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Dmytro GORBACHOV (Kyiv) Teachers and Pupils: Ukranian Avanguardists Exter and Bohomazov and the Kyiv Circle of Jewish Cubofuturists, 1918-1920

Draft paper prepared for the conference, Cultural Interaction, Representation, and Memory, mounted by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter Initiative in collaboration with the Israel Museum and the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, October 18–20, 2010  

Olexander Bohomazov. Portrait of the artist I.Rabinovich. 1914.

I. Pedagogical system

Young Kyiv artists from the Kultur-Lige (Culture League) studied cubofuturism and abstractionism in the now world-renowned Exter-Rabinovich Decorative Art Studio (1918-1919), where they were taught by the famous artists and teachers Olexandra Exter and Olexander Bohomazov. The studio included two classes – for children and for adults. Instead of academic instruction, the studio members would learn and become knowledgeable about the key elements of painting art, such as the following:

Rhythm: This is the main active force in art. They were told about the interaction of the upward and downward waves, the alternation of weak and strong rhythms and their energetic twisting. They were taught to change or interrupt rhythm and to combine different rhythms. Interval (pause, white sound) was one of the integral parts of the rhythm (by the way, principles of the interval theory were first ever formulated in O. Bohomazov’s work “Painting and Elements” (1914).

Non-objectivity. Not many artists in Europe mastered abstract plotless art at that time. However, in Exter’s studio this type of art was available even for children – in the form of color paper cutouts forming different rhythmic compositions. Adults were taught composition with wide color planes in three stages: (a) plane painting -- Matisse’s work was used as standard here, but also, as Exter said, they borrowed the “primitive rhythm of carpet and painted ceramics”); (b) volumetric painting (Cézanne, Picasso and “dynamic rhythm of Ukrainian Easter eggs”); and deformation – they learned about linear and colorful harmony and disharmony, about crossing of composition axes, these power lines irradiating the energy of tension or thrusting. Examples of expressive deformation were given by the writer Erenbourg: Amateur sculptor created a disproportionally big head in his portrait explaining that this man was very wise, therefore he made the big head. Bohomazov gave his own example of expressive deformation: “A person was pushing his cart up the street, in Kyiv. When I painted this motif, I saw: the long straight diagonal lines of the cart were so energetic, so powerful that the buildings had to lean back to keep standing”. Such spontaneity of thinking and unpredicted nature of artistic solutions represent the poetry of creativity.

Color. Or rather, “the sound of color” (as an analogy to Rimbaud who described “the color of sound”). In other words, the colorful intensity “pertinent to the art of young Slavonic nations”, as Exter said. Just as perspective was important for Renaissance art, color was the biggest discovery for the avant-garde. It was the main potentio-meter of tension, the main “content of form” (Bohomazov). “It is possible to refer to ancient icons where the primal coloration reached maximum tension, and contemporary art also shows cleanness of colors and their intensity” (Exter).

And, finally, facture. The theory and practice of paintings, “which bulge out, heave and surge with their surface, rough and uneven” (Khlebnikov) was developed by our artists’ friend, D. Burlyuk. Exter taught that facture determines lightness or heaviness of certain colors and therefore weight of plastic form.

Owing to Exter and Bohomazov, dozens of cubofuturists and abstractionists appeared in Kyiv. This was unprecedented for most European cities. Many of these artists were members of the Kultur-Lige.


Scenic design taught at the studio became probably the world’s first systematic training course – and this set design was very innovative: cubofuturistic and constructivist. After a short-term course at Exter’s studio, a world-class elite of set design was trained: Vesnin, Rabinovich, Nivinskiy, Petritskiy, Chelischev, Shifrin, Tyshler, Hvostenko-Hvostov, Meller, Andrienko-Nechitaylo and a dozen theatrical designers of the all-USSR scale (e.g. Kosarev) or all-France scale (Lissim). Notable features of these innovative approaches to set design include the following:

(a) Space. In addition to the stage plane-board, the scenic cube became the playfield, too. The floor and upper rows of the scenic box were tied with architectural volumetric scenery or framework structures.

(b) Color. The spectacular effect of the performances was achieved through the motion of colorful decorations and coordinated plastics of the actors, who also represented painted colorful spots. The stage was turned into a carnival of colorful elements, resembling Ukrainian wedding rites.

(c) Light. Exter and her people turned the light flows into components of the rhythmical structure of performance. Today, this approach to light represents the basics in the world of set design. 


II. Kyiv’s Kultur-Lige and Issues of Abstraction

Olexandra Exter and Oleksander Bohomazov had considerable influence on Kyiv`s Jewish artistic youth, who banded together in the ‘Kultur-Lige’ art section. The group included Mark Epstein, El Lyssitsky, Solomon Nikritin, Isaak Rabinovich, Sarah Shor, Olexander Tyshler, Issachar Ber Ryback, Nisson Shifrin, Isaak Pailes and others. All of them later became acclaimed masters in other countries. They all considered abstract plastic conception to be the main indicator of art and proclaimed a decisive ‘no’ to ‘literalness’ and narrativity if not first filtered through the contemporary art process.

In light of the religious ban against painting concrete scenes on synagogue walls, these artists considered their abstraction to be the manifestation of Jewishness in art. In 1919, the Kyiv Yiddish miscellany Oyfgang (Dawn) published an article by Boris Aronson and Issachar Ber Ryback entitled ‘The Directions of Jewish Art’, stating:

“Pure abstract form is precisely what embodies the national element – a painterly abstract experience that comes to be revealed through material specifically perceived. Thanks only to the principle of abstract art can one achieve the expression of one`s national self-identity. The form is an essential element, while the content is evil. The picture’s composition is more important than its message, and the variety of colours is more valuable than realistic representation of objects.”

For El Lyssitsky, the most prominent artist of the Kultur-Lige, Kyiv became his school of abstract art in the form of Exter’s Cubo-Futurism during 1918-19. Later, in Vitebsk, Moscow, and Germany, he would create masterpieces of Suprematism, the minimalist, draughtsman`s version of non-objective art, but Kyiv was the starting point of this artistic evolution. Lyssitsky’s artwork was multicultural: French (Picasso`s influence), Ukrainian (from Exter), and Jewish (newspaper vignettes in Yiddish). His Kyiv illustrations of the Ukrainian, Jewish and Belorussian fairy-tales also indicate the multi-faceted nature of Lyssitsky’s cultural background. Similarly to other artists, his national self-identity manifested itself in a rather spontaneous, intuitive, subconscious way.  It is significant that the catalogues of the Kultur-Lige were printed simultaneously in Ukraine’s three official languages: Ukrainian, Russian and Yiddish. A number of the Kultur-Lige artists became stage designers. Aronson became world famous as a stage designer on Broadway and at the Metropolitan Opera. Others, such as Nisson Shifrin, worked at the Berezil, the theatre headed by Les Kurbas, which was to find itself at the epicenter of new art in Kyiv.

III. In search of Epstein

In the 1960s, as the Head Custodian of Ukrainian Arts Museum, I would go to Moscow and visit members of the Ukrainian Diaspora on a regular basis. It was from there that I brought pieces of art to Kyiv. I was told that my visits stirred the Ukrainian and Jewish-Ukrainian community in Moscow. For the first time, I heard Epstein’s name from the artist Zhdanko, the wife of Kramarenko, and a friend of Malevich. Irina Zhdanko mentioned members of OSMU (Organization of Contemporary Artists of Ukraine), and Epstein was one of them. Irina Zhdanko said his sister lived close-by, in Sokolniki. Her name was Gousta. So I went there. She lived in a shabby single-room apartment. In the narrow hall, there was a case left on the floor. It was probably left there a few decades ago. In that case, there were drawings by Marc Epstein – a thousand of his drawings! Over a hundred of them were expressionist and cubist paintings of extremely high quality. There were also about two dozen etudes of a later date, without avant-garde features, because avant-garde was prohibited in the 30s and 40s.

My first impression was that the drawings belonged to a strong hand of a sculptor. Their plastics were heavy, massive, Hercules-like. They were also grotesque and hyperbolic. Cubistic “hinge-joint characters” of the early 1920s not only resembled Picasso’s paintings but also looked like any tailor’s mannequin in the Kyiv Podil tailor shops. Series of drawings titled “Jews on Earth” of the late 1920s were impressive. Laborers, laundrywomen, fishermen and fisherwomen with big feet, baroque-style curved bodies like tree trunks, with wide faces, as plain as the countryside. In balancing plastic volumes, Epstein recalled the cubistic past and moved towards post-cubistic expressionism. Gousta was happy to give me these paintings and I brought them to Kyiv. I didn’t want to boast about the findings and tell my supervisors about them. I already had the reputation of being a “politically unreliable” person. I overheard a conversation between my director and his deputy, who was sarcastic about formalism: “We shouldn’t pay for Horbachov’s trips to Moscow. He brings back formalist paintings. We should send another guy instead, he brings back realists.” Therefore I decided to register Epstein’s paintings with the so-called auxiliary archive, which was secondary as compared to the primary collection and therefore overlooked by the censors’ eyes. In 1967, I suggested to Pavlo Zagrebelniy to mount an exhibition in the Writers’ House and said it would be just as sensational as the previous Bogomazov exhibition. Zagrebelniy, a patron of Ukrainian culture, agreed and the House Director announced the exhibition’s opening date. On the day before the opening I came to tell him that I would be bringing in the paintings from the museum. However, the Director informed me, with some distress: “Israel attacked the Arabs yesterday. We have to cancel the exhibition.” But Epstein died in 1949! Nobody cared – it was a collectively owned guilt.

ІV. N.Shifrin

Draft review of two Kyiv exhibitions: (1) Exhibition of Art Section of Kultur-Lige, 1920; and (2) Exhibition of Ukrainian Academy of Arts

 The review of ShifrinThe  review of Shifrin, the KulturLiege member, contains conceptions of his teachers Exter and Bohomazov,  about advantages of abstract art and rhythmic organization of picture.


The Kultur-Lige exhibition, though making an impression of good taste, lacks a program. It is not a show of a group, even though all the preconditions are there to make the presenting artists a solid group. It is like they forgot to agree on what they would show and in what way. As a result, some of them show retrospective series of works (Pailes, Chaikov), while other artists only demonstrate their present works (Aronson). Still, they have something in common – it is clear that they all strive for abstract understanding of the world. National specifics add to this purpose.

Nationality is realized thematically in most of the exhibited paintings and not everyone is free from this plot-based approach in their works. Creating paintings on a national subject or theme does not automatically mean creating national art. Nationality would surface in a variety of ways, even when the theme is not national. A Russian church in one of the drawings is depicted in a way that clearly shows the style of a Jew. Lyssitsky is probably the most fully developed artist among the presenters. His effective approach to book illustrations and understanding of the printed page and its graphical content demonstrates the author’s plastic thinking and strong construction of graphic planes based on the rhythm rather than on national motifs.

Chaikov has the most graphic works at the exhibition. He is clearly progressive, breaking free of the external, plot-based approach and “dry bone” detail, and comes closer to the rhythmic composition of plastic masses. Two other painters – Aronson and Shifrin – accomplish their composition tasks, and build their works concisely. Other artists’ works demonstrate a tendency to getting their paintings organized. They find the source of their inspiration either in Russia and the West or in the figured art of the East. Their approach is serious, based on studies of artistic achievements, which makes up for the fact that they are not mature works but in the process of formation. Departure from the plot-based approach is the key to success. We can find proof of this with Chaikov, whose works are well represented at the exhibition. His early works, based on a literal approach, were dry and weak in shape and lines. However, progress was visible and the graphic aspects were resonant in his later drawings, which were built on the equilibrium of the white and black. 

Aronson and Shifrin are the least preoccupied with plot domination. They operate solely with the painting data and strive to enhance the internal constructive composition, as opposed to Ryabichev, who darkens his mostly simple, adequate drawings by introducing the made-up parts. In addition to all of the above, it is worth noting the works of Tyshler, who is still very “raw”, subject to many influences and quite arrogant. Just as with Ryabichev, in Tyshler’s case we can talk about a gap between his heart and his head. He overdoes the textures of most of his drawings to the point that very little is left from the overall structure, while in watercolors he leaves raw, unprocessed colors (instead of tones), thus spoiling his otherwise interesting compositions.

There are many sculptures at the exhibition, they are massive and they dominate over the small graphic works. The works of Pailes and Chaikov are adequately represented. Pailes, generally understands the goals of sculpture in his later works, though, overall, the forms are “blown-up” unreasonably, as if they were made of rubber. If you “poke them with your finger” (as Cézanne said wittily), nothing is going to pour out of the holes.  Chaikov is very graphic in his sculptures. However, his “Head of a Jew” is a big step forward towards real sculpture. It justifies all his previous mistakes. We should also note the very well sculpted “Portrait of the Artist Khazina” by Epstein.

Boychuk’s art shop was the most pleasant phenomenon presented at the exhibition of the Ukrainian Arts Academy. This is a school, a real good school! It has both the correct approach to painting and the excellent knowledge of composition. Professor Boychuk renews all the painting traditions that were lost back in 17th century and, by connecting the modern day with old culture masters, he teaches his students the most important thing: the painting mentality. Many of these works may be modest, but the true art of painting, sanctified with the old traditions, grows and ripens in them. This art school presents some shy, amateurish works, but none of them are just random. Even the works of the weakest students are organic and logical. This is the basis of art and this is what the students owe to their teacher Boychuk. 

A report describing the endless hardships of the Ukrainian Academy of Arts was presented at the exhibition. And if the Academy was able to carry the flame and keep such a gem as Professor Boychuk’s School, despite all the difficulties, its existence is justified.

Narbut’s students « sont plus Narbut que lui-même » [are more « Narbut » than himself]. They will function beautifully, but they will not shine “plastically”. This is their teacher’s shortcoming. Narbut is exclusive in his technique but he is totally “describable” He thinks in plots instead of images (shape, color, etc.). This is why his works, which are beautifully shaped externally, are still composed in a literary [literal] way rather than in a plastic way. To our mind, this has nothing to do with composition.

It is not proper to talk about Burachek’s school, primarily because there is no school. There is only a number of isolated students, whose place may well be not by the easel, at all. One has to kick this “symbolic-esthetic vulgarity” out of these conceited epigones of Churlionis and Bogayevskiy before allowing them to take a brush in their hands.

 (Source: RGALI, Moscow, Fond 2422 (Shifrin`s fond) desc.1, doc.160, pp.37-38)