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Ukrainian Painting from the 19th to the early 20th c.
The nineteenth and early twentieth century make a period not very long in terms of time measurement, however in the history of Ukrainian fine arts, painting in particular, it is marked by such diversity of great artistic achievements and outstanding names that it can be considered its 'golden age.'
Long-standing artistic traditions formed the national originality of Ukrainian painting and mastering of contemporary attainments in other cultures defined its adequacy to the general artistic processes of that period.
Ukrainian painting, like Russian and all European, is characterized by its correspondence with the time, with its political and social changes, with achievements in the scientific and technological progress and evolution of aesthetic ideals, which determined the polarity of art at the beginning of the period and at its end. The nineteenth century in Ukraine began with the artists' striving to comprehend the reality of the surrounding life and the twentieth, with searches for a new figurative idiom that, rejecting the superficial illusiveness, endeavoured to reveal the innermost essence of the world. And whatever is our estimation of Ukrainian classical painting, its stylistics and artistic expression, we should point out its pivotal elements – humanistic direction, high spirituality, poesy, and integrity of world outlook.
This album represents the selection of paintings from the collection of the National Art Museum of Ukraine. They vividly demonstrate both the basic processes peculiar to culture of the nineteenth – early twentieth century and the character of the gathering that is one of Ukraine’s major by its artistic significance and volume. It was founded concurrently with the formation of the museum itself. Inaugurated in 1899 as the Museum of Antiquities and Arts, the museum from the very beginning programmed collecting and exhibiting of art works as a form of its activities. At the early stage of the museum history the collection building was rather spontaneous, it was replenished mostly thanks to donations from private persons.1 The painting exhibitions held in the museum halls also played a certain part in its formation. During 1899–1917 there were more than forty of them. Besides local artists, there were represented works by members of the Society of Mobile Art Exhibitions (Peredvizhniki), the World of Art Society, and the Union of Russian Artists. Many exhibitions were initiated by the museum director M. Biliashivsky. It was he who represented landscapes by a young, then little-known artist A. Manevich (1909). He organized the posthumous display of M. Vrubel’s works (1910) based on a rather considerable museum collection of the artist’s works and the exhibition (1911) of T. Shevchenko’s works on the fiftieth death anniversary of the great poet and artist. It attracted a large number of visitors (2,000 persons) that permitted the museum for the first time ever to buy seven etchings by T. Shevchenko on money raised. The First Ukrainian Artistic Exhibition (1911) also evoked wide response. Along with the painters who lived in Ukraine, it represented Ukrainian artists from Paris, Moscow, and St. Petersburg. Such actions widened the horizons of national culture, delivering it from provincialism, and contributed to comprehension of important art processes going on in the late nineteenth – early twentieth century.
Works by Ukrainian artists began to come direct from exhibitions, so the collection replenishment got purposeful character. “The aim of gathering works of Ukrainian painting under the conditions when this was rather dangerously should be regarded as very important,”2 noted F. Ernst meaning national policy in the Russian Empire.
Thus, the foundation of the present gathering of classical painting was laid as far back as pre-revolutionary years. M. Biliashivsky cherished hopes to organize, on its basis, a picture gallery in Mariinsky Palace joining it to the general museum complex. In the time of the Central Rada and Directory and much later as well his intentions were not destined to be realized. However, on the means allocated for purchasing exhibits for the gallery-to-be the director bought seven etchings by T. Shevchenko and two excellent portraits by H. Vasko, a Kyivan artist of the mid-nineteenth century, which are still the adornment of the collection.
The role of M. Biliashivsky in assembling exhibits of the nineteenth – early twentieth-century art cannot be overestimated. It was by his efforts that a number of highly artistic works came in to the museum. There were even some curious episodes with their acquisition. In 1919 a much-damaged portrait of a large size got into the collection. One of the inventories has preserved an entry: "Brought by M. F. Biliashivsky from 34 Instytutska Street where horses were fed off it on oats, the hole has been ate through by the horses."3 With time, after the restoration and study of the painting it was discovered that the portrait was executed by A. Horonovych and represented the art patron V. Tarnovsky, a person well-known in Ukraine, whose large collection of antiquities and works by T. Shevchenko did not get into the museum "through the unprecedented lack of culture of 'councillors' of the former Kyiv city duma."4 First post-revolutionary years and the 1920s were the period of an intensive work on the collection formation. Many factors promoted the activation of this process. "In 1923 the National Commissar of Education enlarged the staff of the museum with a special post of the head of the art department, this has ensured, for the first time, the beginning of the elementary ordering of the collection as well as a planned work on further gathering, study and systematization of collections in the realm of Ukrainian painting."5 The notion 'Ukrainian painting' was defined rather broadly at that, which is testified by the program of its study and gathering. First of all this referred to Ukrainian artists, which embraced painters of all nationalities who lived in Ukraine. Then – "2) the creativity of Ukrainian masters who, for various reasons, worked outside Ukraine; 3) the creativity of foreign masters in Ukraine; 4) individual works of art whose subject matter is connected with Ukraine, the so-called 'Ukrainika'."6 Therefore, the replenishment of the collection of art of the nineteenth – early twentieth century went on according to this direction. At present, owing to the program defined correctly in the remote past, national culture of that time is represented in the museum by the diversity of names of artists who made a valuable contribution into its development.
The replenishment of the collection was going in different ways. The museum received works from nationalized estates of the nobility (for example, from the family estate of Princes Repnins at Yahotyn), from famous private collections in Kyiv, among them the collections of the sugar manufacturer I. Tereschenko, the architect G. Schleifer, from individuals (in particular, thirty canvases from N. Ghe's son), family portraits from the Darahans' descendants. Proceeding from the certain orientation of the artistic collection and with the aim of its putting in order, the redistribution of works among museums was widely practiced. The so-called ‘nonspecialized’ works, mostly by West-European and Russian artists, were transferred to other museums. Instead, the museum received exhibits of Ukrainian classical art not only from Ukrainian establishments (Kyiv Picture Gallery – now the Museum of Russian Art, Art Museum of All-Ukrainian Academy of Sciences – now the Bohdan and Varvara Khanenko Museum of Arts), but also from the Russian Museum in Leningrad and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. This redistribution, however, had negative consequences as well. Works by M. Vrubel and I. Repin, paintings and drawings by N. Ghe, that is works by the artists whose life and creative activities were closely connected with Ukraine, were withdrawn from the collection. Thus, national art was artificially bereft of great names, which narrowed and diluted its history. In the 1920s, two important exhibitions were arranged: Ukrainian Portrait, 17th – 20th Century (1925) and Ukrainian Painting, 17th – 20th Century (1929), based on the museum collection. At that time, it was so fundamental that it became possible to show national art in its historical retrospection, to define the peculiarities of its evolutionary processes, and to elucidate comprehensively the creativity of individual artists. These exhibitions were the first step in the systematization and study of painting of the nineteenth – early twentieth century. For this, we should give the credit to F. Ernst, the head of the art department, the outstanding scholar and genuine zealot of museum work.