Ukrainian Contemporary art in context of East European culture

by Ekaterina Stukalova


Though Ukrainian art has always been an organic component of the East European culture, it nevertheless maintained a strong cultural identity, bearing many inventive features. In the early 20th century art of Ukraine had been drawn into the pan-European avant-garde movement. It served, in a way, as an outpost of this world tendency, granting the earth with the prominent artists, as Arkhipenko and Burliuk. It is Ukraine where their first impetus to creativity gained Malevich, Tatlin, Exter, and many others. Then it had shared the fate of other countries of former Soviet Union, and plunged into the process of creating of a new “big style” of Social realistic painting. Only in 60s it had started approaching to the world context anew, getting rid from the ideological, political and aesthetic tenets.

This process of the restoration of Modernist achievements and reconstruction of the radical artistic language was uneasy. It also differed from the similar processes in other Soviet Union republics. Unlike in Russia, where the Conceptualist tendencies had prevailed, the significance of this process in Ukraine consisted in the seeking for the new language of painting. Along with the formal experiments, Ukrainian artists tried to bring forth a fine emotional arrangement of their paintings, that now had nothing similar to the Social realist pathos.

The real prosperity of the new Ukrainian art had started with the perestroika, and, especially, after the proclaiming of the independence in Ukraine in 1991. In the times of Soviet Union artists generally were leaving to seek for the recognition in Moscow. The most famous Russian contemporary artist Illya Kabakov did so, and notorious scandalist of 90s Oleh Kulik, known as an artistic director of the most famous Moscow gallery “Regina”. Igor and Svetlana Kopystyansky left for Germany yet after perestroika. This process of “talent-drain” ceased after Ukraine became independent.

Since 1987 alongside with the traditional painting, both realistic and abstract, in Ukrainian art had emerged all the radical forms of art - from transavant-garde painting to action, performance, installation, video-, body, and land-art. The situation in arts had changed thoroughly, moreover, not only in the creative, spiritual meaning, but also in more practical sense.

In Soviet times, it was possible for artists to earn a living due to the system of state orders, purchase and subsidizing of cultural sector. Since the beginning of the perestroika this system of state supervising of culture gradually disappeared, as did the procedure of governmental subsidies. Many private independent projects and organizations - artistic associations, private galleries, etc. have emerged. But in the conditions of transitional period, it turned out to be hard for art, especially for its avant-garde radical forms to become profitable and endure without state support or other forms of subsidies. The process of forming of the alternative source of sponsoring and subsiding from commercial organizations, independent foundations and so on had started just a couple year ago. Nevertheless there is no visible success in this area until now.

Commercial galleries are still scanty in Ukraine. Even those of them that represent traditional art, are unable to cover their expenditures in the conditions of distorted art market and hard taxation policy. This provoked the establishment of the Association of the Ukrainian Galleries - some kind of “trade union”, intended to defend the interests of private galleries and exhibition spaces.

Speaking frankly, the usual Ukrainian art gallery is not a commercial one. For recent years it is usual that banks and corporations establish their galleries, which serve as a prestigious feature for the founder, not as a commercial enterprise. One can compare the task of such a gallery with the role of a marble stair of the bank. Such a process gives life to new galleries, but it doesn’t prompt the art market to develop in the right way, as creates neither competence, nor co-operation.

As to radical forms of art, the situation seems to be inauspicious at all. Naturally, the one and only Soros foundation exists now in Ukraine that grants artists with some meagre assistance for realization of their projects. Even this insufficient assistance is available only for well established artists and does not apply to young ones.

The native companies and commercial firms are still have the only intention - to survive and to get some profit, so artists of Ukraine can do nothing but wait for the first gleams of philanthropic consciousness of the state and business persons.

Quiet natural, that young artists try to find their way in this situation. The most interesting thing is that such an economic and political status quo affects on their creativity in a very original way. The left-radical artistic strategy, which is so fashionable now in the Eastern European countries, had not got a big popularity in Ukraine.

This tendency is based on the conviction of the uniqueness of Ukrainian situation in the arts and economics in comparison with the world context. The probability of Ukrainian art intervention in the international art life on the equal rights is generally regarded by young artists as quiet questionable. Nevertheless, the inclination of this trend to the utilization of mass media, some interactions with design and advertisement make it similar to the contemporary trends in the Western countries.

The emergence of such a tendency has its natural reasons in the social status of art and artists in contemporary Ukraine. The absence of sponsors, institutions, museums of contemporary art and strategy of foundations that support only well known artists, prompt young generation to seek for sources of financing and commissions in the different sectors of social structure. They prefer not to exploit the same and only Soros foundation, but to educate “new Ukrainians” to be patrons of art. They regard it possible but not with the help of huge useless installations and shocking video-art. They consider that the only way to convince Ukrainian businesspersons in useness of their art - is to create the works that really can serve to some purpose besides exhibiting in museum or on the exhibition.

Creation of such a “neo-utilitarian” art, construction of the new links between art and society, art and production can remind somebody of the constructivist manifestos of the early 20th century. Anyway, it is a quiet original artistic conception, and it is far from the manifestos in the avant-garde style, which more often go with “left-radicals”.

April 4, 1998

Anna Sidorenko,
Sergei Yakunin,
Glib Vysheslavski

Roman Zhuk

Oksana Chepelyk

Taras Enenko

A. Varvarov,
I. Konovalov


Volodymyr Kostyrko

Alexander Hnilitsky

Iliya Chichkan

Anatoliy Ravsky

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