Davyd Burliuk Carousel, National Art Museum of Ukraine. © The Burliuk Foundation
Davyd Burliuk, Carousel, National Art Museum of Ukraine. © The Burliuk Foundation
  • Art
  • Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly
  • Recommended


‘In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900–1930s’

4 out of 5 stars
Eddy Frankel

Time Out says

The current war in Ukraine isn’t the country’s first major conflict. Stuck between east and west, Ukraine has been fought over and pulled apart for centuries. In the early twentieth century, it endured World War I, then a long war of independence and was eventually absorbed into the Soviet Union. And throughout all that vicious, bloody turmoil, Ukrainians made art.

It’s not a surprise, the early twentieth century with its countless conflicts saw the birth of countless modernist movements, and here at the RA are embryonic forms of lots of them. Futurism, cubism, constructivism, and on and on, with almost all the works sourced from two Ukrainian museums.

It starts with a splintering, a shattering. Landscapes by Sonia Delaunay, Alexandra Exter and Oleksandr Bohomazov explode the world into pieces, rendering hills and buildings as semi-abstract swirls and hard geometric lines. When the world around you is falling apart, it makes sense that you’d render it in such broken terms.

War wins, conflict wins, the state wins, art loses.

And when your country is so heavily fought over, it makes sense that you’d try to grasp onto a sense of identity. Works by Jewish painters in the 1910s are attempts to develop and expand what Jewish-Yiddish culture might be. Traditional folk art fuses with modernist design in costumes for avant garde performances by Anatol Petrytskyi and murals for a chess club by Vasyl Yermilov. Simple colourful images of noble farmhands by Mykhailo Boichuk show workers trying to build a new nation.

But the efforts were for largely nothing. Stalinist purges saw Boichuk and others executed. All that’s left is the dour realist work of the last students of Kyiv’s once-brilliant art institute. War wins, conflict wins, the state wins, art loses.

The show isn’t good because the art is good – lots of it isn’t great, and it’s a shame it’s all from such a small pool of sources because it doesn’t tell a wide enough story – it’s good because it shows how art offers a way out. Art here is a path towards liberation, towards self-determination, towards self-expression in a world of state repression and national conflict . Even when that fails, this art proves that it’s always worth trying.


Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
Tube: Piccadilly Circus

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