A shared Polish-Ukrainian analysis of the concepts viewed as “Ukrainian myths” exposes various ways of their construction both in Ukraine and in Poland. Occasionally, the narrative includes also Russia and the Soviet Union, as well as Turkey and the Islamic world. It is illustrated by Ukrainian and Polish works of art in the Russian Orthodox, Uniate, and Catholic tradition, both historical and from the 20th and 21st centuries.
The oldest works included in the exhibition date back to the late 17th century, which saw the peak of Ukrainian baroque art, benefiting from strong ties with Europe. Soon after, the Cossack myth was established, fundamental to the Ukrainian identity, which still exerts a powerful influence. In the exhibition, it is represented by the works of the Ukrainian bard Taras Shevchenko, Polish military painter Józef Brandt and Russian realist painter Ilya Repin. Next to the Cossacks and Sarmatians, other myth-making themes explored in the exhibition include: the endless steppe, Ukrainian hut, black fertile soil, bread and hunger, as well as the Ukrainian state and its territory, linked with the self-image of the Ukrainians and their efforts to protect themselves from the unrelenting pressure of neighbouring Russia.
The exhibition offers an insight into the imagination of the Ukrainians, who, aware of their roots, daringly stand up against the challenges that the contemporary, often tragic, poses before them.
The personifications of both countries are a lot alike, yet they also differ in interesting ways.
Socialist realism, representing the official Ukrainian Soviet art, as it continued for seventy years, created an emancipated female figure, mother, motherland, valkyrie-hero who was a source of not so much protection as victory and triumph. This figure portrayed the image of Ukraine at the time as Russia’s “younger sister” by zeroing in on common “heroic past” episodes. In the times of independent Ukraine, the socialist realist foundation was superimposed with the Berehynia concept – a caring and hospitable female spirit. This personification is lexically related to the verb berehty, which means “to protect” and “to guard” but also “to nurture”, “to care for”, and “to cherish”.
The difference in representations of Poland and Ukraine consists in the latter’s active stance as opposed to passive Polonia, whose personifications are mostly – though not without exceptions – tied up with selflessness, violation of rights, and helplessness.
anonymous, Pokrova, mid-18th century, panel, tempera, oil, gilding, 133 × 75, NAMU
The Pokrov is a type of icon which appeared in the Ukrainian territory in the 12th century. The cult of the Pokrov, together with its specific iconography, emerged in the Kyivan Rus based on the Byzantine tale of a miracle in Blachernae and was developed over the next centuries. Its characteristic element is the pokrov – mantle of the Mother of God, protecting church dignitaries, hetmans, and other prominent figures.
Volodymyr Kostyrko, Aynkayzer, Aynraykh, Aynfol’k, 2002, canvas, oil, 150 × 120, artist’s courtesy
The scene presents figures that had ties to the brief period of Ukrainian 1918 statehood. The Ukrainian State emerged then, led by Pavlo Skoropadskyi. Archduke Wilhelm Habsburg, also known as Vasyl Vyshyvanyi, is shown next to Skoropadskyi. The subtext to this scene is the alliance between two historical narratives which underpin the ambivalence in Ukrainian society and its being torn apart between “the two worlds”, “two variants of the future”.
Aleksandra Kubiak, We Need a Dead Body to Communicate (Hommage à Jenny Holzer), 2015, XPS, 12 × 388, artist’s courtesy
We Need a Dead Body to Communicate – a sentence uttered during a family funeral, transferred into an abstract space open to meaning generation, refers to a dead body that is amenable to manipulation as a symbol and a real being alike. It brings to mind Polonia or Ruthenia entombed, embodied as a woman undone, but also a body of a particular victim, moved between places in the name of national pride.
The endless steppe is Ukraine’s main natural feature. The flat landscape is among the archetypes in Ukrainians’ national consciousness – the paramount component of their national model of the universe. The steppe paradigm is related to notions that are fundamental for Ukrainians, such as freedom and space.
The mythologised concept of Ukraine as an illusion of boundless land, articulated in paintings from the turn of the century, has been juxtaposed with the contemporary works which tackle this topic in a similar convention. On the other hand, metaphysical, sentimental fantasies about the land flowing with milk and honey, the nostalgic realm of youth, are still alive and have been set against the cynical and mindless abuse of natural resources which contemporary Ukrainian artists highlight in their works as they show the problem that remains typical throughout the country – from the Hutsul region in the west to the central lands along the Dnieper to Donbas in the east.
Jan Stanisławski, Steppe, 1900, cardboard, oil, 23.8 × 32.4, National Museum in Kraków
A series of small-format landscapes showing Ukrainian nature exemplifies nostalgic expressiveness typical of the mature stage in Jan Stanisławski’s art path. The cycle repeats the motifs of steppe, sky, and meanders of the overflowing Dnieper in diverse hues.
Anatoly Kryvolap, Untitled, 2012, canvas, oil, 140 × 200, artist’s courtesy
Fusing the classic scenery with the non-figurative, and making use of intense palette inspired by folk art, the artist draws on the rhetoric of the Ukrainian myth, the illusion of its timelessness and boundlessness. Thus, he manages to transfer the historical Romantic scenery into the contemporary space of meditation.
The endless steppe borders on equally endless arable land. Approximately seventy per cent of Ukraine’s land is used for agriculture. Thanks to its favourable climate and fertile soil, almost half of which is chernozem, its agricultural production has been one of the highest in Europe for decades.
How then could Ukraine experience mass deaths from starvation in the 20th century? Food shortage wasn’t ever recorded in her history before. The wiping out of rural population, planned by the USSR authorities, is a colossal trauma in Ukrainians’ collective consciousness. Its results of this national tragedy, magnified by the subsequent mass repressions on a scale comparable with the Holocaust, had a powerful impact on the ethnographic character that Ukraine has.
Petro Kodiev, On the Kolkhoz Steppe, 1930, canvas, oil, 210 × 130, NAMU
Stylistically, the painting represents early socialist realism. Petro Kodiev epitomises the paradoxes of the Soviet era – despite his prominent status as an influential member of the Communist Party, one of the founders of the Union of Artists and Designers of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic and the first director of the Central National Scientific and Research Centre for Museum Exhibits, he was unable to save On the Kolkhoz Steppe from being sent to “Specfond” – a magazine for works marked for destruction in 1937–1939.
Alexander Wienerberger, A Child from a Kharkiv Working Family, 1933, photograph, Diocese Archive in Vienna
Due to Joseph Stalin’s decision, the fertile black soil, the famed “breadbasket of Europe”, became the backdrop to the Great Famine, the reason for around four million deaths. A series of photos by Alexander Wienerberger from Austria is most likely the only photographic testimony to the Holodomor and evidence that was successfully stored and taken out of the USSR as early as the 1930s.
The principal myth for the modern Ukrainian identity is the Cossack myth, similarly to the Sarmatian myth for Poland.
The Romantics of the early 19th century, be they Polish, Russian, or Ukrainian writers, saw Cossackdom as a sort of heady orientalism tinged with the exotic and with the colourful regional past, which had no national connotation as it came to be. Not until the next generations of intellectuals was it considered the basis of national rebirth. The Cossack myth, deriving Ukrainian roots from Khazars, took on the traits that were clearly akin to the Polish legend of Sarmatians, which sought the origins of the Polish nation among this tribe. Both myths had a national basis, explaining the distinguished pedigree and the natural nobility and nobleness. In addition, the example of the Ostrogski family and the construction of supernatural aura around these dukes throws into sharp relief the topics of how Latinised the Ukrainian nobility was and how the reception of Latin culture in Ukraine unfolded.
The Slavic Cossackdom’s Turkish lineage highlight the polygenic character of Ukranian communities, which remained so until the moment when the Soviet pacification and modernisation model via resettlements, deportations, and repressions was imposed. The multicultural paradigm is now returning, with the striking example of inter-ethnic integrations on display during the Maidan and the Revolution of Dignity.
The multiplicity of meanings and the longevity of the Cossack and Sarmatian myths has made them to this day the factors that shape, respectively, the Ukrainian and Polish mass cultures.
Józef Brandt, Zaporozhian Camp (Tatar Encampment), ca 1895–1900, canvas, oil, 72.5 × 112, National Museum in Warsaw
The double-titled painting was created after the artist’s Ukrainian voyages and testifies to his fascination by the oriental element and the borderlands. This you can see in the tiniest details of garments, armours, people, and the “Cossack trophies”, as well as in highlighting the horse breeds.
anonymous, Cossack the Bandura Player, 1832, canvas, oil, 109 × 87, NAMU
Cossack Mamay is an iconographical type from the era of the decline of the Cossack culture. This folk painting of a Cossack playing and instrument and singing of the bygone glory. The image of the Cossack would be placed next to religious icons in village homes in the Central and East Ukraine. After regaining independence by Ukraine, Cossack Mamay has become one of the key national symbols.
Roman Minin, Kharko the Cossack Says Hello to Everyone!, 2009, digital printing, 50 × 50, artist’s courtesy
An ironic composition which refers to Kharkiv foundation legend by the mythical Cossack Kharko. The painted hero, joshing, recreates the dynamic gesture of Lenin’s right hand in the monument that was toppled during the Revolution of Dignity in 2014.
Over the centuries, Ukraine as the frontier between the settled European populace and the nomads of Eurasian steppes remained a land whose social and economic conditions were determined by the process of its conquest. Each new incursion, seizure of the territories, and their colonisation meant cruel and unusual practices were unleashed against the peoples living there and the reformulation of memory followed.
History led Ukraine to forming a single state, but left it torn by numerous regional divisions which to this day keep the cultural and political borders of the past alive. The struggle still being waged over them allows the sides of the conflict to present it as a fight between the East and the West, Europe and “the Russian world”, civilisation and barbarity.
Serhii Vasylkivskyi, Protecting Zaporizhia Freedom, 1890, canvas, oil, 95 × 134, NAMU
Out of a number of realism- and neo-romanticism-era Ukrainian painters, Serhii Vasylkivskyi contributed the most to producing the picturesque-landscape story of Cossacks. What characterizes this painter’s works is the composition, where the upper part of the painting is occupied by the sky and billowing clouds. The Cossack theme allowed him to show the heroic past of his motherland in a more striking way, making it possible to refer to a scenery different from the cultural and political landscape of Russia.
Oleg Chorny, Summer 2014, 2014, video (7’ 15”), artist’s courtesy
The video is devoted to the dramatic events in eastern Ukraine and brings to light the war raging there, even as it keeps it behind the scenes. The soundtrack contains original recordings of wartime sounds put on the internet by anonymous authors: fighting soldiers and local civilian population.
Lia Dostlieva, Lia (32) and Andrij (33), a Cynocephali Couple from Donetsk, 2017, textile sculptures, artist’s courtesy
The myth about dog-headed people (“cynocephali”) inhabiting Eastern Ukrainian territories dates back at least as early as Herodotus. The social alienation of the people who were forced to leave the occupied Ukrainian territories made them contemporary cynocephali expelled from their homes. At this moment they remind the dog-headed people seeking shelter among the regular humans, desperately and fruitlessly trying to dissolve among them, to be like them.
Today, two processes rooted in the past are progressing in parallel: Russian attempts to set up a political, economic, and military control in the former imperial space, which Moscow has been conquering since the mid-17th century, and the development of the latest national self-awareness for Ukrainians.
Cultural and religious heterogeneity was and is its hallmark. This diversity has, apart from its strengths, many weaknesses – including the vulnerability to hybrid warfare such as the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian conflict in eastern Ukraine. But the neverending political upheavals should not obscure the belief – ever flickering and going out, ever sprouting again – in a better tomorrow.
Taras Shevchenko, Gifts in Chyhyryn in 1649, 1844, etching, 27.4 × 33.8, NAMU
The scene takes place in the antechamber of Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitskyi’s residence. In the room are three envoys: the Turkish one, the Polish, and the Moscow one as they await to be received by Hetman Bohdan Khmelnitskyi. Taras Shevchenko, by taking on the subject, most likely draws attention to how disastrous the choice made then was, since Khmelnitskyi accepted the gifts of Moscow’s Tsar.
Heorhii (Yurii) Narbut, Ukraine’s State Emblem, 1918, paper, gouache, gilding, 46.5 × 33.7, NAMU
The basis for the state emblem was chosen by Heorhii Narbut to be the motif taken from the very earliest known seals of the Zaporozhian army – a figure of Cossack wearing yellow robes, a rifle slung across his shoulder. He was put in the blue shield with Baroque bordure. The golden trident symbolises Prince Volodymyr I the Great, the christener of Russia.
The Ukrainian house called khata is a separate phenomenon of culture and national identity. Not only is it a place to live, therein lies the sacred of the Ukrainian spirit.
Many writers and artists elaborated on the iconography of the Ukrainian village house as a white single-storey thatched building encircled by flowers and beautiful nature, surrounded by apple and cherry orchards. In the context of contemporary Ukrainian art the house appears in various roles – from a set piece in the landscape to a trigger for wartime trauma.
Ilya Repin, Ukrainian Khata, 1880, canvas, oil, 34 × 52, National Museum “Kyiv Art Gallery”
A traditional house – whitewashed and straw thatched – became an indispensable symbol of Ukraine. Today, the national sentiment is used for all sorts of reasons – from marketing to political agitation.
Open Group, The Backyard, 2015, video installation, architectural, models, artists’ courtesy
To the viewer, the installation is a chance to conditionally stand and look at a house which was destroyed in a war. To the project participants – Filomena Kuryata and Svetlana Sysoyeva – who lost their houses, it’s another attempt to recreate them in memory. The former lost hers during the Second World War, the latter in the current Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine.
How to build understanding through art, and how to reinforce a sense of mutual fellow feelings between Ukrainians and Poles? Can art have a bearing on the harmonisation of views of the past? These are some questions that contemporary art endeavours to meet. The reflections of contemporary artists concerning identity narratives, stereotypes, and visions of the past and present provide a new vantage point for the perception of the everyday, and expand the field of shared ideas for this part of Europe.
Oksana Briukhovetska, Ukrainian-Polish flag, 2018, mural, 330 × 776, artist’s courtesy
The “Ukrainian-Polish flag” is a symbolic embodiment of the idea of equality, which is extremely difficult to pursue in political life. It is possible, however, in art, for example by evenly mixing different colors of paint: blue with white makes azure, red and yellow – orange. The sentence “has not died yet” opens both the Polish and Ukrainian national anthems.