“A person is happy when she is engaged in her favorite business, all the more so that an artist is not a profession but a state of soul and the meaning of life.”
A Kyiv studio is the place where the master of symbolic still life Oksana Sliota works, accompanied by her daughters Oksana and Halyna, the artists who have developed their own manner of painting. Oksana Sliota is the daughter of Ukrainian classical painters, the artistic duo of Petro Sliota and Halyna Zoria. It was this family who started to create the history of Ukrainian impressionism, art that is filled with light, air, and, most importantly, sincere impressions of realities.
KRYCHEVSKY’S BEST STUDENT
When you leaf through the old catalogue of reproductions, looking through the works of Petro Sliota, it becomes clear that the topics, the way the artist resolved the painting tasks, and his technique and methods have not become outdated. Having received education in Fedir Krychevsky’s studio, Petro introduced a high-power wave of best landscape painting intro Ukrainian art.
The artist began his studies in 1932 in Kharkiv, where he watched with delight the specific features of settings, which were used by the well-known artist in the teaching process. For example, by changing the tasks, Krychevsky managed to refine his students’ paintings and remove “blackness and slovenliness” from them. The teacher forbade his students to paint human form naked unless they mastered still lifes. He liked to test students’ command of various techniques, for example, painting a human head both in the grisaille technique and in color. He taught them to paint dressed people before tackling the painting of nude figures.
Of course, such attention to the teacher’s instructions fostered attention to detail, artistic taste, and originality of compositions in his students. So it is no surprise that, stimulated by the interesting tasks, they sought to continue their studies under the outstanding teacher’s guidance. In order to obtain the right to study in the newly-established Kyiv Institute of Arts and continue being taught by Krychevsky, Sliota had to face fierce competition.
“All the students from Ukraine’s three arts colleges took an exam in Kyiv to obtain the right to study in the Kyiv Institute of Arts, which was now the republic’s only higher educational establishment for arts,” Sliota wrote in his memoirs about the famous teacher in 1968. “The State Commission consisted of nearly 30 people. We painted a naked human form for a whole month. The demands set to students were very high. I was among those whom Krychevsky accepted to his studio. I was more than happy. I was simply walking on air after the fortune had been so kind to me.”
Studying in the studio of a Ukrainian talented monumental artist was a source of inspiration for Sliota, whose talent was only ripening at the time.
“I should underline that since the very beginning of our studies Krychevsky would talk to the students in a fatherly tone. He told us that he would be preparing for a picture. The first task was a group portrait. We started working on it with delight and interest. Krychevsky drew the composition of the portrait on canvas, and each student proceeded to do his part. This work has not been preserved. I remember that a large part of the work was done by Krychevsky himself; he did an especially good job of painting a gray jacket. […] Krychevsky often corrected our works. It sometimes took him two hours to redo what a talented student had spent a month on.”
In 1998, the book Realism and Social Realism was published. It contained reproductions of paintings by Petro Sliota, Halyna Zoria, and their daughter Oksana Sliota. However, the works introduced in the catalogue can hardly be ascribed to the realistic method. Nowadays, looking at the manner in which they depicted the effects of light with unprejudiced eye, one can put most of the paintings created by this Soviet artistic couple in the impressionist category, a style that was said to be non-existent in Soviet art at the time.
The first thing that attracts attention to landscapes and cityscapes (which are the summit of the artist’s work) is the light filling the canvases and their chiaroscuro. Such paintings as A Kyiv Cafe, Cypresses, and especially Sofia of Kyiv put the artist’s oeuvre among the best examples of impressionist art. The blue sky reflexes on white umbrellas, reflections of a wide range of colors, from blue to rosy, on the white wall shaded by high cypresses, and sacral blue-rose whiteness that lifts Sofia Kyivska’s golden and blue domes to an imaginary pedestal reveal the artist’s exceptional ability to convey a unique and rich inner world filled with sacred light.
Furthermore, the artist uses two types of light in his paintings – warm and cold. There is a special harmony between the pictures Blossoming and Wintertime. The pictures have a similar composition: in the forefront one can see through the branches the blue windows of a white-sided house. The poetic style of Sliota’s paintings is such that both blossoming and snow-covered tree branches are beautiful in a similar way. The artist conveys his delight through rich white with the reflections of warm spring sunny-yellow and cold winter blue.
The artist viewed and understood the city as a special entity that takes shape as a result of a unique worldview of one people or another. So, in addition to a masterful depiction of Europe’s picturesque sites, what one can perceive in Sliota’s paintings is also the city’s mood and spirit emanating from the hearts of the locals. These paintings include Prague. The King Bridge, Amsterdam, and Notre-Dame. Again, we can see here the school of old, well-known impressionists: the water layer is painted with separate brushstrokes in front, diagonals are drawn up to give depth to the painting, and houses are accentuated by light to underline the compositional depth. Everything is executed in such a light manner and such subtle expressive details, whose harmony generates a certain painting level, that Lina Kostenko’s words easily come to mind: “This beauty is so high and imperishable that you want to stop and speak to God.”
Moreover, as a teacher, Sliota got keen young artists involved. “Father tried to teach on the best examples of impressionist art, from Claude Monet to Paul Cezanne. Of course, he did it informally, secretly, and without fanfare,” his daughter Oksana recalled.
UNITED BY LOVE FOR ART
Petro’s wife, Halyna Zoria, worked in the same direction. A reliable support for her husband, she shared views and art topics with her husband. Zoria was taught by Boichuk and Shovkunenko and was mostly attracted to the world of flowers with its variety of colors and forms. It seems that in that world she was not only a sensible and attentive master but also an expert. She possessed a profound knowledge on the subconscious level and understood the language of flowers (Still Life with Roses and Still Life with Flowers). This is when you feel that they (and you) are part of the Creator’s plan.
It was interesting for Zoria to find solutions in terms of chiaroscuro for her still lifes. Her flowers are filled with light, the berries are gleaming, the light is playing on fruit, especially apples, her favorite kind of fruit. Bush in Blossom looks as if it is showered with sunrays and is sparkling with the reflections of sunshine.
“My parents were quite happy; 34 years of life together produced an abundant artistic harvest. After the war, they were full of optimism and energy, inspired by the victory, and worked a lot and with inspiration. Trips to Europe provided rich material for work, both creative and pedagogical,” Oksana recalled.
In 1979, the House of Artists presented the works by six-year-old Oksana Sliota, Petro’s granddaughter. She named one of her watercolors Great Grandmother Katia. Passing by the picture, the noted Ukrainian artist Tetiana Yablonska asked Zoria whether she had helped to paint the work. Having received a negative reply, Tetiana nodded in approval, as if blessing the gifted girl.
Both daughters of Sliota and Zoria spent their childhood in the parents’ studio located on the territory of the Kyiv Cave Monastery. There they made their first sketches and received practical lessons in painting. So the question of the future profession was resolved when they were still children.
Olha and Oksana graduated from the Academy of Arts and Architecture, Department of Monumental Sculpture (Yablonska’s studio). As is known, Tetiana had a temper and always spoke her mind, so few of her students felt confident in her presence. However, for nearly every female artist she became an example of a woman in arts.
“Father’s death caused me to switch to my own painting manner. This was an impulse to philosophical meditations on life, which naturally found reflection in my works,” Oksana said.
At the same time, her father’s instruction “You should not begin with any piece of work unless it is thought out to the end” made the basis for painting with a deep sense and detailed development of compositions. Since the 1980s Oksana has been working in her own original style. Her still lifes have given the world a new vision of this art genre: not in the sense “man’s things” or “things for man,” but the still life as an inseparable part of nature and as its result. An unexpected placing of still life in the open air breaks it out of the conventional settings and puts it in a natural surrounding whence it actually originates. One can perceive in Oksana’s still lifes a synthesis of her family’s traditional inclination to depict reflections of sunshine through other objects, such as bunches of guelder rose and apples with her individual manner of painting, which is close to symbolism.
“A person is happy when she is engaged in her favorite business, all the more so that an artist is not a profession but a state of soul and the meaning of life. This is the best destiny for me and my children,” said Oksana. She has the last name of Popinova from her husband, the well-known poster artist Mykola Popinov. Marrying an Academy graduate, she wanted to create an artistic union like that of her parents.
Olha Sliota, too, is working in the family’s favorite genre of still life painting. She has found her own manner of painting in a gallant interpretation of flowers.
SPROUTS OF A FAMILY TREE
The bright sunshine concentrated in the paintings of Petro Sliota and Halyna Zoria spreads on the creative work of their granddaughter. Oksana Popinova’s talent is developing in a somewhat different direction. Her works are oriented on surrealism, although one can sense the influence of her father’s painting manner in her landscapes, in particular in the soft outlines and the structure of composition (Evening Play).
Another representative of the dynasty, Natalia Kokhal, Olha’s daughter, is producing original art. Her works are decorative, illustrative, and allegoric. Although she has her own distinct style and is keen on graphics, watercolors, and gouache, Natalia’s works are marked with desire to create light-filled art, which is typical of her family.
Petro Sliota’s legacy is accumulated in the paintings by Halyna Popinova, his granddaughter and a postgraduate student at the Academy of Arts and Architecture. She was named after her grandmother and on some subconscious level she merges the stylistic features of her grandparents’ works. For example, painting the still life August fruit, the young artist became interested in ways to convey the shades of crimson in a cut watermelon and its separate slices. What a pleasant surprise it was for Halyna to find a reproduction of Halyna Zoria’s painting of a cut watermelon in the family album. However, young Halyna is paving her own way in arts. For example, flowers give her with a feast of colors and light, and she conveys this mood in her paintings (An Apple Tree).
Today the great grandchildren of Petro Sliota and Halyna Zoria are upholding their legacy. For example, Katia, 9, is already good at painting flowers, and her family has no doubts as to her future profession. The artistic dynasty that creates light-flooded canvases is continuing.