Mykola Nedilko, the son of Semen Nedilko and Sophia nee Murashko, was born on Nov. 23, 1902 in the village of Ushchenivka on the left bank of the Dnipro, in northeastern Ukraine. His father, a physician and director of the village hospital, hoped that his son would someday follow in his steps. Mykola, however, did not show any interest in medicine. On the contrary, he decided to pursue the study of art in Kiev in 1922.
Institutions of higher learning for the study of fine arts were not established in Ukraine until 1917. Prior to that time there were only schools of intermediate quality in Kiev, Kharkiv and Odessa under the auspices of the Imperial Academy of Art in St. Petersburg. These institutions were considered provincial outposts of academic training in the fine arts and had a reputation for resisting innovative currents in art.
Consequently, if one wished to study art at this time, there were two alternatives: to settle for a mediocre education and live on the periphery of current developments in the arts, or, to leave Ukraine in order to get a better education, thereby running the risk of contributing to the drain on the cultural resources of one’s homeland. Given such a state of affairs, artists and patrons alike deemed it necessary that an academy of art be founded in Kiev. This would offer students the opportunity of pursuing their studies on a higher level, and enable Ukrainian art to ultimately enter the mainstream of the art world.
It was only on the eve of proclamation of Ukraine’s independence in 1918 that such a plan could be realized. On December 5, 1917 the Ukrainian State Academy of Art was officially opened in Kiev. Leading artists of the time became affiliated with the newly established academy. Among them were Mykhailo Boychuk, Mykhailo Zhuk, the brothers Vasyl and Fedir Krychevsky, Abraham Manievich, Olexandr Murashko and Heorhiy Narbut, the director of the academy.
By 1922, at the time of the Bolsheviks consolidation of power in Ukraine, the Ukrainian State Academy was transformed into the Kiev Art Institute. This signaled a downgrading in its status, since only the St. Petersburg Academy was allowed to retain its academy status. Nonetheless, the Kiev Art Institute was able to become, in the 1920’s, a serious center for art studies, with an enrollment of over 800 students in its five departments. The faculty staff consisted of renowned artists of such caliber as Volodymyr Tatlin and Kazimir Malevich.
Nedilko attended the Kiev Art Institute from 1922-1928, studying under Fedir Krychevsky, Mykhailo Boychuk and Lev Kramarenko. In Nedilko’s work, one can discern the influence of Krychevsky and Boychuk. Both artists had developed a particular style while holding opposite views on art.
Krychevsky, a master of portrait and group composition, was an ardent realist with conservative views on art, which could be traced to his schooling in the Russian tradition. By contrast Boychuk having studied in the West, reacted against the realist-naturalist tradition. Searching for new forms, he drew on Ukrainian Byzantine and early Italian Renaissance works. Under his influence there developed a separate current in Ukrainian art known as “monumentalism” or simply “boychukism.” Such opposite views of the two artists led to a polarization of students into opposite camps. Nedilko, however, unlike the others, was able to draw on both masters, appropriating the teachings of Boychuk in his drawing and the teaching of Krychevsky in his painting.
Meanwhile, outside the Institute, both art and life were in constant turmoil. The Bolshevik Revolution opened the way for a radical transformation not only in politics but in all spheres of life. Art was also deeply affected by the revolution. Artists felt the need to destroy the foundations upon which the art of the past was built, in order to create a new, avant-garde art, based on a new vision of the future.
Artists in Ukraine, were also affected by the events and many took an active part in the avant-garde movement. While still at the Institute, Nedilko became a member of the Association of Revolutionary Art in Ukraine, a progressive organization which was founded on the principle of autonomous Ukrainian art.
At first the Bolsheviks supported the avant-garde movement. They tried to use it for their own political ends, but soon the official attitude of the communist regime began to vacillate, changing from open support to outright condemnation on the grounds that it was “formalist and decadent art.” With the consolidation of the regime and the establishment of the official doctrine of Socialist Realism, avant-garde artists began to lose their footing until they were liquidated as an art movement in the 1930’s.
Already in 1925, the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party had approved the decree “Party Policy on Literature,” which forced artists to work within perimeters designated by official party directives, thereby instituting the centralization of art.
The decree of 1932, “On the Rebuilding of Literary and Art Organizations,” was the turning point in this process. Following its enforcement, many of the art organizations in Ukraine were forced to disband. The regime did not hesitate to use physical force to destroy leading Ukrainian artists and their works.
Nedilko could not reconcile himself to the party’s ideological demands on art. He evaded compulsory realistic portrayal in art by establishing himself as a stage decorator for musical comedy and opera theaters in Kiev. It was during this period of his life that he met and married (on May 28, 1929) Oksana Chumak, an actress in the Kiev operetta. It was also at this time that Nedilko experienced constant harassment by the police and was even arrested for defying party strictures on art. His works of this period, which lasted until 1939, were left unsigned.
The outbreak of World War II profoundly changed Nedilko’s life. Western Ukraine, which had been under Polish rule, was occupied by Soviet armies. Nedilko, along with other artists, was sent from Kiev to Lviv to become involved in the Galician art scene. He arrived in 1940 and worked for the Association of Soviet Artists of Ukraine.
Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lviv, the capital of Western Ukraine, had already played an important role as the only representative center of free Ukrainian thought. This happened at a time when in Eastern Ukraine under czarist Russia, any manifestation of Ukrainian culture was officially banned. Even under Polish occupation, in the period between the two World Wars, Lviv remained a refuge for Eastern Ukrainian artists once Ukraine had lost its struggle for independence.
In 1941, when the Bolsheviks were retreating from Lviv in the face of the German military advance, Nedilko evaded being conscripted into the Red Army by going into hiding. Despite the turmoil of the times, Nedilko was able to concentrate on his painting and it was in Lviv that he was able, for the first time, to create freely. Nedilko’s paintings from the Lviv period are predominantly studies in light and shadow as well as color techniques. The landscapes which Nedilko painted in his frequent trips along the Dnister River convey an open airy quality which reflects the climate of this region — one which is sunnier and warmer than the continental climate of Kiev.
In January and December of 1943, Nedilko took part in two general art exhibits in Lviv where he exhibited such representative works as: “On the Dnister”, “The Washerwoman”, “Willows”, “Landscape”, “The Garden”, and “Evening on the Dnister”.
In 1944 the specter of the return of the Bolsheviks caused Nedilko to flee, along with his wife, to the West. In Germany, he was haunted by the fear of forced repatriation which in effect would have meant the loss not only of freedom but of one’s life. The situation was particularly dangerous for Eastern Ukrainians.
Despite such unpropitious circumstances, Nedilko participated in the following exhibits: a group exhibit by Ukrainian artists in the displaced persons camp “Orlyk” in Berchtesgaden (1946), where Nedilko also taught art; an exhibit at the German National Museum in Munich (1947), which featured over 70 foreign artists who resided in the three Western-occupied zones of Germany; an exhibit at the Neue Sammlung in Munich (1948); and in the Kunsthalle in Regensburg (1948).
Nedilko became enchanted with the Bavarian and Alpine landscapes. His stay in southwestern Germany had a marked influence on his creativity. Once again the climate of the region and the particular atmospheric changes were reflected in his work. Nedilko’s paintings of the German period are marked by a toning down of color and a concentration on the relationship of distances in landscape painting. The trials of being a displaced person in Germany were becoming unbearable for the artist who, like so many others, wanted to settle down to a normal, stabilized life.
In 1948, Nedilko and his wife departed for Buenos Aires in hope of arranging a modest life for themselves. Unlike other Ukrainian emigre artists, Nedilko was able to achieve moderate success as a painter, this time incorporating the Argentinian landscape into his work. In 1959, he took part in the first Ukrainian artists’ exhibit in Buenos Aires. But economic insecurity and the political instability of the country contributed to Nedilko’s decision, to leave Argentina for New York in 1961.
In the United States, Nedilko found a large, well-organized Ukrainian emigre community. By April 1962, he was already able to organize his first one-man show, a retrospective exhibit which integrated his experiences from the Ukrainian, German and Argentinian periods.
At his second one-man show in New York, Nedilko exhibited landscape paintings of the Long Island shore, the Catskills and the Lake George region. The new natural environment presented yet another challenge to the artist, giving him the opportunity to enrich his creativity. In addition to the three individual exhibits in New York in 1962, 1965, and 1966, Nedilko also had his work exhibited in Paris (1965) and Philadelphia (1966). In 1979, Nedilko planned a retrospective exhibit of his works in Toronto, but severe illness prevented him from carrying through with his plan.
Mykola Nedilko died on May 12, 1979. The passing away of a productive artist and an unusually humble and good-hearted man was a loss to the Ukrainian art world. Unfortunately, none of Nedilko’s work from the pre-war period, first exhibited in Kiev in 1924, survived. Nedilko’s art work is divided into four periods: Lviv, 1940-1944; Germany, 1945-1948; Argentina, 1949-1961; and the United States, 1962-1979.
The Ukrainian art critic Sviatoslav Hordynsky, reviewing Nedilko’s 1962 New York exhibit, wrote the following: “Nedilko comes from the Kiev “colorist” school. Stylewise, his paintings can be classified somewhere between Impressionism and Expressionism. That is to say, his paintings are built upon a play of light and shadow conveyed through daubs of color; all the other elements in the work are subordinated to color. There are, of course, various ways of working with color. There are artists who are content with the artful conveying of that which is seen. Others strive for solely optic effects. Still others look for ways of conveying particular moods or feelings. This last approach was the most characteristic of the Ukrainian school of Impressionism… This peculiarly lyrical approach to the rendering of nature was developed by Ukrainian landscape painters such as Trush, Novakivsky, Burachek, and their followers. Ukrainian Impressionism was inspired by the richness of light and color in the Ukrainian landscape and climate which was distinct from that of France, where Impressionism originated.Lyricism — is at once a typical manifestation of the Ukrainian worldview and the principal characteristic of Ukrainian landscape painting. …It is this poetic character that pervades every one of Nedilko’s works and brings out the characteristic trait of the artist’s creativity.”