Visual art can be a fantastic way to explore the past. We take a look at three Ukrainian paintings that speak volumes about the country’s history
When you’re living in a foreign country, it can be hard to get to grips with the local culture – especially if you aren’t fluent in the language. Understanding the place where you live, as well as its people and history, goes a long way towards feeling at home there. Even if your linguistic knowledge goes no further than ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you’, never fear: there are ways to connect with a culture that transcend the language barrier. A trip to the local art gallery is one of them.
The role of art is often underestimated in society. Yet it is precisely through art that we derive much of our knowledge about ancient civilisations: just think of cave paintings, Ancient Greek pots, or the mosaics of Ancient Rome. Visual art always says something about the context in which it was created – very seldom is art created from nothing. Ukrainian art is no different.
Over the years, Ukrainian artists have depicted real-life situations, notable historical moments, and portraits of influential people. All of these can help us not only to decode the past, but to relate to it on an emotional level.
At the same time as being visually pleasing, each of the three paintings below carries a message about the era in which they were created. Understanding this message can help us better understand the country, which in turn helps to understand its people, and the soul within.
1.Taras Shevchenko – Kateryna
Many people are unaware that Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, was also a prolific and talented painter. Inspired by his poem of the same name, Shevchenko’s painting Kateryna combines heartbreaking narrative and social commentary, capturing a moment in Ukrainian rural life. In a nutshell: Kateryna, a serf girl, has been seduced and then abandoned by a Russian officer. In a letter to a friend, Shevchenko describes his painting as follows:
“… I painted Kateryna after she had said goodbye to her Moskal, on her way back to the village… in the field outside a hut sits an old man carving his spoons, looking sadly at Kateryna, but the unfortunate girl does not cry… and the Moskal speeds away, leaving only dust behind him; the dog chases him, barking. On one side is a grave, on the grave is a windmill, and in the distance only the dreaming steppe. That is my painting.”
Kateryna is proof that a picture is worth a thousand words.
2. Illya Repin – Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks
The painter Illya Repin was a great admirer of the Cossacks: he called them “a holy people” and claimed that “no one in the world held so deeply freedom, equality, and fraternity”.
Repin began work on the Reply of the Zaporizhian Cossacks in 1880, after hearing a friend read aloud a version of a letter that the Cossacks reputedly wrote to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1676. (The contents of the original letter – if it ever existed at all – are clouded in mystery, but various versions emerged over the years.)
The story is as follows: the Cossacks defeated the Ottoman forces in battle, following which Sultan Mehmed IV sent an ultimatum ordering the Cossacks to submit to Ottoman rule. In response, the Cossacks sent a letter rich with insults and profanities, gleefully witty and defiant. Repin’s painting depicts the moment of writing this letter: a semi-historical, semi-legendary scene, featuring a hotchpotch of real and imaginary characters.
Illya Repin was born in the small town of Chuguev, Kharkiv province, during the Russian imperial period. Well-versed in Ukrainian history, Repin took an immersive approach when preparing to paint; he admitted to being on a ‘creative binge’ when creating this work, which took eleven years to complete. His relatives recalled that while he was working on the painting, the whole family lived and breathed Cossacks: his children knew all the heroes of Cossack stories, and could recite lines from Taras Bulba and the text of the Cossacks’ letter by heart.
Both the letter and Repin’s painting inspired other artists in years to come, including the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire.
3. Maria Prymachenko – The Beast Goes for a Walk
Maria Prymachenko is nothing short of a genius. Born into a peasant family in Ivankiv district (Kyiv region, not far from Chornobyl), she never received formal artistic training. Instead, she independently developed her own signature style and technique, making bold use of natural pigments and pure imagination. The Beast goes for a Walk is a colourful painting of a fantastical guard lion against a bright yellow background. The ‘beast’ is decorated with flowers, with a lone clover blooming at his feet.
As is the case for most of her works, the composition is rich with colour. As well as being totally original and distinctive, Prymachenko’s paintings offer a window into Ukrainian folk culture, and the myths, legends, and fairy tales that fed into everyday life. Faith and tradition are seamlessly blended with humour and subtle irony. Prymachenko is a shining example of the way that Ukrainian folk tales, customs, and symbols have been kept alive, shifting and evolving with the passage of time.
This list merely scratches the surface: there are so many more masterpieces to discover in the pantheon of Ukrainian art. Which Ukrainian artworks have made the biggest impression on you? Let us know in the comments!