A nude green goddess relaxes on a pile of burgundy fabric as she gazes into the distance. Her back is turned towards the viewer, her fiery red hair tied back in a sensible bun. Birds stand near his collection of books and pottery strewn on the floor.
It is a calm scene that was painted during a tumultuous time. Yana Bystrova, the artist, painted the goddess in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine in 1989 at just 23 years old. The Soviet Union was years away from collapse, which meant that strict censorship of artists would soon be obsolete. Bystrova’s world would suddenly become a much more colorful place.
Today, the goddess once again overlooks a calm scene during a tumultuous time. Bystrova is in Paris, devastated as she watches her home country at war with Russia. His painting, titled “The Cold Deity While in Crimea,” is on display at the Coral Gables Museum for “Painting in Excess: Kyiv’s Art Revival, 1985-1993,” an exhibition of Ukrainian avant-garde works made just before and after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“Coins are symbols of change,” said Yuneikys Villalonga, chief curator of the Coral Gables Museum. “[The artists] were really doing things that weren’t allowed before.
The Coral Gables show, on until October 30, is the latest effort by Miami arts institutions to embrace Ukrainian art and culture since the start of the war. Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to Razom for Ukraine, a humanitarian organization.
The exhibit arrived at the Coral Gables Museum in May, although that wasn’t always the plan. “Painting in Excess” was originally curated and exhibited at Rutgers University’s Zimmerli Art Museum in New Jersey late last year, months before the Russian invasion.
Although most of the artwork comes from Zimmerli’s huge collection of Soviet nonconformist art, about 30% of the artwork was on loan from Ukraine. These paintings could not be returned home, so the Zimmerlis decided to visit the exhibit. Coral Gables is the first stop.
Villalonga said the exhibit is an opportunity for the local community to not only donate to charity, but also learn about Ukrainian history and culture through art.
“It’s something that could touch the hearts of all Miamians,” she said.
“It’s very liberating”
The exhibition features 35 artists and 64 paintings, including larger-than-life paintings like “Sacred Landscape of Pieter Bruegel” by Georgii Senchenko, located to the left of the gallery entrance. Its impressive size and saturated colors immediately immerse the viewer.
On the wall next to Senchenko’s work is a much smaller painting called “(Silence)” by Alla Horska. It is a yellow naked woman in front of a blue background, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. A black mask covers his mouth and a black rope binds his arms.
Many of the works on display are overly colorful, others are deeply critical of the communist regime. All rebelled against socialist realism, the Soviet Union’s official style of propaganda art, and drew inspiration from Western art styles, said Julia Tulovsky, associate curator at Rutgers.
Tulovsky, who is Russian, worked closely with Olena Martynyuk, the Ukrainian guest curator who organized the exhibition. The show, which showcases Ukraine’s national artistic identity, is incredibly relevant to the current crisis, Tulovsky said.
In the late 1980s, Ukrainian artists worked in secret groups to evade censorship, Tulovsky explained. The regime banned abstract art, and Renaissance nude paintings were considered pornography.
It was risky for young artists to challenge the status quo of the Soviet Union, but the underground art movement flourished. Painters indulged in huge canvases, rich colors, abstract styles, geometric designs, and Western ideals.
“It’s very liberating in a way. This baroque excess, which this exhibition presents, is really cool,” said Tulovsky. “It’s nice.”
Bystrova remembers those times well. Born into a family of artists, she grew up in Kyiv, where practically no information from the outside world was transmitted. But as the Soviet Union approached collapse, the future was uncertain.
Young artists like her dabbled in non-conformist works. While studying at an art academy, she and her classmates were nearly expelled because their work wasn’t “classic enough.”
“Nobody knew if you would be sent to the Gulag or maybe you would become a new prophet,” she said. “A lot of things were moving. People hoped that there was the promise of a better and more open future.
Shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bystrova moved to Paris, where she has lived for 30 years. She was due to return to Kyiv in March for a family art exhibition about her, her mother and her grandfather’s work. Instead, her mother fled to Paris.
“Some artists manage to keep working. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of a project and quit,” she said. “I am devastated. Time ceases to exist.
Despite the difficulties, Bystrova said she was glad to know that the American public has taken an interest in contemporary Ukrainian art after decades of Russian propaganda. “Painting in Excess” is a silver lining, she said.
“Ukraine has remained in the shadows for a long time,” she said. Not anymore.
Excess paint: Kyiv’s artistic revival, 1985-1993
Where: Coral Gables Museum. 285 Aragon Ave, Coral Gables
When: On view until October 30
Price: $12 for adults. $8 for students and seniors. $5 for children. Free for children under 7 years.
This story was produced with the financial support of the Pérez Family Foundation, in partnership with Journalism Funding Partners, as part of an independent journalism grant program. The Miami Herald retains full editorial control of this work.