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Henry M. Robert

The “Ukrainian Gauguin”

What did the artist Kyrylo Hvozdyk, a follower of Boichuk, strike Europe with?
6 August, 2014 - 17:21
SHEPHERDS, 1927
PEASANTS IN THE FIELD, 1929

Kyrylo Hvozdyk, a talented artist, follower of Mykhailo Boichuk, was born on June 22, 1895, in a picturesque village of Rebedailivka, Cherkasy region, which spread over the banks of a small river Lavrusykha. There is no information about the early years of the artist’s life. It is only known that he found himself in Kyiv in the early 1920s, took interest in painting, and did a showpiece art course at the Institute of Plastic Arts, where M. Trubetska and K. Yeleva taught. In 1923, on the latter’s recommendation, Hvozdyk, an already experienced young man, was admitted to the Painting Department of the Institute of Plastic Arts which was renamed as Kyiv Art Institute in 1924 after merging with the Kyiv Architectural Institute. Feeling a certain inclination to mural painting, he signed up, together with M. Azovsky and V. Bura, for the studio of Professor Mykhailo Boichuk. The almost 30-year-old neophyte student immediately plunged into the studio’s creative life, taking an active part in the “first experience of fresco painting” on the institute’s class walls. However, these frescoes were barbarically destroyed after the institute had been reorganized in the early 1930s.

This educational institution increased the young artist’s interest in the generalization and monumentalization of a painting form as well as in searching for constructively-justified compositions. In Boichuk’s studio, he studied and made life drawings of ancient mosaics and frescoes because graphic and color analysis of Ancient Ruthenian and proto-Renaissance compositions played an important role in the muralist studio’s system of artistic education.

The Boichuk studio masters created such collective oeuvres as the central composition Feast of the Harvest and the accompanying themes Trade Barter and Land Management. Hvozdyk personally painted the frescoes Plowing and The Ruination of a Landlord’s Manor. In the latter, the motion rhythm of the insurgent peasants and workers, who are storming the landlord’s estate, begins to increase from the picture’s lower part (a worker with a machine-gun), gradually reaching the boiling point in its top right corner, where a revolutionary sailor is depicted against the backdrop of the landlord’s palace.

At the same time, in 1928, the young artist, member of the Association of Ukrainian Revolutionary Art, displayed his works at the Ukrainian painting section of an international exhibition in Venice. The Italian press pointed out that the works of Boichuk’s students skillfully “combined European traditions with folk primitivism” and called Hvozdyk, who displayed the egg-tempera-painted pictures An Aggrieved Peasant (1927) and A Shepherd (1928), “the Ukrainian Gauguin.”

On graduation from the institute in 1929, the artist took particular interest in genre art, painting a number of rural-theme pictures, such as Radio in the Village, The Breakfast of Communards, A Rally,  and Peasants in the Field (1929-30), in which he showed the changes that had occurred in the Ukrainian countryside in the Soviet era. The artist portrayed the figures of peasants in expressive and convincing groups, live poses and movements. The subdued coloring of tempera seems to further stress the listeners’ empathy.

In 1934, the “Boichukists” began their most grandiose work in Kharkiv – decorative design of the newly-built Red Factory Theater. Frescoes up to 40 meters in size were painted, under the teacher’s guidance, by Ivan Padalka, Vasyl Sedliar, and Oksana Pavlenko, while the sculptural decor was made by Bernard Kratko and Zhozefina Dindo. Together with Boichuk, Hvozdyk made the first version of the cartoon Feast of the Harvest. But ideological and artistic differences with the teacher caused Hvozdyk to abandon the work and go away.

Accused of “systematic anti-Soviet activities” after a denunciation, Hvozdyk was arrested in 1936       and sentenced to 10 years of corrective labor and 5 years of “legal incapacity.” His works were banned. In her book In Search of the Executed Past, art historian Olena Ripko quotes the report that communist party functionaries drew to ban the works of Boichukists: “On September 8, 1937, the commission examined the works of the enemies of the people Padalka, Sedliar, Hvozdyk, Lipkovsky, Nalepinska-Boichuk, and Dindo, which were brought for the commission’s scrutiny from a special collection of the State Ukrainian Museum, and concluded that the aforesaid artworks are harmful due to Boichuk’s counterrevolutionary formalistic method, distort our socialist reality, present false images of Soviet people, have no artistic and museum value, and are subject to destruction as works by enemies of the people.”

After Hvozdyk had served a 10-year term of internal exile, he was tried and sentenced again in November 1949 – this time to life imprisonment.

Rehabilitated in 1956, the artist returned to Kyiv. Lesia Dovzhenko recalls that a childhood scene was etched in her memory, when an unknown man came to her father, artist Hryhorii Dovzhenko. He sidled into the room, looked behind the curtain and under the bed, and only then sat slowly down in an armchair, looking cautiously at the door. It was Kyrylo Hvozdyk who had come back from prison.

The artist dropped the principles and theoretic guidelines of “Boichukism” in painting and, applying the method of socialism, painted a number of landscape canvases, such as A View of the Dnipro and Kyivan Landscape.

However, as Hvozdyk was soon aware that he was unable to remake himself and, besides, was afraid of new repressions and harassments, he gave up painting and participating in exhibitions and got out of touch with his former friends. One of the most talented pupils of Mykhailo Boichuk’s school, who had miraculously survived until that time, departed this life on June 20, 1981, – just two days short of his 86th birthday.

Yaroslav Kravchenko is an art historian

By Yaroslav KRAVCHENKO. Photo replicas courtesy of the author
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