Collection of works by artist Oleksa Hryshchenko transferred to Ukraine

NEW YORK - Nearly 30 years after his death and in keeping with his wishes, a major collection of the great Ukrainian expressionist painter Oleksa Hryshchenko (Alexis Gritchenko) was formally transferred to his native Ukraine at a ceremony at the Ukrainian Institute of America on March 22.

Some 70 works, from oils to watercolors to drawings, as well as books, catalogues, notes, handwritten memoirs and other archival material, had been bequeathed by the artist to the Oleksa Hryshchenko Foundation, founded in 1963 with the provision that they be transferred some day to museums of a free Ukraine. Throughout the years, the foundation was located at the Ukrainian Institute of America (UIA) in New York.

The transfer act was signed by foundation President Walter Baranetsky and UIA President Jaroslav Kryshtalsky, and, for the receiving side, by Pavlo Bilash, deputy head of Ukraine's state commission for the transfer of cultural treasures, and Anatolyi Melnyk, director of Kyiv's National Museum of Art of Ukraine. The act stipulates that Hryshchenko's works be permanently housed in national museums of Ukraine, not to be sold to anyone or given to other institutions; it gives the foundation oversight rights to ensure that all transfer conditions will be upheld in the future.

"Hryshchenko will find a new life in Ukraine," declared Mr. Melnyk of the National Museum in Kyiv, in remarks to guests witnessing the transfer ceremony. He hailed the transfer of Hryshchenko's works as a "truly big event for Ukraine," and described the artist as one of the "shining lights" of Ukraine's cultural and intellectual heritage.

Echoing his remarks, Ukraine's new consul general in New York, Mykola Kyrychenko, said he was "glad and proud" that Ukrainian Americans had safeguarded the collection throughout the decades. Hryshchenko's works, he said, "are returning (to Ukraine) but so is his name, and his stature will be restored to the high place where it rightly belongs."

According to Mr. Bilash, the Kyiv museum is scheduling a Hryshchenko exhibit still for 2006, and exhibits are also already being planned for Lviv, Kharkiv and other cities. Mr. Bilash added that the collection will not be broken up among museums but will remain intact.

Mr. Baranetsky, the head of the Hryshchenko Foundation and one of its original directors, recalled how Hryshchenko, nearing 80 and recuperating from a serious illness, mused nostalgically about his early years in Ukraine. After a life of prodigious output, intensive travel and acclaim, Hryshchenko's only regret, said Mr. Baranetsky, was that his work remained unknown to his countrymen. Paintings that had been in the collections of the Lviv Museum were destroyed by the Soviets as "bourgeois formalism," together with works by such other notable Ukrainian artists as Alexander Archipenko, Mykhailo Boichuk and Yurii Narbut.

On the suggestion of a group of close friends, among them the artist and art scholar Sviatoslav Hordynsky, then head of the Association of Ukrainian Artists of America, the Hryshchenko Foundation was established, with the goal of eventually moving the bequeathed collection to museums in an independent Ukraine. The Ukrainian Institute's founder and benefactor, William Dzus, readily agreed to house the foundation at the institute until that time, Mr. Baranetsky said.

The foundation had considered transferring the collection to Ukraine after the country's referendum on independence in 1991, but it was only in recent years that Ukraine's political and legal circumstances had stabilized enough to make a transfer feasible, according to Mr. Baranetsky. He also thanked the Ukrainian Consulate in New York for helping over the years to realize the transfer, and singled out Aerosvit Ukrainian Airlines for its generous offer to ship the collection to Ukraine free of charge.

Oleksa Hryshchenko was born in Krolevets, northern Ukraine, in 1883. He studied in Kyiv and then at the Moscow Art School, and in 1911 traveled to Paris, where he became an enthusiast of modern painting, especially cubism, according to notes about the artist written by Hordynsky.

During the Russian Revolution, Hryshchenko became a professor at the State Art Studios in Moscow and a member of the Commission to Protect Historic Monuments. In 1919, fearing he would become a "state functionary," he escaped to Constantinople, producing a series of oils and watercolors that quickly built his reputation in the art world of the time.

Twelve of his Constantinople paintings were exhibited in 1921 in the Salon d'Automne in Paris; Fernand Leger, noted Hordynsky, placed Hryshchenko's works next to his own. Soon Hryshchenko's works were being shown by some of Paris's leading galleries.

After 1924 the artist lived in France, settling in Cagnes, where Renoir once lived (Alexis Gritchenko is the French spelling of Hryshchenko's name). At that time, noted Hordynsky, Hryshchenko had already moved from cubism "toward an explosive color expression."

Influenced by the lights and landscapes of southern France, Hryshchenko's "heavily applied paints and dramatic colors were an expression of the inner forces of a painter who was striving to transform nature according to his own image," wrote Hordynsky.

In 1937 Hryshchenko held a one-man exhibit in Lviv, then under Polish rule. After the war he exhibited several times in the U.S. He died in Vence, France, in 1977.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 30, 2006, No. 18, Vol. LXXIV

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