Olexandr Murashko’s work undoubtedly holds a central place in Ukrainian art of the late 19th century and the early 20th. He belonged to the coterie of artists who, having accepted the realistic traditions of his country’s 19th-century art, steadily broke a new trail along which it could progress. His innovative productions centre on many of the most important issues of his time and in themselves marked a new era in Ukrainian painting of the early 20th century.
The artist was born on September 7, 1875 in Kiev and spent his childhood in the little town of Borzna in Chernigov Province. He was first introduced into the world of art in the icon-painting shop of his father Olexandr Murashko, and received his basic training at the Kiev School of Drawing directed by his uncle Mikola Murashko. His pursuits were extensively encouraged by the noted Russian artists Viktor Vasnetsov and Mikhail Nesterov, who were working in Kiev at that time, and by the art historian Adrian Prakhov, who divined a gifted artist in the boy and helped him realize his ambitions.
In 1894 Olexandr Murashko enrolled in the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, where he studied in the studio of Ilya Repin who considered him one of his most gifted students. Under the influence of the great artist he matured as a portraitist, inheriting the realistic tenets of his teacher. In his first paintings of the Academy period — portraits of Yelena Murashko (1898—99), the artists Nikolai Petrov (1898) and Grigoriy Tsyss (1890s), and Mikhail Nesterov and his daughter Olga (1900) — one sees a dedicated student and follower of Repin, especially as regards Murashko’s subtle psychological treatment and penetrating insight into the psyche of his sitter, his austere compositional structure, energetic pictorial modelling and noble restraint of colour scheme. His work Burial of a Kosh Ataman (1900) has about it a trace of Repin’s influence as well. The evocative treatment of a historical composition, psychological depth of the characters and the high level of craftsmanship in rendering a dramatically charged message have secured the canvas a significant place in Ukrainian historical painting.
Upon his successful graduation from the Academy, which awarded him a grant for a trip abroad, he set out to visit the art museums and galleries of Europe to get a first-hand insight into Western art. Impressed by the colourful and vivacious atmosphere of Paris, he created a series of pictures — In the Cafe, A Parisienne, By the Cafe, and In the Streets of Paris — which reflected his new vision and tastes in painting. The keenness and sensitivity he showed in representing Parisian characters with a free brush- work was enriched with subtle colour tones.
But probably the most palpable change in Murashko’s work occurred after his visit to Munich. Perfecting his draughtsmanship and striving for greater integrity and legibility of form, he fell under the influence of the Munich Sezession movement and started to concentrate more on the decorative side of his productions, preferring to render colour and light reflexes. But this only helped him to find the special colour effects which in the long run were to define his distinctiveness of style. These new pictorial qualities were already evident in such portraits as The Old Teacher (Portrait of Mikola Murashko), Portrait of Olga Nesterova (1904), Yelena Prakhova Working at the Tambour (1905), and The Artist Jan Stanislawski (1906). Without losing his interest in deeper psychological penetration of his characters, he tried to master a grander manner of painting. His large compositions, passionate arrangement of “fluid” brushstrokes of colour smoothly uniting the form, and expressive outlines and contours greatly enhanced the import of his characters in portraiture.
Eventually Murashko became more and more interested in bright saturated colours, and in rendering light and air with bright and sunlit colours which stood out against his previous monochromatic reserve. In his choice of colour he at times arranged pure and contrasting colours side by side, lending his palette a decorative and lush quality. All this he combined with deeper psychological treatment of his genres and portraits of the 1910s.
Murashko’s The Merry-Go-Round (1906), Sunday (1909), On a Day Off (1911), A Peasant Family (1914), and Washerwoman (1914) are vividly decorative in form and treat simple everyday scenes from the life of the people. One of these pictures, The Merry-Go-Round, was awarded a gold medal at an international exhibition in Munich in 1909. It was the first work to bring him proper success abroad. From then on he was a permanent entrant in exhibitions mounted in Rome, Venice, Vienna,. Berlin, Munich and Amsterdam.
Far from having abandoned his search for an original colour scheme during the last years of his life, Murashko paid increasing attention to integrity in modelling his forms. At this time many of his productions, of which Woman with Nasturtiums (1918) serves as a striking example, combined rich colour with austere texture of form. His Florists (1917) was evidence of a new approach and boldness in his artistic pursuits. Its saturated colours and compositional elements are bound together into one whole with unusual mastership.
Murashko was also prolific in graphic portraiture. The portraits of Yekaterina Mukalova, Sophia Filipson, Lyudmila Kovalevskaya and others, which he did in charcoal and pastel, are remarkable for their perfection of draughtsmanship and artistry, and hold a significant place in his heritage.
In 1916 Murashko organized the Society of Kiev Artists, which had a broad and varied programme. As an instructor, Murashko left a lasting imprint on his following. He taught at the Kiev Art School from 1908 to 1912, at his own studio which he opened in 1913, and at the Ukrainian Academy of Art in Kiev, where he held a professorship from 1917. Olexandr Murashko’s life was tragically cut short on June 14, 1919. His creativity embraced one of the most complex and controversial periods in the history of Ukrainian art, when new ideas were being asserted in painting. And he was one of the artists who championed the advancement of these ideas.