Returning to the avant-garde

In the beginning of the XX century our artists were in the avant-garde of the world art. Alexander Arkhipenko and Kazimir Malevich from Kyiv, Natan Altman from Vinnitsa, Mane-Katz from Kremenchug, Vladimir Baranov-Rossine and Sonia Delaunay from Odessa, Chana Orloff from Kharkiv – the names of these artists are often more well-known in Europe and America than in Ukraine. Not only did they form their style in famous Paris salons of the beginning of the XX century, but they also influenced French and world art.

Ukrainian avant-garde

Alexander Arkhipenko from Ukraine is known all over the world as a founding father of cubism in sculpture. He was the first one to use voids as a part of his sculptures, he also worked with negative space a lot. His works can be found in leading American art centres such as Museum of Modern Art, Metropolitan Museum and Guggenheim Museum in New York, National Art Gallery in Washington. Hans Hildenbrandt, Swedish historian of culture, said that “If it wasn’t for Arkhipenko from Ukraine, I cannot imagine how our modern culture could have made a clear break from naturalism that was the centre of all the art movements in the XIX century”.

One can hardly overestimate the influence Ukrainian artist Kazimir Malevich had on modern art. In 1915 his “Black Square” hit like a bombshell. It became a graphical manifesto of suprematism, a new movement in art which quickly attracted followers all over the world. For example, Ad Reinhardt, one of America’s most famous abstract painters of 1960-70’s, is well-known for his “black paintings” which are really close to suprematism and artistic legacy of Malevich.

Another Ukrainian, avant-gardist and theatre artist from Vinnitsa Natan Altman, attended Odessa college from 1902 to 1907 and then moved to Paris where he continued his education and had his works presented in many exhibitions. His famous painting of Anna Akhmatova with elements of cubism is often thought to have been painted by Amodeo Modigliani, which illustrates how much he fit into the Parisian art of the time. A while later Paris was conquered by another Ukrainian-born, Jew Emmanuel Mane-Katz. His first exhibition in May 1923 was visited by Pablo Picasso himself. Picasso carefully examined all the paintings, and when the second exhibition of Mane-Katz was opened, he sent an art dealer there with a recommendation to purchase four of the artist’s works. Seven years later Picasso presented Mane-Katz with a signed pencil portrait of him. Today the portrait is exhibited in the Haifa museum of modern art.

Sonia Delaunay, a French artist and designer who was the first female artist to have had an exhibition at the Louvre Museum in her own lifetime, wrote in her book of memoirs: “I like bright colours. Those are the colours of my childhood, colours of Ukraine”. Her spectacular visual images later on inspired the great Coco Chanel.

The list of all Ukrainian-born participants of the Parisian art school Autumn Salon and Salon of Independents and the inhabitants of the La Ruche artists’ residence is long. There is Abraham Manievich who was admired by Einstein. The great physicist wrote to him “We both serve the stars, you – as an artist, me – as a scientist”. There is Vladimir Baranov-Rossine who invented the first optophonic piano while developing Scriabin’s ideas of colour music. There is Chana Orloff who received the Knight of Legion of Honour prize in 1925.

There also are many remarkable Ukrainians in other spheres of culture. The whole world loves music written by Sergei Prokofiev and films directed by Oleksandr Dovzhenko. Last year his film “Earth” was ranked by UNESCO as one of the five world’s greatest masterpieces.

Economic egoism

The most interesting thing about all this is that we are just as good as foreigners not only in filming, art or music. As a head of a major family-owned pharmaceutical firm I have seen that Ukrainian product can be as high-quality as European and American products. And the term “economic egoism” came to my mind. Being Ukrainian economic egoist means leaving behind modesty and the feeling of our second-ratedness in order to admit that we can manufacture worthy products. We just need to learn to unite and protect our interests.

Unnecessary modesty and inferiority complex stand in the way of our becoming stronger and more confident. Those features were formed over a long and complex period of Ukraine’s history and confirmed in the Soviet Union, and we need to fight them if we want our western partners to see us as something more than a large consumer market depending on foreign borrowings. We are forced to play by someone else’s rules under the threat of our funding being stopped.

This is where we need to resort to economic egoism and position ourselves as a country of manufacturers, not consumers. We can not only purchase imported products at over-evaluated prices, but we can also manufacture our own products of equal or superior quality. Economic egoism means loving and helping our country while keeping in mind that its residents come first. This is our microchance.