Ukrainian Artists Craft a Future on Their Own Terms

Ukrainian Artists Craft a Future on Their Own Terms
Ukrainian Artists Craft a Future on Their Own Terms

Oksana Pawlenko, “Long Live March 8th!” (1930–31), oil and tempera on canvas

DRESDEN — The Albertinum Museum’s exhibition Kaleidoscope of (Hi)stories presents a survey of Ukrainian art from 1912–2023 with around 50 artists and more than 100 works.

Adjacent to the main exhibition, an extensive wall of text traces Ukraine’s history over one century. Considering the disinformation circulating about Ukraine and Russia’s war against it, this exhibition’s factual accuracy is a necessity. It pushes against the erasure of Ukrainian history and agency, promoting an illuminating historical account of a nation under continuous Russian siege. Visitors learn about the Ukrainian War of Independence (1917–21), which resulted in a partitioned Ukraine (between Poland and the Soviet Union). Beginning in 1922, the Soviet Union absorbed most of Ukraine into the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. By 1928, Josef Stalin had emerged as the Soviet Union’s undisputed leader. His political rise led to cultural repression and the attempt to produce a monolithic Soviet identity across the USSR. The formative years of the Ukrainian avant-garde, from the early 1900s through the 1920s, resulted in diverse artistic centers in cities like Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Kyiv. French avant-garde artists — including Pierre Bonnard, George Braque, Henri Matisse, Henri Rousseau, and Paul Signac — exhibited alongside their Ukrainian counterparts in Kyiv and Odesa as early as 1910. 

Installation view of the exhibition’s entry hall

During the 1920s, Kyiv developed a unique position within Ukraine when its art academy invited artists from all parts of the country to teach, including Ukrainian avant-garde artists Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin. But Ukraine’s flourishing culture was cut short. During the 1930s, increased mass repressions ordered by Stalin and executed by Moscow’s apparatchiks made it impossible for Ukrainian artists to work outside the newly formed Artists’ Union of the USSR.

The Soviet Union employed every tool to implement the Russification of Ukraine, including censorship, the suppression and regulation of the Ukrainian language, an artificially imposed famine (Holodomor), mass executions and deportations, and the removal of monuments celebrating Ukrainian national identity. The exhibition’s wall text and timeline take us to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, contextualizing its impact on Ukraine and the Soviet Union, the Orange Revolution of the early 2000s, the Revolution of Dignity in late 2013 through early 2014, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine, and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Wiktor Palmow, “For the Power of the Soviets” (1927), oil and tempera on canvas

Most of the exhibition’s work is a material manifestation of how cultural resistance and self-determination help to maintain a sense of national identity in the face of decades-long occupation. Wiktor Palmow’s 1927 painting “For the Power of the Soviets” depicts a fallen revolutionary, lying on cobblestone behind what appear to be parts of a street barricade. Spent rifle cartridges and a clip with three unused rounds are next to the bloodied body of the fighter. There is no indication of any weapon that this individual might have used. Instead, his lifeless body is placed on top of a red flag. Palmow’s painting alludes to the October Revolution 10 years earlier. In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution under Vladimir Lenin’s leadership took place in Petrograd, Russia, with the aim to overthrow Russia’s provisional government and make the Communist Party the sole ruler of the future USSR. A few days after the Bolshevik coup, street fights broke out between supporters of the Russian provisional government and the Ukrainian government forces in Kyiv. Palmow’s painting exposes individual sacrifice for the benefit of an external ideology as a deadly endeavor.

A similar resilience can be found in Oksana Pawlenko’s painting “Long live March 8th!” (1930–1931), wherein Pawlenko’s rural women collectively denounce their imposed inequalities. Initiated by Clara Zetkin in 1910, International Women’s Day has been celebrated on March 8 of each year as early as 1914 (and by 1917 in the Soviet Union). It began as a quest for women’s rights across class boundaries. During Stalin’s rule, it was turned into a propaganda event that no longer favored emancipation but focused on the importance of motherhood and a woman’s role in Stalinist society.

Nikita Kadan, “The Possessed May Testify in Court (3rd Version)” (2023), mixed media

Nikita Kadan’s installation “The Possessed May Testify in Court” (2023) contains a mix of archival art books from Ukraine’s Soviet past, mortar and missile fragments from recently liberated areas, artworks from Kyiv’s National Art Museum, and objects from Dresden’s State Art Collection. Arranged in a shelving system and topped by several dozen plants, Kadan ties together practices of care, documentation, and the protection of cultural heritage into an ecosystem of remembrance. Other artists in the exhibition include Katya Buchatska, Mykola Ridnyi, Zhanna Kadyrova, and Lada Nakonechna who make the complexities of Ukrainian history visible. They share an uncanny ability to infuse archival or natural sources (paintings from a museum, found footage, river stones, water, oil, and soil) with an acute sense of self-preservation and poetic historiography. The results are understated, full of urgency, and humbling. 

Zhanna Kadyrova, “Palianytsia (traditional Ukrainian bread)” (2022), sliced river rocks

Kaleidoscope of Histories lays bare decades of systematic, cultural colonialism at the hands of the Russian Empire. It showcases contemporary artists alongside past generations who have come together to demonstrate that Ukrainian artists (and Ukrainians) have agency, a voice, and a vision. Together they point to the past, digest the present, and suggest a Ukrainian future on their own terms. 

Installation view of the exhibition’s main space

Kaleidoscope of (Hi)stories will continue at the Albertinum Museum (Tzschirnerpl. 2, 01067 Dresden, Germany) through September 10. The exhibition was curated by Masha Isserlis and Tatiana Kochubinska.