Hope and Angels of Natalia Satsyk

“One face haunted me for a long time, and I knew that I had to paint it,” says Natalia Satsyk, a Ukrainian artist whose exhibition is currently on display at the St.-Adelbert Abbey in the Dutch town of Egmond-Binnen. The face gazes from her canvases. Sometimes it resembles Congolese masks, elongated and sharply defined. Sometimes it is rendered with bold strokes and dramatic colors. The gender may be obscured, as is the body to which it is attached, and what strikes me the most is the depth of sorrow and the pain I see in its eyes. And also the radiance of hope.
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One of the unexpected outcomes of the independence achieved by Ukraine in 1993 is the vibrant art scene. Despite political and economic problems and meager state support, artists gave cities like Lviv, Kyiv and Kharkhiv a vitality they hadn’t experienced since the avant-garde of the 1910s and 1920s, a period that produced works by Kazemir Malevich, David Burliuk, Aleksandra Ekster, and other leading futurists. Satsyk is based in Lviv, a town in the western part of Ukraine, and she’s a part of the new, dynamic movement of young artists who are not afraid to take risks and question conventions.

The lack of state support is not necessarily a hindrance for artists, especially in a country that had more than 70 years of centralized cultural control. The economic crisis, and the military conflict, on the other hand, pose dangers. What purpose does art serve in such grave circumstances? I know that my question is provocative, but Satsyk doesn’t hesitate when I pose it. “Art is about interpretation, explanation, seeking understanding,” she replies. A civil rights activist, she spent the winter of 2013 in Kyiv’s central square, the Maidan, in support of democracy and freedom. The experience marked her deeply, and her paintings, abstract, powerful, charged with emotion, echo it.

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What makes Satsyk’s art especially intriguing–and the choice of the St.-Adelbert Abbey to showcase her work fitting, is that she’s a classically trained icon painter. The Orthodox school based on Byzantine canons is as precise and strict as mathematics. In this tradition, the icon is an idea of divinity, which doesn’t leave much room for an artist’s contribution. On the other hand, the Ukrainian baroque school, permeated by the humanism of the Renaissance, casts the icon in a different light. The divine may be beyond human comprehension, but rendering its image is a search for salvation.

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It is in this dimension that Satsyk’s art operates. “One who deems mathematics inflexible and authoritative, might think the same about icons,” says Mariana Gräfin von Westarp, the founding director of Symbolum Sacrum Foundation that represents Satsyk. “However, one might consider it interesting to explore the creativity within a strict canon.” Satsyk’s style has elements of expressionism with its use of color and exaggeration to convey passion, anxiety, and longing. No longer a silent witness to suffering, Satsyk’s icon speaks directly to the viewer. Despite the pain, there is also hope. “I understood it better,” says the painter, reflecting on the recent tragedies she witnessed in Ukraine. “When one suffers, one feels closer to God. And hope always remains.”

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A month after the exhibit, I keep thinking of Satsyk’s angels and their faces and I realize that they evoke another divine being, Klee’s Angelus Novus as described by Walter Benjamin.

“The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.”*

The Natalia Satsyk Exhibit
Benedictushof
Abdijlaan 26, 1935 BH Egmond-Binnen, Netherlands
+31 72 506 1415
Runs 11 February to 30 April
www.abdijvanegmond.nl/benedictushof-cursussen/

For more of Natalia Satsyk’s works: symbolum-sacrum.org/natalia-satsyk

*Benjamin, Walter. Theses on the Philosophy of History, p. 249.

Photography by Alena Muravska, all rights reserved.

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54 Comments

  • Allison: Thank you for an interesting story. I wish I could visit the exhibit. Does the artist travel with her paintings all over Europe? April 4, 2016 at 7:11am Reply

    • Victoria: She does exhibits in various places, and she also decorated a chapel in Vienna. I linked to the Symbolum Sacrum website, where some additional info can be found. April 4, 2016 at 1:46pm Reply

  • Eric: A great read to start my Monday. Nice photos, too. April 4, 2016 at 7:25am Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Eric!
      Alena’s photography is beautiful. April 4, 2016 at 1:47pm Reply

  • Amalia: So beautiful ! I feel optimistic when I see young artists to overcome current difficulties and create art. April 4, 2016 at 9:37am Reply

    • Victoria: Me too. The best therapy whenever one feels down. April 4, 2016 at 2:51pm Reply

    • solanace: Agree! How brutal life would be if we could not look at it though artists’ eyes. April 8, 2016 at 5:38am Reply

  • Connie: Definitely one I pinned to my Art Board on Pinterest. Being an Artist myself, and knowing a lot of Artists, you recognize the need and the want of an Artist. You also recognize the struggle of it, all. Nice Photos and a interesting piece. 🙂 April 4, 2016 at 10:24am Reply

    • Jessica K: The photograph of Natalia herself speaks volumes. April 4, 2016 at 11:30am Reply

      • Victoria: She prefers to let her work take the center stage. She wasn’t very comfortable to have her photo taken, but when she talked and explained her work, she was radiant and enthusiastic. April 4, 2016 at 2:55pm Reply

    • Victoria: You put it so well, Connie. What impressed me about Natalia was how eloquent and thoughtful she was about her work, how much she could explain about it.

      The Abbey itself is an interesting place too. It’s based on a very old site, but it has been destroyed, and its renovations are recent. But when I stepped inside, I could smell incense, and so it felt like a church. Or at least, how a church feels to me–incense redolent and majestic. April 4, 2016 at 2:54pm Reply

  • Lisbet: It’s not too far from my hometown. My daughter is studying art history and many people ask her what’s the value of a degree in this field. She always replies: “art history is our history” April 4, 2016 at 11:16am Reply

    • Victoria: I can’t agree more! Best of luck to your daughter in her studies. I hope that you had a chance to visit before the exhibit closes. April 4, 2016 at 2:54pm Reply

    • solanace: I feel happy for you, as a mom. Your daughter sounds awesome! April 8, 2016 at 5:41am Reply

  • Jessica K: Thank you for another interesting post. I confess, I little about Ukraine and little about modern art… but your articles make me see the country and its people better. You’re a wonderful writer. April 4, 2016 at 11:35am Reply

    • Briana: Beautiful! It’s easy to be pessimistic as there is so much craziness in the world, but stories like this make me hopeful. April 4, 2016 at 11:53am Reply

      • Victoria: Yes, very true! It also makes me hopeful. And as Natalia puts, hope must be nurtured. April 4, 2016 at 2:58pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much, Jessica. I appreciate your kind words.

      I myself wasn’t aware how vibrant the Ukrainian art was until an art critic friend in the UK pointed it out, mentioning that it’s one of the most interesting art scenes in Europe. Since then I have been traveling, exploring and learning. It’s always a pleasure to meet passionate, interesting people. April 4, 2016 at 2:57pm Reply

  • Jillie: Natalia is beautiful, inside and out. She is compassionate and passionate. Life without art is no life – I wish governments understood this. Thank you, Victoria, for bringing her work to us. April 4, 2016 at 12:17pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you for reading, Jillie. And I agree, life without art is just existence. April 4, 2016 at 3:02pm Reply

  • Rachelle: Last year I started grad school and decided to stop buying perfume. I figured I had enough to last me for a while. My no-buy doesn’t change that I find myself addicted to BdJ. You make scents interesting as an experience and you cover many other topics. I love this blog. Thanks, Victoria! April 4, 2016 at 12:48pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you very much for such a nice compliment, Rachelle. I wish you luck with your studies. Of course, if you have enough perfumes, you can smell, visit and revisit them endlessly. When I first moved to Belgium, I had only a couple of bottles, but it was a great experience to learn my favorites in a new way. Of course, there are other ways to enjoy scents that doesn’t involve perfumes in a bottle–tea, food, nature, etc. April 4, 2016 at 3:04pm Reply

  • Bregje: That’s so funny! About ten days ago i was visiting a friend in egmond binnen( a very small town). Beautiful paintings April 4, 2016 at 2:26pm Reply

    • Victoria: I was visiting a friend who lived not far from Egmond Binnen, and she suggested this visit. The town itself is charming. Have you ever been inside the Abbey? They have a really cool candle factory too, and you can peak through the window and see how they make everything from slender sticks to gigantic wax molds. April 4, 2016 at 3:07pm Reply

  • Victoria: And here is the article I wrote about your more classical school of iconography.
    https://boisdejasmin.com/2015/10/scented-saints-written-images-endangered-heritage.html April 4, 2016 at 4:12pm Reply

  • Bregje: I haven’t visited the abbey but i do agree the town is charming! So close to the sea, dunes and woods. My friend is an artist herself and she showed me a project she’s working on with a friend. She lived in amsterdam her entire life and moved to egmond a year ago. This was the first time i visited her there so of course she had a lot to show me. We traveled to castricum and bergen aswell. A busy but very wonderful day! Next time I’ll definitely visit the abbey and the candle factory 😉.
    Strange synchronicity though: when you wrote about hieronimus bosch, i had just ordered tickets😀. April 4, 2016 at 5:21pm Reply

    • Victoria: Did you visit the Bosch exhibit already? April 5, 2016 at 7:31am Reply

      • Bregje: Yes. It’s very good.
        If it hadn’t been sold out i would recommend it to everybody.
        His paintings are just so magical. April 5, 2016 at 9:18am Reply

        • Victoria: The chance to see his drawings made an exhibit especially interesting. There are so many details, so many versions of the same theme he explored before selecting the final version.

          Also, I liked the town itself, which was in the midst of the annual Carnival when we visited. April 5, 2016 at 1:35pm Reply

          • Bregje: Yes, carnival in Den Bosch is huge😀.
            Did you also climb the st jan cathedral?

            For some reason i’m empty on words today, but luckily you describe the exibit very well. All the details and different versions make his works so wonderful. Like stories or poetry in pictures. April 5, 2016 at 2:05pm Reply

            • Victoria: I didn’t, but I went inside and imagined what his paintings would look like in their proper setting.

              The exhibit was very well-done. I also appreciated that the curators weren’t tempted to pad out the selection with works from other contemporary artists and let Bosch speak for himself. April 5, 2016 at 3:11pm Reply

      • Jan: I tried to buy tickets last month, but everything was sold out. 🙁 April 7, 2016 at 8:16am Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, I heard the same thing from other people. Apparently, the exhibit sold out completely within weeks of opening. April 7, 2016 at 1:23pm Reply

  • Alicia: Impressive! Thank you Victoria. The art of this young woman moves me. Very dark times has created great masterpieces: Goya on the Napoleonic wars in Spain; Picasso’s Guernica…Thus we see in the testimony of such art that the angels of tears are also the angels of hope. April 4, 2016 at 5:23pm Reply

    • Victoria: The angels of tears are also the angels of hope. I love how you put it, Alicia. True, dark times can lead one to channel the thoughts and emotions in a different creative way. April 5, 2016 at 7:32am Reply

    • Floralouise: I would say as well that the tears of suffering are the tears of hope. As long as we can still suffer and witness suffering and respond by creation, we affirm life. I find Satsyk’s Angels luminous and moving. When I look at them I find myself thinking of the passion of Christ and the Greek sense of agon and the fact that most people for most of human history have lived in want and struggle and pain, but also felt awe and love and joy. April 5, 2016 at 11:24am Reply

      • Victoria: When I was still dancing, I remember being fascinated by George Balanchine’s ballet called Agon, a collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky.
        This video has a slightly annoying explanation at the beginning, but the dancing is so beautiful. It’s just a 2 min excerpt.
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bx46l2gfZ0 April 5, 2016 at 1:41pm Reply

        • Floralouise: Fascinating– like watching a deconstruction of the classical tradition. At times the dancers, especially the man, reminded me of Giacometti figures, so elongated and precise, like figures aware of their own suffering, but channeling it through the forms of the past. April 6, 2016 at 6:57pm Reply

          • Victoria: Diana Adams has such a beautiful line. Balanchine changed so much about classical ballet, and some of his influences have been criticized as much as praised. On the other hand, he still remains one of the few choreographers who understood how to create something beautiful, intelligent, and very importantly, entertaining. April 7, 2016 at 7:16am Reply

  • Jayshree: Interesting and insightful. April 5, 2016 at 1:16am Reply

  • Kate: Thank you so much for this article. For some reason I was moved to tears reading it. Satsyk and artists like her, who keep doing their thing amid conflict and difficulty, are heroes to me. So interesting to read about what is obviously a deep spiritual basis to her art, and to learn of her training as an icon painter. Her work looks like a fascinating combination of ancient and contemporary.

    It reminds me to rewatch my favourite film, Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublov, which bears rewatching every couple of years, I think.

    Long may Satsyk continue to produce her beautiful paintings. April 6, 2016 at 2:31pm Reply

    • Victoria: Thank you, Kate! I very much hope so too.

      My coming across all of these icon painters is such a serendipity, but this art form is very thought-provoking. Certainly, the idea of painting the divine has deep philosophical and spiritual roots, and it’s interesting to see how it’s interpreted today. April 7, 2016 at 7:13am Reply

  • Mia: Absolutely gorgeous work! The part “Wisdom” was particularly impressive to me. Thank you for the introduction. April 7, 2016 at 2:51pm Reply

    • Victoria: I also liked that part. “Freedom” was my other favorite. April 8, 2016 at 2:37pm Reply

  • Olga Bodnar Talyn: I looked at her site and the work is glorious. There is a resemblance in some of the faces to west African masks, especially the Fang peoples ( remember that the exhibit in Paris of West Aftrican art in the 20’s changed western art dramatically with it’s influence onPicasso,Modigliani,Moore,etc,etc.) I would love to see an exhibit of her work here in NYC at the Ukrainian museum. The entire art scene in Ukraine is thriving in a most wondrous way. All the Arts. My good friend Virlana Tkacz is there quite often with her La Mama based performing arts company, YARA collaborating with artists,writers and musicians. Her latest piece there is based on poems by Pavlo Tychyna and the songs of Serhiy Zhadan & the Dogs. It was performed March 15-16, 2016 at the Les Kurbas Theatre Center in Kyiv. April 8, 2016 at 12:30am Reply

    • Victoria: It would be great to exhibit her work at the Ukrainian Museum. It is a perfect place. The last time I visited they had an exhibit on Ukrainian women artists, with lots of fascinating works I have never seen before. April 8, 2016 at 2:40pm Reply

      • Olga Bodnar Talyn: would you like me to go ahead and address it with them? I know administration there. I also want Virlana to know about Natalia if she does not all ready. My cousin Irina Oliferenko is an avid art lover and gallery goer in Lviv. April 8, 2016 at 3:41pm Reply

        • Victoria: Yes, it would be fantastic. Please let me know how I could help further. Thank you very much, Olga. Virlana would enjoy meeting Natalia, who is such an interesting person. April 8, 2016 at 3:50pm Reply

          • Olga Bodnar Talyn: I just copied your entire article with the photos and sent it to Virlana and my dear friend, filmmaker Andrea Odezynska, who lives here in Princeton near me. I will find out what we need to do to sponsor an exhibit here at the museum. April 8, 2016 at 3:57pm Reply

            • Victoria: Thank you! Please keep me posted if you need any more information. April 9, 2016 at 3:13pm Reply

  • solanace: This is very moving, thank you for sharing, Victoria. These wonderful paintings show with great eloquence that the central role of art as an integral part of human experience is even more so during hardship – to answer your provocation. 😉 The Benjamin passage is the best depictiion of progress evah! April 8, 2016 at 6:12am Reply

    • Victoria: Isn’t it? Benjamin could see things the way few others did. I read his works during grad school, but I find myself thinking about them a lot. More than of most other things I’ve read or studied. April 8, 2016 at 2:41pm Reply

  • Nick: The body of works brings me back to the iconic ‘Scream’ of Edvard Munch! Talking about great works that stand on the shoulders of giants of the past 🙂 April 19, 2016 at 9:50am Reply

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