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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
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 protégé, 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).
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.
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:
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