Let’s take a look at the 10 most famous Ukrainian artists in this Introduction to Ukrainian visual arts. You will probably hear their names and see their works in the context of Ukrainian culture. Here we briefly introduce their lives and art methods.
Childish drawings, skillful landscapes, expressive portraits and unthinkable surrealistic scenes – Ukrainian visual art includes all of these. The country’s visual art is rich and diverse: from realism to futurism in method, from everyday life scenes to fantastic beasts in a motive.
- Visual art – візуальне мистецтво, образотворче мистецтво («творити образ» – to create an image)
This broad topic requires many thick books but let’s put blinders on our eyes and take a look only at the 10 most famous Ukrainian artists. You will probably hear their names and see their works in the context of Ukrainian culture.
This article covers professional and so-called “folk” artists from the 19th and 20th century. We also include one living artist – we just cannot forget about one of the most famous Ukrainians of the modern day. Nevertheless let’s keep in mind that contemporary art is a separate topic. We rank the artists by birth year.
Here we briefly introduce their lives and art methods so next time you see their work or hear the name, you could identify them. So, who are the 10 most famous Ukrainian artists?
- Тарас Шевченко
- Микола Пимоненко
- Архип Куїнджі
- Олександр Мурашко
- Михайло Бойчук
- Казимир Малевич
- Катерина Білокур
- Марія Примаченко
- Тетяна Яблонська
- Іван Марчук
Тарас Шевченко – Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1861)
You have probably seen the book of his poems “Kobzar” («Кобзар»). Young Shevchenko looks at us from the cover. If you heard of “Kateryna”, one of the most well-known poems in the book, you might have seen the illustration with a woman in a long red skirt. Do you know that both pieces of art were created by Taras Shevchenko himself?
Although Shevchenko is famous as a poet, visual art was actually his profession and it defined his fate in many ways.
At that time, peasants were something like slaves of magnates, so there were no possibilities to learn arts. Nevertheless, Taras Shevchenko started to draw as a child. He looked for a teacher of art and drew from nature.
The boy was beaten for this. Imagine a modern child beaten for drawing from nature!
Working as a servant of a magnate, Taras was noticed by other artists as a talented young man. Finally they bought his freedom and Shevchenko became a student of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg. He successfully graduated and from then art was his job. You can find more information about his life on the Internet.
The artist worked in the realistic manner, typical for his time. But he didn’t work only from nature: Taras Shevchenko made up genre compositions (scenes of everyday life) and illustrations. He even became very popular as an illustrator during life.
In 1845-47 Shevchenko worked “instead of a photo camera”. In these years, he was hired by the so called Archaeographic Commission. He had to travel across Ukraine drawing “monuments of old times”. You will probably see the works learning about the history of Ukraine. Before that, Shevchenko had even issued an album «Живописна Україна» – “Picturesque Ukraine” (1844) with 7 prints of Ukrainian landscapes.
There was a long period of exile in the artist’s life which he spent in different parts of Kazakhstan. Despite the prohibition to draw or paint, he drew a lot. Many of his works are dedicated to Kazakh people, especially children.
Where to see
We know over 20 oil paintings and over 1200 graphic pieces of this artist (watercolors, sepia, pencil, ink, etching). Most of them are saved in the National Taras Shevchenko Museum in Kyiv (Національний музей Тараса Шевченка).
We often read about the huge passion to draw and paint in Shevchenko’s memoirs, as, for instance, from this letter to a friend. The artist tells how he kissed the precious tubes of paints:
Не знаю, чи зраділа б так мала ненагодована дитина, побачивши матір свою, як я вчора, прийнявши дарунок твій… Так зрадів, … цілісіньку ніч не спав, розглядав, дивився, перевертав по тричі, цілуючи всяку фарбочку (з листа Андрію Лизогубу, 1848).
I don’t know if a little hungry child would rejoice so much, as I rejoiced yesterday when I received your gift… I rejoiced so much that I didn’t sleep all night, looked through all the things, three times turned in my hands and kissed every paint (from a letter to friend Andriy Lyzohub, 1848).
Микола Пимоненко – Mykola Pymonenko (1862 – 1912)
If you learned anything about Ukrainian culture, I bet you saw his works. His paintings are often used in books or articles about ethnography or folklore, full of life and joy. He is well known for his scenes of everyday life; both from the city and countryside.
Mykola Pymonenko was a realist. Many of his paintings skilfully depicted night or evening light. They say the artist used to observe the moonlight and really painted his studies at night.
Mykola Pymonenko lived in Kyiv and was one of the organizers of Kyiv Art College. He took part in the decoration works of St Volodymyr’s Cathedral (Володимирський собор), where he painted, for example, St. Anna. The house, where the artist lived, is still there in Kyiv (Гоголівська, 28 – Hoholivska street 28).
Where to see
He had a workshop in the nearby village of Maliutyanka (Малютянка) where you can find the artist’s museum. Some of his works you can see in the National Museum of Arts in Kyiv (Національний художній музей України).
In this advanced Ukrainian Lessons Podcast episode, Anna tells about her favorite exhibition ever >
Архип Куїнджі – Arkhyp Kuinji (1841-1910)
Arkhyp Kuinji is a landscaper. A lot of his paintings are dedicated to the Dnieper river – Дніпро and steppes which are very important for Ukrainian culture. That is why you might have seen a work or two of his.
Kuinji became famous for his inventive light effects; he was even called “the artist of light”. This was not his only novelty: the artist presented his paintings in a new way – in dark halls with rays of light, directed on each painting.
Kuinji worked in the realistic manner but also used techniques of impressionism. There are over 200 his studies which are considered to be perfect examples of the impressionist style. The artist even quarreled with the realists: he asked his students not for copying reality but for expressing themselves, and it was not common at all at those times.
Kuinji was born in Mariupol in a Greek family (southeastern Ukraine). After many adventures and fails he finally became a student of the Academy of Arts where he later taught himself. He lived in Mariupol, Crimea and in Russia.
Kuinji’s life was full of secrets and years of silence. He was a benefactor and gave much of his incomes to support the arts.
Where to see
Most of Kuinji’s works are displayed in Russian galleries. You can visit the museum of Archyp Kuinji in Mariupol (Маріуполь), Ukraine.
Олександр Мурашко – Oleksandr Murashko (1875 – 1919)
This painter is known as a skillful and fresh, innovative master of portrait who worked in realism and impressionism.
Oleksandr Murashko was a superstar among artists of Kyiv in the beginning of the 20th century. He took part in many exhibitions where he was very successful. He dreamed of making Kyiv a center of arts, and helped organize the Ukrainian Academy of Arts which still exists. You might have seen his painting “Girl in a red hat”.
Speaking about his life, Oleksandr was surrounded by art since childhood: his stepfather possessed a workshop of painting icons (religious paintings), and his uncle Mykola was a well known artist. As a teenager, Murashko watched how the St. Volodymyr’s cathedral was painted and helped with the works.
Oleksandr was interested in expressing himself more than in painting icons, and it definitely was not in his stepfather’s plans. They quarreled a lot and the teenage artist ran away from home.
You can recall Oleksandr Murashko in many places in Kyiv. For instance, he taught arts on Instytutska street (Інститутська, 16) in 1913. Have you been to Lukyanivka (Лук’янівка)? In this city, Murashko tried to organize “a town of arts”.
You can also think of him near the Kyiv Teacher’s House. He was one of the most active organizers of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts. It was opened in 1917 in that building and still exists as the National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture (Національна академія образотворчого мистецтва і архітектури).
Oleksandr Murashko was killed by communists in 1919. He was a freethinker, and it did not fit the new regime.
Murashko preferred realism with a loose and pasty manner of painting. After visiting Munich and Paris, he started to use techniques of impressionism and secession. Oleksandr Murashko became known in Europe and took part in European exhibitions with other modernists.
Where to see
You can see his works in the National Art Museum in Kyiv.
Михайло Бойчук – Mykhailo Boychuk (1882 – 1937)
Mykhailo Boychuk was an innovative master of monumental arts. He is a representative of the Executed renaissance – Розстріляне Відродження (period when artists and writers were executed by Stalin’s regime). He made up a new style known as boychukism – бойчукізм.
The artist supported collective creation and anonymity. He also tried to renovate art traditions of Kyivan Rus and Byzantium.
The artist was born near Ternopil and learned in Lviv, then in Vienna and Krakow. During his life he restored icons and frescoes in churches. Doing the restoration works he discovered new frescoes in the Uspensky Cathedral in Kyiv (Успенський собор).
Since 1917, he started teaching in the Academy of Arts in Kyiv. Boychuk was excited by ideas of socialism and became a propagandist: he decorated many public houses and events. He painted and drew book covers, monumental works and made theater decorations.
The socialist realism which “ruled” the soviet world didn’t interest Mykhailo Boychuk. He used stylization, techniques and motives of folk or religious art. The group gathered around him strived for originality of Ukrainian painting tradition. The style is known as boychukism.
That is why Boychuk was arrested as an organizer of “a terrorist group of artists”. After the artist’s arrest, all the monumental works were destroyed and only a few pieces survived as originals. He was later shot and killed by communists in 1937. A lot of his students had the same destiny.
If you step out of the metro station Druzhby Narodiv (Дружби Народів) and walk to the first turn on the right, you will find yourself on Mykhailo Boychuk street. The Kyiv State Academy of Applied Arts and Design is named after him.
Мистецтво шукає собі ґрунту в того народу, де може розвиватися, та лишень твір мистецтва виростає, він стає інтернаціональний. Це як вода – вона скрізь проходить і для всіх однакова.
Art searches for resources in the nation where it can develop, but as soon as a piece of art grows it becomes international. This is like water – it comes through everything and it is the same everywhere.
Казимир Малевич – Kazymyr Malevych (1879 – 1935)
There are not many people who haven’t heard of the “Black square” (“Чорний квадрат”)– a painting which became iconic for avant-garde. Its author is Kazymyr Malevych. He defined and founded the direction of suprematism.
Sometimes Kazymyr Malevych is called a Ukrainian artist, sometimes a Russian artist with Ukrainian and Polish origin. He was born into a Ukrainian-Polish family in Kyiv. Until the age of 17, he lived in the villages across Ukraine, and then learned in Kyiv Arts School. Later, Malevych moved to Russia.
In the years 1927-1930, he lived in Kyiv again, taught there, and published articles about art in Ukrainian. When communist repressions started, he moved back to Russia. Despite this, he was arrested two times. Malevych wanted to move to Berlin and took all his works with him, but things didn’t go as planned. He was arrested and had to return to Russia but most of his works are still stored in Berlin.
Malevych defined suprematism – the style of painting where the composition of forms, colors and spaces is depicted without any signs of reality. He was not the only artist who had such an idea, but the first one to define and name the style. How did he do it? Before “The Last Futurist Exhibition: 0, 10” in St Petersburg (1915) he wrote by hand “Suprematism in art” under his paintings to outrange others who could do something similar.
Experts say geometrical forms of suprematism resemble Ukrainian embroideries. The folk art might have influenced the painter. Here is an interesting fact: in 1915 a group of Russian women presented works on which they embroidered images of avant-garde artists. Malevych was among them.
Speaking about motives, Malevych painted suprematist compositions. After the communist repressions started, he depicted peasants, sportsmen and other figures in his strange exceptional style.
Where to see
The “Black square” and two self-portraits are in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Other works are in different collections all over the world. If you would like to see Malevych’s originals, look for specific exhibitions dedicated to avant-garde.
Here is what he thought of art (from the article):
Нове залізне, машинне життя з ревом автомобілів, блиском електричних вогнів… розбудило душу, котра… вийшла на перехрестя доріг неба і землі. Якби всі художники побачили перехрестя цих небесних доріг і зрозуміли … переплетення наших тіл з хмарами в небі – тоді б не писали хризантем.
New iron, machine-ruled life with the car growling, electric lights… woke up the soul which… came to the crossroads of the sky and earth ways. If all the artists would have seen the crossroads of sky and earth ways and understood… the binding of our bodies and the clouds in the sky – they wouldn’t paint chrysanthemums.
Катерина Білокур – Kateryna Bilokur (1900 – 1961)
Her story is often told to children as an example how to be insistent and pursue your passion. Adults admire the unusual life of a village woman who painted subtle works. Here, we meet the phenomena of a woman in naïve art for the first time. You will encounter it again in our next artist’s work.
Kateryna Bilokur is recognized by flowers. She said flowers have souls («квіти мають душу»). They say she has never gathered flowers and painted them growing.
Her style belongs to naïve art or decorative arts. Sometimes it is called “embroidery by paints”.
All her life, Kateryna lived in the village of Bohdanivka (Богданівка) in the Poltava region. As a child, she drew with a piece of coal on cloth, then she painted the walls of her family house and then houses of the neighbors.
As she grew older, life became cruel: her relatives didn’t understand her passion for painting and forbid it, the girl was even beaten for drawing and “wasting paper”. She wasn’t sent to school to save family resources, so when she applied for education, administration refused several times.
It is well known that Kateryna’s mother damned her for “not being a proper village woman”. So young Kateryna tried to commit a suicide – to drown in a river. She expected her mom to come and allow her to paint, which happened.
Kateryna started to paint herself. A singer Oksana Petrusenko, who once received Kateryna’s letter with a drawing, helped her to develop as an artist and to exhibit her works.
For instance, her art displayed at the International Exhibition in Paris in 1954. Here they were noticed by the genius of modern art, Picasso. He said: “If we have had such an artist, we would make the entire world speak about her”.
Where to see
There’s a museum of a Kateryna Bilokur in the renovated house, where she lived, in the village of Bohdanivka. Her works are also exposed in the National Folk Decorative Art Museum (Національний музей українського народного декоративного мистецтва) and the History Museum in Yahotyn (Історичний музей, Яготин).
After the artist’s death, a piece of paper was found in her house. Here’s what was written on it:
Доля випробовує тих, хто вирішив дійти якоїсь великої мети, але сильних духом не злякає ніщо.
Destiny tests those who decided to achieve a big goal, but nothing can scare those who have the strong will.
Марія Примаченко – Maria Prymachenko (1909 – 1997)
Her naïve paintings are widely used nowadays: the fantastic creatures of her brush live on postal stamps, T-shirts, sculptures, postcards, and advertising… I’m sure you will meet some of them when you are in Ukraine.
We deal with a phenomenon of a woman in naïve arts again. The most famous works of Maria are her fantastic beasts. Aside from animals, she also painted decorative compositions, flowers and scenes of everyday life. Her style can be called illustrative or graphic painting. She worked in watercolors and in gouache.
Maria finished only 4 school classes and lived in a village of Bolotnya (Болотня) in the Kyiv region. But the inner artist didn’t need any academies to come to life. Maria said: “I’m looking on the floor and see: here is a beast and there is a man riding horse” («Дивлюсь на підлогу — бачу, то звір, а то людина на коні»).
Once an embroiderer, Tetyana Floru saw the works of Maria on a marketplace. These were her unique embroideries. Tetyana Floru invited Maria to an experimental art workshops in Kyiv. There she has painted a series of the fantastic beasts (1936), and learned from folk masters and professional artists.
In the year 1937, her works were exhibited at the International Exhibition in Paris. We hear the voice of Picasso again. He called Maria “a genial Ukrainian”. Marc Chagall admired the beasts and called his own fantastic creatures “cousins of Maria’s ones”.
In her life, Maria painted pysanky (decorated Easter eggs) and embroidered. She taught village children to draw and paint. Here is an interesting fact: Maria was right-handed but she painted only with her left hand.
Where to see
We know about over 800 paintings by Maria Prymachenko. Most of them are stored or exhibited in the National Museum of Applied Arts in Kyiv.
Тетяна Яблонська – Tetyana Yablonska (1917-2005)
Tetyana Yablonska is well recognized by her works and known for her active position. She worked in the soviet times, and there was much in her life – from the state awards and high posts to “hard talks” in administrative organs and firings.
She worked in the realistic manner, depicting people in movement. Therefore some of her works were used for propaganda and were said to be socialist realistic, others were banned or destroyed for “improper approach” or “nationalism”. The artist painted partly in impressionism and avant-garde.
Tetyana Yablonska lived in Odesa, Kamyanets-Podilskyy, Luhansk and Kyiv. Other than painting, she taught arts and was a deputy in the council of URSR.
Fame came to Tetyana after she painted a huge work “Bread” (2 x almost 4 meters) with women working in the field. The painting became iconic for socialist realism. At the same, time one of her most famous works “Life goes on” was banned from exhibit.
Where to see
Originals of her works are in the National Art Museum, in the Tretyakov Gallery in Russia, and different art collections around the world.
Іван Марчук – Ivan Marchuk (1936)
Ivan Marchuk is the only living artist we have in this list. We can’t help but tell about him because of his productivity, fame and unique point of view. The “Daily Telegraph” poured fuel on the fire of his glory: Marchuk was ranked in Britain’s list of “Top 100 living geniuses” (2007).
He is recognized by paintings complicated both in motif and in technique. His own painting technique has been called pliontalism (пльонталізм).
Ivan Marchuk was born in the Ternopil region and lived in Lviv and Kyiv. He was not interested in socialist realism, so his paintings were not officially exhibited. He was constantly called to The Committee for State Security (known as KGB). No wonder the artist wanted to escape from the USSR, which he did in 1989. From that time he has lived in the US, Canada and Australia. He’s lived in Kyiv since 2001.
Ivan Marchuk says he painted over 4 500 works, which are in art collections on all the continents except the Arctic. He also says that freedom is something he appreciates most in life.
In what manner does Marchuk work? It’s hard to answer. He’s worked in primitivism, abstractionism, hyperrealism, surrealism and it is not the end.
The most interesting “ism” is pliontalism / «пльонталізм» – the author’s technique of putting a web of thin strokes of paint on canvas, weaving an image. The word comes from «пльонтати» – to weave, to plait. It’s a bit of a joke, a playful name.
Ivan Marchuk likes to feed ravens from the hands and says that the word пльонталізм was invented by his mother.
Where to see
There was a large exposition of Ivan Marchuk’s works in 2019 and a smaller one in 2020 in Kyiv. The works “migrate” and are exhibited all over the world. Many of them are in different art collections, but the most significant amount is possessed by Marchuk himself.
Я піднявся догори, пробив головою небо, подивився: Боже, який світ прекрасний, який дивовижний! Та й порізав трохи на шматки, та й намалював в майстерні (інтерв’ю для BBC, 2019)
I rose, broke the sky by my head, looked around: How beautiful, how miraculous the world is! And I cut it into pieces and painted in the workshop (interview for the BBC, 2019 ).
We could talk about Ukrainian visual arts for ages but I bet you don’t have so much time. It was just a little teaser to the broad world of Ukrainian visual arts. If you are interested in any style of fine art or applied arts, you will find something to explore. Here is an encyclopedia of Ukrainian artists in brief.
If you go to Kyiv, you might search for ideas on what to do aside from visiting art museums. Here are some suggestions > 5 Ideas of Things to Do in Kyiv
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