Lucy Ivanova: the so-called "Dnipro School of Painting"

Lucy Ivanova by Debora Panaccione

Let's start with cluster one, where the etudes from the college in Dnipro belong. 

The Dnipro Art School, which later became a college, has its traditions. There are various workshops: more iconic, more classical and formal, more avant-garde (as for a college) or "dissident" that are in opposition to the others, more drawing-oriented, more colour and manner-oriented. It is impossible to define what is called the “Dnipro School of Painting” through one workshop and say that it is the only one that represents this movement. There are different manners and different approaches, but they are all united by an institution—this art school, now a college. 

The "Dnipro School of Painting" that people usually talk about means the silver colour that is inherent in the landscapes of the Dnipro region. It is an industrial zone, and this affects the colour of the city, the colour of the sky, and the colour relationships within the landscape of the Dnipro region. There is another feature that is usually mentioned when talking about the Dnipro school—it is something that is inherent in the studio of Antoniuk, whom I did not study under, but under whom, for example, Oleh Holosii studied, it is such a "bold stroke". In general, this sweeping style of painting, which then ends with some detail, some tightness of form, some expressive nuance, which should also look fresh, beautiful, and well-found in colour.

I was not inside this studio, but I always examined the works of some of the graduates of this studio, and at the end of my college studies I examined the works of Holosii because Antoniuk's studio was quite influential. If you went there, you were influenced. If you were in the opposition, if you were more inclined to paint by Bublik, Padun, or Oleksandr Nemyatyi, you were not treated very well, you were not considered a good artist. In other words, there were schools that compete with each other and do not recognise each other. It was important to get into a studio that suited your approach, because the teachers' views on art were very different, and their attitude towards it was quite radical: there was correct (ʻrealʼ) art and other—non-real.  Now I realise that this paradigm influenced my attitude to art as something unattainable, something whose authenticity I will never reach, which in turn shaped my painting method, in which I have been searching for a form that would surprise me, rather than be conceived by me at the beginning. 

I was a student of Hryhorii Cherneta, a man with a sacred attitude to light and space in painting, and to painting in general. I would say that the only thing that was not acceptable for this workshop was laziness.

What did you paint at the college?

It's really important that we didn't paint almost anything from our heads, we did everything from nature, it was just your duty to go "to nature". Going to gliders, writing all the time, making sketches all the time, being fanatical about it. In general, we were always talking about this—it's very important to work hard, just all the time, then you will find your own language, you will find a certain taste, harmony in your work and generally understand what it is. I think this is the key point in what I do, it had a great influence. I painted non-stop. Our day would start with performances, then we would stay at the college until night with our group of friends, avid artists, paint each other, invite someone to pose, go together or separately to sketch, go out all the time, just walk around the city, the old streets, and then I would come home late in the evening, set up still lifes and paint until night. In general, I loved it all very much: I had a feeling that I was really in a team for the first time in my life and this place seemed to be created for me, I was doing what I liked. So when I came home, I felt uncomfortable there, and I tried to continue painting at home. I couldn't bear not to do it.

We hardly ever made compositions. It was purely for the control review, and we all painted them at night before the review, they were always so raw, we didn't pay proper attention to composition. Although we had a theory of composition, somehow it was believed that everyone should look more closely at nature, and then move on to composition, to fictional works.

Can you say a few words about one of the early works on display? For example, about a still life with a bouquet of flowers.

There are two of them, by the way.

This is because we reproduced them for the exhibition layout. There are even three of them here.

The bouquets of flowers were painted at home when I started dating Yehor, sometimes I received flowers from him, sometimes I bought them myself or took them somewhere. I would set up a still life in my room and paint these bouquets at night.

Why was this work selected for the exhibition? You said that it marks some kind of formal technique.

This one does not. There are several successful still lifes there. This one is just a good enough example of a sketch, painted in one go, alla prima. It was quite successful for that time in terms of academicism, in terms of just some kind of pure artistic search, and I see it as an artistic completion.

What are your criteria for success and completeness, from today's point of view? You look at this old painting—what do you like about it and what seems successful?

I don't know. It's fresh, it's found in colour. The colour is inherent in the “Dnipro School of Painting”.

It's silver.

Yes, it is. Despite the fact that it actually depicts a wilted bouquet, but it is not accentuated, the work is not some kind of minor still life about old age. I mean, these wilted flowers look quite nice and lively there.

Daisies, oil on canvas, 40Х30 СМ, 2008

After the cycle of college sketches, we move on to a larger cluster of pieces from the National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture. There are many more works from this period in your archive. How did studying at the academy differ from college? Can you tell us what the hierarchy of college and academy education is?

To enter college, you have to be able to draw a cube, paint in oils quite well, understand the principle of volume, be able to paint a still life, make a composition. So before you go to college, you should preferably have completed something artistic, studied in someone's studio. Then you go to the academy, for which you studied for six years at college, although later it was shortened to four years. Most of the students in the painting department of my college dreamed of entering the National Academy of Visual Arts and Architecture. There are also academies in Lviv and Kharkiv. But all painters were usually more attracted to Kyiv. Lviv is different—it is more monumental or even decorative and applied. Kharkiv is more design and graphic, and Kyiv was considered to be more painterly.

So, most of those who planned to connect their lives with painting went to the academy after college in Dnipro. It was also very friendly and loyal to the Dnipro School of Painting, to the graduates of our college. After all, this is a specific approach to painting, it has a certain taste. I'm not saying that taste is good, it was just a certain taste. There were two workshops in Kyiv—Gurin's and Guida's—where what I described was also known. To enter the academy, you had to pass an exam, but already be able to paint figures and semi-figures. But if you graduated from college and already painted nudes, full-length human figures there, then in the academy you start painting small formats and portraits again in the first year. We were depressed, thinking that we were back in kindergarten again because we were treated like that. The academy is full of strange people with strange approaches, but there are also interesting characters. Then you learn anatomy very well at the academy, not superficially. Then it depends on which workshop you choose because all the professors have completely different approaches. Some focus on one thing, others on another. Some focus on painting quality, some on composition, some on historical works, like in Humeniuk's studio, or on monumental forms, working with mosaics, sgraffito.

What studio did you study at? Tell us about it.

I studied with Vasyl Gurin. In the third year, we chose a studio, and I picked one with Gurin. I just selected a studio where everyone liked me. I felt good, I did what I wanted, I painted, experimented at the end, was looking for formal solutions, was moving from one thing to another. So it was always a bit of a journey, during which you change your perspective. And then, in my fourth year, I got into a contemporary art course taught by Lada Nakonechna and Kateryna Badianova at the private School of Visual Communications. There I learned that I was living in a bubble because the academy was actually deliberately closed from the rest of the world. We were taught mostly by elderly artists who had started teaching back in Soviet times. Of course, this influenced the internal system and the closeness of the academy, where a hostile attitude towards everything new was cultivated. To what is called contemporary art. It was considered an open war. And I continued to combine two worlds in a strange way: a contemporary art course that criticised the academy by its very existence (it was taught by graduates of the academy), and honest study at the academy itself, where they said that contemporary art was generally spies-agents who wanted to take over the academy.

But this discovery of contemporary art didn't disappoint you in painting, didn't discourage you from finishing this academic history and achieving academic excellence? Because the academy is about what you "perfect" to a certain level, right? Were you still interested after you discovered the seductive world of contemporary art?

I remained a visually inclined person. What interests me is a much wider field. I continued to persevere in my formal studies, and it didn't stop me from getting to know other artists with completely different views and attitudes to life and art. But I had a period of painting apathy when I did not understand what to do as a painter.

When was it? 

At the end of my studies at the academy. Perhaps, in the sixth year, when I was writing my diploma. Although I liked the diploma itself, I liked writing a large work. It was a completely new kind of activity, it was a composition that I had to work on from the inside of my head. It fascinated me, after graduation, I realised that I still had to work and work, not all gestalts were closed in painting, it was just the beginning. There was a field for wandering. Because the tasks set by the academy—to paint well from nature—were solved every time in each new work, there was nothing impossible. It was another thing to write a work that was something more—it was interesting for me to listen to myself when I started a composition because it was a dark forest. Until now, every new work is a dark forest for me, which I go into. I don't understand what I'm interested in, I try to find and understand what I'm interested in in the process. Towards the end of the academy, I started to move away from realistic realism, I was looking for little more stylised creative generalisations, interesting colours, I started experimenting somewhere around the fourth year.

Then you graduated from the academy and real life began?

Yes. At that time we started renting our first studio. I tried to work on a series. Nothing Personal—eight paintings depicting a landscape on the road. It was the time after the annexation of Crimea, after Euromaidan, 2014. There were a lot of displaced people in Kyiv, and the topic of appropriation of space, appropriation of land was open to me—can something be personal, can land belong to anyone at all?

In the studio, I wrote this first series and realised that I was interested in this way of working. It was a bit like cinema, it allowed painting to have an even greater property of time. Every painting has this property, really. And when there are several works in a series, you get another interesting range of moments in the work, in the composition, it becomes more voluminous. 

After I graduated from the academy and was not accepted for postgraduate studies, we went to Egypt. It was another breath of fresh air for me because the colour relationships there are completely different, not as silvery and nuanced as in Ukraine, but more radical. This gave me food for formal research. I created the Maktub series and exhibited it in Kyiv at the White World gallery.

Your first solo exhibition?

No, it was my first solo exhibition in Kyiv. Before that, I had several solo shows in Odesa, Dnipro, Chernihiv Art Museum, maybe somewhere else. But then, I can say, I felt like an artist for the first time. Because I felt that I was curious to be myself, I was interested not only in nature, but in what I could do even in a simple space, but with canvases. I became interested in working with myself in painting. I had a lot of questions and a thirst to discover something else. Since then, I have been working not only with nature. I mean, I haven't given up working with nature, nature attracts me very much and still motivates me. First of all, this process of drawing or painting from nature is special because it allows you to focus more on reality than when you just look around. You experience reality in this way more intensely, you remember it. It's like you're fully living the moment, even if it's a moment of being with a simple cup in space while you're painting this cup or something else. 

I still like working with portraits of people, often from life. It's also a very intimate, special experience of being with a person and feeling that person. But at the same time, I set myself various tasks than when I work with nature. In painting, I am no longer a slave to nature.

In your painting, the modern language is combined with a certain adherence to the genre framework: you have still lifes, portraits, landscapes, self-portraits. Even in the works of recent years, this genre is partially preserved.

It's just a trauma. It's a trace that academic education left on my brain. I seem to paint the same genres, but I treat them in a completely different way. As I said, I'm not so dependent on nature, I'm interested in completely different things. My works verge on conceptual, formal, and some kind of documentary. You can't call them figurative, you can't say they are abstract, you can't say they are fictional because they always have something to do with the story of my life. I'm always working on some stories that took place in real life, but while I'm working, I turn them into something completely different. It's hard for me to describe in one word what it is and how it happens, but I always seem to move to some point in the work that cannot look like I would have imagined. For me, art is always something bigger than myself. It's something I reach for but can never reach. I guess I try to make every work something I can't imagine at first. I mean, it happens, it's not made from an idea to a result, it just happens. As if I'm not really in control of it, as if I'm deceiving myself as if it's not really me doing it.

Where have you been heading in recent years?

I don't know. It's hard to say. I just go with the flow of thoughts, feelings, nature that come into my life, do some things. I don't know what to call it. Definitely towards stable work. But in terms of how to call it, to describe it, I don't even know.

What did the war bring to your practice?

Disappointment in painting, disappointment in art, the feeling that it is worthless when there is such a reality. But after a while, my interest in my work started to return. The feeling of its importance changed, but just as a process, so as not to go crazy. But this process has always been like that, to be honest. I never had any illusions that art could change anything, or that I wanted to change anything with my art. The war brought despair and stress, which affected everything, including the vision of art, the feelings towards art. It affected the feeling of needing to listen to music, the need to eat, the feeling of being alive in general. Over time, it returned because I was no longer in the danger zone, I left Ukraine temporarily. As the war and time went on, my attitude to art changed, there was a period when my works became political and intended to influence something. There were some works about the war. Now I rather describe my state, my environment. Since I am now in safety, I have a feeling that I have no right to paint straightforward stories about the war, or about how I suffer pain without being inside the war. My works are diary-like, they no longer have so many references to the war, to the change in its agenda. Now I have a new subject for my work—a child.

I don't know if I've closed this stage of war work. But for now, I feel that I would rather promote the works of those artists who are in Ukraine, who depict the war and try to influence this process than do something of my own about it. 

But I did have a series that was related to the war. About propaganda as part of the war. For example, the series entitled Colour Repressions. It's about how propaganda works. I change the function of using colour for myself, I use ordinary colours in a completely different way, not with the intentions that I would normally do to illustrate a painting idea. I make a colour layout, where one colour seems to think that it has more rights, that it is genuine, that it has the right to decide which colours are real and which are not. In fact, this is what is happening in russia, and with this example, I show how stupid it is to think that only one colour is right, or that it is better than the others.

Colour Repressions, tempera, A4, 2022. Photodocumentation by Manuel Carreon Lopez; Kahan Art Space, Vienna

Ukrainian art is "painting-centric". Myth or reality?

Already a myth, it was a reality.

Why did this reality collapse?

Let's start with why it existed. For a long time, Soviet Ukraine was closed off from the influences of Western art, from the philosophy of Western art, from the West. Therefore, the main forms of Soviet art were painting and sculpture, which were supposed to be propaganda, so the academy taught these disciplines, no other. Everything else was not considered art, and could not be exhibited anywhere. Therefore, what is now considered a breakthrough in Ukrainian contemporary art was mostly a pictorial breakthrough. Although Oleksandr Hnylytskyi did make installations, but later. They experimented with video art, but we know this generation mainly through painting. A painting is the easiest thing for a viewer to perceive, the most familiar thing to recognise as art. Our viewers weren't ready to perceive something else as art, simply because it had a different form. For a long time. And then at some point, when contemporary art institutions began to appear, the field expanded. Later on, when a critical mass of people realised that Ukraine was quite "painting-centric", many institutions started to abandon it, even artists started to abandon this medium. Painting became a bit of an offensive, outdated, unpopular form, and for a while painting was just a bourgeois relic.

Photodocumentation by Manuel Carreon Lopez; Kahan Art Space, Vienna

Lucy Ivanova and the "Dnipro School of Painting" at Kahan Art Space till 10.12.2023.

Große Pfarrgasse 7, 1020 Wien, Austria