With its wavy ribbons of flagrant magenta, hot orange and cool aqua, only one of these paintings feels typically Australian. With its flat, Byzantine, icon-like figuration, only one feels especially Ukrainian. But all twenty-seven have a luminosity, an intensity of craftsmanship, and a sense of looking out, rather than within, to celebrate the modern world. There’s often a feeling of tumult, but it’s never grim, and it’s always overcome. There’s never a sense of being overwhelmed or lost in self-doubt. Ludwik Dutkiewicz has the one piece that’s closest to Abstract Expression—but still it’s basically a landscape, its defiant gestures depicting the sky above, the earth below. Like the Ukrainian-American artists in the UIMA permanent collection, they appear unaffected by Surrealism and the irony-inflected trends of the New York art world, though all these paintings were done between 1950 and 1980. Like many of the early modernists, they are building a modern world in which they would like to live—as far from the horrors of the 1940s as Australia is from central Europe, a world somewhere in between the Arcadian sensuality of Matisse, and the neo-Medieval piety of Rouault.
More than half these pieces, which come from a single private collection, were done by Michael Kmit (1910-1981). Unfortunately his figurative pieces often sacrifice formal tension for an amenable sweetness of urban sophistication. His easy-breezy portraits only deserve as much attention as a fashion advertisement. But his ebullient 1953 landscape of the recreational waterfront at Elizabeth Bay presents a place where I could live forever.
Most committed to a new life is the Ukrainian-Jewish artist, Maximilian Feuerring (1896-1985). A survivor of the death camps, his new world is the most Australian and most sensual, as if to squeeze delight from each moment of life, whether painting a post-Impressionist landscape or a cubist celebration of the artist’s studio, complete with classical nude sculpture.
All six painters seem to be seeking vitality, force and inner illumination. Driving out from the center, their paintings say, “I’m here in the exciting modern world—come join me!” (Chris Miller)
Through May 31 at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 West Chicago.