Discovering Paraska Horytsvit
A review “Overcoming Gravity”, an exhibition of the artist Paraska Plytka-Horytsvit. Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, October 17th 2019-January 19th 2020.
Most countries have their own heroes in the arts and culture. These are the old masters, artists of the 19th-20th centuries, as well as the contemporary generation of artists. The Ukrainian case, however, is somewhat different. They are suffering from a crisis sparked by the country’s traumatic history and embedded in the very essence of a totalitarian-imperial regime.
There is a group of artists from the past that is generally celebrated by state museums and the nation as a whole, such as Maria Prymachenko and Oleksandr Murashko. Then there are contemporary artists who are loved by both independent galleries and national museums, such as Anatoliy Kryvolap and Alexander Roytburd. They were the ones who helped Ukraine enter the international cultural scene in the 1990s. Finally, there is the new generation of contemporary artists who are giving Ukrainian culture a chance to gain wider international recognition. The problem is, no one really knows the extent of Ukrainian art history; there is not much in between the celebrated artists of the past and heroes of the contemporary scene. Moreover, the list of the former is surprisingly short for a country with such a rich history like Ukraine. Naturally, that is due to the country’s history: in the Russian Empire, many aspiring artists would travel to St Petersburg – the cultural capital – in order to gain recognition from the authorities and people of the country. Similarly, the majority of artists of the 20th century are generalised by the term “Soviet”, while most of them moved to Moscow and St Petersburg to achieve success in the wider Soviet Union.
Beyond the names
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has made an attempt to return those cultural objects lying within the framework of the interstate mechanism of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Yet this initiative was not met with much excitement from Russia. So the newly independent Ukraine was left with a very limited number of museum archives and even a more limited collection of objects. The country was also poor at that moment that trying to seek its cultural heritage within its borders was not on the agenda, which is why many artists were overlooked by the government. It is only now, in the late 2010s, that the state is trying to gather and piece together a cultural heritage for the country. That is why the exhibition Overcoming Gravity in Mystetskiy Arsenal in Kyiv, dedicated to Paraska Plytka-Gorytsvit, is important for the Ukrainian cultural scene. It explores an artist previously unknown to the general public and even for some of those working in the cultural sphere. Moreover, it explores much more than that: it is a thorough study on what, and most importantly who, is hiding behind those big names of Ukrainian art history.
Paraska Plytka-Gorytsvit was a true revival of her generation. She was what can be called a multifaceted artist: as a photographer, she practised applied art, wrote books and published them herself. On top of all that, she also guided tours in the mountains and sang in a choir. Despite the extensive legacy of her work, she is nowhere as famous as her “colleagues,” Maria Prymachenko and Kateryna Bilokur, whom children study in primary school as crucial figures of Ukrainian history. Plytka-Gorytsvit may be compared to Vivian Maier, an American self-taught photographer who was unknown during her life. Maier took more than 150,000 photographs capturing how people used to live in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. Of course, Paraska Gorytsvit did not have an opportunity to travel as much as Maier did, yet there is something interestingly similar between the two women.
The exhibition Overcoming Gravity is vital for Ukrainian art for a number of reasons. First of all, it is the first attempt to house such a collection in a museum context. Secondly, it acts as the start of a debate on how much freedom one person can have and be so much ahead of the zeitgeist. Lastly, it is a response to the societal circumstances and public expectations. It must be said that the exhibition curation is superb; the curatorial team did thorough research of Paraska Gorytsvit in order to convey the fullest picture possible in the given context. Moreover, Mystetskiy Arsenal was a perfect choice to accommodate such a vast collection.
The exhibition is divided into several parts. The first section features photographs by Plytka-Horytsvit accompanied by the story of her life. She was born in 1927 and grew up in the village of Kryvorivnia, in the Carpathian Mountains. At age 16, Plytka-Horytsvit travelled to Germany on her own in order to attend school. Yet her dreams of obtaining a proper education were not fulfilled and instead she went to work for a family where she was essentially a servant. Upon her return home, Plytka-Horytsvit became a liaison to the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which was the reason why, in 1945, the Soviet authorities arrested and sent her off to Siberia. Plytka-Horytsvit returned home nine years later, at the age of 27. When she returned to Kryvorivnia, her native village treated her with caution; they kept their relationship with her at a distance, all of this due to fear of the reaction of the Soviet authorities.
The second section of the exhibition is dedicated to Plytka-Horytsvit’s art. The curators were able to convey the atmosphere and character of the artist. Here, the objects vary from the handmade embroidery to self-published books and collages. The collages are fascinating; Plytka-Horytsvit was interested in Indian culture and she expressed that vividly by placing a man dressed in a traditional Western Ukrainian costume with a woman in a traditional Indian dress. She mixed cultures in a way that it did not feel fake or too pretentious. She had admired Mahatma Gandhi and his philosophical works, which she expressed in her books and illustrations. Despite her asceticism, Plytka-Horytsvit was in an active correspondence with many people around the world, including Indira Gandhi and Soviet political prisoners.
The subsequent room is dedicated to Plytka-Horytsvit’s hometown and, more importantly, her home. With the aid of VR glasses, people can “visit” her house and its surroundings. This section also features Plytka-Horytsvit’s personal belongings, like a hat that she made by recycling plastic and other handmade objects, essentially predicting fashion for sustainability. The exhibit also shows Plytka-Horytsvit’s passion for photography; there is a remake of her studio where she would develop the film. Naturally, this section is followed by a room dedicated fully to her photographs, filled with pictures depicting Plytka-Horytsvit vision of life.
“I believe that Paraska’s photographs are a wonderful and powerful material for future research,” says Kateryna Radchenko, the curator of the exhibition. “We face three major problems when talking about female photographers in Ukraine. First, there were women photographers, but their archives are not accessible so if you are lucky, you can find a couple pictures held in private collections. Second, the works of women who photographed in western Ukraine, in particular in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk, now belong to the artistic heritage of Poland. Last but not least, many female photographers were born and worked in Ukraine, but at a certain point they emigrated, so today their work becomes part of the legacy of Austria, Australia, United Kingdom or France. Unfortunately, the list of women working in photography is incredibly limited. Now Plytka-Horytsvit’s name will be among them, so the fact that the archive was found is incredibly useful in a more global sense.”
Julia Vaganova, the deputy director at Mystetskiy Arsenal said that academic research on Paraska started back in the 1990s. Yet the research never reached the point of becoming widely known in Ukraine. After Plytka-Horytsvit’s death in 1998, Oleksandr Chaika, who was studying her life, passed his research on to Maxim Rudenko. Rudenko later became one of the initiators of the exhibition and directed the film Portrait against the Mountains, which explores Plytka-Horytsvit’s life and art. The year 2015 was also the starting point of this exhibition, as it was when the curating team went to Plytka-Horytsvit’s house and found a large archive of photographs. The photos were in a very poor condition due to poor storage, so the curating team began to restore them. They were able to see the versatility of Plytka-Horytsvit’s ideas and execution, how without a proper education she was able to convey a story through photographs and how she mixed and matched different cultures in her books and illustrations.
It is important to think about the fate and legacy of artists like Paraska Gorytsvit. What is going to happen with the archive after the show ends? Will they be preserved and kept safe or will they return to the house of Plytka-Gorytsvit and continue to deteriorate? Most importantly, how many more unique artists does Ukraine have to offer that no one really knows about yet?
Of course, the country is going through a complex transformation at the moment. It is vital, however, to remember about culture and its legacy, as it tells the history of a country in a much more explicit way than any book. Hopefully, this exhibition is a bright start for more discoveries like this.
Mariia Kashchenko is a co-founder of an online platform for emerging artists called The Art Unit. She is a graduate of Christie’s Education and University of Glasgow where she studied History of Art and Art World Practice. She is currently completing an MA in Arts and Cultural Management at King’s College London. She has experience in working at various art institutions in the UK and Ukraine.