Olena Kulchytska: Combining Galician Secession and Ukrainian Folk Art

Olena Kulchytska was a Galician Modernist, legendary Lvivian, famous artist, and skilled teacher. She is my favorite Ukrainian artist; in particular, I like how she combines Secession and Ukrainian folk art. Furthermore, she lived about 5 minutes away from where I live in Lviv, and in the interwar period in Peremyshl she taught my grandmother drawing at the Ukrainian gymnasium for girls.

“Olena Kulchytska was born on September 15, 1877, in Berezhany, in Ternopil region to the family of a Galician lawyer Lev Kulchytsky and Maria Stebelska. The artist’s parents were descendants of old Ukrainian families which preserved, apart from family coats of arms, the spirit of Ukrainianness and honorable attitude to their land. Olena, her sister Olha, and brother Volodymyr spent their childhood in small district towns of Galicia – Lopatyn, Kamianets-Strumyliv (now Kamianka Buzka), Horodok – in a special atmosphere of customs and traditions which reigned in the milieu of Ukrainian intelligentsia,” from the article Galicia Modernist.

Olena completed her art studies at the studio of R. Bratkowski and S. Batowski-Kaczor in Lviv (1901–3), and the Vienna school of Industrial Design (1903–8). After her father died, she began to teach drawing, in particular at a gymnasium in Peremyshl (1910–38).

My grandmother attended the gymnasium in the early 1930s. We have a picture from our family collection of her in her classroom in Peremyshl with Olena Kulchytska (middle).

In her memoirs, my great aunt wrote the following about my grandmother: “My sister Bohdana was finishing her studies in the only Ukrainian state teachers’ seminary in Poland, which was located in Peremyshl.  It was difficult to get into that school, but my sister was assisted by a good friend of our family’s, Mr. Stephaniy Lototskyj-Kunykov, a teacher at the seminary. At that time highly qualified professors worked at the school.  Among others, the drawing and painting lessons were taught by the famous Ukrainian artist Olena Kulchytska.”

Olena Kulchytska’s “early works were characteristic of Modern Secession, a movement where artists threw off the bonds of academic judgment. She then integrated elements Ukrainian folk art and thereby formed an artistic individuality with a strong national character whose creativity ranks with the best artists of the world. Oil-paintings, graphics, samples of decorative and applied art, personal writings, memorial pieces and archives, showed on display, manifest multifaceted talents and achievements of this great Ukrainian artist of the 20th century.”

“Olena Kulchytska demonstrated her talent in a variety of artistic mediums. Her output in oil paintings, watercolors, graphics, weavings, clothing designs, sketches for ceramics, carpets, and interiors, enamel, metal, and small-form sculptures shows the depth of her talent. While this variety could result in weaker works when attempted by a lesser artist, Kulchytska demonstrated an uncanny ability to achieve mastery in all these mediums,” from Lviv Today

“Kulchytska’s activity in applied art became an impetus for its professional revival in Galicia. Her innovatory work in this domain was based on the combination of secession aesthetics and folk art. The artist created the designs of carpets and furniture. She worked in enamel technique, and created numerous sketches of housewares,” from day.kiev.ua.

Her apartment in Lviv is now a museum, which not only displays many of her graphics and paintings, but also has many pieces of her original furniture, many of which she designed herself.

Image from here.


An excerpt from my great aunt’s memoirs about one of Olena Kulchytsky’s paintings, which left a lifetime impression on her:

“During the German occupation there was an exhibition of paintings by our renowned artist O. Kulchytska in one of L’viv’s galleries.  Spread across several rooms, the paintings depicted Ukraine, especially the Carpathian Mountains and the Hutsul region in all of its many variations and nuances and all of its beauty. The picturesque landscape, images of daily life, still lifes, and graphics were captivating. I felt a true aesthetic pleasure as I paused before every painting. In one of the rooms I saw an unusual painting that was rather large, from which I was unable to divert my eyes for a long time. On its canvas was depicted a seated Virgin Mary. Her eyes, filled with tears, full of sympathy and inexpressible sorrow, gazed upward, supplicating to her son Jesus, who stood above her, and to the Father God, crowning the entire group. Those eyes were pleading for benevolence and salvation for an unfortunate woman in ragged clothing who, barefoot in undone braids, knelt at her feet, and in a pose of complete exhaustion and despair helplessly collapsed across her knees. There was as much suffering, hopelessness, and despair on the pale, weary face of the woman with closed eyes, extended hands shackled in chains, as one could fit into a human creature.

This allegorical painting, which in the figure of the woman symbolized our miserable Ukraine, stunned me, shook me to the depths of my soul and left in it a large, painful mark. I would remember for the rest of my life every last delicate detail of that painting.”


“У час німецької окупації в одному із виставочних залів Львова експонувалися картини нашої славної художниці О.Кульчицької. Розміщені у декількох залах, вони відтворювали Україну, зокрема Карпати і, особливо, Гуцульщину в усіх багатих її різновидах, відтінках, у всій її красі. Захоплювали мальовничі пейзажі, картини побутового жанру, натюрморти, графіка. Зупиняючись перед кожною картиною, я відчувала справжню естетичну насолоду.

В одному із залів я побачила незвичайну, досить великих розмірів картину, від якої довго не могла відірвати очей. На ній була зображена сидяча постать Божої Матері. Підняті вгору, сповнені співчуття, невимовного жалю й наповнені сльозами її очі благали у свого сина Ісуса, що стояв вище неї і в Бога-Отця, який вінчав усю групу, ласки й порятунку для нещасної жінки, що у драній одежині, боса, з розплетеними косами клячала біля її ніг, і в позі повної знемоги й страшної розпуки безпомічно напівлежала на її колінах. На блідому, змореному обличчі жінки з заплющеними очима, у простягнутих, закутих у кайдани руках було стільки безмежної муки, болю, безнадії та відчаю, скільки може вмістити в собі людська істота.

Ця алегорична картина, що в постаті жінки символізувала нашу знедолену Україну, мене приголомшила, потрясла до глибини душі й залишила в ній великий, болісний слід. На все життя запам’яталась мені кожна, найдрібніша її деталь.”

By Areta Kovalska

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