Yulian Butsmanyuk is a truly fascinating and extraordinary artist, born to face the sorrows and joys of life’s colourful palette with the challenges endowed upon a creative master and trials of the human existence, which he overcame with a feeling of full self-realization as an artist, a citizen and a human soul.
An obvious artistic talent, a high degree of professionalism, striking creative individuality, and an unrestrained temper and impulsive spirit – these are the traits which distinguish Yulian Butsmanyuk — an artist who became a prominent figure in Halychyna in the first half of the 20th century, not only for his work as a church painter, but also in other genres of art. In the artist’s Motherland, his creative heritage is represented by a small portfolio of unique artistic merit, treasured in the National Museum in Lviv and in private collections. His defining creation though is the murals in the Church of the Basilian Fathers, in Zhovkva — a work of art never to be surpassed, and the zenith of the artist’s vision during his short spell of creativity in his Motherland.
Yulian Butsmanyuk was born and educated in Halychyna. His destiny was to witness the unfolding and tragic events of WWI and WWH, and the Liberation Movement of Ukrainian warriors in the 1920s – a turning point in the history of the Ukrainian state. He endured ordeals in Czech prisoner-of-war camps, followed by wanderings across post-war Europe of the late 1940s. Only in 1950 did Butsmanyuk leave Europe for good, having received an invitation from Edmonton’s Bishop Neil Savaryn. Here, in 1951/56, the artist, ably assisted by his wife Irene and son Bohdan, painted the interior of St. Josaphat’s Cathedral — his only monumental work in Western Canada.
At the beginning of his creative life Yulian Butsmanyuk was fortunate to work and enjoy a close friendship with Modest Sosenko, contributing to his development as an apprentice artist and furthering his education at the Krakow Academy of Arts. Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky was his confessor and preceptor, supporting the student Butsmanyuk both morally and financially. The young Butsmanyuk was led along the path of professional improvement and artistic explorations by the renowned teachers and artists of the Krakow Academy of Arts, and later those in Prague. The well-known galleries of the time, as far back as pre-WWl, also influenced and contributed to his advancement.
The only monumental work surviving in his Motherland, although uncompleted – the murals of the Church of the Basilian Fathers, in Zhovkva, created in the 1930s – was, and still remains, a pearl of Ukrainian mural painting of the obsolescent Art Nouveau period, and most fully reflects Yulian Butsmanyuk’s ideological and aesthetic position in church monumental art. This mural painting went down the annals of the national culture as a work of deep theological content, having a historical and social underlying theme, and a masterly execution. This work of Butsmanyuk is testament to his profound thought, superb skill and staunch ideological convictions.
Butsmanyuk’s main task was to recreate an atmosphere of intense spirituality, aimed at elevating the Christian and national values of the people, and this he achieved most skillfully and artistically, and in his own explicit manner. The wall paintings of the Basilian Church in Zhovkva may, without any exaggeration, be considered a unique phenomenon. Together with those scenes traditional to Ukrainian murals – “The Dormition of the Blessed Mother of God” and “The Annunciation”, the images of God the Father and the four Evangelists – Butsmanyuk introduced entirely new compositions: “The Martyrdom of St. Josafat” and “The Calling of St. Josafat”, as well as famous historical and religious scenes: “The Union of Brest” and “Protection of the Blessed Virgin”. A separate series of murals is dedicated to the monastic life of the Basilian Fathers.
The artist excelled in presenting the spirit of his violent epoch, packed with political, religious and social changes crucial to the life of the Ukrainian community of Halychyna, through his church murals, and in particular the historical and religious images covering the major space of the centre of the church.
A special topical, theological, and educational message was effected through historical scenes introduced in his church painting, and accentuated by a theological background. These scenes not only complemented the church murals with their documentary and historical events and individuals, but also contributed to a better understanding of the social and political background of the State and Church. Here was an opportunity to focus one’s attention on the significance of the political events which, in the early 20th century, were decisive for the self-affirmation of the Ukrainian community of Halychyna, and its perception of itself as a fully-fledged and independent European nation.
The murals in the Church of the Basilian Fathers in Zhovkva are a shining example of the level of Ukrainian church culture at the turn of the 20th century. There are profound reasons to consider them an ingenious and subtle touch in the history of the development of Ukranian art in the two interbellum decades, and a remarkable phenomenon organically combining the old traditions of Ukrainian mural art with the artistic trends of the early 20th century.
Butsmanyuk’s contribution to monumental art is a unique, in artistic merit, pearl in the history of the national culture. His art is permeated by an aesthetic, spiritual and historical essence, and unusual compositional and colouristic discoveries.
The wall painting of Yulian Butsmanyuk in the Zhovkva Church of the Basilian Fathers is witness to a high aesthetic level and maturity of the Ukrainian church art of the first half of the 20th century. Graphic evidence of this is seen through the roll of painters who brought fame to Ukrainian Halycian fine arts, and those who contributed to the development of Church art in a period when, patronized by Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, Halycian temples were built and decorated, encouraging acclaimed masters such as Mykhailo Boychuk, Modest Sosenko, Petro Kholodny, Oleksa Novakivsky and Olena Kulchytska, to turn to Church fine arts.