Korean demons by Mykola Butovych

Special Project of the Library of Ukrainian Art

Illustration by Mykola Butovych to Korean Tales

Mykola Butovych (1895–1961) is one of the brightest representatives of the Ukrainian graphic art of the first half of the XX century. Even though he lived in the USA since the end of the 1940th, the artist was widely known in the circle of art critics, more than, for example, Viktor Cymbal. Butovych was not only an eminent master in the field of decorative graphics, but he also worked successfully as a painter, a caricaturist, a designer of posters and theatrical scenery. He wrote epigrams and memoirs as well, so his creative life was very intensive. In 1917-25 Butovych took part in the struggle for liberation of Ukraine becoming a member of the Ukrainian Liberation Army.

The period of 1928-30, when Butovych lived in Paris was not the subject of thorough research. At that time many Ukrainian artists emigrated to France and became active participants of artistic and cultural life of the French capital. The works of Butovych were exhibited in “The Autumn Salon” in 1927, and his cinema posters were quite popular. He also created  a series of etchings under the title “Paris”, completed a collection of drawings and watercolours depicting the Carpathians in Ukraine, illustrated “Old times landowners” by Mykola Gogol. Some of his prints he sent to the metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky who was his active pen correspondent and whom he asked for a financial help from time to time.

Why is this period of the master’s life so important for us? In 1928-30 he illustrated the book of the Korean fairy tales which was published in Lviv in 1930 by “The World of Child” publishing house. It was the period of his maturity as an artist. After completing his studies in Prague, Berlin and Leipzig he started illustrating books in 1922.

Like many Ukrainian artists who lived and worked abroad, Butovych kept collaborating with the Ukrainian publishers, sending his works by post.

How can we explain his interest in illustrating the Korean fairy tales? He enjoyed the world of tales since the beginning of his artistic career, the imagined world in the imagined space.

When a teenager, Mykola Butovych made friends with Gogol`s nephew and was a guest in his estate Vasylivka. Later, living in Paris, he illustrated Gogol’s works. Other Ukrainian painters in Paris – Sophia Levitska, Vasyl Hmeliuk, Mykola Krychevsky were inspired by Gogol`s fantazy, too.

“Ukrainische Geister”, album of woodcut illustrations by Butovych was published in Leipzig in 1924. As we can see, the unreal, phantasmagoric, supernatural images had always been of great interest to him. The artist started creating illustrations to “Eneida” in the 1920th and continued this work till the end of his life. (Unfortunately, the illustrations have not been published yet).

At the start of his artistic way Butovych won the recognition of his colleagues Pavlo Kovzhun and Robert Lisovsky as a perfect master on prints and book cover composition. That is why his “Korean fairy tales” illustrations can be considered as his masterpiece, an exotic variation on the international demonology. His pictures show us the other world where the characters of the tales visit a cemetery, fly down from the sky, appear as a kind of Loch Ness Monster or Underwater King. From the artistic point of view his graphic works are very ornamental and original; the same turtle first appears black, then changes into white.

Although both Korean and Ukrainian demons and characters can sometimes be quite tough, the illustrations of Butovych give a positive signal.

“The main idea of the tales for Butovych is that good overcomes evil, which he depicts as a bit comical, devoid of the dark essence, so that it appears not as something dangerous, scary but weak and pitiful,” – the art critic Olexandr Fedoruk wrote in his book “M. Butovych, life and art” (Kyiv, New York, 2002).

Butovych was a great master of fairy tale illustrations, but this side of his creative work needs a more detailed research as well as his artwork in whole.