Ukrainian Realist Aleksei Shovkunenko

Portrait of  Ukranian writer Ivan Le by A. Shovkunenko*

The Ukrainian newspaper День has just run a piece on Ukrainian painter Aleksei Alekseevich Shovkunenko (1884-1974). The article laments the relative anonymity of this once respected master. A former professor at the Kiev Art Institute, Ukraine’s preeminent art school, Shovkunenko even had a museum named for him. The Kherson Museum of Art (in Kherson, near the Black Sea coast) boasts an impressive collection of 19th and 20th century Realist art – more than 7000 paintings in all. In 1981, with the gift of 150 works from Shovkunenko’s family, it gained his name.

The article attempts an argument that the painter was an Impressionist, “in the grip of Socialist Realism,” which suggests that the two styles are somehow mutually exclusive. This argument falls very flat however. There is no chance of proving Shovkunenko a secret dissident. He has a flawless pedigree as a Socialist Realist artist, and Impressionism and Socialist Realism are by no means mutually exclusive, but in fact complementary and inseparably linked. Setting that aside however, it is an admirable attempt to draw attention to a phenomenal artist. As Vladyslava Dianchenko, a researcher at the Kherson Museum explained to День, ” Shovkunenko’s Socialist Realism is perhaps no longer topical today, but what always remains topical is professionalism and talent.”

Some cursory research on Sovkunenko turns up very interesting material. He studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts during Tsarist times, under Vasily Savinsky (link in Russian).

Savinsky is a fascinating and under-appreciated artist in his own right. He was the favorite student of the 19th century master-pedagogue Pavel Chistyakov (in Russian). His method of teaching was famous for its academic rigor, but also its flexibility. As it’s described in Savinsky’s wikipedia article, Chistyakov’s method, “strove for a deep study of nature, strict analysis of form, disciplined drawing and exact translation of natural color relationships.” His students worked in an incredible diversity of styles, from the academic braggadocio of Repin, to the transcendent mysticism of Vrubel – the absolute sincerity of Surikov, to the world-weary cynicism of Serov, his intensity as an instructor somehow did nothing to restrict his students’ individuality. Of all his students Savinsky may be the most obscure, but he was also the closest to Chistyakov. A book of their letters is perhaps the most complete record of Chistyakov’s method. Sadly, it is, as of yet, only available in Russian.

Shovkunenko boasts a truly impressive artistic lineage, a major national museum to his name, and a stunning body of work. Yet even in his native Ukraine his work is little known. As with so many phenomenal artists of the period, Shovkunenko has been buried under the rubble of the Soviet collapse. And without vocal, visible advocates that is where he will likely remain.


You can see some images of the work at the Kherson museum here.

*A website dedicated to Sovkunenko, with a great collection of images (in Russian)

A short history of the Kherson Museum (in Russian)


Author: Barry O'Keefe

Artist/printmaker from Richmond, Va

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