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  • Writer's pictureJulia Sumzina

The way from realism to modernism in Ukrainian art. Part I

The second half of the XIX - early XX centuries period was characterised by a huge rise of various styles and ideas in European fine arts. The Ukrainian painters of that time were evolutioning from realism to modernism, through the impressionistic and fauvist tendencies. Talking about that period, I would like to mention the interest in the national history, culture, tradition and aesthetics common for the painters who were born in the Ukrainian land.

The works by Oleksandr Murashko, Ilya Repin, Nikolay Murashko

One of the most renowned artists of the Russian Empire Ilya Repin (1844 - 1930) was born in Chuhuiv, in Kharkiv Governorate. His manner of painting is astonishing by the deep feeling of the idea of the figurative art itself: the shape and shade of an object contains the emotional core expressed by the palette and clear brush strokes. The great master of realism, Repin was interested not only in everyday life around him, but also in historical and cultural aspects. One of the most famous of his paintings is the “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV” (1880-1891). There we can see the sketch and the preliminary version’s detail with the final painting.

Ilya Repin: “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV” (1880-1891)

He was interested in and closely connected with Ukrainian culture, Repin illustrated novels: Taras Bulba and Sorochinsky Fair by Nikolai Gogol (1872–82) and Zaporissya in the remains of ancient legends and people by Dmytro Yavornytsky (1887), and drew numerous sketches of architecture, costume, dance as well as other aspects of Ukrainian culture.


One of his best friends, Nikolay Murashko (1844 - 1909), was a painter, art teacher, art critic and art historian, who belonged to the movement of Peredvizhniki. He was born in Glukhov, Chernigov Governorate, lived in Kiev and studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Mostly a landscape painter, he is also known for the most famous portrait of Taras Shevchenko, which became an iconic one for many subsequent portrayals of Shevchenko:


Another multi-talented artist connected with Repin and his “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks…” is Porfyrij Martynovych (1856 - 1933) from the Poltava Governorate. As a student at the Academy of Arts, he served as a model for creating the image of one of the Cossacks in the painting. Ilya Repin painted this character from a plaster mask taken from Martynovich during practical classes at the Academy.

Martynovich is the author of many original portraits of national types of Ukrainian peasants and Poltava Cossacks, illustrations for Ivan Kotlyarevsky's poem "Aeneid" (13 compositions in oil and Italian pencil, 1873-1884). He also made a number of sketches of folk life, traditional decoration, views etc. The second half of his life Martynovich didn’t paint and worked as a folklorist and ethnographer.


An impressionist, virtuoso landscape painter and student of Henri Matisse, Mykola Burachek (1871 - 1942) is famous for his bright and lightful painting. He was born in 1871 in Letychiv, Podillia Governorate, the beautiful land of fortresses. The Ukrainian nature and its colours, ideal for plein air, inspired Burachek for numerous paintings, light and colourful, quite atypical for the first decades of the XX century.


Another very interesting master of Ukrainian impressionism, Ivan Buryachok (1877 - 1936) was a theatre artist and illustrator. He designed the performances of The Stone Master by Lesya Ukrainka, Savva Chaly by Karpenko-Kary.

He illustrated the poem "Aeneid" by Kotlyarevsky and Glebov's fables. In 1922-1923 he worked as an artist of the Ukrainian Drama Theatre in Kyiv. He was engaged in book graphics, painted portraits and landscapes. In 1922 he designed the play "Gaidamaki" staged by Les Kurbas.


Oleksandr Murashko (1875 - 1919), the poet of the sun, is one of the most famous Ukrainian painters. The nephew of Nikolay Murashko, he was influenced by Repin and the Parisian art of the very beginning of XX century from impressionism to art nouveau. Murashko found his individual style and palette not immediately. At first, his work was distinguished by a restrained range of colours, but then the palette became amazingly bright. Nikolay Murashko, observing his nephew's creative search, wrote in his diary: "The pursuit of the power of the sun, of spots… is interesting."

During his not very long life, Oleksandr Murashko created many paintings with a special light and energy. For example, the "Portrait of a girl in a red hat" (1902-1903) with great inner strength. The bright spot of the red hat matches with the black dress, the translucent shawl is painted masterfully. This portrait showed the tenderness of the model contrasting her emotional statement with the high skill of the colorist.

The way from the realistic paintings of XIX century influenced by Taras Shevchenko and Ilya Repin to the modernism in the very beginning of XX century was smooth in Ukrainian art and seemed unnoticeable but comparing Nikolay and Oleksandr Murashko we can see this long way was gone very fast and gave the European art many masters of fine art deeply inspired by native culture.

Text: Julia Sumzina

The pictures are from the open sources

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