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Bicentennial exhibition at the Ukrainian Museum honors Ukraine's greatest cultural figure
Moses Draws Water from a Rock St. Petersburg, 1839. Ink & sepia on paper, 9½ x 6¾ (24 x 17).
NEW YORK, NY.- The exhibition Taras Shevchenko: Poet, Artist, Icon offers a rare opportunity to see many of the treasures created by artist and poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861). Marking the 200th anniversary of Shevchenko’s birth, the exhibition includes original art works by the artist and archival objects from Ukraine seen in this country for the first time ever. Exact replicas of a selection of literary and art works complement the originals. The exhibition is accompanied by a comprehensive, illustrated catalogue containing a scholarly essay by the curator, George G. Grabowicz, Professor of Ukrainian Literature at Harvard University, who introduces the public to Shevchenko as he has never been seen before. Taras Shevchenko: Poet, Artist, Icon closes on November 2, 2014.

The collection from the National Museum of Taras Shevchenko in Kyiv, comprised of selections that span nearly the entire lifetime of the artist, includes fifty original watercolors, sepia works, drawings, and etchings, in addition to objects such as publications and Shevchenko’s own artist’s tools. Reproductions of more than sixty other works by Shevchenko, along with documents—facsimiles of the artist’s albums of sketches and poems—enhance the exhibition. A rare 1840 edition of a Kobzar (“The Minstrel”), one of Shevchenko’s first collections of poetry that became his most widely read work, is on loan from the Shevchenko Scientific Society in New York. Selected items from The Ukrainian Museum’s archival collection along with audiovisuals and a recorded guided tour serve to complete the narrative presented in the exhibition.

Born a Ukrainian serf in the Russian Empire, Shevchenko saw his fortune change with the discovery of his flair for drawing. He was a gifted artist with a keen interest in history and ethnography, but became known best for his expressive poetry. The dramatic turns in Taras Shevchenko’s life and his universal creativity ultimately cast him as a nation builder, but even he could not have imagined that his collective creative output would change the course of an entire people.

Shevchenko’s life path crossed with those of many important figures in the arts and society. As a student in St. Petersburg, he was deeply influenced by the artist Karl Briullov, who was renowned for his contributions to Russian neoclassicism and romanticism, and the prominent poet Vasilii Zhukovsky. Shevchenko was also acquainted with luminaries such as the artist Vasilii Shternberg, who was his classmate, and the Ukrainian writer Mykola Hohol (better known as Nikolai Gogol), as well as aristocrats such as his benefactor, Count Fyodor Tolstoy. Having completed his fine art education at the Imperial Academy of Arts, Shevchenko became a prolific painter in high demand for his superb portraits.

Early in his career, Shevchenko conceived of a project to inform and educate the public about Ukrainian culture, history, and folklore. His collection titled Maliovnycha Ukraina (Picturesque Ukraine), with which he aimed to illustrate all aspects of Ukrainian culture, employed etchings and aquatints—techniques that permitted affordable reprinting many times over, thus providing for maximum accessibility by all strata of society. He was able to complete only six works of the intended series; an exquisite preparatory drawing for one of these etchings is among the artworks coming from Kyiv.

With his career as an artist on the rise, Shevchenko also gained broad respect for his verse, having made his mark with the highly praised Kobzar (1840). He earned great admiration from his enthusiasts—and the ire of his critics—for his poetry collection Try Lita (Three Years), a reflection of his travels to Ukraine (1843-45), which was deemed to be subversive by the authorities. Around the same time, like their Central and Western European counterparts who were engaging in social and political dialogue, prominent Ukrainian intellectuals such as the historian Mykola Kostomarov, writer Panteleimon Kulish, and other colleagues of Shevchenko participated in discussions of relevant issues of the day, such as the abolition of serfdom, universal education, national language, and similar topics. Shevchenko’s association with this group, known as the Cyril and Methodius Brotherhood, along with his “subversive” poetry led to his first arrest. Tried and convicted for his “crimes” in 1847, he was sentenced to an indefinite exile from Ukraine and Russia, and assigned to serve in an imperial regiment in distant Kazakhstan. As part of his sentence he was forbidden to paint or write, but his reputation as an artist followed him and he was soon engaged to record in drawings the Central Asian lands being surveyed by his unit. The languid, serene landscapes that were the subject of his numerous sketches, sepias, and watercolors belie his intense desire to express himself both on canvas and on paper. It was during this period, while he was in exile—a virtual state of non-existence—that Shevchenko painted himself into genre paintings and local scenes, perhaps as a tangible affirmation of his very being, that he was alive.

Released from banishment ten years later, Shevchenko returned to St. Petersburg, immersing himself once again in etching and studying aquatint. Among the most prized of the original artworks from the Kyiv collection is a portrait (pencil on tinted paper) of the celebrated African American actor Ira Aldridge. Renowned for his roles in Shakespearean tragedies, Aldridge was in St. Petersburg in 1858 to perform with a troupe of German actors at the invitation of the Russian Imperial Theater. Shevchenko was introduced to Aldridge on the night of the opening performance, a meeting that led to a strong bond between the two artists.

In the catalogue essay, Prof. Grabowicz writes that “Taras Shevchenko is generally acknowledged to be the major, formative presence in modern Ukrainian cultural history—and, arguably, political history as well. In the Ukrainian popular consciousness his standing is unrivaled, and his impact is palpable to this day.…Already in his lifetime, and certainly after his death, he became for generations of Ukrainians the father of the nation. For a great number of Ukrainians today, he remains the implicit image and voice of the nation—an icon.”

Presented with a chronological view of Shevchenko’s extraordinary life and work from his youth into maturity, the exhibition is a departure from the predictable. Collectively, the body of artwork, literature, documentation, and biographical detail illustrate the persona of Taras Shevchenko not only as a brilliant poet and largely underrated artist, but as a visionary with a contemporary voice—one that is particularly relevant today.



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