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Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s

February 15 – October 4, 2015 (Extended)

Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s

First exhibition of its kind outside Ukraine to feature important contributions to the theater arts in the 1910s and 1920s by modernist Ukrainian artists

***Recipient of the College Art Association (CAA) 2016 Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Award for Smaller Museums, Libraries, Collections, and Exhibitions!***


New York, NY, January 28, 2015 - The Ukrainian Museum will present the first comprehensive exhibition showcasing avant-garde artists who shaped early 20th-century Ukrainian theater and, ultimately, influenced the theatrical world stage. Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s is organized by The Ukrainian Museum with guest curators Myroslava Mudrak, Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, Department of History of Art, and Tetiana Rudenko, Chief Curator of the Museum of Theater, Music, and Cinema Arts of Ukraine in Kyiv. It will be open to the public from February 15 through September 13, 2015.

The first of its kind outside Ukraine to feature important contributions to the theater arts in the 1910s and 1920s by modernist Ukrainian artists, the exhibition tells the story of an avant-garde that generated innovation, entrepreneurship, and, to a large extent, social engagement with contemporary issues. Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde showcases 125 original art works for the theater by 13 artists, many who were exiled or executed during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s for their perceived political beliefs. The exhibition comprises 142 objects on loan from the collection of the Museum of Theater, Music, and Cinema Arts of Ukraine in Kyiv including art works on paper of costume, set, and makeup design, photographs, and original posters.

A historical trajectory serves as the organizing principle for the exhibition, beginning with experimental designs for dance and culminating with theatrical spectacle at its most innovative period in the theaters of Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv. Three aspects of early 20th-century Ukrainian stage design are specifically highlighted, each intermingling formalist and socio-cultural issues of the day. The first examines the period of enterprising collaborative projects initiated by experimental theater and dance, wherein the cubo-futurist painter Alexandra Exter and dancer and ballet choreographer Bronislava Nijinska revolutionized the balletic stage. While these figures have become well-known in theater and dance history in the last few decades, the exhibition introduces Exter's protg, Vadym Meller, who would become the premier designer for the Berezil Artistic Association, led by visionary director, Les Kurbas.

In adopting expressionist drama, which makes up the second aspect of the exhibition, constructivist aesthetics, and contemporary social content, the productions of Berezil shaped the distinct modernist landscape of theater in Ukraine. Berezil represents the apogee of Ukrainian theatrical arts on par with the best contemporary productions of Erwin Piscator in Berlin and Vsevolod Meyerkhold in Moscow. In 1933 the Bolshevik government shut down the Berezil theater in Kharkiv and sent Kurbas into exile and the gulag, where he was later executed. Repression and execution were the weapons used by the Soviet regime against an entire generation of artists and writers of the early 20th century, abruptly halting the exuberant modernist expression of Ukrainian culture.

Ukrainian theater set itself apart by exploiting Ukraine's own popular culture, its traditions and customs, including folk costume, puppet theater, and the Cossack lyrical burlesque and gritty local variety show. The avant-garde artists translated these into a modernist idiom, exercising formalist hyperbole, bright colors, and vulgate forms to create a lively and provocative theater dynamic, a performative forum that was both cosmopolitan and distinctively local. This third, folk-inspired, aspect of the exhibition is illustrated by the singularly rich works of Anatol Petrytsky, the productions of Berezil, and similarly showcased in the works of Matvii Drak, Marko Epshtein, Borys Kosarev, Oleksandr Khvostenko-Khvostov, Vasyl Krychevsky, Nisson Shyfrin, Valentyn Shkliaiev, Maia (Militsa) Symashkevych, and Kost Yeleva, who designed for other theaters in Ukraine, including the Jewish theater of Odesa.


The bulk of the exhibition's works focus on the designs of Vadym Meller, who won a gold medal for his scenography at the International Exposition of Modern Industrial and Decorative Arts in Paris in 1925. The following year, his designs were exhibited as part of the "foreign" and "radically modernistic" section of the International Theater Exposition in New York (The Little Review, Winter 1926). Special emphasis will be placed on Meller's designs for Berezil's productions of Upton Sinclair's Jimmie Higgins (1923), Georg Kaiser's Gas (1923), Fernand Crommelynck's Golden Tripe (1926), and the revue, Hello, from Radiowave 477! (1929).

Historical background
As revolution brought an end to the Empire, and Ukraine declared independence for the first time in the twentieth century, an intellectual avant-garde produced an energetic (though ill-destined) cultural renaissance. Theater was central to this phenomenon. After years of interdiction and censorship, the Ukrainian language was finally allowed to flourish on the stage, and translations of the world's most momentous dramaturgy-from classics such as Sophocles's Oedipus Rex and Shakespeare's Macbeth, to contemporary German drama-brought a new and unprecedented theatrical experience to the public.

The Soviet government instituted a policy of "Ukrainianization" in the 1920s as a way of recognizing, on the surface of things, the USSR's indigenously distinct peoples. This allowed the use of national language and the cultivation of native traditions for the purposes of defining "Soviet" identity along national lines. The Ukrainian theater prospered under these conditions, marking the apogee of Ukrainian modernist art. It was not long, however, before triumph turned to tragedy. The policy that once promoted the arts ultimately proved to be a ruse, laying the groundwork for Stalin's planned extermination of the Ukrainian elite that began in the 1930s, and leading to what is now called the "executed renaissance."

Almost a century has passed since the vibrancy of the avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s afforded new hope for the future directions of Ukrainian art and culture. Ukraine's current revolutionary struggle for independence makes the preservation of that legacy ever more precious. The collaboration between The Ukrainian Museum in New York and the Museum of Theater, Music, and Cinema Arts of Ukraine in Kyiv in the presentation of this exhibition signals a strong belief in and commitment to a flourishing national culture in Ukraine.

Exhibition Catalogue
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A full color illustrated, bi-lingual (English and Ukrainian), 276-page, softcover catalogue accompanies Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s. The publication features critical essays by consultative curators Myroslava M. Mudrak and Tetiana Rudenko, and includes contributions by these acknowledged experts: Nicoletta Misler, Professor of Russian and East European Art at the Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples (University of Naples); John E. Bowlt, Professor, Department of Slavic Languages at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Director of the Institute of Modern Russian Culture, and specialist in the history of modern Russian art; Valentyna Chechyk, Professor, Department of Art History and Theory at Kharkiv State Academy of Art and Design (Ukraine); Hanna Veselovska, Professor at the Department of Theater Theory and Criticism, the Karpenko-Karyi National University of Theater, Cinema, and Television in Kyiv; Mayhill Fowler, Stetson University, Department of History, specializing in the cultural history of Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.

The catalogue, priced at $49, is available in the Museum shop and online.

Essays in the catalogue:

  • From the Easel to the Stage Set: The Avant-Garde Painter and the Theater by Myroslava M. Mudrak
  • Vadym Meller: Missionary of Avant-Garde Scenic Design by Tetiana Rudenko
  • A Total Play of the Body: The Art of Movement and the Ukrainian Stage by Nicoletta Misler
  • Scenic Transformation and the Ukrainian Avant-Garde by John E. Bowlt
  • Gordon Craig, Avant-Garde Art, and Ukrainian Scenography of the Late 1910s by Valentyna Chechyk
  • On the Path to Innovation and Experiment: Ukrainian Theater Direction of the First Third of the Twentieth Century by Hanna Veselovska
  • Berezil: Theater as Institution in Soviet Ukraine by Mayhill Fowler

Exhibition Sponsorship
Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s is made possible by major support from Self Reliance New York FCU and numerous private donors.

Related exhibition
Yara at 25: Looking Back / Moving Forward
January 25 – March 1, 2015
Yara Arts Group was born in 1990 with the production of an original theater piece about Les Kurbas, the 1920s director of experimental theater in Ukraine. Since then, Yara has staged over thirty original theatre productions at La MaMa Experimental Theatre, Harvard Summer School and throughout Ukraine, Siberia, and Asia, as well as regularly holding festivals and events at The Ukrainian Museum and the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. Yara has been directed for 25 years by Virlana Tkacz, who was named Honored Artist of Ukraine in 2007 for her work, one of the few American-born artists to receive this distinction. This retrospective exhibition and the related programs are a celebration of Yara's continued success in providing a forum for cross-cultural and cross-generational genre-bending arts.

Public Programs
Plans are underway for a slate of programs in conjunction with Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s including a symposium, lectures, workshops, theatrical performances, literary events, and concerts. Refer to the exhibition website for updates on the related events and programs: http://www.ukrainianmuseum.org/exhibitions/2015/avantgarde/



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SYMPOSIUM
Experiment, Expression, and the International Scene:
The Ukrainian Avant-Garde Stage in the 1910s and 1920s

Sunday, April 26, 2015 at 2:00 p.m.
The Ukrainian Museum

222 East 6th St.
New York, NY 10003
212-228-0110
Admission (includes reception and gallery access) is $15; $10 for members and seniors; $5 for students
Tickets available online — Order early!
Visitor information

Moderator: Myroslava Mudrak, Professor Emerita, The Ohio State University, Department of History of Art. Guest co-curator of The Ukrainian Museum's current exhibition Staging the Ukrainian Avant-Garde of the 1910s and 1920s.

Hello from Radiowave 477!: The Berezil Theater as Institution in Soviet Kharkiv
Mayhill Fowler is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Stetson University. Her teaching and research focus on the cultural history of Ukraine, Russia, and Eastern Europe. A former professional actress with an MFA, Fowler is now writing a book about the making of Soviet Ukrainian culture in the interwar period. Fowler has written on the early Ukrainian film industry, Yiddish theater in Soviet Ukraine, and the theatrical world of Russian Imperial Kyiv.

An Amazon of the Avant-Garde: Bronislava Nijinska in Kyiv
Lynn Garafola is a professor of dance at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is an expert on Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and twentieth-century dance more broadly, and has written extensively on both, in addition to curating exhibitions on the Ballets Russes, the New York City Ballet, the history of Italian dance, and Jerome Robbins. Her current project, supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Public Library's Cullman Center, is a book about the celebrated choreographer Bronislava Nijinska.

Before the World Wide Web: Theater Arts at International Exhibitions
Irena Makaryk is a professor in both the English and theater departments at the University of Ottawa. Her research interests include Shakespeare and cross-cultural interpretation; she also looks at the role theater plays in times of great social distress. Her interests come together in her study of the avant-garde theater in Ukraine in the early twentieth century. A renowned Les Kurbas scholar, Makaryk is the author of several books on the Ukrainian interpretation of Shakespeare and co-editor with Virlana Tkacz of an anthology on Ukrainian modernist theater. Makaryk is currently the project coordinator for Shakespeare 400, a celebration of the anniversary of the bard's birthday.

Les Kurbas: Explosive Presence
Virlana Tkacz is the artistic director of Yara Arts Group, a resident company of the world-renowned La MaMa Experimental Theater in New York. Since 1990 she has created over thirty original productions at La MaMa based on extensive research in Ukraine, Siberia, and Asia. She is a recipient of the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Translations Fellowship for her translations of Serhiy Zhadan. Additionally, she has published seminal studies on Les Kurbas in English and, with Irena Makaryk, co-edited Modernism in Kyiv: Jubilant Experimentation (University of Toronto Press, 2008).

 


 

About the Museum

The Ukrainian Museum acquires, preserves, and exhibits articles of artistic or historic significance to the rich cultural heritage of Ukrainian Americans. Its collections include thousands of items of folk art, fine art, and archival material. At its founding in 1976 by the Ukrainian National Women's League of America, the Museum was hailed as one of the finest achievements of Americans of Ukrainian descent. Since then, and particularly since its move in 2005 to a new, state-of-the-art building in Manhattan's vibrant East Village, it has become known as one of the most interesting and dynamic smaller museums in New York City. Each year, the Museum organizes several exhibitions, publishes bilingual (English/Ukrainian) catalogues, and presents a wide range of public and educational programs, including concerts, films, lectures, courses, workshops, and special events.

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