Treasures of Ukraine: A Nation’s Cultural Heritage

Review by Lucia Marchini

As well as death and displacement, conflict brings with it a threat to cultural heritage. Nearly one year on from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, this timely and attractive volume (with profits donated to the organisation PEN Ukraine) brings together highlights of Ukraine’s culture from prehistory to contemporary art, with contributions from art critics, curators, and historians.

The book offers a chronological journey through Ukraine’s cultural heritage, interspersed with spreads devoted to folk art that group together images of different types of objects, such as gorgeously painted Easter eggs known as pysanky and green-and- beige ceramic stove tiles from the city of Kosiv. Andriy Puchkov presents an overview of the broadest time-period in the book, from the first Neanderthals to settle in Ukrainian lands around 45,000 BC to the 9th century AD. Many of the objects encountered here are from the National Museum of the History of Ukraine in Kyiv. There are the ceramics of the Trypillia-Cucuteni culture, for example, which developed in the late Stone Age after the introduction of copper technology. As well as sculpting stylised protective totems and decorating objects with schematic designs, the people of this period crafted clay sculptures with a certain degree of realism, such as female figurines or a model of a sacred building – still bearing its paint – from the early 4th millennium BC.

Some spectacular figurative art comes from the Scythians, who created intricate goldwork like the 4th-century BC pectoral from the Tovsta Mohyla mound, which is decorated with remarkable three-dimensional figures of peaceful Scythian husbandry and of wild beasts devouring herbivores. Later, as Christian Raffensperger writes in his section on the Kyvian Rus (9th-13th centuries), different types of distinctive metalwork abounded in the form of kolti pendants. Typically made of gold and adorned with brightly coloured cloisonné enamel, these pendants would hang from a headdress, wafting the scent of a perfume-soaked cloth held in the hollow centre about the wearer.

Slavs of Ukraine in the 5th-8th centuries AD experienced different cultural influences – for example, from the Huns and Syrians, and from Byzantium. Byzantine icons painted in this era using the encaustic technique (pigments mixed with hot wax) vibrantly portray Christian subjects. Such paintings had a lasting effect on Ukrainian art, for instance in the art of Mykhailo Lvovych Boichuk (1882-1937) and his followers, who in this current of Modernism, embraced a Byzantine aesthetic using old techniques such as tempera painting, as Myroslava M Mudrak explains in her chapter on avant-garde art and theatre.

With this fairly compact book covering such a long sweep of history, the texts on each specific subject are brief, but offer enough information to give an easily comprehensible introduction to a period and a flavour of some of Ukraine’s diverse cultural riches, from Scythian stone figures and medieval castles to experimental theatre and New Brutalism, showcased by abundant illustrations.

Treasures of Ukraine: A Nation’s Cultural Heritage
Andrey Kurkov, Andriy Puchkov, Christian Raffensperger et al.
Thames & Hudson, Hardback, £25
ISBN 978-0500026038