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The Tales and Myths of Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern

March 29 – October 4, 2015 (Extended)

l-r: Carpathian Dream (2009); Holodomor (Ukraine 1932) (2015); Wolf in a Village (2008);
Cossack buys a Horse (2008); Pogrom in a Shtetl (2009); Premonition (2009).

l-r: Elephant in Berdichev (2008); Acrobats on Cows (2014); Jewbees (2008); Family (2012);
Adam Gives Names (2008); Shoah (2009); Golden Gefilte Fish (2008).

The Ukrainian Museum is pleased to present The Tales and Myths of Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, who combines primitive art and biblical theology, the laconic style of posters, and brings his insight into human nature to canvas.

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s art plays a distinct role in his biography. Although Petrovsky-Shtern’s main fields of interest are history and literature, ranging from the Jewish Middle Ages to Hasidic folklore, from the prose of Gabriel García Márquez to the Ukrainian renaissance of the 1920s, it is on canvas that the depth of his knowledge of various religions and cultures is transformed into a mysterious world of tales and myths.

The fairy-tale quality of the artist’s work is fully manifested in paintings such as A Carpathian Dream, Cossack Buy a Horse!, and Wolf in a Village. Petrovsky-Shtern complements his use of restrained colors with decorative elements of Ukrainian folk art , which attain living impulse through their imaginative whimsy and richness of form. For the painter, the transformation of a horse into a giraffe or a deer and the narrative of the wolf are simply springboards for his unique take on well-known fairy tales. The main characters in his paintings—the wolf and the Ukrainian villagers—are portrayed at the moment of panicky fear of human beings left face-to-face with what they consider a wild beast. In the background are a hill, a well, a hut, and an inn—all archaic and, one might even say, stereotypical elements of a village landscape. The villagers’ flight reveals the key element of the painting—a fantastic wolf whose extraordinarily kind and deep eyes reflect flowers as though they were mirrors. Of immense interest is the depiction of the wolf itself. The flowery ornament of his blossoming nose clearly has its origins in the plethora of decorative paintings that adorned Ukrainian village houses, stoves, walls, and dishes.

Petrovsky-Shtern’s Ukrainian motifs are far from accidental. More emotionally loaded and thematically trenchant than his Ukrainian fairy-tale series is his painting Holodomor (Stalin’s terror-famine of 1932&150;1933). The central composition in Holodomor, which imitates the style of propaganda posters, depicts Ukrainian peasants during a harvest. Running along the upper and lower edges of the painting are Red Army prodzahony (ration patrols), symmetrically placed to frame an imaginary circle from which there is no escape. Petrovsky-Shtern’s color choices of red, black, and white reconstruct the predicament of the Ukrainian peasants and the contrast of emotional tensions: the harvest against a black swath of sky; the woman who embodies Ukraine with a few stalks of wheat; the children sitting down to eat their lunch. Lurking behind these scenes—like a photographic negative for the viewer—is the symbolism of death and its fearful machinery.

The work Pogrom in a Shtetl can be added to the revealing readings of modern history through Jewish eyes. For Jewish artists—writers, painters, composers, directors—the themes of pogroms and the Holocaust are intertwined in a knot of eternal contradictions between humanist ideas and displays of xenophobia, all of which led to the particularly cruel mass murder of Jews in the twentieth century. This is why Petrovsky-Shtern paints in Pogrom in a Shtetl, against the background of tiny houses in a Jewish town, an enormous crocodile who uses its long, red body to reduce everything in its path to dust. In this way, Petrovsky-Shtern’s Jewish themes symbolize the universal and personified story of loss and tragedy.

At this stage, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern’s tales and myths form the foundation of his artistic philosophy, while the forms of intellectual narrative originating from the study of religion and culture permeate his entire artistic universe.

Vasyl Makhno
Poet, writer



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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