The Exhibition “Born in Ukraine”

Illia Repin Ukrainian Hause 1880

Basel, the Swiss cultural capital, has recently become a temporary home for Ukrainian art heritage.

The Exhibition “Born in Ukraine” opened in the Kunstmuseum Basel from December 2022 to the end of April 2023 presents the art collection of 40 Ukrainian artists of the 18th-20th centuries from the Kiev National Art Gallery, among which are Illa Repin, Ivan Aivazovsky, Dmytro Levytsky, Volodymyr Borovykovsky, Arkhyp Kuyindzhi and others.

Arkhyp Kuyindzhi The Evening 1885-1890

While currently Ukraine is fighting for its territorial sovereignty and integrity, Ukrainian culture is also at a stake in this war. Therefore, the Kiev National Art Gallery turned not only to preserve the national art treasures, but also to reveal them to the world.

At the exhibition you dive into the variety of styles, techniques, and artists’ sensibilities in their masterpieces. The cause lies deep in the history, one of the most important and at the same time painful themes of Ukrainian art.

The painters represented here were born on the historical territory of Ukraine. Most of them were educated in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union. Under both Tsarist and Soviet rule, Ukraine was turned into the province within the Russian Empire preventing arts studies of the native land. All works were subject to strict censorship. Some artists later left Russia and settled in Europe or the USA. While some lost their ties to their homeland, others kept their Ukrainian traditions, honoring their roots and culture that was conveyed in their works. In Ukraine, where artists were born, their works are regarded as national cultural heritage. In Russia, however, they are mostly considered as Russian painters. The Exhibition showcases that what is commonly called “Russian art” is heterogenous and includes appropriated cultural treasures.

Ivan Aivazovsky View on the Island of Capri 1845

For many years, national artists and prominent figures from Ukraine with Jewish, Polish, Armenian and Greek roots were subjects to repressions by the Russian Empire, and later by the Soviet Union. Their works were appropriated. Among them are the most famous artists like Ivan Aivazovsky, Lev Lagorio, Ilya Repin and many others.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930) is an outstanding example of the conflict around this topical cultural issue. Repin was born in Kharkov province of Ukraine. It was in Ukraine that his creative path and unbridled love for his homeland began. More than once he spoke about how Tsarism oppressed Ukrainian culture.
In the artist’s homeland he is considered a national and cultural treasure. However, in Russia he is mostly considered a Russian artist.

Borovikovsky (1757 – 1825) is another example. He was born into the family of a Dnieper Cossack in Ukraine. As a young man he served in Ukraine in the Mirgorod Cossack regiment. His father taught him painting, and Vladimir became famous as an icon painter and portraitist. He spent the first half of his life in Ukraine and developed his style under the influence of Ukrainian baroque, traditional folk portraiture and Western European trends.
Borovikovsky moved to St Petersburg in 1788, after the Russian Empire abolished Ukrainian autonomy by disbanding all Cossack regiments. In St Petersburg the artist continued his professional growth in the studio of the Ukrainian painter Dmitry Levitsky.
Borovikovsky was known as one of the best portrait painters of the Russian Empire.

There is also a misconception about Ivan Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900). He was born into the family of an Armenian shopkeeper whose family migrated to the Crimea from Galicia in 1812, where his ancestors had come from Western Armenia, which belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The family was poor, and by the age of 10 Ivan was already working in the town’s café.
Although his education and subsequent career took shape in the Russian Empire, he harboured a passion for his Ukrainian homeland.

Ivan Aivazovsky Storm 1872

Numerous discussions about Ukrainian and Russian cultural figures have lasted for many years. However, despite suppressions, repressions and genocide, the Ukrainian nation remains free, authentic and creative. The cultural heritage of Ukraine: traditions, literature, paintings and music are unique in their richness, variety, soulfulness and intensity.

Author: Natalia Mitrofanova

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