Founder of a New Realistic Art

Petro Hovdya,
Published in Ukraine magazine in Kyiv, Ukraine in 1984

In all, 835 paintings and graphic works created by Shevchenko over his lifetime have come down to us. Besides, some data on his other 27-odd works, which have been lost, add to our knowledge of his legacy as an artist.
Shevchenko's works of art done between 1830 and 1861 are geographically connected with Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

The fact that Taras Shevchenko happened to get to St. Petersburg and meet highly educated people there who helped free him from serfdom and who, in his formative years, pointed out to him the road to true art, can be put down only to lucky coincidence. Otherwise, Shevchenko would have shared the destiny of thousands upon thousands of talented serf artists who either died in their dreadful slavery without ever being able to develop their artistic gifts or became the private artists of their petty tyrants, the landowners.

In those days Ukraine had not a single art school (one state-run and two private art schools appeared only in the mid-1870s). For this reason, among others, there were very few artists in Ukraine, and most of them were merely teachers of drawing at one educational establishment or another.

Such a deplorable situation with respect to the development of Ukrainian art can be explained first and foremost by the nationalities policy of tsarism which did everything it could to nip any signs of developing national culture in the bud. The majority of artists were self-taught painters (in most cases icon painters) or folk craftsmen who passed down their ancient artistic traditions from generation to generation. All this found its reflection in a considerable broadening of the traditional themes of folk pictures dedicated to Cossack Mamai and Marusya Bohuslavka, in which echos of the national liberation movement of the Ukrainian people could be discerned, as well as in the development of unique Ukrainian folk painting, sculpture, woodcarving, decoration of clothes and the like.

However, the development of folk art traditions with strongly pronounced national features could not compensate for the absence of highly developed professional art, literature, music, and theater which reflect the heights of a people's genius and the best achievements of their culture. This harmonious merging of Ukrainian folk and professional art, its all-round and large-scale development and advance became possible only much later.

A great role in the formation and development of Shevchenko as an artist was played by the St. Petersburg Academy of Art and, in particular, by one of its outstanding representatives, Shevchenko's teacher Karl Brullov.

Briillov's system of teaching was based on the idea that the best instructor an artist can have are life, nature, and reality. Judging from Shevchenko's creative activities, one can see how deeply imprinted on the young artist's mind was this new truth - previously unheard of at the Academy of Art - the truth which undermined the foundations of the entire structure of academic esthetics.
"The great Brullov never allowed himself to draw a single line without a model, while for him, a person full of creative power, this might have seemed to be permissible," Shevchenko would later write in his diary.

"To paint from life" means, naturally, not just copying reality or man, nor a studio limited in space, but a whole system of views aimed at creating a generalized artistic image of reality, which is again based on concrete material from real life. Shevchenko learned this truth better than any other pupil of Bryulov and followed it throughout his creative career.

Shevchenko joined the campaign for a new, realistic art with his painting Katerina (1842), the first work to expose so openly one of the dark sides of the reality of serfdom and to interpret an important problem of human relationships on a clearly expressed social plane. Until then, Russian art - the more so Ukrainian art - did not have a single painting which so vividly showed the human tragedy resulting from social inequality and the existing social system.

Without any reservations, Katerina can also be considered as the first notable work of the new Ukrainian national art, the foundations of which Shevchenko began to lay in the mid-1830s, when he addressed himself to Ukrainian themes and subjects. His first composition dedicated to a historical theme was the drawing The Death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky (1836-1837) done before he had been freed from serfdom and entered the Academy of Art. By that lime, thanks to his friend Ivan Soshenko, Shevchenko was already familiar with the Academy's requirements and had made several drawings on themes from antique history in quite an academic manner, as is evident from the conventional compositional structure with elements of theatricality and intentional pathos.

Though the images of Cossack officers and men who are carrying the Hetman's staffs, kettledrums and military standards into the chamber of their dying leader, as well as the images of other characters lack individual traits, the drawing nonetheless has a certain psychological mood. The latter is revealed through the gamut of feelings of different men - from an overdramatized depiction of the Cossacks' sorrow (one of them is bending over the table crying; another is kneeling before the Hetman; still another has pressed himself against Khmelnitsky's legs) to the calm concentration of the Archimandrite and the mournful grandeur of the Hetman.

The fact that Shevchenko turned to the image of Bohdan Khmelnitsky under whose leadership the Ukrainian people were reunited forever with the Russian people testifies to the artist's deep understanding of the tremendous historic role played by Khmelnitsky. Shevchenko's The Death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky - unpretentious and immature though it is - proves that he entered Brtillov's studio with the outlook of a patriotic artist who had already seen his calling in the accurate depiction of his people's life and history. The great merit of Briillov as Shevchenko's teacher lies in the fact that he fostered and encouraged his pupil's passion for genre painting and Ukrainian historical themes in every possible way.

In the early 1840s, several main trends could easily be discerned in Shevchenko's artistic pursuits - historical, everyday-life and portrait painting. In 1843-44, he again made sketches for the composition The Death of Bohdan Khmelnitsky. In the last years of his life, Shevchenko returned once more to the image of Khmelnitsky, drawing several sketches for the picture Bohdan Khmelnitsky before the Crimean Khan. In 1845-47, while in Ukraine working with the archeographic commission for the study of ancient monuments, Shevchenko made a large number of drawings from life associated with historical places (The Bohdan Khmelnitsky Chirch View of Chihirin from Subotiv Road, and others). Finally, in 1844, he created one of his finest works - the etching Gifts at Chihirin in 1649.

After Kateryna, the genre trend in Shevchenko's works was further developed in the canvas A Peasant Family and In the Apiary (1843), in the etchings to the album Pictorial Ukraine, as well as in a large number of drawings and sketches he did between 1845 and 1847 and during his exile, and in his illustrations. Shevchenko was also a recognized master of portraiture.

Thus, it can be seen that the pictures depicting the history, the genres of the past and present of his people were inseparably connected and complemented one another in his career as an artist. Shevchenko wanted to popularize the most important events in the history of the Ukrainian people, to show their mode of life, prominent personalities, and the natural beauty of his homeland. Neither before nor after Shevchenko was there a Ukrainian artist who set himself such an all-embracing task.

Unfortunately, the artist managed to realize only a small part of his plans: he created six etchings which made up the first series titled Pictorial Ukraine.

According to Shevchenko's concept, Pictorial Ukraine was to be a series accessible and comprehensible to the masses of ordinary people, first of all peasants. Proceeding from this concept, he chose the technique of etching which allowed him to make a large number of prints.

Shevchenko was carried away with the romance of remote times, the liberties of Cossakdom, and the epic struggle of his people for their freedom. Burial mounds in the steppe and ruins of ancient buildings called forth in his imaginative mind pictures full of life and expression. Frequently his drawings and watercolours have mute but eloquent witnesses of the past: graves, ruins, ancient churches-monuments of Ukrainian architecture. However, when drawing or painting ancient monuments, Shevchenko did not depict the past in isolation from the present. As a true realist, he saw the past through the prism of the present.

Typical of all Shevchenko's sepia drawings is that, without any embellishment or falsity he depicts everyday life in the Ukrainian countryside extremely accurately. The "Little-Russian exotica" so popular with many artists of those days who painted an imaginary countryside was alien to Shevchenko.

Like no one else, Shevchenko loved Ukraine and perceived her natural beauty and the strength and courage of her people, but he never tried, for the sake of the tangible beauty alone, to depict this exotica, nor did he ever turn a blind eye to the deplorable life of the peasants "in that paradise." That is why the first objects to catch his eye was the squalid dwelling of a poor widow (A Widow's Cottage in Ukraine) and the serfs' rickety, ramshackle huts with small windows.

His kindred with the people, the patriotic pride he took in their great deeds of the past, present and future, as well as his profound love of Mother Nature occasioned, to a great extent, the uniquely national flavor of Shevchenko's art, helping him to be a realist (earlier than any of his contemporaries) and influencing his individual artistic style. When the czarist government dealt brutally with the great poet and exiled him to the distant steppes of Kazakhstan, forbidding him to write and paint, Shevchenko, under extremely difficult conditions, did not lose a bit of his realistic skill, nor did he change his outlook on the world. On the contrary, Shevchenko's realism developed further, while his aspirations found their expression both in poetry and the fine arts (The Parable of the Prodigal Son series).

Shevchenko had all reasons to write after his return from his ten-year exile: "All this inscrutable grief, all sorts of humiliation and profanation have passed by as if not touching me at all. They left not a single trace on me... It seems to me I am the same as ten years ago. Not a single feature of my inner self has changed." He remained true to his principles in his Kazakh series. Here again, he exposed the same social injustice he saw in Russia and Ukraine. The colonialist policy of the czarist government evoked strong protest in Shevchenko.

No less vividly, the artist exposes the dark sides of life in czarist Russia and the people's lack of rights in his series The Parable of the Prodigal Son. His drawing Running the Gauntlet, which he once witnessed, is an indictment of the czarist regime. It is with great love, empathy and humaneness that Shevchenko treated the Kazakh people. Kazakh Riding a Horse, Song of a Young Kazakh, The Kazakh Girl Katya, In a Yurta, Kazakhs by a Fire, Baigushi, A Kazakh Boy Playing with a Cat -all these works without exception are permeated with a humanistic spirit asserting the friendship of two fraternal peoples - Ukrainian and Kazakh.

In developing as an artist, Shevchenko traveled a rather difficult road. Persistently overcoming barriers - both in life (which prevented him from showing his full talent) and in his creative work (first of all, the influence of academic traditions), he embarked on the road of realism right from the beginning of his artistic career and never left this road. In taking a democratic, realistic stand and depicting life exactly as he saw it, Taras Shevchenko was creating a national art of the people and, as such, was the founder of a new progressive art.