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Ukrainian Folk Icons, 18th - 19th Centuries

THE UKRAINIAN FOLK ICON, 18TH - 19TH CENTURY exhibition opened at The Ukrainian Museum in New York City on Sunday, December 16, 2001 and will be on view through February 17, 2002.

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St. Panteleimon, the Virgin and Child, St. Barbara.
Second half of the nineteenth cent. Uman' region.

The exhibition features icons made by Ukrainian folk artists in the 18th and 19th centuries in the regions of Central Ukraine These unique folk masterpieces are part of a private collection of Lidia Lykhach. In the 1980s, as a journalist, she traveled through many villages of the Cherkasy oblast' in Ukraine with ethnographers Halyna and Mykola Kornienko, and it was there that she first became acquainted and completely enchanted with the folk icon. The majority of icons in her extensive collection are presently housed in the Center for Folk Culture "Ivan Honchar Museum" in Kyiv. L. Lukhach is currently the editor-in-chief of the scholarly art journal "Rodovid" based in Kyiv.

Enthusiasm for the art form of the folk icon encouraged L. Lykhach, in concert with M. Kornienko, to co-author a bilingual book (Ukrainian and English) entitled "Ukrainian Folk Icons from the Land of Shevchenko."  It was  published in 2000 by Rodovid Press. This book contains nearly 200 color reproductions of icons from museums and private collections, as well as an introductory essay on this most interesting subject. The sources for the analysis presented in the essay were obtained from fieldwork conducted by the authors between 1988 -1994 and from ethnographic literature.

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St. Barbara.
Middle XIX cent. Cherkasy region.

Since the 17th century and until the beginning of the 20th, the Ukrainian folk icons were painted on a wooden board or on homemade canvas. They were created by non-professional folk artists, known in the villages as "bohomazy" (from the words Boh, meaning God and the word mazaty, meaning to paint on a surface). The bohomazy were peasants who learned their art through apprenticeship. Many were farmers, who supplemented their income thorough this craft also ensured the continuation of the regional specificity of iconography.

The icons were found virtually in every village house. They occupied a central location in the house and served both a religious and decorative function. The people called the icons bohy (gods) and obrazy (images).  Traditionally, there were six to ten icons in each house, although wealthy villagers tended to have many more.

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Multi-subject icon. Middle of the nineteenth cent. Uman' region.

The icons played a significant role in the in the lives of the people and were a presence at the most important events of the villagers --births, weddings, and funerals. It was believed that the icons were heavenly intercessors. For instance, prayers for the health of domestic animals were offered to the icon of St. George. People believed that the Burning Bush icon could prevent a house fire. For that reason that special icon was often kept in the attic of the house. People prayed to the icon of St. Nicholas before beginning a journey, etc.

The themes of the icons were taken from the bible, traditions or canons of the church. Yet many icons had folklore and legends as their basis. Thus, often the faces of the saints depicted on the icons, as well as their clothing resemble the costumes of the local villagers. The church did not look kindly on the proliferation of these icons, but their efforts to restrict their creation or use proved to no avail. 

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The uniqueness of the Ukrainian folk icon as compared to icons of other folk cultures lies in its floral application. The floral designs are very rich, varied and multicolored. This is true particularly of the icons of the Czerkasy, southern Kyiv, and Podillia regions. In general, the Ukrainian village icon is presented in a simplified composition. The graphic drawing has a flattened perspective. The color palette has mostly earth tones such as brownish red, yellow and green, harmoniously combined with white. The nimbus was executed in a variety of golden hues, as well as in green and bluish tones. Its shape varied.

Icon painting in Ukrainian villages of central Ukraine came to a halt in the 1920s due to the overwhelming suppression of religion and its practices by the Soviet regime. In the book "Ukrainian Folk Icons" the authors state that "in the last few years (largely since independence in 1991) some new masters have emerged, but their icons are different in terms of style, social function and commercial value."

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This exhibition has been last mounted in Chicago at the Ukrainian National Museum. Prior to that it has traveled to such Canadian cities as Toronto and Edmonton. It is included in the roster of exhibits of Exhibits USA, a non- profit traveling exhibition service, which promotes traveling exhibitions for museums throughout the United States.

The Ukrainian folk icon exhibition is being seen in Canada and the United States through the efforts of the Ivan Honchar Museum in Kyiv and the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago, IL.



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