Kateryna Bilokur

Dear English friends – those of you who like the arts can read in English about a great Ukrainian painter – Kateryna Bilokur. Please, don't miss the chance of reading this article by Professor Mykhailo Selivachov.

 

 

Professor Michael Selivatchov

Kateryna Bilokur (1900–1961) is considered to be one of the most remarkable Ukrainian artists of the 20th century. The number of articles and books (even novels) that have been published about this semi-literate peasant self-taught artist and her elaborately sophisticated works far exceeds those about her well-educated contemporaries in the arts. Her paintings and, in particular her life, are still a subject which elicits contrasting and mixed thoughts and judgments from a host of authors[1]

Kateryna Bilokur

She spent the whole of her 60 years in her native village of Bohdanivka, which lies 120 km east of Kyiv, living in the most basic of conditions, with no family, no money, sometimes even no firewood to keep warm in winter.

As a young girl she tried to enter art school, but was rejected on the basis that she did not have a primary school education. At the same time, starting from 1940, Bilokur participated in all the main local and all-Ukrainian art exhibitions. In a very unique way her oil paintings combined the realistic depiction of nature (mostly local flora) with a deep symbolism and a very personal form of expression.

village of Bohdanivka

Bilokur's works were readily acquired by government art galleries and appreciated everywhere on international exhibitions from Russia to China, Bulgaria and France. According to media reports, Pablo Picasso also admired her work. By the way, couple of her pictures were stolen in Paris from the very same exhibition that Picasso had visited in the 1950s.

This two-volume edition (Ukrainian and English parallel texts produced under the guidance of Lidia Lykhach and Adriana Vialets) is unusual in several aspects as literature on Ukrainian contemporary art goes.

Firstly, because it is a rather rare combination of large-format albums (31 x 24 cm) containing an anthology of essays and articles written by ten authors from Ukraine and the Americas. Among these are critics, artists and scholars.

Besides this, there are several interviews with the artist’s contemporaries and admirers of her work. As well, there are almost 70 letters written by Kateryna Bilokur herself, dated 1952 to 1960 and addressed to her friend, the famous art historian Stefan Taranushenko. These are selected from the artist's already vast published correspondence and constitute an impressive reflection of her attitudes toward life, people and art. [2]

Secondly, the two volumes, as with other books published by «Rodovid», are of an excellent print quality and the ambitious design has been masterfully executed (especially volume two). Never before have the works of a Ukrainian artist been printed to such a high level of quality.

Gai

Special attention has been devoted to select the best parts for enlargement – not an easy task, especially in Eastern European painting. In Bilokur's case it often appears that her approach to painting is akin to embroidery. She puts down thousands of short lines side by side, so that they resemble stitches, which is obviously an influence of traditional folk embroidery. [3]

Last but not least, Bilokur's pictures are grouped according to the collections where they are held – first those in museums in Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, and then those works housed in the town of Yahotyn near the artist's home village.

The difference between these is quite obvious. The former contain artworks which the director of the State Folk Décorative Art Museum in Kyiv, Vasyl Nahay, a friend of the artist, considered to be her best, typical of Bilokur's work. Meanwhile the provincial town of Yahotyn had to be satisfied with, let us say, «the best of the rest».

That is, those paintings which were rejected by official admirers of her work in Kyiv because of some “flaw” in execution – either because they contained unusual motifs, forms or details, such as a newborn child under a stork’s wings, or a very faithfully reproduced label from a cognac bottle.

Of course such “dubious" canvases may evoke special interest from some quarters. Finally, there are some very early, very small or unfinished works from the Bohdanivka Memorial Museum opened in Bilokur's own house in 1977.

Most space in the book is devoted to Oksana Zabuzhko’s splendid, though at times somewhat pretentious pamphlet (verging on a cultural and political essay) titled “Kateryna Bilokur, or the Philosophy of Silent Rebellion: Abstract of an Unwritten Biography”; it features in the book in place of an introduction on p. 11-38);[4] as well as to two other academic articles written by Jennifer Cahn and Adrienne Kochman.

The first of these (p. 41-55) ponders the question whether in Soviet times Kateryna was an outsider, a folk artist or a fine artist. The second article shows how Bilokur was raised almost to the rank of national hero in post-Soviet Ukraine (p. 59-81).

The Ukrainian reader will find all these texts quite interesting because of the application of new Western approaches for describing and discussing the realities of Soviet-era life. Despite Jennifer Cahn’s reasonable appeal “to take Bilokur on her own terms” (p. 46/55), these three principal authors were able to explain little without resorting to their brand of professional vocabulary.

It is obvious that Bilokur had little idea about such terms as claustrophobia, existentialism, identity, insiders/outsiders, losers, marginalization, photorealism etcetera.

Resorting to old Western traditions, the authors view Kateryna's life mostly through prism of Soviet studies. One of the authors is even surprised that Bilokur “never mentions political events in her letters” (p. 41/48). Indeed, what may be a striking thing for a foreigner is really very obvious to any former Soviet citizen – politics was too dangerous a matter for discussion.

Besides, it was rather “in poor taste” to talk politics in the artistic environment. To my mind, Adrienne Kochman comes much closer to comprehending Bilokur's personality, when she stresses such inner values of hers, as dependability, consistency and reliability (p. 67-78) …

The rest of the texts are somewhat emotional essays, especially those written by artists. Generally, these people are not very concerned about what their predecessors have written or said about Bilokur. For example, Tiberius Silvashi “had to start off with a clean slate” (pages 85/88) – not the worst of approaches for an artist, but so unlike those employed by a researcher.

He frankly describes all the circumstances leading to the writing of his essay, as well as voicing very personal allusions while rethinking the Bilokur heritage. Silvashi goes on to conclude that Bilokur's «inner gaze» is always directed at the Heavens, even though the sky itself is rarely depicted in her canvases.

Another of his «missing keys» in explaining the Bilokur phenomenon is to assert that Kateryna «saw the world like a digital camera, long before it was discovered». Indeed, the same can be said about many other traditional objects. For example, by greatly enlarging any digital photo we can achieve the broken lines of geometrical designs featured on Ukrainian woven sashes. [5]

On the other hand, the cultural sociologist Yulia Soroka stresses, that, unlike in academic works, «you can divide a Bilokur painting into any number of segments, and it will not be any the worse for it. It is like the endless train of a dress in Klimt…».

The art critic Oleksandr Solovyov likes to compare Bilokur with Grant Wood or Max Stirner, while art historian Natalia Romanova compares her with Henri Rousseau, Joan Miró and Chinese painting, and writer Oksana Zabuzhko – with Marc Chagall. Almost everyone compares her flowers with those of the 17-18 century Dutch and Flemish artists.

Strangely, no one has commented that the girl with a jug in Bilokur’s “Portrait of the Artist’s Nieces”, so often discussed in the book, is reminiscent of the “Milk Woman” by Vermeer from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Some of the assertions proffered by contributors are diametrically opposed. For instance, one stresses the realism of Bilokur’s flowers (p. 45/52), while another completely rejects this notion (p. 91/95).

While in one article Kateryna is depicted as a social outsider (p. 41/48) [6], in another she is shown to be quite an insider of the Soviet system (p. 67/78). Also, when it comes to the controversial comparisons of her with Frida Kahlo, the voices are equally divided (p. 91/95, 111/121, 114, 116/124).

Nevertheless, there is one important common point. All the contributors unanimously agree that cultural elites in Soviet Ukraine of the 1940s and 1950s were ready to recognize Kateryna Bilokur as a prominent folk artist. She was also pressed into this niche by the official establishment.

Communist ideology appreciated her as a new type of peasant artist who broadened the borders of Ukrainian folk art. So, Bilokur should serve as a convincing example of the arts flourishing under Stalin’s rule. Indeed, she broke the outdated academic tradition of considering only applied forms of art as being truly folk art and established a new “figurative” tradition compatible with urbanism.

For many years (from 1950 till the 1980s) Bilokur alone represented oil painting in the Kyiv Folk Decorative Art Museum; subsequently, she helped open the Museum’s door for naïve icons, portraits and genre paintings, which were widespread in Ukrainian villages in the past. She must be credited with introducing the notion that there is an individual artistic language in peasant art.

The latter is tremendously important in Ukrainian culture: the constant re-interpretation of bygone forms and styles was for far too long accepted as principal characteristic.

An apology for vernacular simplicity, typical of Ukrainian classical literature, had resulted in the non-acceptance of sophisticated shapes (or even regularly arranged ones, as in historical styles), such as those connected with foreigners, because until the 20 century the majority of landlords and city-dwellers in Ukraine belonged to other religious confessions or nationalities.

The main problem for Bilokur was that she found the bounds of so-called folk art too constrictive, just as she considered its “mainstream” to be the mere continuation of ancient craft traditions. Yes, she obviously embroidered shirts and sashes in her native Bohdanivka, just like all the other girls and young women.

Certainly these handicrafts are exhibited here in the local memorial museum, together with her early landscapes and portraits of the 1920s and 1930s, which were quite typical for the period, but not uncommon in provincial Ukraine in Bilokur’s time.

But Kateryna did not identify herself as a folk, peasant or primitive painter (she did not like applying such labels to herself). Her dream and goal was to become a true Artist with a capital “A”. She was inspired by the great names in art and was not satisfied to be merely an imitator.

Instead, through constant artistic searching, fueled by her experience of all genres of world art, Bilokur began to find her own style. We find a lot of reflections on this subject in her letters.

In conclusion the “Rodovid” publishing house should be highly praised for releasing this publication. In 2011 in Ukraine it was awarded the Grand Prix prize in “Book of the Year” competition.

Kateryna Bilokur

Despite few insignificant errors in connection with names, historical and geographical data, it is a valuable contribution to the dearth of literature available about Ukrainian art. All the texts, without exception, whether they employ modernist methodology or not, whether they stress artistic or political matters, are excellent, each in its own way.

This is a successive attempt to acquaint the Western reader with one of Ukraine’s prominent artists. As for controversies, the comparison of various opinions about Bilokur can only help foster future researches.


Notes:

Katerina Bilokur. In two volumes. Book 1: An Artist's creed / Compiled by N. Shamruk and O. Shestakova. Kyiv: Rodovid Press, 2010. 200 pages. 138 ill. in color. ISBN 978-966-7845-66-7;
Book 2: Outsider, Folk Artist, Fine Artist? / Editor Lidia Lykhach. Kyiv: Rodovid Press, 2011. 208 pages. 97 illustrations, 70 in color. ISBN 978-966-7845-67-4;

1. Kateryna Bilokur's bibliography contains almost three hundred various publications, printed mostly in newspapers, magazines and in anthologies published in many cities throughout Ukraine and the former USSR, as well as some 20 books, mainly albums of reproductions of her works.

See: Селівачов, Михайло; Школьна, Ольга. До історіографії творчості Катерини Білокур (Selivachov, Mykhailo; Shkol'na, Ol'ha. Toward a Historiography of Kateryna Bilokurs' Art).

In: Найден Олександр, редактор-упорядник. Червоних сонць протуберанці (Nayden, Oleksandr, editor-compiler. Protuberances of the Red Suns). Kyiv, 2001, p. 119-127; Школьна О. Матеріали до бібліографії творчості Катерини Білокур (Shkol'na, O. Materials Toward a Bibliography of Kateryna Bilokur's Art). In: Найден О., редактор-упорядник.

Філософія мовчазного бунту (Nayden O., editor-compiler. The Philosophy of Silent Rebellion). Kyiv, 2011, p. 239-252. Surprisingly, neither anthology, which contains the best selection of publications about K. Bilokur in Ukrainian and Russian, was included in the bibliography contained in the reviewed edition.

2. Starting from 1970, almost 170 letters written by Kateryna Bilokur and addressed to 15 persons were published in different periodicals, and assembled with his comments in the books of Mykola Kaharlytsky published in the 1990s.

We should also mention here, that K. Bilokur was on friendly terms (mainly through correspondence) with many prominent Ukrainian artists and other intellectuals. They supported Kateryna not only through valuable advice, but also by way of various practical help.

3. This last circumstance was mentioned for the first time by Irina Koneva in her article «Rastitel'nyie liki bytiia» (Floral Images of Being), published by the Moscow magazine «Dekorativnoie iskusstvo SSSR» (1978, No. 11). A revised and expanded version was reprinted by the author in the previously mentioned anthologies edited by O. Nayden in 2001 and 2011.

4. A more substantial Ukrainian version was also published previously in the anthology edited by O. Nayden (2011).

5. Tiberius Silvashi’s exceptionally personal essay presents tremendous difficulties when being translated into other languages. It was initially published in Russian under the title “Forma neba” (Shape of the Sky) in the anthology “The Philosophy of Silent Rebellion” edited by O. Nayden.

The Ukrainian and English versions in the “Rodovid” edition have been somewhat abbreviated, especially the English text. Which is also the case in many chapters of the reviewed book, where the original texts were not fully translated into English.

6. On the same page the English word outsider is translated into Ukrainian as naïve.


Professor Michael Selivatchov,

Kyiv National University of Culture and Arts,

Ukraine

(editor of English text Yuriy Tkach, published for the first time in the magazine «Centropa» (New York). – 2013. – 13. 3. – P. 289-291).

Одна мысль о “Kateryna Bilokur

  • 20.Май.2016 в 23:09
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    Some of her works eventually found their way to Europe, where it is said that none other than Pablo Picasso not only viewed her work, but became entranced, staring at her paintings for hours, as if in a reverie. Picasso suggested that if her works were widely known, Bilokur would be the talk of the world.

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