Life & Culture

The art that made Ukraine and the Jewish artists who made it

This weekend the UK’s biggest ever exhibition about modernist art in Ukraine opens at the Royal Academy


Issakhar Ber Ryback, City Shtetl, 1917, oil on canvas, National Art Museum of Ukraine

The modernist movement in Ukraine unfolded against a backdrop of collapsing empires, the First World War, the fight for independence and the eventual establishment of Soviet Ukraine. But despite this profound upheaval, groundbreaking modernist art was made in Ukraine between 1900 and the 1930s, and Jews played a key part its creation.

In what is Britain’s most comprehensive exhibition about modernist art in Ukraine to date, the Royal Academy’s In the Eye of the Storm, which opens on June 29, tells the story of a  group of modernist artists who helped define Ukraine’s cultural identity in their time.  Many of the groups  whose work is featured in the exhibition were inspired by the creative experiments taking place is European capitals such as Munich and Paris, where Cubism and Futurism were flourishing. The art section of the Kultur Lige, an organisation founded in 1918 that promoted the development of contemporary Jewish-Yiddish culture, was one of the groups. At the time, it also says curator Katia Denysova understood 1918 to mid 1920s as an optimistic “generative moment” when peaceful, creative coexistence between Ukraine’s communities seemed possible.

However, this does not seem to be the message behind Immigrants painted by Manuil Shektman (1900-1941) in 1926. Originally entitled Jewish Pogrom the monumental canvas depicts a supine naked body in the lower foreground, elbows and knees angled defensively.  Above the body, filling the space between elbow and knee joints, a woman with a red shawl half on and half off her head, places a crumpled griege cloth across the body’s waist. Her pose mirrors the disarray of the figure she tends, her face at 45 degrees, the same greige as the proffered cloth, resting on her hand atop her bent knee. Framing her right, a thin hooded figure in patterned skirt, clings to the exposed knee of an old man, burrowing her head under his coat.

The seated old man holds one hand to his eye, between brown cap and long grey beard. On his other side, a woman in faded orange dress and headsquare looks blankly into space, one arm taking the weight of her head, the other lying limply across her lap. Two decorated scroll shafts lie on the ground. The body and four figures form a diamond shape. Behind them a circle of six figures in muted brown and blue shades, including a woman with her arm in a sling, sit in a circle, heads bowed. A folkloric landscape of rocks, foliage and trees fills the remaining plane. Tempera’s quick-drying properties add to the fading atmosphere.

Graduating from Mykhailo Boichuk’s studio in 1927, Shektman practised Boichuckism, a western Ukrainian fusion of modernism and Byzantine art traditions. He was a member of the Association of Revolutionary Art of Ukraine and participated in state commissions of monumental art creating murals for the Peasants Sanatorium near Odesa in 1928. Stalin’s terror purges of the 1930s executed Boichuk and his followers, but in 1934 Shekhtman moved to Moscow. He died in 1941 fighting the German invasion. A tree was planted in his honour in the Red Army Forest near Jerusalem.

If the worker-centred, realism of Boichuckism eventually fell foul of the central authorities, Marko Ephstein’s The Tailor’s Family c.1920, shows the influence of Cubism with three figures tucked into geometric representations of fabric and tailor’s dummies.

Epshtein oversaw the running of Kultur Lige’s art studio and produced illustrations for books in Yiddish. He also initiated the Museum of Jewish Art, which featured historical items, folk art and paintings by contemporary Jewish artists such as Marc Chagall. In the early 1930s, the artist was accused of formalism and nationalism. He escaped the purges and relocated to Moscow, where he lived for the rest of his life.

Issakhar Ber Ryback’s City (Shtetl) 1917, use bright primary colours and broken perspective to depict the culture and daily life of Jewish people. The artist relocated to France in 1926, joining the School of Paris’ international community.

Born to a merchant family, Sarah Stor returned to Kyiv in 1919 having survived a pogrom in northern Ukraine: various sides in the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917-21) committed violence against the Jewish communities. In Horse Riders  it is evident how the Kultur Lige’s engagement with both contemporary art developments and Yiddish cultural tradition encouraged the artist to experiment with visual language to create modern Jewish art. The painting uses uses a tonal range of pastels to hint at a shadowy second figure, concealed by the assemblage of dark geometric shapes at the centre of the composition. Two black lines coming diagonally from top right suggest reins, while shards of bright blue edged with graduated white create a backdrop of a fantastical starry, night sky.

Between 1919 and 1923, Shor created designs for several plays in Ukrainian and Russian avant-garde theatres, and collaborated with Kyiv’s Jewish publishing houses, illustrating books in Yiddish, underlining the Kultur Lige’s remit in all areas of the arts and education. She moved to Moscow in 1923 and became a prolific book illustrator. Her only solo exhibition took place in June 1945. During the 1948–51 campaign against cosmopolitanism, Shor was reduced to making visual aids for schools, and excluded from the Soviet Union’s artistic life.

The colours in Lissitzky’s Composition 1918-1920s, are iridescent, creating a 3D sense of forms with mass and shadows, rather than drawing on the folk traditions of flattened objects and shallow depth of field. The work exemplifies the Kultur Lige’s engagement with international avant garde art movements.

Lissitzky’s move to Kyiv’s Kultur Lige in 1919 was precipitated by his failing to enrol in the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts due to a quota for Jewish students. At the invitation of Marc Chagall, he worked at the People’s Art School in Viciebsk in 1919– 20, where he became a member of Kazymyr Malevych’s Suprematist UNOVIS group.

In 1921, he moved to Berlin as the cultural ambassador of the Soviet Union to the Weimar Republic. Upon his return to the USSR in the late 1920s, Lissitzky designed displays for Soviet pavilions at various international exhibitions. He suffered from tuberculosis, dying in 1941.

Jewish artists with careers continuing beyond this period include Semen Yoffe (1909 -1991), whose In the Shooting Gallery, 1932, defies the rules of Soviet Realism with its exaggerated perspective, unrealistic colours, and duo of substantive female figures cradling rifle barrels. Yoffe fought in the Second World War. The artist had two solo exhibitions in Kharkiv in 1973 and 1989,

Sonia Delaunay (1885 -1979) born Sarah Stern in Odessa, went to art school in Karlsruhe aged 18, and never returned to Ukraine or Russia again. In Simultaneous Contrasts 1913 (not shown), the artist uses a grid composition to move from figuration to abstraction, the cheerful reds and greens recalling the peasant wedding costumes of her Ukrainian childhood. With her husband Robert, Delaunay had a long career joyously exploring shape through colour, and was the first living female artist to be given a solo show at the Louvre.

The start of the 20th century might have been a period of revolutions and upheaval in Ukraine, but despite the turmoil art flourished. The Royal Academy tells the story of how a group of modernist artists helped define cultural identity during their time, and how Kultur Lige used art to forge a modern Jewish one.

​In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900 -1930s, Royal Academy

29 June - 13 October

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