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Opanas Zalyvakha - The Road to Truth
By all accounts, Opanas Zalyvakha was a cultural giant of his time, a quiet and unassuming man whose measured, philosophical approach to the oppressive forces of Brezhnev’s regime defined Ukraine’s dissident movement. Zalyvakha’s name is thus synonymous with the “sixties” movement of nonconformist Soviet writers, poets, and artists, who fashioned an alternative anti-Soviet mindset in the generation that found its flowering in the years of the post-Stalinist Thaw. These included the likes of the lyrical poet Vasyl Symonenko, who inspired an entire national democratic movement before dying at the age of 28; the charismatic literary scholar and publicist Ivan Dziuba, who encouraged the rejection of official literary theories brought on by Socialist Realism and boldly criticized the Russification of Ukrainian culture; Yevhen Sverstiuk, author of the essay “Cathedral under Construction” (Sobor u ryshtovani), a response to Oles Honchar’s Cathedral — one of the key novels that launched and bolstered the dissident movement of the 1960s; and a string of activist painters like Alla Horska, a kindred spirit to Zalyvakha. Through separate expressions of defiance, these individuals opposed Soviet rule, raised the banner of national awareness, and fought for human rights in Ukraine at the height of totalitarian rule in the Brezhnev era.
Zalyvakha knew firsthand the brutality of dictatorship. Born in the eastern part of Ukraine (in the region of the former Soviet capital, Kharkiv), where Stalin instituted inhumane measures to collectivize the farms, Zalyvakha escaped the ravages of the forced famine — the Holodomor of the 1930s — by fleeing with his family to Khabarovsk, and later to Irkutsk in the Russian Far East. Zalyvakha’s life continued to be a peripatetic one, filled with rejection and ostracism. When his artistic talent was first discovered in 1946, he made the long-distance journey to receive formal training at the Repin State Institute of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture of the USSR Academy of Fine Arts in Leningrad; at one point, he was temporarily suspended for behavior “unworthy of a Soviet student” when he failed to attend a Communist Party meeting.
Before completing his studies, Zalyvakha’s required practicum took him to the ethnically rich and artistically colorful Subcarpathian town of Kosiv in 1957, where he rediscovered his roots and national affiliation. In December 1961, he finally made his home in Ukraine, first in identity-conscious Ivano-Frankivsk (formerly Stanislaviv), and four years later in Kyiv. It is profoundly revealing that living outside Ukraine from a tender age did not quash his national spirit; instead, it served to strengthen his will against a regime that would seek to erase the natural urge to express the personal right to national identity. For the first time since his early childhood, Zalyvakha found himself back in Ukraine among his countrymen. Sustained by the company of like-minded intellectuals, supporters of human rights and freedom of expression, he discovered his Ukrainian sensibilities.
Zalyvakha’s name is specifically identified with a cardinal event of contemporary art history: the unmitigated censorship and brutal destruction of a monumental stained-glass project for Kyiv University. Executed in the spring of 1964, the work was intended to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), Ukraine’s national bard and the University’s namesake. Zalyvakha collaborated with Horska (who was found murdered in 1970 in the apartment of one of her relatives) and with artists Liudmyla Semykina, Halyna Sevruk (a ceramicist), and Halia Zubchenko to create a symbolic triptych honoring Shevchenko’s support of freedom and democracy. The artwork interpreted the poet’s humanist ideals with irony and gravitas, depicting Shevchenko as a tragic sacrifice of oppression, an enchained Promethean figure stifled by the powerful forces of totalitarianism. The artists’ vision of their national hero was transformed into a scene of crucifixion and lamentation; the mourning figure of a mother clinging to her innocent child was clearly read as a metaphor for Ukraine grieving over the loss of her hapless children.
Zalyvakha became a sacrifice of the government when, on the morning of March 7, 1964, the date of the official review of the Shevchenko project, he learned that his stained-glass work had been destroyed and reduced to rubble; only a heap of broken colored shards and luminous crushed glass remained on the site. The shock of such unprecedented censorship spiraled into widespread remonstrance against the Soviet authorities and was pivotal in inaugurating the first wave of mass arrests of Ukrainian intelligentsia, which would continue, intermittently, into the 1970s and early 1980s. Charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” (Article 62 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR) in a closed-court hearing in September 1966, Zalyvakha was exiled and banned from painting. He was sentenced to five years of hard labor in the faraway republic of Mordovia, paralleling Shevchenko’s own banishment to the distant Urals by Tsar Nicholas I a century earlier, forbidding the national bard to paint or write over a long decade of harsh exile.
The apparent parallels between Shevchenko and Zalyvakha are not trivial; both artists recognized their calling as painters and employed self-portraiture to reflect, philosophically, upon their station in life. Zalyvakha’s portrait, as seen in this exhibition, is presented as a hagiographic image: the artist is recognized by his attributes — a proliferation of canvases; the Hutsul ceramic pitcher; an open book, signaling his erudition in Western philosophy; and inkwells, indicating a life of writing. The mirror itself doubles as an icon frame, identifying the artist with the image of Orthodox clergy or ancient ascetics, suggestively carved at the mirror’s apex, or the beleaguered suffering Christ in the icon known as Nerukotvornyi (“not made by human hands”).
While incarcerated, Zalyvakha took up the medium of small graphics, producing more than 200 bookplates (ex libris), postcards, and thumbnail prints of his life in the camp — all of them confiscated and destroyed. Upon his release, notwithstanding repeated searches of his home and 15 more years of close KGB surveillance, Zalyvakha managed to sustain himself through the design of book covers for underground publications, portraits of fellow non-conformists and former inmates, and local commissions for applied, decorative interior design for cafés and restaurants. And he continued to paint with a passion.
As a painter, Zalyvakha’s technique is highly textural, echoing the wooly thickness of Hutsul weavings and regional folk art. The vivid, richly saturated color threads of his paintings share in the linear partitions found in the art of the traditional Ukrainian Easter egg, the pysanka. Like the continuous line of infinity, Zalyvakha’s paintings are imbued with the fluid momentum of limitless, unhampered movement — the pulsing energetics of thought passing through space, leaving traces of a subtle play of lights and darks, a pensive psychologism, lost in primordial truths.
Thematically, his works address a broad range of existentialist motifs — faceless crowds, bereaved mothers, martyred figures, famine victims. Accumulated references to a sorrowful national history weave through a supple web of intertwining lines that immediately remind one of restrictive prison grates, from which color breaks through in an unceasing flow of positive energy. His form is abstract, without relinquishing the literalness of redemptive content. The appropriated reference to the icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God) sublimate scenes of agony and incarceration into a visual prayer of liberation. The energetics of spirit is revealed by an overriding verticality in Zalyvakha’s compositions. This soaring quality — what the artist called “Gothic Constructivism” — points to a distinct surge of color and form. At times, it is a wavelike rush upward; at others, it presents itself as a rolling swell that has not yet peaked or reached its bursting point.
Despite continuous persecution through the 1970s and into the first half of the 1980s, Zalyvakha was a prolific painter; when the Artists’ Union made it impossible for shunned artists to secure paint and paintbrushes, he turned his attention to woodcuts and linogravures and became a master ex librist, memorializing his contemporaries from one of the darkest chapters of modern Ukrainian history.
Prof. Myroslava M. Mudrak
This exhibition was organized in cooperation with the Plast Ukrainian scouting sororities Pershi Stezhi and Verkhovynky.
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