ukrainian art: 5 posts

What is a Rushnyk?

‘This is a tree of life.’ Pani Olga’s fingers traced the embroidery on a rushnyk depicting a fantastical plant. From its branches sprouted opulent blossoms. ‘It means that the embroiderer dreamed of a long life and a big family.’

‘This is Beregynya, a safe keeper.’ Pani Olga drew my attention to a figure, ample of hip and bosom, holding branches laden with grapes and flowers. ‘It was embroidered by someone to protect a loved one from harm.’ The image had none of the Orthodox sobriety and harkened back to the old animistic religion of the Slavs, who worshipped the spirits of plants, animals, birds and rocks.

From The Rooster House

A simple piece of cloth can hold a wealth of meaning. Rushnyk (plural: rushnyky) is a traditional Ukrainian ritual cloth, intricately adorned with symbolic patterns and motifs. Although at its most basic, a rushnyk is a hand towel, the word evokes much more to a Ukrainian. These cloths hold significant cultural and spiritual value in Ukrainian heritage, representing a blend of art, tradition, and identity. During much of Ukraine’s history, when expressing thoughts freely had dangerous consequences, a rushnyk served as a repository of encoded messages. It could be a declaration of love, celebration of freedom or of a yearning for escape.

Reading these secret messages in the embroideries on rushnyky became my obsession during my trips to Ukraine. I had a wonderful teacher and a partner on this quest, a lady I met at our local church in Poltava. Pani Olga plays an important role in my book The Rooster House, especially because of her knowledge about rushnyky and traditional arts. Thread by thread I unraveled the family mystery and became an avid lover of rushnyky embroideries.

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The Art of Ukrainian Bead Necklaces

Yesterday, Ukrainians celebrated Vyshyvanka Day, the day of the national embroidered shirt. This traditional garment has so much significance as an embodiment of quintessentially Ukrainian art and sense of beauty that its celebration is a day that many anticipate with pleasure. This week Ukraine’s eastern region of Kharkiv was heavily shelled by Russia, but whenever it was safe, people still came out into the streets wearing vyshyvanka. Certainly, vyshyvanka can be worn anytime and I have many pieces that range from exquisitely embroidered blouses to simple white shirts with subtle decoration.

A popular companion to vyshyvanka is a necklace. Ukrainian traditional jewelry is quite elaborate and there are many types of necklaces made of different materials–stones, coral, amber, ribbons, wood, glass. Some of my favorite traditional necklaces are of the beaded style. Gerdan is a wider, longer necklace that looks like a pendant. Kryza is even larger and it  falls like a collar around the neck (that’s the style you can see in the title photo.) Silyanka is a narrow, choker-style necklace.

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Poetry and Enigma of Mike Johansen

Why not start Monday with poetry? I’ve selected my favorite poetry by Mike Johansen (1895-1937), a Ukrainian poet of the 1920s. Johansen described himself as an enigma–half-Ukrainian, half-Latvian German, fluent in dozens of languages and yet making Ukrainian the medium of his prose and poetry. Johansen represents the avant-garde movement of the 1920s and he was one of the brightest stars of the same group that included people like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Velimir Khlebnikov and Mykola Khvylovyi. What distinguishes his work for me is his playfulness and humor.

Although he was a gifted translator at ease with Latin, English, German, and a number of Scandinavian and Slavic languages, his poetry is impossible to translate. It relies so much on the sound of Ukrainian that in another language it becomes something else altogether. Yet, even without understanding the language, the poem is hypnotic.

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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.

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Petrykivka : Ukraine’s Vibrant Treasure

A petrykivka artist’s most important tools are her hands and her cat. To paint the intricate, colorful motifs of this traditional form of Ukrainian folk art, it’s essential to combine bold strokes with delicate ones. The tip of one’s finger might be used to create a cluster of round berries, a mass of dahlia petals or a tangle of oak leaves. But for the fine tendrils and feathers adorning roosters and cuckoo birds, classical symbols with complex meaning, a painter turns to a brush made of cat hair. “The cat first has to agree to give you some fur,” says Natalia Rybak, the artist at the Petrykivka Center for Folk Art, as she shows me the local art collection. “Not all do.”

petrykivka

Petrykivsky painting or “petrykivka” is one of many forms of ancient Ukrainian decorative arts. Its name is derived from the place of its origin, the village of Petrykivka in Dnipropetrovsk region, and it is closely tied to the Cossack tradition. Cossacks were members of the democratic communities that since the 15th century started forming into a loose federation in southern-central Ukraine. Independent from the neighboring states, the Cossack federation offered social freedoms and protection, thus drawing an ever increasing number of people from other regions to its villages. South-east of Kyiv, Petrykivka was established in the 17th century as the wintering ground for the Cossack divisions that spent the rest of the year in the areas around the lower Dnieper River. Even after the Cossackdom was destroyed by the Russian tsars in the 18th century, many former strongholds, such as Petrykivka, retained enough autonomy to develop their traditional crafts.

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