When Eastern Europeans visit an art museum abroad, they are, by default, forced to admit that things they consider native do not belong to them. The power to call their cultural heritage theirs is stripped away. Whenever they venture into a gallery space somewhere in the United States, they find out, much to their dismay, that expressionist Oskar Kokoschka was British; modernist Marc Chagall was French; avantgardists Oleksandra Ekster and Kazymyr Malevych were Russian, and so on.
That is exactly what happened to me, an art journalist from Ukraine who recently enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), when I first visited the Art Institute last fall. The thrill of recognizing works by Malevych and Ekster in the permanent collection of one of the world’s biggest and most important museums was poisoned by captions indicating their national origin.
On display at the AIC, Ekster was identified as “Russian, born Poland,” and her biography on the museum website read: “A pioneering figure in the Russian avant-garde, Polish-born Alexandra Exter was a painter and designer active in Moscow and Kiev before settling in Paris ….” Kazymyr Malevych was “Russian, born Kiev (now Ukraine)” and on the museum’s website “Russian, born Ukraine” (italics are mine.)
The Art Institute of Chicago’s website before the correction of Oleksandra Ekster’s biography page. (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)
Many things were problematic here — from the outdated spelling of Kyiv (“Kiev” is a spelling Latinized from the Russian language and referencing the times when the city was under Soviet rule) to the usage of the imperialistic umbrella term “Russian avant-garde” to the lack of a unified and concise style of captions. Why are some artists nationally identified while others are not? But my main concern was the uncritical representation of both artists as Russian, with little attention paid to their complex and diverse ethnic and national backgrounds even though it informed their art.
Ekster was born in Bialystok, a largely Jewish-populated city in what was at the time the Russian Empire. Her father was a Belarusian Jew and her mother was Greek, which makes the “Polish-born” nomenclature problematic. She spent her childhood and youth in Kyiv and studied art at the Kyiv Art School alongside Ukrainian avant-garde icons Oleksandr Bohomazov and Oleksandr Arkhypenko. Her teachers at the school included Mykola Pymonenko, a famous Ukrainian painter.
The same is true for Malevych, for whom Ukraine was much more than a place of birth. He was born in Kyiv in 1879 to a Polish family and lived in Ukraine until he was 25. It was here that he started learning art. Malevych, too, was acquainted with Pymonenko and derived some ideas works of his he’d seen in Kyiv. He spoke and wrote Ukrainian and stated his nationality as “Ukrainian” in many formal documents during the 1920s.
Oleksandra Ekster, “Costume design for Romeo and Juliette” (1921) (via Wikimedia Commons)
Ekster spent more than half of her life — 35 out of her 67 years — in Ukraine (mostly in Kyiv) and only four years in Moscow. Returning to the biographical note at AIC’s website, it would be much more accurate to identify her as a pioneering figure in the Ukrainian and Russian avant-garde and …….