Lost in Translation: Ukrainian Postmodern Perestroika Art

Thursday, November 14, 2019
Marshall D. Shulman Seminar Room, 1219 International Affairs Building (420 W 118th St)

Please join the Ukrainian Studies Program at the Harriman Institute for a talk with Olena Martynyuk, Petro Jacyk Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the Harriman Institute.

Ukrainian art of the perestroika era made its first notable appearance outside the republic’s borders at the Moscow 1987 Youth exhibition, with Arsen Savadov’s and Georgii Senchenko’s now legendary canvas Cleopatra’s Sorrow (1987). When numerous Ukrainian paintings responding to the galvanization brought about by perestroika and the premonition of the Soviet Union’s collapse were presented in Moscow the following year, it was obvious that a coherent and highly original artistic phenomenon had been born. Bright yet melancholic, ripe with multilayered bizarre allegories, these large-scale and expressive canvases did not fit either the nonconformist or the Socialist Realist canons, puzzling liberal and conservative critics alike. When not rejecting the movement with scathing skepticism, critics reacted by applying a wide array of western labels, from postmodernism and transavantgarde to neo-expressionism and neo-baroque. Extending the interpretation beyond such facile labeling, Olena Martynyuk argues for a more nuanced understanding of Ukrainian perestroika art as equally affected both by locally ingrained forms and ideologies and the distant echoes of global theories prevalent in the eighties.

Olena Martynyuk is an art historian with an interest in art theory and philosophy, and is currently the Petro Jacyk Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Ukrainian Studies at the Harriman Institute. Her research focuses on Ukrainian and Russian art from the late 20th century to the present. She graduated with a Ph.D. in art history from Rutgers University in January 2018. Her dissertation, titled “Postmodern Perestroika: Ukrainian-Russian Artistic Networks of the 1980s-90s,” examines the work of artists in the last Soviet generation. Trained in Socialist Realist methods while witnessing the decomposition of Soviet reality, these Ukrainian and Russian artists invented hybrid art forms that reflected their transitional time period. The dissertation analyzes major paintings of the era, revealing the porous nature of borders separating East and West in the late 1980s, and examines how distant and sometimes distorted echoes of Western theoretical concepts such as Postmodernism, Neo-Expressionism, Transavantgarde, and Neo-Baroque impacted the art of the late Soviet period.

While at the Harriman Institute, Dr. Martynyuk will continue her work on transforming her dissertation into a book manuscript with attention to the influence of Ukraine’s delayed postcolonial emancipation on Ukrainian visual culture of the late 20thcentury.  She will also continue co-editing with Dr. Alla Rosenfeld a compendium of articles on Ukrainian 20th-century art by Ukrainian and Western scholars. Martynyuk is the recipient of the Louise Bevier Dissertation Fellowship. She has taught art history classes at Rutgers University and CUNY College of Staten Island, and has curated exhibitions at the Zimmerli Art Museum, The Ukrainian Museum, and the Ukrainian Institute of America in NYC. Her most recent show of Kyiv perestroika art will open at the Zimmerli Art Museum in spring of 2020. 

Image credit: Arsen Savadov and Georgii Senchenko Cleopatra's Sorrow, 1987, oil on canvas, private collection.