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​Re-discovering The Artist who brought Impressionism to Ukraine

Art Historian James Rubin talks to Bohdan Nahaylo about Ukrainian Impressionist Painter Mykhailo Tkachenko

Show hosts

Oksana Smerechuk,

Bohdan Nahaylo

​Re-discovering The Artist who brought Impressionism to Ukraine
​Re-discovering The Artist who brought Impressionism to Ukraine


Hello and welcome to this week’s Ukraine Calling programme. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. We’ll have a roundup of the weekly news for you,  some culture, and some music. We’re bringing you a feature interview with Art historian James Rubin, a leading expert on Impressionism, about an undiscovered Ukrainian Impressionist painter, Mykhailo Tkachenko.

Feature Interview: Art Historian James Rubin talks to Bohdan Nahaylo about Ukrainian Impressionist Painter Mykhailo Tkachenko




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Feature Interview: Art Historian James Rubin talks to Bohdan Nahaylo about Ukrainian Impressionist Painter Mykhailo Tkachenko

Nahaylo: I’m very honoured and pleased to have as our guest today on Ukraine Calling, James Rubin, who is a foremost authority on the Impressionists. Listeners will soon discover that among the most famous impressionists, there was a figure from Ukraine who was not known until now—Mykhailo Tkachenko from Kharkiv—that has attracted the attention of this leading expert on impressionism and has drawn him even to Ukraine. So James Rubin – I won’t call you Professor or Doctor because we have an informal approach – welcome to our program and welcome to Ukraine!

Rubin: Thank you very much! I’ve enjoyed my stay a great deal and I have learned a great deal as well.

Nahaylo: In a little bit more detail: what has drawn you to Ukraine? Tkachenko?  But is he that good? Is he that interesting that a person of your stature has come to see his works – the real works and not just the pictures of them?

Rubin: Of course that’s a perfectly legitimate question. It turns out that Tkachenko was not unknown in the Paris art world of his time.

Nahaylo: Which is the 1890’s?

Rubin: He went to Paris… Well I can back up a bit first. I believe he was born in Kharkiv, and he studied for a little while in Kharkiv, but he was good enough to be admitted to the St. Petersburg Academy. In fact he was so good that with a landscape – a large luminous painting which is now in a museum in L’viv, but not yet in an impressionist style – he won a scholarship to travel to France and to Paris. Paris was of course, and had been since the 18th century more or less, if not even earlier, the center of the Western art world, with its great academy, and the Louvre, which was at first the royal collection; of course it became the national collection after the French Revolution. And in the middle of the 19th century, Paris was the most modern city, I think probably one could say, on earth, because of the urban renovations and so forth, and the various political back and forth, and the wide reach of French artists. It was the art capital of the world. So, whether impressionism or not, Tkachenko received this scholarship to Paris. He arrived in Paris in 1888 and from that point on he seems to have picked up what I call the “Impressionist Vision,” which was a new way of painting contrary to his own academic training. He was an artist of great skill and so, very successfully, transitioned to the impressionist style, and he even won some gold medals at Parisian exhibitions.

Nahaylo: And I’m struck by the fact that the themes of both of those works that won the medals – one was about Poltava [View of Poltava Province], and one is called ‘Scene of Ukraine’ or something like that [In Ukraine] – had a Ukrainian content.

Rubin: Yes, they had a Ukrainian context and I think the reason that he did that, even in Paris, was because impressionism was very much about painting the world that one knows. Clearly for Tkachenko Ukraine was a place that he knew and a place that he held very close to his heart.

Nahaylo: Let’s just tell our listeners, because they may be confused…you saw a major work of his in L’viv, but of course that arrived in L’viv later because L’viv at that time was under Austria-Hungary, and he was actually working in the Russian Empire.

Rubin: Yes, while in Paris he was not only part of the Parisian art world, but he was part of an expatriate community in which [there were] Russians, Ukrainians, and I suppose other Eastern Europeans and other nations, provinces, and states under the Russian Empire, all speaking a common or related languages, and he was part of that expatriate community. In that community there were some painters who were working for the Russian navy doing naval scenes, doing portraits of important military, cargo, and other ships related to Russian sea power. Through his friends he received some commissions to do paintings of that sort, and he eventually worked for the Russian navy. So, in a sense, there were two sides to his career, at least this early part of his career, where he could earn a living working for the Russian navy, but also repeatedly return to Ukraine and paint Ukrainian scenes, and do them in the more progressive, novel style he learned from the Impressionists.

In other words, he brought Impressionism to Ukraine. He brought this vision with him, and I think that he was one of those major artists who facilitated the spread of Impressionism, which became almost, you could say, a world-style by the very end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.

Nahaylo: And in your presentation and lecture that you gave here in Kyiv a on I November, you mentioned that the Russian Tsar gave as a present to the French President two of Tkachenko’s works when he visited Paris.

Rubin: Yes.

Nahaylo: So he must have been good?

Rubin: Yes he was good. And, as I mentioned, he won gold medals and these were of course French judges judging his work! One article that we’ve discovered in onе of the top newspapers—Le Figaro—mentioned him as one of the best Impressionists of the day.

Nahaylo: So why don’t we know about him? Why are we just discovering him now?

Rubin: That’s an excellent question, and it’s really fascinating. I think that if he had stayed in Paris and made it the center of his career he would not have been forgotten. He would have maintained a presence. But, for historical and economic reasons, plus of course his love for his home country, he did not make Paris the center of his career. He spent a great deal of time in Ukraine painting scenes of Ukraine and for historical reasons, which I think everyone can understand – for one thing the dominance of French art and French culture, but also the situation of Eastern Europeаn nations and regions at the time – he more or less disappeared from view.

Nahaylo: Of course the Soviets didn’t appreciate this “decadent” type of art when they came to power in 1917. And he died just before the [Bolshevik] Revolution, as I understand?

Rubin: He died in 1916, yes.

Nahaylo: And how old was he?

Rubin: I think he was 56… he was not an old man. And, from the evidence I’ve seen and of the quality of his painting, he was at the peak of his career.

Nahaylo: Do we know if he knew any of the other famous painters in the Russian Empire at that time? For example, [Ivan] Aivazovsky (1817 – 1900) and his marine art. Do we know if he was in the same group at that time?

Rubin: That’s an excellent question and I have to explain to you, that I am here as a student. I have been attracted by Tkachenko’s work, but since I do not read Ukrainian or Russian I am not able to do the research necessary, except when it’s in French of course, when it’s in French newspapers, or in the English language. And so this is an area that I must learn more about. For example, there is a correspondence, a hand-written correspondence, and so I need Ukrainian assistance and translators in order to find out what is in that correspondence. I know, by the way, that there are some very distinguished scholars who have worked on Tkachenko and by no means am I interested in duplicating their work. What I am interested in is bringing him to light to Western eyes, confirming, of course, to Ukrainian eyes as I’ve learned there are many Ukrainians who are not very much aware of his work. Of course, specialists are, but the general public does not seem to be widely aware of, or even as proud as they should be, of his accomplishments.

Nahaylo: I am talking to James Rubin, a leading authority on French art of the late 19th century, or rather second half of the 19th century because it’s not just the Impressionists, as I noticed. Also he’s a specialist on [Gustave] Courbet and others – though primarily on the Impressionists. He has very celebrated works on Manet and others. James, you mentioned this European aspect. It’s interesting that Mykhailo Tkachenko has been rediscovered just at the time when Ukraine is returning to Europe and is reaffirming its connection with Europe. It’s very timely that you are doing this research and helping us here and in the diaspora to recognize people that perhaps were not on the radar screen for political reasons.

Rubin: Yes, I think you are very right about that. My motivation… let me begin by saying there is a personal element. My grandfather came from Kyiv, so the names Kyiv and Ukraine have always had an echo in my mind. Of course it took a lot more than that. It took meeting someone – Mr. Bate C. Toms – to whom I am extremely grateful, who set up a law practice in Kyiv many years ago, and who himself is taking a great interest in Ukrainian history and Ukrainian culture. We have known each other for years. He asked me about Tkachenko. He learned about him through a gallery in Kyiv. He was struck by Tkachenko’s work. So he told me about him and invited me to come to Kyiv to see some of his works.

Nahaylo: He, Bate, is also the chair of the British Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce, which, I understand, has sponsored your visit.

Rubin: Absolutely. It’s important to give them appropriate credit. The Chamber of Commerce is not devoted solely to commerce either, because commerce and culture go together. The cultural element is something that can be quite favourable to Western impressions, no pun intended, of Ukraine. And, at a time like this – I do not know if I should say this – but people said to me “Will you be safe [there]?”

Nahaylo: We have a war still going on with our Eastern neighbour.

Rubin: Of course. First, it’s a very big country and secondly, I absolutely trust people I know in Ukraine to know whether it’s safe or not. My point is that the reputation of Ukraine deserves to be much bigger than a single specific political problem and that is where I hope I can make a contribution.

Nahaylo: Thank you for your interest and involvement. Of course, there are a few figures already from Ukraine that have become well-known as artists – Archipenko, for example, I suppose is the most famous one. 

Rubin: Did you know that Malevich was Ukrainian? I was told by a friend of mine who is an expert on Malevich, that he always felt very close to Ukraine.

Nahaylo: Yes. Now, about the country itself: you are here for the first time?

Rubin: No, this is my second trip.

Nahaylo: But you have just engaged this week in a sort of whirlwind tour to three major centres, L’viv, Kyiv and you just came back yesterday from Kharkiv.

Rubin: Yes.

Nahaylo: What are your impressions? Obviously you were there for a short time, but as far as first impressions that you would share with our audience.

Rubin: I think it is a country that had an extraordinary potential and energy. All three are grand cities. They are each different, but each is very impressive. I have been really impressed by the activity I sensed around me, by all the people I have met. I met so many wonderful people, primarily Ukrainians, but also other nationalities and nationals, who are working in Ukraine and see to sense the same potential. I have heard also of rich farmland and believe me on the trains across the country I had a chance to see some of that good earth. I think the potential is just enormous.

Nahaylo: There’s quite a contrast between Kharkiv, Kyiv, and Austro-Hungarian L’viv.

Rubin: Yes, and each has its own individual characteristics. I had guided tours in both L’viv and Kharkiv. There were wonderful guides who pointed out specific architectural characteristics. For example, public spaces in the centers of each city, but in L’viv particularly. I had a chance to go through medieval tiny streets and have a sense of student life and coffee shops and restaurants.

Nahaylo: And to see some ruins from the Jewish presence there?

Rubin: Yes, I did. I learned about the numbers, about very large Jewish minorities who are now down to very low, but still influential, numbers. I visited three of four synagogues, in Kyiv, not in Kharkiv, but we went by one of them. I know that in each city there were a large number of synagogues  – maybe like 30 or 40 – and that only 3 or 4 remain.

Nahaylo: It is striking that at this time as Ukrainians are rediscovering and recovering their cultural heritage and history, the same is happening as regards to the Jewish population in Ukraine, because obviously we know of the destruction brought by the Holocaust . But fortunately in these conditions, when we have a political nation crystalizing in Ukraine, a lot of this is forgotten, suppressed. Jewish content is also returning – authors like Bruno Schultz, for example, or some of the artists or musicians, especially in western Ukraine.

Rubin: Yes. In Kyiv we visited Babi Yar and did an extended tour. I think the displays there are very informative, while also being very respectful of the location. And yes, I have been extremely aware of a historical, as well as a contemporary, Jewish presence in the country.

Nahaylo: Okay, let us…we have to conclude as time is running out and this is a fascinating discussion. I just want to tell our audience that the latest issue of What’s On in Kyiv has a lead article on the restoration of Ukrainian Impressionism, where it refers to James Rubin. James, you have taught at Harvard, you have taught at Boston, you have published so many works and books. And yet you are a very, I would say, humble figure. You do not come across as a typical academic that is so full of himself. And I was very struck by the fact that at your lecture you presented fairly complex themes in a very down-to-earth manner, which is immediately intelligible to the audience. So, in your concluding remarks, what is your overall impression, again no pun intended, as you would say, after you have seen the real works of Tkachenko? You also have seen a bit of Ukraine. Are you coming away inspired, ready to write something about him, ready to contribute to the organization of an exhibition?

Rubin: Yes, very much so. Having now seen a considerable number of works by Tkachenko, I believe that he is an artist of the very highest quality and that he certainly deserves to be rediscovered and to be admired not just by Ukrainians, but by Westerners in general. To enhance, for one thing, their understanding of a sort of European cultural phenomenon that is not limited by borders. I am ready to contribute what I can, limited by my limited language skills. And so, my feeling is that I will, as I learn more, of course, be able to write in greater detail, but I think primarily my role will be, let’s say, supervisory and introductory. I cannot speak with an authentic Ukrainian voice. I hope that I will find collaborators who can do that. I have already met people in the museums, who are wonderful and welcoming, and with whom I am anxious to cooperate. 

Nahaylo: Thank you very much! You have been listening to James Rubin, a leading art historian, author, teacher and now it seems not only somebody who has helped us to rediscover Ukrainian Impressionist Mykhailo Tkachenko, but also a friend of Ukraine. Thank you very much, James!

Rubin: Thank you! This has been a pleasure.


Business Pressure Relief Law

On November 8th, Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers approved a draft law that is aimed at reducing pressure on businesses. The Business Pressure Relief Law is meant to prevent law enforcement bodies and police from abusing their powers. The draft law’s stipulations include that lawyers be present at searches, that government officials video searches and there are also restrictions as to when officers can seize computer hardware. This step was applauded by representatives of the international business community in Kyiv as moving in the right direction in order to build investor confidence. The draft law still needs to submitted to Parliament for approval before coming into effect.

Tent city of Protesters still there

Protesters, gathered outside the Ukrainian Parliament and blocking the road since October the 17th, are continuing their protest. The size of the crowd is estimated by police to be around 500, but can increase up to a thousand people during rallies. There has consistently been a corresponding number of police monitoring the situation, which has remained calm this week. There continue to be representatives of a number of political parties who are organizing, such as Rukh Novykh Syl, which is Mikheil Saakashvili’s party; Batkivshchyna; Pravyi Sektor; Samopomich; Svoboda, and others. According to organizers, there are three main demands: to lift immunity from persecution for lawmakers, to create an anti-corruption Court, and to change the electoral law. The Parliament may have been listening to the demands, since on November 7th, they did pass a draft law on Elections, which had been proposed by President Poroshenko’s party.

Military Aid

The Armed Services Committees of the United States House and Senate, have approved the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for 2018 Fiscal Year 2018. It will provide $350 million in military aid to Ukraine, including defensive lethal weapons. This aid, however, is contingent on certain reforms in the defense sector. According to the Committees, Ukraine still needs to take “substantial action to make defense institutional reforms, critical to sustaining capabilities developed, using security assistance.”

Read more on UNIAN:

The War

The Principal Deputy Chief Monitor for the OSCE Monitoring Mission, Alexander Hug, said on November 8th, that monitors have been registering a constant increase in the number of ceasefire violations since the harvest ceasefire, that was announced in early autumn. In particular, Hug said that the average number of violations per week has increased from 40 to 220 incidents. And conflict during last week on the frontline also fit this pattern. There was shelling by pro-Russian forces, which reportedly damaged a chlorine gas tank at the Donetsk water filtering plant. This created the risk of highly poisonous chlorine gas being released into the air. The U.S. Department of State reacted to this on November 7th by calling on pro-Russian forces to adhere to the ceasefire agreements and the Minsk accords. On November 8, two Ukrainian servicemen, Anton Myshko and Valentyn Nychvydiuk, were killed in Luhansk region, while fighting to stop a subversive group of pro-Russian forces. In total over the last week, 3 Ukrainian servicemen were killed, 13 were wounded.

In Crimea

The day after their release from imprisonment in Crimea, November the 26th, Crimean Tartar leaders Ilmi Umerov and Akhtem Chiygoz met with Turkish President Recep Erdogan. They thanked him for helping to negotiate their release, and asked him to advocate for other prisoners. The two Deputy Heads of the Crimean Tartar Mejilis emphasized that there still are 40 people held prisoner and 16 Crimeans kidnapped by the Russian Federation. They said that Ukrainian filmmaker Oleh Sentsov, sentenced to 20 years in Russian prisons, should be the first priority for release. They received assurances from the Turkish President that he would continue advocating for the release of political prisoners from Crimea.

Control of travel from Russia

On November 7th President Poroshenko signed a law by which performers from Russia can only travel on tour to perform in Ukraine once they have a clearance from the Ukrainian Security Service. This law is seen as one of a continuum of measures to protect Ukraine’s national information and cultural space. It bans promotion of separatism, and of Communist and Nazi totalitarian ideas and of their symbols during tours in Ukraine. It also forbids tours that promote the aggressor state.

Attracting the movie industry

The Ukrainian Parliament has voted to give a boost to Ukrainian domestic film-making. On the 9th of November, the Parliament voted to exempt film producers in Ukraine from the VAT, or Value Added Tax.  Through this amendment to the Customs and Tax Code, film producers would have an exemption from paying this tax for the next 5 years. It builds on from legislation passed in March 2017, namely on state support for cinematography and on the Ukrainian Cultural Fund. There has been a steady growth in the number Ukrainian-produced films shown in cinemas in Ukraine in the past six years, with 35 domestic films released or still planned for release in 2017.


The wandering discussion club called Kyivs’ke Kolo will be holding an interactive intellectual event on Saturday November 11th, called, “What language did Nestor use when speaking with Kievites?” Nestor was an 11th century Monk who is reputed to be the author of the Primary Chronicle, which is the earliest East Slavonic chronicle. It will be held in the Museum of History of Ukraine in Kyiv starting at 4:00pm. Historians, linguists, and musicians will lead a discussion and entertain the audience. The event is organized by the Kyiv branch of the Prosvita Society, LIKBEZ: Istorychnyi front, and the National Museum of History of Ukraine, and is being held to mark Ukrainian language and literacy day.


There’s a new band in L’viv called Dyvni, The Strange Ones. They just released a song called ‘Iak Opadaie Lystia,’ which means, How the Leaves Fall. Enjoy! 


Next week Bohdan Nahaylo will be hosting the show and we’ll be back with even more news, culture and music, so tune in again for a new edition of Ukraine Calling. We would be happy to receive any feedback from you. You can write to us at: [email protected]. This is Oksana Smerechuk in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by, Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovernko and Ilona Sviezhentseva. News by Oksana Smerechuk. War by Max Sviezhentsev. Information about Crimea by Elvira Saale. Culture and Music by Marta Dyczok. Music by Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko. E-mail distribution by Ilona Sviezhentseva.