In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900–1930s ★★★★★ Royal Academy of Arts | Jun 29 - Oct 13, 2024

While we might all be aware of the current political situation in Ukraine, this landmark exhibition situates that ongoing crisis in an artistic and historical context that is both informative and moving. The show is comprised of 65 works that cover the first three decades of the 20th century. This was a turbulent time in the country's history as it transitioned from being part of the Russian empire, through a brief period of independence from 1918-1921, to falling under the domination of the Soviet Union. While covering a lot of ground, the curators have managed to distil this story into a selection of tantalisingly representative works. The show opens with Alexandra Exter's "Three Female Figures" (1909-1910) in a thematic section called Cubo-Futurism. Exter then becomes one of the presences who inform the show. Like Anatol Petrytskyi she shows herself to be comfortable working in oils and in turning her hand to costume design. In the second chapter of the exhibit we are treated to both artists' work for the theatre. One of the aspects of Ukraine brought out in the show is the multicultural nature of the country, and part three, Kultur Lige, focusses on young Jewish artists who came together to synthesise traditional artistic expression with the avant-garde. The imposition of Soviet rule (section four) saw the disappearance of the Kultur Lige and the transformation of the Ukrainian Academy of Art into the Kyiv Art Institute which is the topic of segment five. Eventually, the early policy of respecting Ukrainian cultural heritage, ukrainizatsiia, was overturned, artists like Mykhailo Boichuk were executed, and Socialist Realism became the approved official style. The exhibition does an excellent job of chronicling this tumultuous period, which produced some fascinating work. Petrytskyi's "At the Table" (1926) and "The Invalids" (1924) are extraordinarily evocative pieces. Ivan Padalka's "Photographer" (1927) cleverly echoes a Byzantine fresco and Viktor Palmov's "The 1st of May" (1929) has a whimsical Chagall-like quality. This is a show that brings to light, and recontextualises, some art and artists which are still insufficiently appreciated. This is one to definitely put in your diary.

Rated: ★★★★★

Reviewed by J.C.
Image: Oleksandr Bohomazov, Sharpening the Saws, 1927, National Art Museum of Ukraine

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