Recollecting Ukraine’s mosaic art history (part 1)

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Pictured above: Kyi, Shchek, Khoriv and their sister Lybid (1970) by Hrygory Dovzhenko, Kiev

In the first of a two-part feature, Matt Hanson delves into the history of mosaic art in Ukraine.

By Matt A Hanson

In Ukraine, the art of mosaics has lived at least two lives at the heart of the nation’s proud, resilient identity. In the Soviet era, government propagandists saw an opportunity to assimilate its Byzantine past into their ultramodernist vision for the creative, industrious masses. 

As a canny allusion to the aesthetic precedent of the premodern mosaic masterpieces inside Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral and St. Michael’s Monastery, both built in the 11th century, Ukraine became a breeding ground for monumental works of mosaic reliefs and sculptures in the mid-20th century, tapping the veins of the country’s embattled soul. 

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the preservation of Soviet heritage in Ukraine is unpopular and even demonized among forward-looking Ukrainians as part of a well-founded move to repel aggressive Russification programs that disregard their homegrown cultural integrity to justify the invasion of their territorial autonomy. 

Despite the overwhelming trend against Soviet art appreciation and the mass destruction of entire towns and cities that have left so much of Ukraine’s public works in unrecoverable states of disrepair since February, there are still a few active and intrepid historians and archivists, both amateur and professional, who have gone to Promethean lengths to show Ukrainians, and the world, that their art history demonstrates an uninterrupted commitment to local concerns. 

Blacksmiths of the Present (1974) at the Institute of Nuclear Physics in Kiev. By Halina Zubchenko and Hryhory Pryshedko.

The photographer Yevgen Nikiforov stands out. With peerless prescience, he accumulated what has become the most comprehensive documentation of mosaic artworks in Ukraine after traveling to remote and neglected regions of the country. His books of photography feature critical commentary on the colorful and contested histories behind the design, appreciation and preservation of Ukraine’s monumental contribution to global tangible heritage. 

“In my two books, I’ve showed only seven per cent of what I photographed in the last eight years,” Nikiforov said over the phone from Vienna, referring to his publications, Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics (2017) and Art for Architecture: Soviet Modern Mosaics from 1960 to 1990 (2020). “Now, it’s impossible to travel to 25 per cent of Ukrainian territory. I am not sure if I will be able to work again in Ukraine. The most important part of my work was field trips.” 

In December 2021, Nikiforov suffered from a nearly fatal car accident during a research trip in Cherkasy Oblast, a hundred kilometers from Kyiv. The war began while he was in the hospital, unable to walk. Instead of field photography, Nikiforov mines his archive, which encompasses some 5,000 works of monumental art, much of it mosaics made with smalti glass. In eight years he suffered only one altercation while photographing in more than 500 villages. 

“Because much of what I’m interested in is at strategic factories, you lose time with security and permission to photograph takes weeks. The only thing we can see now is in the archive,” Nikiforov explained, noting the effect of the war on Ukraine’s cultural memory. “In Kyiv, there are really important mosaics in the subway from the ‘60s still in perfect condition.” 

In his book, Art for Architecture, co-author and art historian Polina Baitsym describes how mosaics came to take a central role in Ukraine’s government-sanctioned public art after the post-Stalinist Thaw. In an atmosphere of relative freedom when compared to Russia’s proper or far-flung Soviet provinces, certain Ukrainian artists expressed subversive nationalist and individualist motifs within what the state idealized as massive displays of Communist power.  

Man Conquers the Sky (1964) by Ernest Kotkov, Valery Lamakh and Ivan Lytovchenko at Boryspil International Airport in Kiev. Photo by Olena Borysova

Nikiforov and Baitsym are leading voices in an increasingly challenging field that is teasing out Ukraine’s artistic legacy from the gaudy repulsions of Russian imperialism, past and present. With support from the Ukrainian Institute, Nikiforov curated the exhibition Discover Ukraine: Bits Destroyed. In the form of a video and sound installation projected onto the walls of the Old Royal Naval College in London in August, the project adapted Nikiforov’s photographs to 3D mapping technology to show monumental mosaics in Ukraine that have been ruined by Russia’s shelling. 

Nonetheless, the dissenting nuances of Soviet mosaic artists from Ukraine, like Alla Horska or Velerii Lamakh, demand further curatorial ingenuities to appreciate the cryptographic subtleties of the fearless art they produced in the face of deadly political risks. Zhenia Moliar, a member of the collective DE NE DE, is one of the remaining cultural activists willing to question the current zeitgeist, as Ukraine’s art conservators confront a resurgent hostility to Soviet history. 

“In 2015, Ukraine adopted the decommunization law banning Soviet ideology. Several projects started to critically rethink Soviet-era heritage in Ukraine, how to preserve material in the decommunization process,” Moliar, an art historian, said over the phone from Italy. “Nowadays, the propaganda of the Russian federation actively uses Soviet-era narratives.”

Traffic (detail) (1960-61 with reconstruction in 2021) by Ada Rybachuk and Volodymyr Melnychenko at Kiev’s Central Bus Station.

Especially since the outbreak of war, the efforts of the DE NE DE have grown beyond the scope of cultural history into a political front tasked with cleaning Soviet-era monumental art of current Russian propaganda, which continues to co-opt the artworks of the past for its ongoing imperial designs. In collaboration with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ukraine (MOCA NGO), DE NE DE is creating a shared database for researchers of Soviet-era arts conservation.

Traffic (detail) (1960-61 with reconstruction in 2021) by Ada Rybachuk and Volodymyr Melnychenko at Kiev’s Central Bus Station.

“We understand that there is no possibility to preserve many objects. That is why we should carefully make this documentation,” Moliar said. “It is difficult and often impossible to consider the museification of these examples, because they are huge, monumental objects. We have some examples, such as at the ‘Territory of Terror’ Memorial Museum in Lviv.”

Another project, Cultural Landscape, led by the Ukrainian artist Zhanna Kadyrova, began to collect fragments of destroyed mosaics from across Ukraine, many of them sent by mail from collaborators including DE NE DE. Kadyrova planned to create a sculpture from the remains, but the work is indefinitely stalled until the war ends. 

In the meantime, hobbyists are archiving online. One such curious eye is Olena Borysova, who remembers walking by the mosaic decorating the Institute of Cybernetics in Kyiv in April, 2019, appreciating its crystalline motifs by noted painters Halyna Zubchenko and Hryhoriy Pryshedko. “After that, I began to look for information and it turned out that there was almost none or extremely little and it was scattered,” Borysova texted. 

“Ukrainian artists have revived mosaic art, taking into account ancient techniques and rethinking folk art and history,” she wrote. 

All photos by Olena Borysova

Read the second part of Matt Hanson’s exploration of the history of Ukraine mosaics in Issue 5.


@uamonumentalart (Olena Borysova)
@ukranianmosaics (Yevgen Nikiforov)