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Ukrainian nonconformist (unofficial) art in the USSR (1960s-80s)

Marko Robert Stech (Toronto)

July 2013

From the time of Joseph Stalin’s terror of the 1930s, the officially proscribed style of socialist-realism was the only state-sanctioned so-called ‘creative method’ in Soviet art. Ukrainian nonconformist art, that broke with this tradition, had its beginnings in the Khrushchev ‘thaw’ of the mid-1950s. At that time the socialist-realist framework was widened, and Ukrainian ethnographic and folk-art themes became popular. Artists began exploring hitherto forbidden styles and trends in Western art and Eastern philosophy, as well as Ukrainian art of the 1920s, and developing their individual visions and means of expression.

In the 1960s some artists became part of the growing dissident movement, and Opanas Zalyvakha and Stefaniia Shabatura were arrested for their involvement and imprisoned. Unlike their colleagues in Kyiv and in western Ukraine who signed petitions and attended political trials, the Odesa nonconformists pursued only artistic concerns. During the crackdown on the dissident movement in Ukraine in 1965 and again in 1972, nonconformist art went underground. Thereafter, some artists led a double existence, earning a living by creating socialist-realist art while continuing to paint nonconformist works in private.

In 1975 the First Exhibition of Ukrainian Nonconformist Artists (with five participants) was held in Moscow in a private apartment. In the Second Exhibition of Ukrainian Nonconformist Art, held in Moscow in 1976, 16 artists participated. These exhibitions gave an opportunity for Ukrainian nonconformist artists living in different parts of the USSR to join forces. They could do so only in the Russian capital–the only place in the USSR where such a gathering was possible…

Makarenko Volodymyr, My Ukraine (1975)

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NONCONFORMIST ART (aka unofficial art). A term for art created in the USSR that, until the period of glasnost and perestroika in the 1980s, did not meet official approval and recognition. The creators of this art did not adhere to the prescribed program of socialist realism formulated at the First All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934. They did not, however, constitute a movement, nor did they represent one style, ideology, or worldview. In most cases their art was not an expression of political dissent. What unified them was their belief in and insistence on the freedom of creative individual expression. Strictly speaking, nonconformist art was not forbidden as long as it was kept private; when it was shown publicly, however, its creators were often subjected to reprisals and persecution. This state of affairs forced nonconformist artists to work in solitude and without official recognition. Ukrainian nonconformist artists who remained in the USSR were unable to exhibit their work publicly until the early 1980s. At that time shows by some more prominent nonconformists, such as Ivan Marchuk, were sponsored by official organizations, such as the Writers’ Union of Ukraine…

ZALYVAKHA, OPANAS, b 26 November 1925 in Husynka, now in Kupiansk raion, Kharkiv oblast, d 24 April 2007 in Ivano-Frankivsk. Nonconformist artist. Zalyvakha grew up in the Far East, where his parents resettled in 1933. He was expelled from the Leningrad Art Institute in 1947 for not conforming to socialist realism but was readmitted after Joseph Stalin’s death, and graduated in 1960. In 1961 he moved to Ivano-Frankivsk. There his second solo exhibition (April 1962) was closed down by the Communist Party authorities for ‘decadent tendencies.’ In 1964 Zalyvakha, Alla Horska, and Liudmyla Semykina were commissioned to create a stained-glass panel for the vestibule of Kyiv University’s main building. Depicting Taras Shevchenko with a wrathful expression, the panel was destroyed on orders of Kyiv’s Party secretary. Zalyvakha was arrested in August 1965 and sentenced at a closed trial in March 1966 to five years in a hard-labor camp. After his release in 1970, he was forced to work as a laborer in Ivano-Frankivsk, but continued painting. The first solo exhibition of his paintings, sculptures, and ceramics in 26 years was held in Lviv in December 1988. A second was held in Ivano-Frankivsk in May 1989…

HUMENIUK, FEODOSII, b 6 September 1941 in Rybchyntsi, Khmilnyk raion, Vinnytsia oblast. Nonconformist painter and graphic artist. A graduate of the Dnipropetrovsk Art School and Leningrad Institute of Sculpture, Architecture, and Painting (1965), in 1974 he took part in the first nonconformist art exhibition in Leningrad and in 1975 he and Volodymyr Makarenko organized the first Ukrainian nonconformist art exhibition in a private apartment in Moscow. This led to Humeniuk’s expulsion from the Union of Artists of the USSR and banishment to Dnipropetrovsk. His works, which tourists had managed to bring out of the USSR, were exhibited without his permission in Toronto in 1978, 1980, and 1984. Humeniuk again settled in Leningrad in 1983, and in 1992 he returned to Ukraine where he was awarded the Shevchenko Prize in 1992. Humeniuk deals with historical and religious themes through a rich system of symbols. From a formal aspect, his work is closely related to Mykhailo Boichuk’s monumentalist style, which combines the traditions of old Byzantine art with folk art and modern Western styles, and exerted a dominant influence in Ukraine’s artistic processes…

MAKARENKO, VOLODYMYR, b 26 July 1943 in Verkhivtseve, Dnipropetrovsk oblast. Painter and graphic artist. A graduate of the Dnipropetrovsk Art School (1963) and Leningrad Institute of Applied Art (1969), he was forced to leave Leningrad in 1973, and settled in Tallinn, Estonia. In 1975 he received first prize at the Biennale of Graphic Art in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and together with Feodosii Humeniuk organized the first Ukrainian nonconformist exhibition, which was held in Moscow in a private apartment and featured also paintings by Volodymyr Strelnikov and Vitalii Sazonov. In 1976 his first one-man exhibition was held at the Galerie Hardy in Paris. Makarenko emigrated to the West in 1979 and settled in Paris. The subjects of most of his works are highly personal, as are his images and vocabulary, which often reflect his Ukrainian heritage and Ukrainian history and literature. Although Makarenko is not a narrative artist, some of his paintings are visual texts with multiple readings. He has successfully synthesized several disparate sources, including Vassily Kandinsky, Ukrainian icons, surrealism, and abstract art, into an unusual and unique vision…

STRELNIKOV, VOLODYMYR, b 25 October 1939 in Odesa. Painter. He studied briefly at the Odesa Art School but was mostly self-taught. He worked as a muralist in Odesa and participated in and organized some of the exhibitions of nonconformist art there. Strelnikov has experimented with reduced shapes and the interrelationship between figures and architecture. In his later pictures architecture and figures have been reduced to simplified patterns within the larger contained form, so that a tension is sustained between the detailed, intricate shapes and the surrounding smooth areas of warm color. Together with Feodosii Humeniuk, Volodymyr Makarenko, and Vitalii Sazonov, Strelnikov participated in the 1975 and 1976 Moscow exhibitions of Ukrainian nonconformist artists and was consequently harassed by the Soviet authorities. In 1978 he was allowed to emigrate to Austria, and in 1979 he settled in Munich. Since that time he has exhibited in Western Europe, the United States, and Canada. He abandoned figuration in the late 1980s in favor of nonrepresentational compositions based on the interrelationship between form and color…

MARCHUK, IVAN, b 12 May 1936 in Moskalivka, Kremianets county, Volhynia voivodeship. Painter and sculptor. He graduated from the Lviv Institute of Applied and Decorative Art in 1965 and then moved to Kyiv. Until 1988 he was denied membership in the Union of Artists of Ukraine because his themes and style did not conform to socialist realism. Marchuk paints fantastic figural and floral compositions with elements of surrealism, hyperrealist portraits, enigmatic landscapes, and abstract expressionist compositions. His figural tempera paintings of the ‘Voice of My Soul’ series depict seemingly irrational situations with skeletal, often grotesque, persons cut off at the waist and surrounded by sinister objects and creatures set in a vast empty landscape. Marchuk’s palette borders on the monochromatic, and the unreality of the imagery is thereby reinforced. His realistic landscapes have a peculiar, dense texture consisting of weblike layers of pigment that, combined with the dramatic use of light and dark, create an atmosphere of unease and mystery…


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