Lviv-based artist Okhrim Kravchenko (1903–85) was not favored by fate. He never received any honors or awards. Kravchenko became a member of the Union of Artists only when he was nearly 70 years of age. And most of his life he bore the blame of being a “boichukist” and “formalist” attributed to him by “the fighters for Soviet realist art” back in 1930. However, he always remained honest in his life and art work, worked “for himself, without any intension to boast at exhibitions” (from the letter of Oksana Pavlenko to Okhrim Kravchenko from March 15, 1978), scrupulously protecting and continuing the traditions of Mykhailo Boichuk’s school, unfairly hunted by Bolshevik ideology, in his artistic work.
Okhrim Kravchenko was born on February 10, 1903 in the village of Kyshchentsi in Kyiv region. After graduating from the art studio in Bila Tserkva he studied in Kyiv Art-Industrial College (1921–1924). In the fall of 1924 he entered the Painter Department of the Kyiv Art Institute. Kravchenko showed great interest and certain skills in monumental painting and based on that was enrolled in the group of Professor Mykhailo Boichuk.
In his early works, which were preserved until present time – easel paintings House of My Childhood (1924), By the Beetle (1929), The Old Mill (1930), graduation painting on the wall of the Kyiv Art Institute Digging Potatoes (a sketch of this painting dated from 1930 was miraculasly preserved until present time), and a series of charcoal drawings from 1927–30, you can feel that Kravchenko saw monumental painting, appealing to wide audience, as the main direction for the development of the Ukrainian artistic culture of a new type. In the mid-1920s it was considered that “only in fresco an artist can consistently tell a story, present facts in their dialectical evolution.”
After graduating from the Kyiv Art Institute in 1930 Kravchenko was unexpectedly arrested “for systematic anti-Soviet activity” and was sentenced to exile in Kotlas on the Northern Dvina. A number of drawings in pencil and charcoal survived from that time. In these drawings the artist masterly captured the characters of those he portrayed: Beggar. Dispossessed Kulak, Having a Beer, the series of distempers drawings: Loader, Young Girl, and watercolor Homeless. Hooligans, which already then was highly praised by an art critic from Moscow Pavlo Yukin, who also served his sentence in exile.
Only before the war Kravchenko was allowed to return to Ukraine – to Kryvyi Rih. He remained in occupation and worked as an artist in the journal Dzvin, illustrated a collection of poems by Mykhailo Pronchenko Kobza and a novel Near Korsun. But when in 1942 many OUN members were arrested and executed he decided to go to Kyiv on foot. There architect Petro Kostyrko helped him to find a job.
Trying to avoid possible postwar persecution and repressions Kravchenko as a Methodist of the Central House of Folk Art in line with the policy of “effective and rapid implementation of the postulates of the progressive art” moved to Lviv in 1946. There he was offered a job of the mural polychromy teacher at the School of Applied and Decorative Art.
Honored Artist of Ukraine, Professor of the Lviv National Academy of Art Stepan Koropchak in his memoirs The Road to Art wrote: “In my first year we worked with composition under the supervision of professor Kravchenko. He was a great master of mural polychromy and students admired his skills in tempera technique on walls, when he demonstrated it. The artist had the style of painting acquired back in the studio of Boichuk. He suffered through a lot in prison but remained a man of firm convictions, always friendly and with a sense of humor.”
But being a “man of firm convictions,” Kravchenko quickly found himself in the circle of “unreliable newcomers.” Promoting national principles and concise forms of monumental painting, he was accused by “the fighters for realistic Soviet art” – V. Liubchyk and I. Hutorov in “formalism” and was dismissed from his teaching position.
In his artistic convictions Kravchenko rejected the “achievements” of “the touring artists and socialist realists” and, at the same time, he stood aside from the artists of the “Lviv School” since he not always perceived formal coloristic searches of Roman Selsky or Karl Zvirynsky, seeking primarily for “conscious Ukrainians” among the Galician people. Life and identical principles bring him together with Olena Kulchytska, Mykola Fediuk, Yaroslava Muzyka, student of Mykhailo Boichuk freed from exile, Oleksa Chatkivsky, Volodymyr Ostrovsky, and others.
Art historian Orest Holubets noted in his book Between Freedom and Totalitarianism: “The most significant was the position of the few, who did not want to compromise and openly denied the postulates of the ‘progressive’ artistic methods that contradicted the conventional art. Realization of the important role of the ‘outcasts’ of the Soviet art, non-conformist artists came gradually. They were the masterminds and idols of a generation of young artists (students at that time), which are now being called the Sixtiers. Kravchenko was certainly one of them.”
Ivan Dziuba and Mykola Kholodny, Les Taniuk and Mykola Svitlychny, Alla Horska and Halyna Sevruk, Liuba Panchenko and Liudmyla Semykina (in the artist’s archive there are carefully preserved, hand written ‘anti-Soviet’ texts and poems, brought by Kyiv colleagues back then) often stopped by the artist’s workshop, which at that time was located in the corner of the two-room apartment on Lysenka Street, 26 (in 2008 a memorial plaque, designed by Lviv-based sculptor Volodymyr Ropetsky, was installed on the wall of this building).
At the time of Khrushchev Thaw Lviv became the center of national creative research, leaving Kyiv “with its dullness of the official socialist realism” far behind. Incited by the process of national revival, Kravchenko took his own niche in the artistic life of Lviv, clearly and regularly declaring principles of monumentalism on his canvases. The artist considered them to be the manifestation of the great national artistic tradition, having learned from his master the love for national themes, eternal themes of people’s lives, expressed in the “wholesome concise form of monumental image or symbol that goes beyond any time limits.”
Besides, the artist worked in the ancient technique of egg tempera and did not use in his palette of colors any paints manufactured on plants (just the way it was done in Boichuk’s studio) that is why the picturesque texture of his paintings resembles old frescoes. (This peculiar feature of Kravchenko’s painting was noted by the poet Pavlo Tychyna at the exhibition of artist’s paintings in Kyiv House of Writers in 1967.)
Artists Mykola Krystopchuk and Ivan Ostafiichuk, Vadym Cherkes and Volodymyr Fedko, Lesia Krypiakevych and Stefania Shabatura, Volodymyr Urishchenko and Volodymyr Morhun, Ivan Kryslach and Bohdan Romanets often visited the artist because “the interest to the interpretations of the ideas of this school, which was neglected for a long time, gradually affected the painting of the generation of artists who worked in the 1970s.” Lviv-based art critics Bohdan Horyn and Vasyl Hlynchak, Oleh Sydor and Liubov Voloshyna became the grateful students who cared about Ukrainian art and its development. They recorded their impressions from those conversations with the master in the literary publications on art.
“Our Ukrainian nation is rich in talents, only we do not always know how to appreciate a talent and not every person that has one is able to fully realize it and reveal the depth of their creativeness. That’s sad…” said the artist at the opening of his exhibition in 1985. He said it without any fear of those creators of socialist realism who were still alive back then, hoping that the principles of boichukism monumental art will finally take its rightful place in the creative work of Ukrainian artists, repeating the words of his romantic teacher: “When winter comes to an end and flowers appear in the early spring there are only a few of them, but we know that spring will come and there will be thousands of flowers…”