In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s review – a small yet blazing act of solidarity

The paintings in the Royal Academy’s startling new show are political refugees. They were loaded on to lorries to be driven out of Kyiv in the autumn of 2022. A Tuesday was chosen, as the Russians generally bombed the city on Mondays, but no sooner had they reached the Polish border than a rogue missile exploded on the other side. It took prolonged Ukrainian diplomacy to persuade the border guards to flag them through.

To stand in front of these wildly dynamic paintings, so filled with the spirit of freedom, is to sense both past and present danger. Some of these paintings were confiscated or hidden from Soviet censors; some of these artists fled Ukraine to escape Stalin’s purges, while others did not make it.

For anyone who knows Kazymyr Malevych’s celebrated Black Square, a blazing form on a pure white ground, abstraction without precedent in 1915, it is a shock to come upon the figuration of his Landscape (Winter) from 1930. Mounds of snow curve away towards brightly coloured houses, beneath lines of tubular trees. A faceless figure scissors through the scene, head down, like a surrogate for the painter himself – arrested, interrogated, threatened with execution by Stalin’s secret police, banned from the bourgeois crime of abstraction. Was it for his own safety that Malevych backdated the canvas to 1909?

This tension between art and oppression runs all the way through the show, its 65 works rescued mainly from Kyiv’s National Museum of Art. A fabulous wooden horse, carved with radiant spirals, gallops around an expressionist carousel. A blue train thrusts through the whorls of a nearly futurist landscape. The same artist – Anatol Petrytskyi – who paints fierce constructivist compositions, all machine-age geometry and industrial precision in 1923, will produce a devastating group of war-wounded veterans and their poverty-stricken families a year later, shown to acclaim in the USSR pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

‘Brave new future’: Composition, c1918–20s by El Lissitzky. Photograph: National Art Museum of Ukraine

The Royal Academy makes a fine job of explaining – through images, as well as words – the complex sociopolitical backdrop of what amounts to four decades of art in Ukraine: collapsing empires, the first world war, the Russian Revolution, Ukraine’s brief independence (1918-22) before the establishment of Soviet Ukraine in 1922. So you will see a modernist pioneer such as El Lissitzky envisaging a brave new future in a composition of undulating metal planes, pierced by a Bolshevik red arrow in 1919, but barely a decade later come gigantic paintings of workers resting from their labours, hands stiffly clasped as if still wielding their tools, barefoot with half a loaf and two onions in the hot light between them.

It is staggering, and vital, to consider how many stars came from Ukraine – Sonia Delaunay, daughter of Jewish parents in Odesa; Malevych, one of 14 children born to an ethnic Polish family in Kyiv; Alexander Archipenko, whose exquisite bronze nude, slim and shapely as a leaf, is one of the show’s highlights.

Others who came to live in Ukraine, and were specifically associated with Kyiv, include Lissitzky and Alexandra Exter – cubo-futurist, suprematist, constructivist and founder of an influential art studio in Kyiv introducing painters to the latest European art movements while associating them directly with Ukrainian folk art.

Anatol Petrytskyi’s costume designs for the ballet Eccentric Dances at the Moscow Chamber Ballet, 1922. Photograph: Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine © Anatol Petrytskyi

Exter taught stage design, and there is a spectacular section devoted to theatre art in this show. Best of all are Petrytskyi’s wonderful constructivist designs for the state opera in Kharkiv that constitute independent collages. A Slavic merchant wears a fur hat made out of tiny cereal grains, his coat rendered in sand. The figures in Puccini’s Turandot resemble bespectacled penguins in black and white suits.

The presentation is dramatic, the gallery walls painted light copper and deep cobalt. But this art can take it, the force of colour a shared trait throughout. Exter’s Three Female Figures opens the show: high chrome and humorous, the gradations of faces flushing from pale pink at the chin to dark rose beneath the brim of their hats; two wearing brilliant yellow buttonholes, another surrounded by the uplifting ripples of her scarlet dress against dynamic blue vectors of light.

Vasyl Yermilov’s 1922 Self-Portrait: ‘like nothing before or since’. Photograph: Alex Lachmann Collection

Exter goes to Paris, Genoa, Moscow. Delaunay comes from Kyiv through Germany to Paris. French cubism, Italian futurism and German expressionism flash through these galleries, fusing with the Russian avant garde to produce some of the most revolutionary art anywhere in the world at that time. But what is so revelatory is the sight of so many unfamiliar artists against all these famous names.

The self-portrait of Vasyl Yermilov, for instance, is like nothing before or since. A shallow relief of painted metal on wood, the long face yellow against a shining blue collar, it has the most expressive apertures. Stand to one side and it appears to open its mouth in speech; stand to the other and it is deep in a pensive frown.

Oleksandr Bohomazov’s Sharpening the Saws, from 1927, hangs in pole position in the final gallery: a wild vision of labourers tending to their perfectly geometric tools, long planes of violet, blue and crimson, lying among tree trunks and walls like the musical instruments in some celestial Quattrocento vision of paradise.

Portrait of Mykhailo Semenko, 1929 by Anatol Petrytskyi. Photograph: National Art Museum of Ukraine

And Petrytskyi – staggeringly various – paints a vivid cafe where the futurist poet Mykhailo Semenko smokes and drinks coffee with a woman in a stylish cloche hat. Its name, Café Poc, is written across the glass, or is it the painting, in Roman letters to show affinity with western Europe. Some hope. Semenko was executed in 1937, during the Great Terror, and much of Petrytskyi’s art was destroyed.

Which is, of course, the potential fate of these very paintings, should they return to a Ukraine bombarded by Putin. London is, thus far, the final stop on a European tour that may perhaps be extended. So go to this show, if you can, not just because the art is so moving, but because it feels like the smallest act of solidarity with Ukraine and its culture.

The Guardian

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