What Makes Ukrainian Culture Interesting

November 30, 2020

Ukrainian culture dates back further than one may think. It reaches back to European Antiquity via Greek settlements along the Black Sea and Scythian art, as well as to Byzantine culture via Orthodox Christianity and medieval cathedrals. It was influenced by the Baroque symbolism, ideals of the Enlightenment, and passions of Romanticism.

In our book "Ukraine in Histories and Stories", Volodymyr Yermolenko mentions an interesting peculiarity of how Ukraine fits, or doesn't fit, into European cultural cycles: "The classical modern European cultural cycle looks like the sequence of "rational" and "irrational" eras: "rational" Renaissance, then religious "irrational" Baroque, then "rational" Enlightenment, and then "irrational" Romanticism. But the key points in the development of Ukrainian culture were the "irrational" eras: 17th century Baroque and 19th century Romanticism. During the Renaissance era these lands lost a certain distinctiveness as a result of Polish expansion. The Enlightenment era was also related to the loss of autonomy -- on this occasion under pressure from the Russian Empire. That is why I would say that Ukrainian culture is a culture that stands on one leg, an "irrational" leg, so to say."

Later Ukraine became home to the Eastern European avant-garde which influenced the 20th-century aesthetic revolution. Some of the most prominent representatives are:

Kazimir Malevich, prominent avant-garde painter of the 20th century. Malevich is the founder of new waves in non-figurative art called Cubo-Futurism and Suprematism. He was born in 1878 in Kyiv to a Polish family. Up till the early 1900s he lived in many Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv Regions.

Oleksandra Exter (1882 -- 1949), a Ukrainian painter, one of the prominent representatives of the Cubism and Futurism art movements in Europe. Lived and worked in Kyiv, where she created her paintings and drawings, later emigrated to Paris.

Oleksandr Arkhypenko, famous avant-garde artist and sculptor. Born in Kyiv to a Ukrainian family in 1887, Arkhypenko held numerous exhibitions in Europe and the USA until he died in New York in 1964.

Naive art which brings the simple and the miraculous back to life is another distinctive chapter in Ukraine's heritage. Ukrainian art is famous for its vivid colors but also for the constructivism, modernism, brutalism, and contemporary pieces. Haska Shyyan mentions this unique cultural intertwining in her essay for "Ukraine in Histories and Stories", "Ukrainian culture is strongly associated with its ethnic and rustic origins and rightfully so, but its urban landscape offers a wide spectrum, full of objects of admiration from the cute heritage of Austrian and Polish architects to Soviet empire style, functionalism and brutalism. Folk elements exist successfully with the strong industrial and city culture developed under various influences of more and less tolerant empires."

Some Ukrainian pieces have become global phenomena. For example:

Oleksandr Dovzhenko's "Earth" is praised as one of the best films ever made and was included in the list of the 12 best movies in cinema history.

"Shchedryk" by Mykola Leontovych is one of the most popular Christmas songs known all over the world as "Carol of the Bells";

● sculptures by Pinzel, an 18th Century Baroque artist, were exhibited in the Louvre;

"Black Square" by Kazimir Malevich is a well-known revolutionary masterpiece of suprematism.

Some famous artists or writers you know have their origins in Ukraine but are better known elsewhere. For example, our article on famous people connected to Ukraine lists such prominent writers:

Paul Celan, one of the most prominent German-language poets of the post-World War II era. Born in Chernivtsi (Czernowitz) in 1920 to a Jewish family.

Svetlana Alexievich, a writer, essayist and journalist, 2015 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. Born in Ivano-Frankivsk in 1948, her father was Belarusian and mother Ukrainian.

Joseph Roth (1894 -- 1939), an Austrian journalist and writer of Ukrainian-Jewish descent, known for numerous novels (including the famous Radetzky March, 1932) and shorter texts. Roth was born and raised in the small city of Brody, near Lviv.

Ukrainian culture can be colorful, minimalist, naive, or sophisticated. It can blend ancient traditions and contemporary trends. Volodymyr Yermolenko, in his article about tradition and modernity in today's Ukrainian culture, explains the reasons for such a combination:

"In the 20th century, the Soviet regime was busy trying to erase this "national" element. The search of national "depth" was marginalized and then openly persecuted from the 1930s. After World War II, the nostalgia for past traditions sometimes broke through the wall of censorship, creating interesting phenomena, like Ukrainian "poetic cinema" by Sergei Paradzhanov (his world famous film "Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors" is a classic example), Yuriy Illenko, Leonid Osyka, Ivan Mykolaychuk and others; but its creators often paid a high price for their dissidence.

After Ukraine became independent in 1991, and especially in the 2000s and 2010s, this repressed element returned with unprecedented vigour. In order to understand this phenomenon of going back to the past together with searching for modern forms of expression, one has to keep in mind an important insight of the post-independence decades. As national traditions were suppressed for decades, these traditional roots now had a strong emancipatory and freedom potential, which attracted so many artists. It was, therefore, not so much conservative as modern and looking to the future."

To experience the blend of ancient traditions and contemporary trends in Ukrainian culture, pay attention to such musicians suggested by UkraineWorld in the article on modernized past:

"DakhaBrakha, one of the most famous Ukrainian music projects of recent decades, is one example of this traditional-modern mix. Calling their style "ethno-chaos" music, DakhaBrakha was born from the avant-garde theatre Dakh in Kyiv in the early 2000s. It combines traditional Ukrainian song with ecstatic rhythms, bringing a substantial dose of archaism into contemporary music. It is becoming increasingly popular around the world; even David Beckham used it recently in advertising for his brand.

Maryana Sadovska is another famous example of Ukrainian re-invention of musical traditions. Engaged in collecting songs from various regions of Ukraine, she is now re-interpreting them in her unique performance. This performance is unusual in two ways: first, as she accompanies her singing with an Indian harmonium, giving her music a strong meditative mood; second, as she uses modern rhythms, electronic music and DJ-techniques in her latest works.

● Folk is also entering pop and electronic music. The most famous examples is, perhaps, Onuka (the name of the group means "granddaughter"), that combines ethnic melodies and instruments with electronic music, a futurist dressing style and songs in the English language. Other interesting examples of this ethno-pop are PaniValkova, Illaria, Go-A, and Zapaska."

If you want to discover the Ukrainian culture, you may start with the guide by Irena Karpa provided in her essay for "Ukraine in Histories and Stories":

"What should you listen to and where can you lose calories? Well, if you love techno-music and they did not let you in last time to Berghain in Berlin, then go to see the Strichka or Skhema at the Closer Club.

If you want something more refined, you won't believe it but we have a magnificent National Opera, and you can afford tickets not only when celebrating your 30th wedding anniversary. The same can be said of the Philharmonic Hall. Kyiv has its intelligentsia style. (Odesa, Lviv and other big cities as well. The most important thing to remember when you are making your way to the cultural hearts through kiosks and boxes of buildings is our magic trick -- watching your movie...)

Should I also tell you about modern art centers, and about Ukrainian object and fashion design? Yes, incredible clothes are made here by Litkovskaya, Frolov, Bobkova. And we have stipends for young talents from the Pinchuk Art Center. Several times a year, incredible exhibitions are held at Mystetsky Arsenal. And that's without even mentioning small progressive galleries such as Ya-Gallery. This is all Kyiv, and how many wonderful things can be found in other places! Heh, it's a pity they did not ask me to write a guidebook...

Listen, I am already sleepy and you are still asking me about movies to watch. Well, switch on the HBO series Chernobyl. After six episodes, you will become an expert on the last days of the USSR. Or watch Serhiy Loznytsia. His movies may well be gloomy, but still they won at Cannes. His most recent movie, Donbas, is a feature film though too much of a documentary. Or watch Kira Muratova again. Out of the new Ukrainian movies, I liked Dyke Pole [Wild Field] based upon Serhii Zhadan's novel. And I have not seen it yet, but experts say it's the best debut in Ukrainian cinema of recent years: Vulkan by Roman Bondarchuk.

And you probably already know the classics. Like Paradzhanov's Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors or Dovzhenko's Earth."

Thus, Ukrainian culture tells amazing stories that will definitely surprise you. And now, when Ukraine experiences the cultural upsurge, is the best time to discover Ukrainian visual and performing arts, music and literature.

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