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BOICHUK: UKRAINIAN ARTIST MYKHAILO BOICHUK MONUMENTALISM ENDURES

October 30, Artist Mykhailo Boichuk's 120th Anniversary
By Mykola Skyba, special to The Day
Ukrainian daily newspaper "The Day"
Kyiv, Ukraine
November 5, 2002

 

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MYKHAILO BOICHUK. HARVEST, 1910s, PAPER, GOUACHE

For Mykhailo Boichuk and his followers the key  subject matter is an apple tree, embodying  the family

tree and the tree of knowledge about good and evil. Offering the subject to his pupils, the artist strove

to verify their human and creative maturity. Apple  orchard, Boichukism, asserting the continuity of

the Ukrainian cultural tradition, must be rooted in  Hryhory Skovoroda's maxim: "Do not teach the apple

tree to grow fruit; nature has taught it  the skill. Just fence it off from the swine, cut down the weeds,

and get rid of caterpillars." The great thinker  had in mind first of all raising the individual, but the same

obviously applies to the whole people and its culture.

 

To better understand the significance of the Boichuk  school, it should be noted that three periods of

great style (i.e. those embracing all walks  of life at a certain social stage, being  the epoch's

quintessence) are recorded in the history of Ukrainian culture. The first dates from Kyiv Rus': religious

architecture  and sacral art borrowed from Byzantium and  then creatively  revised, based on

the autochthonous tradition, incorporated in the Slavic categories of time and  space. Cities were built

harmoniously merging with the existing cultural landscape: Kyiv, then Chernihiv, Volodymyr, Halych,

Pereyaslav absorbed creative energy from the adjacent lands and tribes. From that historical hearth

emerged the Kyiv's Holy Sophia.

The cathedral's architectonic pattern is based on the model of Slavic lands rallying round Kyiv.

This ecumenical culture would eventually sire the Ukrainian nation. The next period, destined to shape

Ukraine's visage, was the baroque epoch, known as the Ukrainian or Cossack baroque - i.e., a certain

world outlook, the image of an ideal society,  a scenario of interrelationship and cooperation among

various social strata. After all, baroque was a new image of man, asserting a new humane personality.


The third great style period came as a quest for the Ukrainian national style as such while forming a modern nation, marking Ukrainian renascence in the early 20th century. It was a generation inspired by the ideas of a national and cultural revolution but unable to foresee the infernal consequences of social revolutionary cataclysms.


Totalitarianism devoured practically all of Mykhailo Boichuk's monumental works. Chronologically the last work of Boichuk and his school decorated the Chervonozavodsky factory in Kharkiv (1933-35), already betraying a degree of compromise with the Communist regime. After his execution (Aug. 13, 1937) everything was destroyed, using the "most progressive" technologies of the time.


There is some infernal logic to that "ironclad epoch," evidenced by a handful of sketches or chamber works from Boichuk's rich legacy as the greatest Ukrainian monumentalist to reach our day. Behind every such surviving work of art is someone's courage and dedication. Lviv artist Yaroslava Muzyka preserved a collection of his works which is unique and precious (precious because it is unique albeit not sizable). According to Liudmyla Kovalska and Nellie Prystalenko, "This collection is an exciting revelation, lifting the shroud of mystery from the birth of a new genuinely Ukrainian art. The works are very restrained, even ascetic, yet each secretes a vast meaning and tremendous inner strength. The refined contours betray Eastern, Byzantine icon-painting traditions. The flawless rhythm, graceful images are reminiscent of Boichuk's best friends Andre Derain and Amedeo Modigliani with their Parisian atmosphere. Origin and analogies notwithstanding, Boichuk's was a singular creative amalgam eventually defining his original style, opening new ways for the revival of Ukrainian art: synthetism and the creation of grand monumental ensembles.


After all, the caliber of a creative individual is determined not only by what is left behind, but also by what that individual was not allowed to do. "We will build cities, decorate buildings, we must create Great Art. Such is our creative path," Boichuk told students at the Ukrainian Art Academy.

 

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FATHERS OF THE UKRAINIAN ART ACADEMY (SEATED LEFT TO RIGHT): MANEVYCH, MURASHKO, F. KRYCHEVSKY, HRUSHEVSKY, STESHENKO, BURACHEK; (STANDING) NARBUT, V. KRYCHEVSKY, AND BOICHUK

   With him this was anything but an overstatement. Ivan Vyhnanets, critic and his contemporary,

   wrote, "Boichuk with his pupils entered al walks of Ukrainian creative life in a relatively short

   time - e.g., ceramics, weaving, carpet-making, printing (woodcuts, book graphics), sculpture,

   even the Ukrainian puppet theater was for the first time revived by Boichuk's people." Born

   and raised in Galicia (then part of Austria-Hungary), Boichuk specially moved to Kyiv to develop

   his Ukrainian Monumentalism on the banks of the Dnipro, to translate into life his cherished

   dream of "reviving Ukrainian art from the roots."

 

   Boichuk was formed as an artist in Europe's  most important creative venues. He studied art

   in Lviv and Vienna. In 1904, he graduated with honors from the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts

   and continued to study in Geneva, attending classes by Marr who he had been recommended

   by Modest Sosenko. In the spring of 1907,  Boichuk was in Paris. That year France  marked

   an anniversary of the death of Paul Cezanne.  Boichuk attended classes at Paul  Serusier's

   studio at the Academie Ranson. He went through  a current of style forms:  academism,

   impressionism, Sezessionstil, expressionism, cubism; he studied the theory  of  Gauguin's

   synthetism opening up new horizons for symbolism. Nor could he have missed the rich colors

   of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. He was attracted by  Roerich's laconic and powerful  images

   (Roerich took part in the creation of monumental  stage settings for a number of the ballets).

   However, after such intensive aesthetic schooling, already a mature painter, Boichuk directed his creative quest to the ethnic roots and

   found them, as stated in his paper, "Old Ukrainian Art", at a meeting of the Ukrainian Society in Paris (1909), which he had founded.

 

"We seem still to have that princely culture in Terebovlianshchyna (Boichuk was born October 30, 1882, in Hnyla Rutka, a village in what is now Ternopil oblast - Author) which is pre- European and purely ethnic. Folk rites play the most important role in rural life: Christmas and spring carols, etc. I  grew up in that environment and am very fond of all those songs. It was there I came into possession of the greatest cultural treasure," Yevhen Bachynsky wrote, recounting the artist's autobiography. Boichuk aptly combined a straightforward and life-asserting village character with a refined intellectual perception. He wrote to his benefactor Metropolitan Andrei Sheptytsky from Munich: "I would be perfectly happy but for some inexplicable depression taking hold of me now and then. I feel strong, blood racing through my veins, then suddenly I am depressed, my mind is clouded by thoughts lurking somewhere in the dark, away from sunlight; this sensation is impossible to describe."


In August 1911, Mykhailo Boichuk met Vasyl Krychevsky at Mykhailo Hrushevsky 's in Lviv. Krychevsky had made his name as the author of the design and decoration of the district council in Poltava, an example of modern architecture in Ukraine. Krychevsky invited Boichuk to Kyiv. Before long, Boichuk had an opportunity to visit the city. Owing to Metropolitan Sheptytsky's intercession, he was commissioned by the Russian Archaeological Society to restore an eighteenth century church in Lemeshi, a village in today's Chernihiv oblast, then part of Count Rozumovsky's estate. The restoration lasted several years. In 1914, the artist took his brother Tymofiy (1896-1922) on one of his visits to Eastern Ukraine, and he would become one of his closest pupils and, in a way, his alter ego. In November 1917, a meeting took place in Kyiv to set up the Ukrainian state academy of the arts. Among its originators were Mykhailo Hrushevsky and UNR Minister of Education Mykola Steshenko. The teaching staff included Mykhailo Boichuk, Oleksandr Murashko, Mykola Burachek, Abraham Manevych, Mykhailo Zhuk, Heorhy Narbut, Vasyl and Fedir Krychevsky.


Boichuk's relationships with his students were anything but formal academic. Determined to revive Ukrainian art, the 35-year- old professor strove to restore its moral criteria and emotional atmosphere in the first place, because "at the happiest of times art begets products of the entire people or even race, starting with construction and ending with clothes and food..." His teachers would recall that Boichuk's home was for them an unforgettable creative laboratory, they were surrounded by "precious samples" of folk art, they animatedly discussed jubilee exhibits, "examining samples together and passing our verdicts." That atmosphere was family-like, warm and friendly. They would gather to celebrate Christmas and Easter, sing old Ukrainian songs and dance fiery Hutsul dances. As in old icon painting schools, his pupils mastered all the stages of the creative process, from preparing paints to joining hands doing fresco compositions. "A young artist must be educated in the course of work under the master's guidance; learn to handle lines and forms, using various kinds of material. He must gradually acquaint himself with the properties of materials and with the natural laws of forms," he stressed.


There are quite a few artists in Ukraine today who consider themselves his followers. Their works, smooth, laconic forms focused on themselves, emanate a powerful energy of man's spirit. Color is of utmost importance. The image' s innate luminosity is enhanced by a refined color range. With a degree of generalization, strictly arranged compositional elements, and with an epic restraint the Boichukists' creations remind one of old icons and works of the Italian Pre-Renaissance. Also, the spiritual values in the Boichuk image-bearing system are perceived even through most modern realities and subject matters.

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November 5, 2002

 
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