Ukrainian art in the 20th century has not achieved the level of recognition by contemporaries that it deserves. During both world wars and the seemingly peaceful times between and following them, not only Ukrainians themselves but also all manifestations of their spiritual activity, including art, were hunted down as objects of destruction.
Today, at the close of the 20th century anyone who might wish to undertake the publication of monographs devoted to the most prominent masters of Ukrainian art who were active during this period and included such well-known names as Oleksa Novakivsky, Heorhiy Narbut, Mykhailo Boychuk, Petro Kholodny, Sr., and Anatol Petrytsky — would be unable to compile a complete monograph on any one of them, for their works were either completely or partially destroyed by various conquerors of Ukrainian lands. These conquerors could always justify the destruction of entire museum collections because they included unwanted portraits of Ukrainian heroes or contained certain religious and traditional themes that these conquerors wished to eradicate.
The works of proscribed artists— especially those unwilling to live under a dictatorial regime who preferred to set out for countries of the free world — became a special target. Not even portraits of Taras Shevchenko, the national poet of Ukraine — a poet recognized in the communist world because of the social motifs in his works — were spared destruction! Thus, the highly regarded portraits of the artist by Mykola Azovsky, as well as Archipenko’s sculpture, “Shevchenko in Exile”, were destroyed in the Museum of Ukrainian Art in the city of Lviv, right after the last war.
In Kyiv, out of 150 oil and watercolour portraits of famous figures of Ukrainian culture by Anatol Petrycky (whose works were acknowledged as the best in the Venice Biennale’s Soviet pavilion), no more than a dozen have survived to this day. Even his magnificent portrait of the most famous poet of that time — Pavlo Tychyna, a protege of the regime — was destroyed because he committed the sin of “nationalist formalism” in an era when socialist realism was the only form of art allowed. Of the entire total printed, only a few-magazine reproductions have survived.
A similar fate befell the creative works of Leonid Perfecky, to whom this monograph is dedicated. In his early years Perfecky was a soldier in the army of the Ukrainian National Republic. After the war he depicted various historical events of this period in several series of oil and watercolor paintings. A considerable portion of his work was in Lviv when the city fell under Soviet domination after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The paintings, housed in the museums of Lviv and in the collection of the historical journal “Chervona Kalyna”, published by the veterans of the 1917-1920 war of liberation, were almost completely destroyed. Fortunately, the artist himself. who had moved to Paris in 1925 after graduating from the Cracow Academy of Fine Arts, had taker) a number of his works with him and donated them to Ukrainian museums in Paris and Prague.
Even outside the borders of Ukraine fate was not kind to Perfecky. At the end of the war an Allied bomb partially destroyed the Prague museum. Whatever remained fell into the hands of Czech communists, who transferred all the intact works of art to Moscow. There everything disappeared. As for the museum in Paris, all of its historical documents and works of art were confiscated by the Nazis and moved to an unknown location. These too disappeared without a trace.
Included in the Parts collection were some 40 paintings by Perfecky, who was the museum’s curator. Against his wishes the artist himself was deported to Germany as an “agrarian worker”. “The Ukrainian Publishers” firm of Lviv managed to track him down and have him transferred to Lviv, where he worked as an illustrator for the monthly journal “Nashi Dni” (“Our Days”). The Ukrainian press, however, under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, was too poor to pay for the artist’s livelihood, and he was subsequently forced to work for a local Ukrainian school of art where he gave instruction in drawing.
After the war Perfecky succeeded in emigrating to Montreal, where his knowledge of French enabled him to make contacts with French and Ukrainian church institutions and to devote himself from then on to religious art.
Perfecky’s Paris period was especially notable. While there, he had studied painting under the tutelage of Andre Lhote (who, incidentally, took part twice in exhibits of modern art at the Ukrainian National Museum in Lviv, where he exhibited his brilliant paintings of cubic art. characterized by the typically Romanesque logic of forms).
Lhote’s logic was close to the heart of Ukrainian art, in which the rhythmic harmony of forms always was and still remains the main objective of artistic expression. In that period of artistic strivings Perfecky exhibited his works at the prestigious Tuileries Salon as well as in private galleries. In 1931 the author of this essay was fortunate to bring from Paris to Lviv a series of medium-sized works by Picasso, Derain, Chagall, Modigliani, Severini and other Parisians, as well as the works of the most prominent Ukrainian artists in Paris of that time, such as Gritchenko, Hlushchenko, Andreenko and Khmeliuk. All were shown at the first exhibition of the Association of Independent Ukrainian Artists (AIUA) in Lviv, among them a mid-sized painting by Perfecky entitled “The Sailor”. This painting, executed within a range of bright and dark-blue colors, was among the best at this exhibit and drew the attention of the general public. It displeased only those for whom Perfecky was to remain forever just a painter of battle scenes, a master in the depiction of horses in furious cavalry attacks.
The works of Perfecky uniquely interesting Paris period did not survive. They were lost partially in the Paris museum (which was robbed of its contents) and partially during the forced departure of the artist from Paris to Germany. When Perfecky subsequently returned to Lviv, he no longer had any of his works. Everything had remained behind, fated for destruction.
As a result, the nucleus of his creative contribution is his watercolours, depicting various scenes from the time of the Ukrainian War of Liberation, during which both the Red and White Russian armies, although antagonistic to each other, shared as their most important task the destruction of the young Ukrainian Democratic Republic.
The struggle was unevenly matched. On one side stood the Russian armies, still trained by the tsarist generals. Facing them,on the other side, were the young armies of Ukraine, consisting of volunteer formations of the former Russian and Austrian armies, as well as numerous but not always disciplined guerrilla detachments which often undertook military operations on their own. The Western Allies, whose fervent dream was the rebirth of the old tsarist empire, occupied the Black Sea ports with French and Greek troops, and in effect blocked supplies of ammunition and medicine bought in the West from ever reaching the Ukrainian mainland. Consequently, the Ukrainian armies found themselves surrounded on all sides by the so-called “circle of death”. They were also being decimated by a typhus epidemic.
Thus, the series of paintings by Perfecky which survive this period deservedly form the central portion of this monograph. Apart from their importance as historical documents, they are characterized by true creative pathos and dramatic authenticity, which can be put on canvas only by an eyewitness who experienced deep within his own being the impact of those events,
A totally different style of Perfecky’s creativity can be found in his paintings that date to the end of the second world war, when he was artist-correspondent in the Ukrainian division “Galicia”. This division hud been created by the Germans from among the ranks of idealistic Ukrainian youth which tried to remain armed at all costs as the war’s end became imminent. During the final months, detachments of this division found themselves in the lower regions of Austria, where, after the fall of the German Reich, they went over to the British army still armed. They were disarmed by the latter and transported to England after spending various periods of time in temporary camps.
But Perfecky was no longer among them. After a short sojourn in the ranks of the guerrillas — whose actions he also set on canvas — he made his way to the displaced persons’ camps of Austria, from which he subsequently emigrated to Canada. Perfecky’s paintings of that time generally are more static in nature because he did not lake any direct разі in military activities.
In the complex postwar economic conditions in the United States and Canada, few artists could earn a living from their creative talents alone. Even prominent American artists had to combine their art with something more practical such as teaching, advertising, printing, working with textiles, drafling and the like. There was a strong demand for artists in the Held of religious art, however, which in the New World attracted quite a few artists who had arrived from Europe. Among them was Perfecky, who already had considerable experience in this branch of art. In the 1920s he had done various types of work for churches in Horutsk and Labova in Galicia. Later, during his studies in Cracow, he had done a painting for a Roman Catholic church in Poznan and. after the First World War, for the Roman Catholic church-fortress in Poznan, and another for the Carmelite monastery in Graz, Austria. And in France he had worked for the “Procu ranee Generale”, the main firm dealing with religious art in Paris. After settling in Montreal, which was Canada’s largest city in the 1950’s, he made contacts with the Ukrainian and French clergy, working to the end of his life in the field of religious art.
Foremost among the works of Perfecky from this Montreal period are his two full-length wall frescoes of Brother Andre, the founder of St. Joseph’s Oratory, which hang at the entrance of the church. His second important achievement of that period was the embellishment of the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Holy Ghost with an entire series of religious paintings, including individual compositions of the saints. Unfortunately, in the harmful atmospheric conditions of a large city and also because proper ventilation had not been provided in the new building, these paintings have been greatly damaged by humidity.
The works of Perfecky also are found in other localities in the province of Quebec. Never carried away by stylistic experiments, the artist always adhered to traditional methods of realistic depiction in his works, adding the appropriate measure of decoration whenever necessary.
However, the demands of customers who placed their orders for such works of art did not always coincide with the wishes or means of the artist. The author, who also worked in this branch of art, recalls that at the beginning of the 1950`s a style consisting of a symbiosis of Gothicism, Renaissance and Academicism still reigned supreme in America — which gave the impression of something totally foreign in Ukrainian art. Within religious art we always had (and still have) our own age-long traditions, but. it took entire decades to introduce them on the North American continent. Perfecky was very much aware of this and from the beginning tried to steer his work in that direction, as his paintings in the Church of the Holy Ghost testify.
Perfecky’s greatest artistic achievement in the realm of religious art is a series of projected paintings based on the text of the last book of the New Testament known as the Revelation of St. John the Divine, or the Apocalypse, which gives a mystical depiction of the end of the world before the final victory of Christianity. The artist combined the prophetic motifs relating to the end of the world in the Apocalypse with the nuclear problems of our era, which finds itself not only on the threshold of the end of pagan beliefs, but also of our very planet itself.
In 24 masterpieces, the artist depicted the nightmarish episodes of cosmic destruction, and this new depiction of an old but eternally alive theme imparts a special kind of depth and relevance to these works. We do not know whether the artist had any plans of transferring these projected paintings to the walls of a specific church, but it is important to affirm the meditation and seriousness with which he approached his subject, expanding the limits of religious art and transferring the spirit of the old world to our modern times. For these reasons one must consider this apocalyptic cycle to be the second apogee in the creativity of Leonid Perfecky.
The most fervent wish of every Ukrainian for whom the fate of Ukrainian culture is of the utmost importance is to have a Ukrainian national museum in the capital of his own country — a museum in which the works of the most prominent masters of Ukrainian art would be preserved and displayed. Under present conditions the idea of such a museum cannot be realized; thus, it is indeed fortunate that countless works of Ukrainian artists which could be housed in such a museum are being preserved outside the borders of Ukraine. Among these artists is Leonid Perfecky, a soldier and an artist who immortalized his own era in true and vibrant paintings which are capable of rousing the deepest emotions within people’s souls.