; on the other hand, crude and spirited imagery of futurism was served up synecdochically to reflect, symbolically, the immutable character of Ukraine’s alluring steppelands and local artists’ attachment to it.
Symbolism: On the Crossroads Between East and West
Notwithstanding the Orientalizing aspects of Hylaean futurism, the contemporary Western inheritance was not to be ignored either. Volo- dymyr Burliuk’s paintings of the early 1910s belie an astute awareness of the wide range of postimpressionist approaches, from the bold, arbitrary colors of Henri Matisse and the spatial flattening of Paul Cézanne to the fluid linearity and calligraphic style of Gauguin’s japonisme with its uneven application of color as in traditional woodblock prints. Moreover, Burliuk’s palette of complementaries (basically, orange and blue) identifies impressionism as an important point of origin for this artist who understood the fundamental tenet of the movement—to neutralize (or synthesize) the viewing of the object through the sepa- ration and opposition of individual hues. By stripping down observed nature into raw units of energy, Volodymyr brashly proposes an organic Figures 7a–d. Examples of ancient gold and enamel work and Byzantine-era artifacts.
Figure 7a. Diadem from a treasure found in 1900 near the village of Sakhnivka, Kaniv District, Kyiv Province. 12th century. Gold, cloisonné enamel. Collection of the National Museum of the History of Ukraine, Kyiv.
Figure 7b. Vyatichi temple ring, first half of the 13th century. From the Belev treasure in Tula province. Cast silver. 8.8 x 8.4 cm. Total weight: 11.30 g. © State Historical Museum, Moscow. Figures 7a–d. Examples of ancient gold and enamel work and Byzantine-era artifacts.
Figure 7c. Five-lobed brooch. First century bce to 1st century ad. Gold rosette with turquoise and pearl inlays. Diameter: 5 cm. From the Tillya-tepe necropolis, Northern Afghanistan, excavated 1978–1979. © National Museum of Afghanistan, Kabul.
Figure 7d. Christ Pantocrator from the Trebizond Gospels, fol. 10r. Armenian, mid-11th century. Tempera and gold on vellum. 46 x 37 cm. Collection of the Library of Armenian Manuscripts of the Mekhitarist Congregation of San Lazzaro, Venice. MS. 1400. Incidental modernism 325 renewal of sorts—one that transcends the impressionist aesthetic of mere visual reconstruction. Maximizing his palette of intermediary col- ors, he devises an alternative kind of vision, a penetrating one, filtered through the prism of personal experience. The light-filled canvases of the French impressionists here give way to subdued pastels, revealing not the optical recording of reality but a metaphysical reinterpretation of it—an attitude that aligns itself completely with canonic symbolism. Indeed, pointillism—that obsessive laying down of dabs of pure color practiced by the followers of scientific impressionism—was expanded in Volodymyr’s work to encompass the spirit of medieval craftsmanship. As noted by Livshits and as in Zhuk’s emulation of Wyspiański’s stained glass discussed above, Volodymyr Burliuk works in the manner of a skilled mosaicist who translated the combination of small units of col- ored glass (tesserae) to create a macro image composed of interlocking shapes. The process of thinking in terms of atomized fragments of form was fundamental to the new formalist pursuits that had begun to be explored in the West by cubism’s planarity and futurism’s penetrating lines of force, just at the time that the Burliuks were embarking on their own “brand” of modernism inflected by material processes. The expressive gestural strokes that typify the paintings of Maria Syniakova, who was close to the Hylaean circle, are paradigmatic of the kind of melding of sources that dictated the work of the Burliuks and gave rise to a physiological symbolism embodied by both primitivism and futurism. Syniakova’s watercolors from the period 1913–1916 are largely devoted to the female at the height of her biological prowess and in the prime of her gender—a kind of Eve in her female innocence, ever-present in the undefiled Garden of Eden. Adapted to the symbol- ist theme of fatalistic love, Syniakova’s subjects are brought into the contemporary moment by the penetrating force of futurist dynamism. In Syniakova’s painting War (1915) (fig. 8, below); for example, the bold and belligerent strike of futurist bombast upends the paradisiacal atmo- sphere and disturbs the innocence of carnal fulfillment. The natural flow of the intimate experience is interrupted by outside forces, shattering the act of sexual consummation. Eroticism is rendered figuratively here, not for the purposes of titillation, but metaphorically, to suggest a certain biological primacy. Through it all, the female serves as both a catalyzer and a victim—a symbol of all of civilization at the brink of an apocalypse. This fin-de-siècle theme implied by Syniakova’s War is presented in an exotic setting reminiscent of a harem (perhaps a refer- ence to the famous Tatar Khanate capital at Bakhchysarai [Bağçasaray] in Crimea) where an amorous couple is disrupted in their lovemaking by a blast of energy from an aerial attack. The invasive force interrupts Figure 8. Maria Syniakova. War. 1915. Paper, pencil, wash, gouache. 36 x 23 cm. Private collection. Reproduced from Ukraïns´kyi modernizm, 1910– 1930 (Kyiv: Natsional´nyi khudozhnii muzei Ukraïny, 2006), 270. Incidental modernism 327 a ménage à trois taking place within a pool of water, from which rivulets push outward in a repetitive linear arcature resembling the heart of a lotus plant. The plant’s labial leaves embrace the lovers, providing amity and seclusion, making them one with the unadulterated natural envi- ronment surrounding them. Yet, out of nowhere, a bolt of light strikes down on the center of the banqueting table; a samovar and glasses are jettisoned off the table’s surface and the couples seated around it are catapulted toward the perimeter. It is a cataclysmic scene, transfiguring a highly sensualized reality into one of high tension and confusion, an existentialist tangle with an unknown destiny. The intensity with which the bodies shown in Syniakova’s work react to the flash of light calls to mind, and that initially at a purely formal level, the light-soaked iconography of the Transfiguration icon and its typological features (fig. 9, below). Appropriating the devices of this traditional Orthodox image, Syniakova’s shafts of light are not to be perceived solely as sources of illumination, but as powerful physical projectiles that penetrate the figures and alter them. Blasted by the light, the figures lunge forward and outward, bursting beyond their zone of inner complacency into the realm of extravert gesticulatory responses. This opposition of inner and outer, of private and public expression, is captured concisely by the disposition of the figures in the bottom part of the Transfiguration icon. Creating a triad of directional forces, the disciples are at first caught unawares by the unexpected onslaught of bright light generated from without, yet in the immediate aftermath of the visual assault, they quickly regain their capacity to understand its significance and restore their posture. Notwithstanding the different registers of controlled emotion pro- jected by the Transfiguration scene, Syniakova’s work is, by contrast, passionate and worldly. She, too, displays a variety of human reactions expressed through facial features, gestures, and body positions, height- ening the initial state of shock or surprise, which quickly transitions to a marked sense of heightened philosophical cognition. As in the icon, the sharp divide between the spiritual and the physical is made pro- nouncedly active. Read this way, the carnal indulgence and irrationality in Syniakova’s War give way to transcendent awareness in the same manner that the Transfiguration icon effects a psychic altering and spiritual metanoia in the beholder. A more literal reference to icons is offered here by the angel flying in from the top left corner, signaling a divine presence in the scene. The bustling energy of Syniakova’s work, however, draws on still other formal characteristics of icons, particularly the miniaturized scenes that frame the main subject, most popularly that of St. Nicholas (fig. 10, below). These thumbnail scenes, called Figure 9. Icon of the Trans figuration, 15th century. From the Church of St. Demetrius, village of Zhohatyn (Poland). Linden wood, levkas, pavoloka, egg tempera. 110 x 79 cm. Collection of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv.
Figure 10. Icon of St. Nicholas the Wonder worker. Second half of the 16th century. From the Church of the Birth of the Virgin, village of Liskovate (Poland). Linden wood, levkas, pavoloka, egg tempera. 154 x 124.5 cm. Collection of the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv. Incidental modernism 329 zhytiini kleima in Orthodox iconography, narrate the episodes of the saint’s life. They tell of unique incidents of the saint’s miraculous acts and create an episodic narrative.17 The experience of postimpressionism that led to the symbolist movement in Western art found a curious adaptation in Ukrainian modernism. Syniakova’s imitation of Western models—specifically the sensual imagery of Matisse’s bathers luxuriating in a landscape, as well as the spatial flattening of her compositions which fuse background and foreground into one pictorial plane, owe as much to Matisse’s sumptu- ous color and fluid integration of figure and space as they do to Persian manuscript illuminations and the decorative kilim or wall hanging style of Transcaucasian weavings so familiar throughout Ukraine. In turn, Matisse himself demonstrated an early predilection for bold patterns in textiles and wall coverings and executed portraits of female sitters wearing billowy embroidered blouses of Slavic origin. More to the point, Syniakova’s images of cross-legged figures, as seen in many of her other works, are not only inspired, as might be expected, by the popular Cos- sack Mamai images that proliferated in the Slobozhanshchyna region where Syniakova lived, but they also appear to be connected to, and borrowed from, the typical seated posture of Central Asian nomads and Mongols, who customarily sat on the ground or floor with legs crossed at the ankles and the feet below the legs. Syniakova’s art confirms her artistic contemporaries’ penchant for esoteric Eastern mysticism of the kind made prominent during Kazimir Malevich’s short-lived symbolist period of ca. 1904–1908. Melding Buddhist sources with Orthodox resurrectional iconography,18 Malevich created the image of the Holy Shroud (Epitaphios) (1908) (fig. 11, below) that complemented the ubiq- uitous subject of the Lamentation taken up by the French and Belgian symbolists (specifically, the Salon de la Rose + Croix). Evocative of the Eastern Christian plashchanytsia, Malevich’s Shroud fuses the conventions of the liturgical artifact with conceptualizations of the death of the Buddha in Asian art. Traditional treatment of this type
17. This form of episodic narration also acknowledges the influence of Persian minia- tures, which had a special appeal to the Eastern-oriented Kharkiv avant-garde to which Syniakova belonged as a central, catalyzing figure. For more on this artistic circle, see Myroslava M. Mudrak, “From the Lotus to the Sickle: Modernist Kharkiv and the Art of Borys Kosarev, 1915–1931,” in Borys Kosarev: Modernist Kharkiv, 1915–1931 (Kyiv: Rodovid, 2011), 22–33 (Ukrainian version, 34–45). Catalogue published in conjunction with the exhibition of the same name, shown at the Ukrainian Museum in New York, and the Museum of Theatre, Music, and Cinema of Ukraine in Kyiv. 18. For a discussion of the impact of Orthodoxy on Malevich’s symbolist period, see Myroslava M. Mudrak, “Kazimir Malevich and the Liturgical Tradition of Eastern Christianity,” in Byzantium/Modernism: The Byzantine as Method in Modernity, ed. Roland Betancourt and Maria Taroutina (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 37–72. 330 Mudrak
Figure 11. Kazimir Malevich. Holy Shroud (Epitaphios). 1908. Oil on canvas. 23.4 x 34.3 cm. Collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
of Buddha shows him reclining (on his right side) with a halo, resting under two sal trees (Shorea robusta) or sometimes in a landscape as shown here. Malevich has chosen to depict him within an Indic palette, a predominant concentration of golds, oranges, and browns, reinforcing the “Eastern” or “Asiatic” features of this art rather than the standard colors of Byzantine iconography, although it does bring to mind the colored tesserae of ancient mosaics. The extraordinary syntheses that bring such cross-cultural richness to Malevich’s art is indebted, in large part, to the concurrent introspective practices of the Nabis, the oneiric art of Maurice Denis, and the dissociative homegrown iconography of Mikhail Vrubel´, as noted in Malevich’s symbolist paintings The Flower Gathering (1908) (fig. 12, at right), (also referred to as Secret of Temp- tation from Malevich’s so-called “Yellow Series”) and Oak and Dryads (ca. 1908) (fig. 13, below):
The Flower Gathering has an esoteric philosophical import in direct line of descent from the Nabis, and in particular from Maurice Denis, who had visited Moscow and exhibited there. Yet in this mys- tical garden, the feminine triad may well be regarded as a Far Eastern version of the classical “Three Graces.” And in Oak and Dryads, we Incidental modernism 331
Figure 12. Kazimir Malevich. The Flower Gathering. 1908. Watercolor, gouache, and crayon on cardboard. 23.5 x 25.5 cm. Formerly of the N. I. Khardzhiev collection. Present location unknown. Reproduced by permission from Jean-Claude Marcadé, Malévitch (Paris: Nouvelles Éditions Françaises, 1990), 48.
may perhaps detect a synthesis of Greek tradition, the Biblical tra- dition of the Tree of Life, and the Far Eastern “tree of illumination.” The mystery of the Cosmos is presented to our eyes in the meeting of the male (the phallic tree) and female (the womb within the tree). Epitaphios (The Shroud of Christ) is orthodox in inspiration but draws on Buddhist models despite the iconographical debt it owes to Vrubel’s Kyiv frescoes.19
The fascination with Asiatic, Orientalist, and Byzantine aesthetics meshed with contemporary European currents was not all that unusual
19. Michael Gibson, Symbolism (Cologne: Taschen, 1999), 188–89. 332 Mudrak
Figure 13. Kazimir Malevich. Oak and Dryads. Ca. 1908. Watercolor and gouache on paper. 21 x 28 cm. Private collection. Reproduced by permission from Gilles Néret, Kazimir Malevich, 1878–1935, and Suprematism (Cologne: Taschen, 2003), 10.
in symbolist art at the turn of the century and was especially symp- tomatic for those artists who felt disenfranchised and marginalized by the dominance of art centers in Western Europe. The search for ancestral links and an affinity for local culture offered a way of temper- ing the dominant formalist influences derived from Western models.20 Consequently, the invocation of both Western and Eastern ideals was
20. Private collections established by wealthy industrial families in Russia made French art readily available to aspiring artists in Moscow. Those of greatest consequence were the collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. It is notable that both collectors were influential supporters of the French symbolists, particularly Pierre Puvis de Cha- vannes and Maurice Denis. Incidental modernism 333 denotative of a quest to be liberated from social and artistic “inferior- ity” while searching, as did other fin-de-siècle groups, for a cohesive and all-encompassing form of artistic expression that would at once be universalist in nature while reflecting local concerns and aspirations.
The culture of ancient Greece and Rome had long woven its way into modern Ukrainian literature before artists began to take up such themes in their paintings. One need only mention the writings of Lesia Ukraïnka—for example, U katakombakh (In the Catacombs, 1905) and Kasandra (Cassandra, 1906). Long before that Ivan Kotliarevs´kyi’s Eneïda (The Aeneid, 1798), the heroic epic transmogrified into a Cossack adventure and rendered in vernacular Ukrainian, became a national literary classic and spearheaded a literary renaissance. Classical sources already deeply imbedded in Ukrainian discourse were tapped to address a modernist purpose, and symbolism became an efficient means of their conveyance. Ancient Graeco-Roman histories and lore surrounding the Black Sea coast were particularly rife with symbolic associations for modernist Ukrainian culture. A case in point was the painting of Vsevolod Maksymovych, whose symbolist aesthetics were permeated with the ethos of Greek mythology and culture. In the painting Argo- nauts (1913) (fig. 14, below), the artist delivers a popular subject—the story of the Golden Fleece21—by imitating the palette and compositions on archaic vase painting. The mythical story of Jason’s journey on the ship Argus and his quest for the prize that would assure his ascendancy to the throne recalls similar legends typically depicted on ancient Greek pottery.22 Maskymovych conveys it deftly through the chalky quality of
21. The political overtones associated with the Golden Fleece were notoriously sym- bolic. The mythological story of Jason and the Argonauts was ubiquitous in European art from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, and was usually associated, as in Giovanni Tiepolo’s ceiling fresco Glorification of Spain (1764–1766) in the Palacio Real, Madrid, with the restoration of governance. The subject gained in prominence in the 1870s, a response, in part, to the residual tensions of the Franco-Prussian War and the issue of cultural (and political) dominion. 22. The story of Jason and the Argonauts exists in many forms (and presents a wide array of characters and adventures) based on the narratives of Herodotus and Apollo- nius of Rhodes. The story dates to the time of Homer, in the eighth century BCE. Its key site is Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea (today’s Georgia). The concept of “golden fleece” relates to a method of harvesting gold in the eastern Black Sea region—a practice that dates to the fifth century BCE—which utilized sheep fleeces that would be Figure 14. Vsevolod Maksymovych. Argonauts. 1913. Oil on canvas. 210 x 335 cm. Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Incidental modernism 335 his terracotta red canvases filled with sharply contrasting black figures. The painting’s symbolist workings focus on the idea of the journey itself, Jason’s homeward-bound sea voyage when all the perils of his travels are now safely behind him. Indeed, what we are shown is not the adventurous side of Jason’s trials and conquests, but the intimate drama that unfolds “below deck,” as it were. If we choose to recognize the male figure sensually laid out on the berth as Jason himself, then the female can probably be identified as Medea, who, based on the myth, was hopelessly smitten with Jason only to be ultimately spurned by him. Indeed, despite the throes of her passion (as the story goes), Jason appears cold and heartless (although physically, his maleness responds to her caress). If we carry that identification forward, then the scene confirms this to be the last leg of their escape, presumably with the Golden Fleece in tow—even though the prize is nowhere represented in the image.23 The symbolic return of the fleece back to Hellas sets up an implied semiology operating in Russian and Ukrainian avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s. The fact that, according to some legends, the story unfolds in the region east of the Black Sea infers identification for Maksymovych not with some distant land, but with a localized geography, and links his depiction, albeit on a purely symbolic level, not only to the Hylaean futurists, who sought to reclaim the past and their cultural roots, but also to the neoprimitivists, who raised common folk motifs to the level of fine art, and no less so to Krychevs´kyi’s and Zhuk’s modern style built on the foundation of native traditions as well. Inflected by the lore and romance surrounding the quintessentially symbolist quest myth, Maksymovych’s Argonauts reveals fragmentary details referring to specific aspects of the story, including the talking sternpost—a possible reference to the goddess Hera giving advice to Jason—and the mirror she holds, which reflects back on the languor- ous male figure. Maksymovych was twenty years old when he painted Argonauts—the exact age of the mythological Jason when he set out in search of the Golden Fleece and commanded the ship Argus. Based on the treatment of the male figure in Nudes (1914) (fig. 15, below), another stretched over a wood frame and submerged in flowing water to collect gold particles. The fleeces would then be hung up to dry, making the appearance of a spectral golden beast. The gold would be removed by shaking off the imbedded metallic fragments, or by combing them out. 23. The story of Medea, taken up by the playwright Euripides, dwells on the tragic destiny precipitated by jealousy and revenge on the part of a woman scorned. Medea left her home and father for Jason’s sake, and even bore him children, whom she would murder to avenge his betrayal. Figure 15. Vsevolod Maksymovych. Nudes. 1914. Oil on canvas. 243 x 101 cm. Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Incidental modernism 337 of Maksymovych’s paintings, the visage of Jason translates, undoubtedly, as a self-portrait, transforming the symbolist leitmotif of narcissism into an allegorical vanitas image.24 Partly decorative and partly descriptive, the swirling lines and repetitious motif of bubble shapes throughout Argonauts make ref- erence to an aqueous environment that was frequently taken up as an alternate reality in symbolist art and employed by a host of symbolist painters—from Pierre Puvis de Chavannes in France, to the Lithuanian composer-painter Mikolajus Čiurlionis, to Pavel Kuznetsov of the Rus- sian symbolist group Golubaia roza (Blue Rose).25 The interweaving of figures within the turbulence of shifting waters also comports with the currency of symbolist imagery most closely associated with some of Vrubel’s works—specifically, the painting Pearl Oyster (1904) (fig. 16, below) and his majolica plate on the folk theme of the underwater prince Sadko (1900) (fig. 17, below).26 Mikhail Vrubel´, whose artistic career was launched in Kyiv, was a central figure of Russian symbolism and epitomized the ethos of Rus- sia’s Silver Age dominated by the group Mir iskusstva (World of Art).27 This artistic association, which issued a journal under the same name, promoted the rarefied aesthetics of St. Petersburg’s premier artists, among them Konstantin Somov, Leon Bakst, and Alexandre Benois. While idealizing the eighteenth century, the miriskussniki invoked the Westernization of Russian culture begun by Peter I as a kind of self-parody directed at an aesthetic predilection for an appropriated
24. Maksymovych’s enigmatic 1914 painting entitled Nudes might also be interpreted as an androgynous embodiment of the Olympian goddess Hera, the wife and sister of Zeus. Her attributes include diadems and veils; the peacock—a symbol of her pride—is prominently visible in the painting Masquerade. 25. One image that has particular relevance here is Leon Bakst’s Terror Antiquus (1908), oil on canvas, 250 x 270 cm, State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. A prominent member of the artistic organization Mir iskusstva (World of Art), Bakst’s work came to exemplify the lost world of the ancients. 26. Sadko, a minstrel from Novgorod, is the hero of this famous Russian epic that was frequently taken up by artists during the rise of neonationalism in late nineteenth-cen- tury Russian art. The story is associated with the founding of medieval Novgorod—a prosperous merchant town and commercial site whose status was enhanced by its strategic location offering direct access to the seas. The drama of the Sadko tale, which Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov turned into an opera in 1896, takes place in an enchanted kingdom of the sea where a beautiful princess, the daughter of the Sea King, falls in love with the musical Sadko. 27. Mikhail Vrubel´ was affiliated with the Symbolist periodicals Zolotoe runo and Apollon, which did much to champion the transition from the introspective and psy- chological mode of symbolism to forms of modernist expression. Figure 16. Mikhail Vrubel´. Pearl Oyster. 1904. Oil on canvas. 35 x 44 cm. Collection of the State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.
Figure 17. Mikhail Vrubel´. Sadko. 1899–1900. Majolica plate, relief, colored glaze. 75 x 88 cm (oval). © State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg. Incidental modernism 339 au courant “Western” culture perpetuated by the imperial caste. The rococo, which became widespread under Empress Elizabeth’s reign, was cynically reflected in their whimsical and anachronistic depictions of a capricious aristocracy engaged in frivolities. At the same time, as part of the melancholy and malaise of the post-1905 era, the sobering austerity and constraint of Mir iskusstva’s imagery, much of it con- nected to the cohesive trappings of classicism, offered them a welcome release and escape from the sociopolitical volatility of their time that ultimately led to revolution. Not only was the classicizing nature of Mir iskusstva artists relevant to Maksymovych’s work, but equally so was the philosophy of “art for art’s sake” fostered in their journal as well as other publications of the era. As suggested by the title of the contemporary literary-artistic magazine Apollon, for instance, classical antiquity loomed large on the minds of the Petersburgian symbolists and coincided with Maksymovych’s own self-reflexive heroic imagery, usually expressed through homoerotic nuances and analogies. Such overtones in Maksymovych’s work go beyond carnal desire and extend, symbolically, to existentialist and aesthetic concerns directly linked to the artist’s personal awakening to the uncertain tides of modernity. Inflected by decadence and eroticism, the influence of Mir iskusstva repositioned Maskymovych’s self-appointed role as artist-auteur to an artist-poseur. As classic tropes of antiquity, androgyny and epic nudity pervaded symbolist imagery. Single-gendered communities were depicted as a classical social ideal reflecting discipline and mental concentration leading toward absolute truths, which appealed to artists as a contrast to the melancholy notes of the fin-de-siècle era. Maksymovych was drawn to the artistic community of the male-dominated Petersburgian miriskussniki who created against the backdrop of Petersburgian neo- classicism with which Maksymovych was intimately familiar. The staid architectural facades made canonic by Alexander I’s stately classicism dominated Maksymovych’s own native Poltava in Ukraine. For the Petersburgians, however, the sumptuous courtliness of the pre-Alexan- drine period brought an effeminizing note to modernist Russian culture, obfuscating the virile harshness of Catherine II’s rule. By adopting a sardonic stance on Westernization and its artifice, the Petersburgian dandies often employed the carnivalesque to reference the vagaries of the Russian court. For his part, Maksymovych invokes Catherine II’s penchant for theatrical spectacle as entertainment and captures deftly her taste, libertine ways, and acrimonious disposition in the painting Masquerade (1913) (figs. 18–20, below). The work is a full-fledged allusion to the genre of theater that Catherine II loved so well. As a Figure 18. Vsevolod Maksymovych. Masquerade. 1913. Oil on canvas. 205 x 303 cm. Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Incidental modernism 341
Figure 19. Vsevolod Maksymovych. Masquerade. 1913. Detail. Oil on canvas. 205 x 303 cm. Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
Figure 20. Vsevolod Maksymovych. Masquerade. 1913. Detail. Oil on canvas. 205 x 303 cm. Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
large-scale black-and-white frieze filled with a multitude of figuresMas - querade frames a symmetrically arranged composition anchored in the center by an elegant female of imposing demeanor dressed in rococo- styled gay attire. Although her partially exposed body is lean (contrary to Catherine’s more portly constitution), its posture, the arrogance of the attitude, and the attentiveness of the corps of characters standing in deference to her as the main figure of the composition suggest that it might be the persona of the empress herself. An ordered formation of festively masked (and unmasked) figures flank her ceremoniously on either side; others peek through the colonnade behind her. Their facial features (and even Catherine’s!) replicate those of Maksymovych’s own physiognomy, clearly identifying him as the alter ego of this showpiece. Sexual ambiguity and androgyny pervade the painting, melding the 342 Mudrak pomp surrounding the female ruler and her cross-dressed entourage with the male artist whose appearance is replicated over and over again throughout the work. Despite the decadent undertones, Maksymovych’s graphic linearism, the stark reductivism of his palette, and austere play of contour that intensifies the interplay of dark and light, black and white, belies an objective visuality, which, like pure ornamentation, is untainted by subjectivity; the consistency of light and its even distri- bution dissuades any emotional emphasis, allowing the work to pose as a decorative panneau rather than an autobiographical tale, although one senses that all of Maksymovych’s oeuvre represents an intimate silhouette of the artist, subtly revealing the demeanor of his psyche. Bearing these features in mind, it is not surprising that Maksymo vych’s linear precision and illustrational style would remind us of English artist Aubrey Beardsley, especially the latter’s series of drawings for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé (1893) (fig. 21, at right). The exquisite peacock that borders the left side of the central figure in Maksymovych’s painting and repeats the graceful contour of the revealing dress is a signature feature of Beardsley’s appropriation of the art nouveau aesthetic imbued with sensuality. In the absence of chiaroscuro, Maksymovych’s Masquerade also resurrects the frieze-like format of Beardsley’s countryman, the neoclassicist John Flaxman, whose illustrations to Homer’s Iliad (1793) (fig. 22, below) are indebted to antique models. The display of a variety of gestures and positions typical of Flaxman’s depictions is echoed in the tenor of Maksymovych’s Masquerade, which unfolds like the narratives on ancient black-figured vessels. Yet Maksymovych doesn’t stop at these sources. Instead, typical of his compatriots, he taps into alternative borrowings. His abstracted faces capture the attenuated linear quality of icons and tribal art as much as they do the delicate descriptiveness of Flaxman’s manner.28 Despite the large-scale stage-curtain effect, Mas- querade clearly appropriates the furtive glances of voyeuristic characters in Somov’s intimate black-and-white drawings and graphic illustrations
28. As a central figure of the Petersburg-based Soiuz molodezhi (Union of Youth), which had strong symbolist leanings, contemporary artist Nikolai Kul´bin promoted the meshing of East-West pictorial conventions, such as the formal properties of Orthodox iconography and African tribal arts. As a medical doctor turned painter, Kul´bin was also a proponent of biocentrism in art. His style of painting involved pictorializing physiological processes through repetitive arcs or circles (akin to the bubbles in Maksy- movych’s paintings). See Charlotte Douglas, “Evolution and the Biological Metaphor in Modern Russian Art,” Art Journal 44, no. 2 (Summer 1984): 153–61. For more on the Soiuz molodezhi, see Jeremy Howard, The Union of Youth: An Artists’ Society of the Russian Avant-Garde (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1992). Figure 21. Aubrey Vincent Beardsley. The Peacock Skirt. 1893. Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Black ink and graphite on white wove paper. 23 x 16.8 cm. Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Grenville L. Winthrop. Photo: © President and Fellows of Harvard College. 344 Mudrak
Figure 22. John Flaxman. Venus Presenting Helen to Paris. 1793. Reproduced from The Iliad of Homer Engraved by Thomas Piroli from the Compositions of John Flaxman Sculptor Rome 1793. f Typ 725.93.396, Houghton library, Harvard University.
for Mir iskusstva.29 The bottom band of images in Masquerade shows a meticulously painted arrangement of courtly figures in combinations of two to four, veiled and cocoon-like, caught in a net of spindly threads. Languid ladies (and men) with flat gazes assume a processional stance with a scarcely modulated uniformity; their directional movement
29. Konstantin Somov, whose works tend toward the erotic and voyeuristic, was a founding member of the Mir iskusstva group in St. Petersburg. He developed a his- toricizing style that evoked the fanciful manners of eighteenth-century Petersburgian courtly life. After a brief visit to England in 1899, his graphic work for the journal Mir iskusstva (1899–1906) embodied the silhouetted elegance of Beardsley’s style. In 1902, Somov produced the cover for a monograph on the Ukrainian court painter Dmytro Levyts´kyi. Somov was also closely associated with the theater life of St. Petersburg, designing program covers for the Imperial Theater and organizing the Iuliia Sazonova puppet theater in Petrograd in 1915. After the revolution he produced highly eroticized illustrations for Le Livre de la Marquise (Kniga Markizy) (1918). Incidental modernism 345
Figure 23. Vsevolod Maksymovych. Masquerade. 1913. Detail. Oil on canvas. 205 x 303 cm. Collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine.
creates a melodious loop, graduating upward and downward, their positions being read like musical notes on a linear staff and the strains of Mozart being conjured up with every step. This horizontal intonated arrangement also creates a pictorial register, which functions like a filmic reel with unique framing,30 reminding us as well of the cortèges in Viktor Borisov-Musatov’s dreamy paintings typically showing primarily female figures in cadential sequences of some elusive ritual. The personification of a dominant vixen or brazen female—univer- sal to symbolist art—is utilized by Maksymovych in a less than overt manner in Masquerade through the unusual conflation of references to both Catherine and Cleopatra (fig. 23, detail, above). The anecdotal evidence that underscores the clandestine and decadent habits of both
30. Although little is known about Maksymovych’s involvement in early silent film- making, he can be seen in a frame from Drama in Cabaret no. 13 (1914) holding the bare-breasted Natalia Goncharova in his arms. A reproduction of this frame is found in Camilla Gray’s book The Russian Experiment in Art, 116, ill. 78, where Maksymovych is mistakenly identified as Mikhail Larionov. 346 Mudrak of these female rulers is elided into one in Maksymovych’s painting.31 The work may identify Cleopatra as the protagonist of this scene (cf. the black silhouette of a servant who raises a pillow with the head of a viper or asp rising up in the very middle of Masquerade is an immediate iconographic allusion to Cleopatra), yet Catherine’s well-publicized love of spectacle, which extended to the construction of her private theater in the Hermitage, rather makes her the dominant subject of this composition. The rococo costuming, though anachronistic, belies her recreational interests against which her investment in (and resto- ration of) classicism can be regarded as a foil. As for Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Maksymovych invokes her era by the distinctively archaizing hairstyles in almost all of his other paintings (albeit not in Masquerade which abounds with wigs from the period of Louis XV) in which he tends to fuse archaic Egyptian features with Hellenic classicism.
The thematic range and stylistic variance not only of Maksymovych’s art but of most of the artists mentioned in this essay make the task of identifying a cohesive strain within Ukrainian modernism especially challenging. Modernism’s variable nature—from style to subject— reflects many influences on Ukrainian art coming into play in the early years of the twentieth century. If, however, we allow ourselves to see the launch of modernism in Ukraine to be part of a larger symbolic act reflective of a collective existential process of self-discovery, then the concept of Ukrainian modern art can be supported as a culturally unifying phenomenon with a clear direction. As considered in this essay, Ukrainian modernism, its aspirations, its sources, its specificity emerges more subtly, and yet more clearly, from a symbolist perspective. The agency of the symbolist movement defined not solely by the chronology of art history but as a mode of artistic expression responsive both to the contemporary moment of time and place and to larger global civilizational processes of the past, uniquely shaped Ukrainian modernism. From this perspective emerges a firm foundation for constructing a historical narrative of modernism in Ukraine, one which takes into account the art, the artifacts, and the
31. According to the lore surrounding Cleopatra, she tested various deadly poisons on condemned persons and animals for daily entertainment. Incidental modernism 347 psychological response to many cultural epochs, including the country’s own cultural and material history. What is important to consider in making a case for a Ukrainian sym- bolist movement, however, is that it represents the emergence of an artistic attitude that takes into account the current modes of expression found throughout Western Europe, yet it lacks the organizational struc- tures that gave French, Austrian, or English symbolism its impetus— namely, an authoritative state-institutionalized academic tradition. The absence of statehood and an unintegrated and fluid sense of national identity resulted in a decentralized and scattered phenomenon of sym- bolism that prevented the consolidation of a movement in the way that the spring rebirth of nations among the Slavs in other parts of Europe gave rise to singular personalities such as Alphonse Mucha or Jacek Malczewski. Because of its disparateness, the concept of a Ukrainian symbolism would remain inchoate and would not reflect a cohesive body of work as might be found in the Poland youth movement Młoda Polska or the Czech Devětsil (Nine Muses). Moreover, there was no market or substantive connoisseurial support for this art, and no local art societies that would set out to encourage and sustain it. Except for Hylaean futurism, there was no organizational structure the likes of the Salon de la Rose + Croix that would identify symbolism as an organized artistic phenomenon in Ukraine. Essentially, there was no ideational or organizational basis that would frame a distinct, historically outlined Ukrainian symbolism, and perhaps, even more importantly, there was no public (except, again, in the case of the Hylaean futurists who delib- erately sought to aggravate audiences and bring attention to themselves) that would offer a critical response to it. The definition of Ukrainian symbolism therefore is determined solely by aesthetic comparison rel- ative to other phenomena. That, however, does not diminish its value. The indirectness of Maksymovych’s metaphoric centering on the status of Ukraine within the Russian Empire of the eighteenth cen- tury, for instance, makes a case for the symbolist quest for cultural self-identity—a quintessential trait of Ukrainian modernism. Simi- larly, the primitive impulse, which resonated powerfully in the work of the Burliuks and Syniakova, sought to mollify the chaos of urban and industrial progress in the midst of a largely agrarian and rural cul- ture, and, in the case of Syniakova, to come to terms symbolically with the realities of war and its disruption of normal rhythms of life. Even though Syniakova interpreted the experience of war through the prism of futurism, she introduced a psychological moment constructed on the basis of an implicit spiritual transcendence gained from the experience of traditional icons. Her art accommodated the power and potential 348 Mudrak of wartime technologies that the belligerent Italians glorified without subscribing to their exhortations about war being the “hygiene” of the world. She also tempered the symbolist emphasis on decadence with moralistic overtones. The symbolist underpinnings of the art of the Burliuks were underscored equally by a synoptic stance, visible not only in the biocentric abstractions of Volodymyr’s art, but also in David’s unique four-sided “futurist” paintings which, like a compass, captured different viewpoints and arranged them kaleidoscopically on the canvas. These quadripartite paintings may just as well have been inspired by the four-sided totemic figure of the pagan Slavic god Svitovyd as by the topos of futurist simultaneity or the concept of relativistic viewing examined by the cubists. Again, the symbolic, rather than the purely formalistic, ought not to be underestimated in this case. For a culture perceived as being on the margins and overshadowed by the dominance of Russia or Poland, symbolism accorded Ukrainian artists a way of pioneering their own way, circuitous and unconventional as it may have been, toward artistic modernism. As they appropriated the new visual language from Western counterparts or their imperial cultural overseers, they reshaped its lexicon and syntax to fit the internal sociopolitical realities of the day. Inflected, at times, by the traits of a vestigial romanticism that channeled a departure from the material world, they sought an orphic escape or retreat to an alternate realm of mystery and recondite meaning. In its melancholy and nostalgia, Zhuk’s art linked up closely with its European counterparts, and most specifically with the artists of nearby Poland for whom symbolism was critical in defining nationhood. At the same time, he surrendered to the subtleties of his own experience and the realities of life in Ukraine. Symbolism allowed Ukrainian modernists to establish a cultural presence while contributing to the transformative nature of modern art as a whole. The episodic narrative attempted here barely scratches the surface of its development and offers only a glimpse into the currents of symbolist activity undertaken by a wide range of Ukrainian artists largely unconnected to each other. Thus, we should read the episodes of symbolist practice as stepping-stones to an independent aesthetic and worldview that would manifest itself as a consolidated effort only in the 1920s. Even though symbolism served as a gateway toward artistic expression that transcended all spatial and temporal barriers, historical time and geopolitical circumstances determined its creative impulse in Ukraine and formed its sporadic character. The sources of symbolist imagery in Ukrainian art ranged from the esoteric to the rarefied—from ancient beliefs and folklore to metaphors describing a modern sense of identity. Lofty themes of classical mythology abounded and took on a Incidental modernism 349 special, if not ironic, meaning in shaping a cultural selfhood, but so did flights of fancy into majestic spheres, cosmic realms and the channeling of visual metonymies. Not until the dissolution of the Russian Empire, would all these forces burst forth into a plethora of experimentation that would be called the Ukrainian avant-garde.