Dante Alighieri in the Ukrainian manner

The Exclusive of the Library of the Ukrainian Art

Text by Kateryna Lebedieva

The illustrations of Olga Petrova to “Divine Comedy”

Olga Petrova (born in 1942) is a Ukrainian artist, art critic, philosophy doctor. In 1968-70, she created a series of graphic illustrations of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. By the Soviet art critics she was tagged as “surrealist” and “existentialist”, and for several years she had been deprived of Kyiv’s artistic life. Since 1962, Olga Petrova has been working as an illustrator, since 1968 she has started illustrating the works of foreign writers in the magazine Vsesvit (“Universe”). In particular, Petrova illustrated the novel “Don Quixote” by Cervantes. In 1969, the artist began working on illustrations in the technique of pen and ink, and later lithographs to the “Divine Comedy” by Dante. Thus, Olga Mykolaivna continued the Ukrainian tradition of illustrating Dante’s works begun by Grigory Gavrilenko (1927-1984). The publication of the book Vita Nuova (“New Life”) in 1965 with her illustrations has become a significant cultural event in Ukraine.

Illustrations & text by Olga Petrova in “Vsesvit” magazine (#9, 1971):

At the same time Petrova as an art critic made a research on the world history of illustrating Dante Alighieri’s works. In 1971, the magazine Vsesvit published her article in which, in particular, she writes about Gavrilenko’s work: “In the Ukrainian graphic art, the artist Grigory Gavrilenko, while illustrating “New Life” in 1965, turned to Dante’s image of the times of a “new sweet style” and created the elegiac image of the poet. Gavrilenko’s Dante is absorbed in the sphere of intimate feelings, he does not anticipate yet the future storms, the fate of an exile, the painful introspection and disarray between the reality and the inner world. In Gavrilenko’s illustrations the image of the poet embodies the concentration and harmony, in the silver strokes and the purity of the archaic drawing the vibration of the poet’s breath and time has been immortalized”.

In the same issue of the Vsesvit  several graphic works of Petrova were published too, but the author received an official review: “Do not allow to co-operate with publishing houses and editorial offices of Ukraine.” In the ideological department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine (according to Vasyl Kasiyan’s review), these illustrations were qualified as surrealistic. Therefore, Ukrainian publishers have ceased to accept the works of Petrova. She went to Moscow and entered the post-graduate course of the All-Union Institute of Art History of the Ministry of Culture of the USSR. There, under the supervision of the doctor of art A.Chegodaev, she began to work on a research “Dante Alighieri in the artistic interpretation”. (“Divine Comedy” in the fine art of the XIV-XX centuries”). Meanwhile, her illustrations of Dante were successfully exhibited at the home of the poet during the Days of the Culture of Kyiv in Florence (1975). The magazine “Correra della Sera” highly appreciated the work of Petrova and drew attention to the accordance of lithographs with Dante’s texts. The works received positive reviews from the Pope and the Italian artist Renato Guttuzo.

In 1974 Petrova defended her candidate’s degree and returned to Ukraine.

In 1979, her lithographs for the Divine Comedy were purchased by the Ukrainian State Museum of Books and Printing, and in 1993 by the Library of the British Museum. But neither the candidate’s research nor the illustrations of Olga Petrova were publlished.

Only in 2009, the book “Dante`s “Comedy” as viewed by artists of  XIV-XX centuries” was published, more than 30 years after it had been written. The book was published in Ukrainian and English, illustrated by 178 works of the XIII-XX centuries. Petrova’s creative contacts with the Library of the British Museum enriched the monograph with the miniatures of the Sienze Code (1442-1450).

Cover of the book “Dante`s “Comedy” as viewed by artists of  XIV-XX centuries”

“During the time of “internal emigration”, to which in the conditions of the Soviet ideology any non-standard way of thinking was condemned, – wrote Olga Mykolaivna in the introduction to the book, – Dante, his independence in thoughts and deeds was perceived as a “school of freedom”.

The creativity of the exiled poet inspired many Ukrainian intellectuals in the period of the 1970s and 1980s. In particular, among her leaders in the world of Dante, Olga Petrova mentions the translators Mykola Lukash and Grigory Kochur.

In the book “Dante`s “Comedy” as viewed by artists of  XIV-XX centuries” Olga Petrova’s illustrations  criticized by the Soviet authorities were at last published. The Library of Ukrainian Art, for the first time on the Internet, publishes works that prove the bright contribution of the Ukrainian artist to the world of Dante.

The illustrations of Olga Petrova to “Divine Comedy”