What causes one artist to depict his traumas through some of the most horrific images ever created in the history of art, while another who has experienced almost the same thing paints beautiful, bucolic, peaceful, joyful images?
Si Lewen (1918–2016) saw firsthand the rise of fascism in Europe, fleeing his native Poland to France and then to the United States after Hitler took control of Germany in 1933. Ukrainian George Voronovsky (1903–1982), similarly, he immigrated to America. However, it would not be until 1951, a decade after the Germans occupied Ukraine in 1941.
Voronovsky was among millions of Ukrainians spared death because he was not Jewish, but was still enslaved in the regime’s forced labor camps, traumatized and separated from his family.
In an exhibit now on view at the Menil Institute of Drawing in Houston, previously reviewed by Forbes.com, Lewen’s desire to remember this time and process what he saw was revealed in a shocking series of black and white drawings depicting the endless cycle of war. Scary, angular, frenzied, jagged images. Columns of soldiers. The officers are barking orders. Dogs of war. Blood splatter. Rats. Barbed wire. Coffins.
The worst of times.
Voronovsky’s choice was to paint colorful social festivals, colorful costumes, peace, tranquility, scenes of communal farming, happy residents going about their business, birds – my God, birds!
The best of times.
Voronovsky’s Best Times is on view through August 13, 2023 at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, which presents the first exhibition of his work outside of Florida.
The artist first settled in Philadelphia, but while working for the railroad, he headed south to Florida in 1970. There he embraced Miami Beach, a railroad-end destination that had flourished with Eastern European immigrants of his generation long before that. was the notorious capital of narcotics or international nightlife destination.
“George Voronovsky: Memoryscapes” contains 60 of his mostly untitled and undated works, most of which depict youthful memories of his beloved life in Ukraine. Voronovsky transformed his Miami Beach hotel room into a paradisiacal artistic environment filled with these paintings and carved Styrofoam sculptures in the last decade of his life.
“When I saw the work in person, I almost died,” Katherine Jentleson, the Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High Museum, told Forbes.com. “The surface quality of his painting on all the different substrates he used – cardboard, canvas, canvas – is simply breathtaking, and the Styrofoam sculptures boggle the mind with their delicacy. We were committed to the exhibition long before Russia invaded Ukraine, but that of course gave the exhibition urgency and relevance. As a friend told me after seeing the play, the Ukraine Voronovsky supports in his paintings is the Ukraine they are fighting for.”
Although it was not unknown before this presentation, Voronowski’s work was far from any artistic mainstream, even from Jentleson and Visoko which has the best collection of Southern folk art in the country.
“I often hear from people who have or know of work by a self-taught artist that they think we might be interested in, but it’s very rare that such artists have a body of work as compelling as Voronovsky’s. Jentleson said. “The rich colors and beautiful compositions of his paintings translate easily as digital images, enough to make me pay close attention to the exhibition, and of course his life story is fascinating.”
Painting Ukraine from Miami Beach
From his third-floor room at the Colony Hotel, Voronovsky eventually began painting his Ukrainian past, folklore-infused scenes and idyllic landscapes from his childhood memories in and around Kiev. He also painted his American present, the bustling cityscapes and waterfronts of a rapidly transforming South Beach, but it is the paintings of Ukraine that stand out.
Without the financial means to buy canvas in large quantities, he repurposed discarded cardboard, including pizza boxes, for many of his paintings, and used Styrofoam, aluminum cans and coffee lids to create sculptures of flowers, fish, birds and woodland creatures.
They are reproduced in an astonishing abundance of recollections contemporary painter Tom Uttech from Wisconsin (b. 1942) landscapes of northern forests that would seem to him similar to the pre-war Ukraine of Voronovsky’s childhood – 49.th the parallel forms the political border between the USA and Canada and runs directly through Ukraine.
Dense forests. Fertile soil. A vast wilderness.
Voronovski, like Uttech, depicts birds in numbers that are hard to imagine today, half a century into the human-caused collapse of biodiversity that has resulted loss of 70% of the world’s wild animal populations since 1970. But that’s how it used to be, and in America, where the flocks of now-extinct passenger pigeons were so large they could darken the skyand in Ukraine.
“Woronovsky’s works are so idyllic that it is easy to assume they are pure fantasy,” Jentleson said. “As we researched the types of flora, fauna, landscapes, architecture and cultural traditions he depicted, we realized that almost all of them depicted real places and experiences he likely had as a child in Ukraine and Crimea.”
The show takes stock, displaying murals of historical photographs that anchor his images in his life experience.
“This gives weight to the powerful power of human memory, both in terms of how long we can retain key memories and how Voronovsky was able to use those memories to create, through his art, a kind of homecoming.” Ukraine, which otherwise eluded him,” explains Jentleson.
Around 1978, Gary Monroe, a young photographer capturing life in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood—especially scenes of its prosperous senior community—met Voronovsky after seeing the beauty of his creations from the sidewalk. Monroe and his circle of friends frequently visited the artist, helping him access art supplies and documenting his life and art in photographs, film and writing, some of which are featured in the exhibition.
Monroe made Florida a lifetime champion of folk and self-taught artists including the Florida Highwaymen. When Voronovsky died, he left his art and personal belongings to Monroe, who donated several items to Visoko, making it the first museum to acquire works by Voronovsky.
The purchase and exhibition continue the Museum’s longstanding commitment to celebrating Southern self-taught artists. While Voronovsky took a circuitous route to get there, his work shares much with the self-taught artists born in the south in Visoko’s collection.
“His use of cardboard as a substrate links him to artists such as Bill Traylor and Nellie Mae RoweJentleson said. “Rowe also used some Styrofoam in her work, but I’ve never seen an artist carve such a fragile material so beautifully. He is also associated with many of the artists in the collection, from Rowe to Howard Finster to David Butler or Annie Hooper, who created comprehensive art environments with their art.”
Voronovsky, of course, was not immune to the darker emotions that his wartime experiences would instill in him, but he never painted them. He never painted hunger, suffering or loss. In this way, his paintings resemble drawings from a book of imprisoned Southern Cheyenne warriors who faithfully recreated images of their free life on the Plainsbuffalo hunting and ceremonies, after the Red River War and capture by the army.
It lifts, in a way, thousands of miles from home and loved ones and familiarity, returns in thought, recreates these places through art; surely those hours spent remembering and reproducing such scenes were happy and, undoubtedly, melancholy.
For Voronovski, perhaps that’s where the birds come into play. Jentleson thinks so and has created a special installation of them in the final gallery of the exhibition.
“No matter where Voronovsky was in his life, he could admire the birds, whether in the courtyard of a Nazi labor camp or on the shores of South Beach,” she said. “Their freedom of movement, as well as their ability to travel long distances in flocks that stay together, may have meant to him as someone forcibly exiled from a beloved homeland, only to move about alone for most of his life.”
Forbes – Lifestyle