Revitalizing Ukraine’s mosaic art history (part 2)

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Pictured above: Zhanna Kadyrova creates ceramic clothes for her Second Hand series (all photos of Zhanna Kadyrova’s work courtesy of the artist)

In the second of his two-part feature, Matt Hanson delves further into Ukraine’s mosaic art history.

By Matt A Hanson

At the end of November 2022, Zhanna Kadyrova, one of Ukraine’s leading contemporary artists, prepared to enter the eye of the storm as she traveled home to Kyiv. In a shelled landscape, void of utilities in the frigid weather, she reached for her phone. The call was about her art, particularly a project that she started in 2013 called Monumental Propaganda

Listening to her own voice quiver, raspy through a bad connection, Kadyrova only expressed her frantic daze of fear and resilience, holding on to every passing moment while worrying for her mother. On February 24, 2022, she stopped making art that was not about Russian aggression as mass murder and rape reduced her friends and families to ash and tears. 

“When the war started, I paused all of my previous projects,” Kadyrova explained, her voice frail with desperation. “In our situation it is not possible to plan. I don’t have water in my studio. Civilization ended. We are in the Middle Ages. I can’t be a normal contemporary artist. I put a moratorium on all of my earlier work. Now I only show work about war.”

By Zhanna Kadyrova (2022)

Kadyrova is emphatic when stating that her current projects responding to the war are not about Ukraine’s mosaic art heritage. Yet, her oeuvre remains influential in the contested field of Russian-Ukrainian art history. The legacy of her work Monumental Propaganda continues to reveal parallels between Soviet culture, especially its mosaic murals, and capitalist advertising.  

Monumental Propoganda (2013) by Zhanna Kadyrova

In 2013, the publication of a catalogue on Kadyrova’s practice coincided with the exhibition of Monumental Propaganda. In it, curator Claire Staebler wrote that Kadyrova had been working on mosaics for a decade. Known as “tile sculpture”, her work Tolya, the Plumber (2004-2005) advanced the post-Soviet critique to reexamine the flat, archaic past with three-dimensionality. 

“Mosaics were my main interest. But when the war started, everything changed. I don’t know if I will be alive tomorrow,” Kadyrova said. “I’m more interested in my mother’s survival than that of mosaics. I spent a lot of time discovering monumental, Soviet mosaics. I want to be optimistic but I can’t in this moment. If the war finishes, I will return to earlier work.”

Another piece from Zhanna Kadyrova’s Second Hand series

Whereas the photographer Yevgen Nikioforov can be said to be the pioneering documentarian of Ukraine’s Soviet-era mosaics after he started photographing them, interestingly, also in 2013, Kadyrova’s practice represents a prescient focus on the medium as a persistent symbol for Ukrainian cultural independence in the face of ongoing, pervasive Russian imperialism. 

Nikiforov did not publish his first book, Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics, until 2017. The protracted reconciliation with mosaic art history in Ukraine has fallen into the laps of a generation fraught with unprecedented population displacement and a renewed vilification of all things Russian. But that has not inhibited the curiosity of the internationalist, young culturati

“Nikiforov anticipated the possible loss of the objects. He was the one who went on expeditions to collect oral histories and photograph. I am mostly studying and researching,” said Polina Baitsym, a Ukrainian art historian who specializes in the Soviet era and wrote the text published in Nikiforov’s second book Art for Architecture: Ukraine (2020).

“My first and still ongoing specialization is not in mosaics but in painting. I’ve been writing the dissertation for almost six years,” Baitsym said, explaining her work as a PhD candidate at Central European University. “One problematic aspect of the mosaics in the Soviet Union is they are not attributed. I do attributions. You have to find archival materials.”

Baitsym and Nikiforov met while pursuing a common project about mosaics in the region of Zhytomyr, a city in northwest Ukraine. Nikiforov had already published “Decommunized: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics and, together with Baitsym, they organized a local exhibition in the spirit of Ukraine’s decentralized cultural networks that foster inter-city cultivation beyond the capital of Kyiv. 

In Ukraine, Baitsym noticed how public perceptions are adopted by state representatives to devalue Soviet art as “simplistic” and “propagandistic”, in her words. In brief, they are thought to be irrelevant. But Baitsym, like her more activistic colleague Zhenia Moliar, continues to forward a more nuanced appreciation of these mosaics as artistic, even dissident. 

“We started gathering mosaic fragments. A lot of activists in different regions sent them to us by post and other ways,” Moliar said, remembering early collaborative efforts with Kadyrova. “This heritage is stigmatized in our society and official cultural institutions. I hope, soon, we can gather private archives into one, common database.” 

Moliar traces the arc of Soviet aesthetics, from Leninist political portraiture to the banal utopias of Stalinism, back to Ukraine’s sacred art history. The propagandists knew that they would have to sublimate religious iconography into communist image production. She points to 1945 as the year when the USSR embraced a new canon that blossomed in Ukraine’s mosaic art. 

“There are very interesting artists who were able to navigate the ideological field and do work without a propagandistic message under the Soviet authorities. Especially from the 1950s to the 1990s, the field was dynamic in terms of how authorities paid attention to what artists were actually doing,” Biatsym explained. “There was a fluctuation of ideology.” 

Ukrainian Song (1967) by Stepan Andreevich Kirichenko. Photo by Olena Borysova.JPG

The exciting part, for Baitsym and her close cadre of fellow researchers, is that Ukrainians are only beginning to discover how rich their art history is, cloaked under the veils of Russification and its intensifying post-Soviet antipathy. Ukrainian artists in the late 20th century who used mosaics as their medium did, in fact, innovate the form toward a vision of contemporary art.  

The greater interrelationship between fine art and public space, however, has shifted contexts from the Soviet industry of cultural propaganda to the Western fervor for capitalist messaging in privatized, mass multimedia. While both dogmas share a trend to universalize the interests of the empowered elite, their methods differ like oil and water. 

Symphony of Labor (1967-68) by Ernest Kotkov and Valeryi Lamakh. Photo by Olena Borysova.

In the absence of forced economic and cultural imperatives as that which the Soviets imposed in Ukraine, the monumental mosaic art of that period has faded. Baitsym is attempting to instill what she calls a “fresh gaze”. As a child in Poltava province, Baitsym observed unusual constructions in mosaic relief and socialist modern architecture transformed into discotheques. 

“I was enchanted by how it looked, but I can’t say it influenced my interests. It was part of my post-Soviet childhood,” Baitsym said. “Recently, the biggest loss for us and for students’ socialist heritage were the Mariupol mosaics. Among those destroyed were works by Alla Horska and Victor Arnautoff, who studied under Diego Rivera.” 

Baitsym is working with Nikiforov to prepare a new exhibition at the Kunstgewerbemuseum, or Museum of Decorative Arts in Berlin, with Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Milovzorov (born in 1938), focussing on his work in stained glass. As someone who lived through the history of monumental Soviet art, Baitsym soaked up his life experience as part of her formative training. 

The show at Kunstgewerbemuseum, scheduled for March 2023, requires wartime logistics, as Baitsym is facing power cuts and worse, disallowing her acquisition and delivery of works by the artist out of Ukraine and into Germany. Milovzorov, like Kadyrova, represents a movement to adapt Ukraine’s rich, tangible heritage of monumental and decorative arts into contemporary culture. 

In the eyes of adept and community-based researchers like Moliar and Baitsym, there is no way to account for the losses that Ukrainian and global heritage have suffered since the outbreak of war in February 2022. The tragedy of Mariupol extended to the city’s airport, where, in October 2022, monumental mosaics by Victor Arnautoff were left intact, albeit in a battered, vulnerable state. 

Even soldiers of the Ukrainian army sometimes take photos of mosaic panels that have endured rockets and the elements so that expert preservationists can continue to archive and study their legacy. But as long as the war continues, information about the conditions of Ukraine’s monumental mosaic art will largely be hidden behind strict, military security policies. 

“From 1959 to 1961, Velerii Lamakh and his colleagues Ernest Kotkov and Ivan Litovchenko created the first mosaic in a public space in Kyiv. It’s a riverport. Behind it, Velerii Lamakh worked on his own understanding of what art is,” Nikiforov said. “My favorite period is from 1965 to 1975. I saw 5,000 pieces myself. I met many historians, but what they tell is theory.”

By the 1980s, until the USSR collapsed, Ukrainian artists produced simpler mosaics and ventured into abstraction, which was impossible in prior decades. Still, while the paintings of the most iconic artists from Soviet Ukraine, like Alla Horska or Velerii Lamakh, are in museums across the country, their massive, public mosaic artworks confront the battlefield of history. 

@mainshum (Polina Baitsym)