Oasis of Ukrainian culture — Ivan Honchar Museum

For thousands of people who come to the Ivan Honchar Museum, the visit to the museum is a step toward a rediscovery of their national identity, a powerful boost for their national pride. The museum was founded by a great enthusiast of Ukrainian culture, Ivan Honchar.

There are many wonderful museums in Ukraine, both large and small, but there are few museums like the one in Kyiv which bears the name of its founder, Ivan Honchar. This museum, which officially is called The Ukrainian Centre of Folk Culture Ivan Honchar Museum, was born out of love for art and beauty, for the history of the Ukrainian people and their culture.

Culture enthusiast

Ivan Honchar was born in the very heart of Ukraine, in the village of Lypyanka, in the Land of Cherkashchyna in 1910, and in his very early years, “together with his mother’s milk” he imbibed love for his native land. The morning dews, the sunsets above the water, the songs of people and of birds developed in him still further his innate sense of beauty. An artistic gift fully manifested itself when Ivan, still a teenager, made a clay model of the local church. He was lucky in the sense that his teachers encouraged him to develop his gift into talent. Ivan went to Kyiv to study sculpture and painting at an art school.

The studies were interrupted by the war which broke out in Ukraine in 1941 when Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Honchar witnessed all the horrors of war at the front, and once, at a particularly horrifying moment, seeing the savage devastation his native land was subjected to and being unable to do anything about it, he prayed to God, swearing that if he survived, he would devote his life to the preservation of cultural heritage of his people. God must have heard his prayer and not only granted him life but gave him a chance to be true to his pledge. After the war was over, Honchar returned to Kyiv, settling down in a little house that he built in a suburb of Kyiv. He earned his living by his art, creating paintings and sculpture. The moment it became possible, he started travelling to various towns and villages of Ukraine, gathering information about their past, and acquiring items for his future collection. The places he went to first were connected with particularly important events in the history of Ukraine or had a particular cultural significance.

Kozak-Mamay by an unknown folk painter. Oil on canvas.  The Land of Cherkashchyna, late 18th – early 19th century.

Kozak-Mamay by an unknown folk painter. Oil on canvas.
The Land of Cherkashchyna, late 18th – early 19th century.

During his expeditions which were financed from his own pocket, Honchar took pictures of the people he talked to and places he visited; he made sketches of churches and old buildings or landscapes, and was always happy to find a collector’s item which he either bought and was given free after he explained what it was needed for. His collection began to grow and at one point his house was no more just a place to live in but turned into a museum. A lot of people came to have a look and talk to the hospitable host and “curator.” The soviet authorities frowned upon the collector and his museum — Honchar’s enthusiasm about Ukrainian culture was out of tune with Soviet propaganda intent on promoting the “Soviet culture” and mentality, in which there was no place for national patriotism. The order of the day was “proletarian mentality” with no national leanings. The “unified soviet people” were to share one and only love, love for their “soviet, socialist motherland,” with no true knowledge of the past. The soviet citizens were allowed to know that “in the past, life of workers and peasants was very hard,” and that all these workers and peasants did was to fight against their oppressors for a better future under the leadership of the communist party.

St George The Dragon Fighter. Icon. Oil on wood.  The town of Krolevets, Sumy Oblast; 19th century.

St George The Dragon Fighter. Icon. Oil on wood.
The town of Krolevets, Sumy Oblast; 19th century.

Attempts were made to take away Honchar’s collection and put it for storage in one of the “official” museums. But Honchar realized that if he agreed to have his collection moved to a museum, the general public would never see it again. Refusing to succumb to the pressure, Honchar at the same time had to be very careful not to cause the authorities’ ire which could have dire consequences for him. Honchar was all the time walking on thin ice and miraculously he and his collection survived until the time when it was no longer a crime to speak Ukrainian and promote Ukrainian culture.

Ivan Honchar was one of the initiators of the creation of an open-air folk architecture museum and such museum was indeed established in the village of Pyrohovo not far from Kyiv.

In the 1960s, Honchar’s house was a place where many Ukrainian-minded intellectuals regularly gathered to keep the spirit of Ukrainian culture alive. Quite a number of them were arrested and sentenced to long prison terms for their “anti-soviet activities and Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism.” Many young women and men, who met at Honchar’s house, continued their acquaintance into friendship and marriage. Ivan Honchar thus became a cultural figure whose significance went much further than his art or even his great collection — he made an enormous contribution to keeping Ukrainian culture in the city of Kyiv alive, albeit within a small circle of Ukrainian patriots and culture enthusiasts.

Museum and its collection

By the time of Honchar’s death in June of 1993, his collection numbered eight thousand items and only a fraction of them could be properly displayed. Though Ukraine was at last independent, there was no money to set up a separate museum, specially built to house the collection. It was only at the end of 1993 that an official decision was taken to establish a museum where Ivan Honchar’s collection could be taken care of and displayed more advantageously for public viewing. The staff of the museum continued the work began by Ivan Honchar and now the number of items in it has reached thirteen thousand.

Honchar, an artist by calling and education, collected folk paintings and icons painted by village amateurs. Such icons did not necessarily follow the prescribed canons. The faces of saints are often shown smiling; the saints themselves wear peasant dresses typical of the area where the icons were painted. Ivan Honchar was one of the first to show an interest in such icons, often crudely painted but with a special charm of their own, and to begin to collect them. For a long time, folk art and painting were ignored by art historians and collectors, but then the views and tastes changed and Honchar’s artistic intuition and his collecting efforts began to be fully appreciated. The attitude to folk, or “naive” painting had greatly changed over the years.

The works of “naive” painters may vary in quality, but in their desire to find their own definition of reality, naive artists often stumble upon the magic of reality. To describe this phenomenon, Vasily Kandinsky coined the phrase, “the greater reality,” and a later critic spoke of “magic realism.” For the naive artists themselves the pictures that emanated from their imagination were natural expression of how they saw the world. Folk paintings are no longer viewed as “inferior” to paintings produced by professional artists — they are looked upon as a way of expression in its own right.

Ivan Honchar’s studio with part  of his collection and his own works on display. 1967.

Ivan Honchar’s studio with part
of his collection and his own works on display. 1967.

In Ivan Honchar’s museum-studio. 1968.

In Ivan Honchar’s museum-studio. 1968.

Tryst. By an unknown folk artist. Oil on veneer.  The Land of Sumshchyna, 20th century.

Tryst. By an unknown folk artist. Oil on veneer.
The Land of Sumshchyna, 20th century.

Woman’s dress.  The Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna, 20th century.

Woman’s dress.
The Land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna, 20th century.

It is, of course, not only folk paintings and icons in Honchar’s collection that are of a great interest, both for art historians and laymen. There are thousands of photographs of landscapes, houses, churches and other architectural landmarks of the places that Honchar visited. There are also old photographs which are invaluable as visual evidence of the appearance of people, their dress, interiors and exteriors of their houses, household items and many other things that can be of great help in ethnographic research.

Another section of special interest in the museum are textile items, embroidered rushnyky (towels) in particular. In articles and essays that Ivan Honchar wrote for scholarly and popular magazines, he emphasized great significance that embroidered rushnyky had in the Ukrainian traditional culture. They were much more than decorative elements of the interiors — the embroidered symbols and ornaments on them played a role of “collective memory,” which insured the continuity of cultural traditions. In one of his articles, Ivan Honchar called the embroidered rushynky “a path for every Ukrainian soul through this world.” Honchar’s essays, full of enthusiastic emotion and scholarly insights, are still reprinted from time to time in various publications.

Ukrainian traditional dress also finds its ample representation in Ivan Honchar’s museum. Though the traditional dress in every region of Ukraine has its own peculiarities, there are a lot of common features which give the dresses from all parts of Ukraine their distinct Ukrainian character. One of the most striking features of the traditional Ukrainian dress is embroidery which deserves a separate article.

Folk art centre

In 1999, the Ivan Honchar Museum was reorganized into a Ukrainian centre of folk culture and this new status widened the sphere of the museum’s work and enhanced its potential. The centre promotes Ukrainian applied and decorative art in general, and traditions of Ukrainian folk art in particular. The centre publishes books, brochures and calendars, and carries out ethnographic and art history research. A three-volume encyclopaedia of Ukrainian embroidery is in preparation jointly with the Ivan Honchar Fund which was recently set up.

The Ivan Honchar Museum is a living institution, not just a collection of exhibits. Folk art studios and shops, a theatre of folk songs and folklore, Ukrainian cuisine hands-on classes that teach how to cook Ukrainian traditional dishes, and other courses and classes which function at the centre keep Ivan Honchar’s ideas of promoting the Ukrainian cultural traditions alive.

The intricate process of painting pysanky, Easter eggs.

Vechornytsi at the Honchar Museum is in full swing.

Vechornytsi at the Honchar Museum is in full swing.

From right to left: Nina Matviyenko, a remarkable performer  of Ukrainian folk songs and a visitor in the Honchar Museum;  Nina Matviyenko is I. Honchar’s daughter-in-law.

From right to left: Nina Matviyenko, a remarkable performer
of Ukrainian folk songs and a visitor in the Honchar Museum;
Nina Matviyenko is I. Honchar’s daughter-in-law.

Musicians playing Ukrainian folk instruments  at Oleh Skrypka’s Vechornytsi.

Musicians playing Ukrainian folk instruments
at Oleh Skrypka’s Vechornytsi.

Oleh Skrypka, frontman of the VV rock group, arguably the best rock group of Ukraine, organizes Vechornytsi at the centre which, in a certain way, continues the tradition of gatherings that took place at Ivan Honchar’s house back in the 1960s.

Vechornytsi (literally: evening gatherings) were get-togethers in Ukrainian villages, mostly in winter, at which girls would gather at somebody’s place, often a widow’s or a lonely woman’s, to be later joined by the young men of the village. They sang traditional folk songs and got to know each other better. Many marriages resulted from such meetings. Skrypka initiated the revival of Vechornytsi and in the past two years they became a regular occurrence. His main idea is to promote the values of traditional Ukrainian culture among the people of Kyiv who have been thoroughly urbanized and Russified, and thus severed from the sources of traditional culture. Culture, kept as a museum piece in safe storage, is dead — it is alive only when it is actively practiced. That is why at Skrypka’s Vechornytsi, folk groups sing traditional folk songs, some of which go back to the pre-Christian times; painters show and teach guests how to paint pysanky, Easter eggs; traditional dishes are cooked and tasted; traditional dances are danced. Guests are encouraged to bring along their children who thus become exposed to Ukrainian culture. One of the latest Vechornytsi was attended by President Viktor Yushchenko and his wife. The president tried his hand at painting Easter eggs and his wife Kateryna brought pyrohy (sort of pies) that she had made at home. In keeping with an age-old tradition, each pyrih had inside a little piece of paper with an appropriate quotation written on it.

The Ivan Honchar Museum Centre transcends the narrow constraints of the usual concept of a museum and is an oasis of traditional Ukrainian culture in the highly urbanized milieu. The number of people who become increasingly aware of the great value of traditional culture is growing and the Honchar Museum is making its own worthy contribution to this growth.

Carved plate. The inscription in Church Slavonic  reads: “Give us this day our daily bread”, 19th century.

Carved plate. The inscription in Church Slavonic
reads: “Give us this day our daily bread”, 19th century.

Twin pots. Potter Vasyl Shostopalets.  The town of Sokal, Lviv Oblast, 1872.

Twin pots. Potter Vasyl Shostopalets.
The town of Sokal, Lviv Oblast, 1872.

Based on an essay by Yury Melnychuk, senior researcher of the Ukrainian Folk Culture Center “Ivan Honchar Museum”

wumag.kiev.ua

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