BIOGRAPHY - Sergei Fedorovich Shishko (1911 - 1997)
The painter Sergey Fedorovich Shishko spent his early childhood in the small town of Nosivko, Ukraine northeast of Kiev where his father worked as a veterinarian. [i] In 1919, when Shishko was just eight years old, the family moved to the larger nearby city of Nizhyn. Fortunately for the young boy, his schooling in Nizhyn included regular art instruction–and particularly generous encouragement from his art teacher, P. P. Lapa. In 1929, at age eighteen, Shishko enrolled in the Kiev State Art Institute, where he studied with two of the school’s founders, Fedir Krychevsky and Mykhaylo Boychuk.
Both the school and its curriculum were in a state of flux when Shishko arrived. As part of the new Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in the 1920s, Ukraine participated in the cultural flowering of the arts under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin; Mykhaylo Boychuk–and some of his students–had created frescoes for the Kiev Theatre of Opera and Ballet in 1919, the Kharkiv Opera Theatre in 1921, and the Kiev Cooperative Institute in 1923. And in 1925, Boychuk co-founded the Association of Revolutionary Art of Ukraine, which embraced many of the avant-garde movements of Western Europe at the time. When Shishko arrived in 1929, however, Joseph Stalin was in power and the cultural revolution had become nothing more than a propaganda machine for the Russian leadership. Boychuk continued to teach and create his personal vision of monumental art into the 1930s, but he was ultimately arrested during the “Great Purge” and executed by the state in 1936. Boychuk’s influence on his young pupil is difficult to gauge, given that no one could create a successful artistic career without support of the Russian central government under Stalin.
By 1933, Shishko had graduated from the Kiev State Art Institute and three years later, he moved on to study at the Russian Academy of Art in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). [ii] From 1936 to 1943, Shishko was based in St. Petersburg, furthering his studies, but also traveling extensively to Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Although he would have been in his late twenties when World War II began, it is not clear whether Shishko served in any capacity with the Soviet military. He was evacuated to Samarkand in 1942 where he produced a series of landscapes far different from his native Ukraine or St. Petersburg. One of the oldest cities in the world, Samarkand was a primary crossroads along the Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean world beginning in the second century BCE. By the time Shishko arrived there, it had been under the control of Russia since 1886, and the city was home to a Russian Quarter in additional to many other ethnic groups.
In 1943, Shishko returned to Kiev to establish his career as an artist. Just a year later, he began the series of paintings now known as the Kiev Suite which spans over four decades. In discussing a 2011 exhibition of over 100 of the paintings from this Suite, Inna Kitsul, director of the Chernivtsi Art Musem, wrote: “This city inspired the artist the most. He created the series Kyiv suite for more than 40 years. The exhibition contains more than 100 paintings and sketches. One of the painter’s favorite motives was the street with its whirl of life. He paints city streets in different seasons, on holidays and weekdays. Human figures are an ever present and artistically inevitable element of the composition in his paintings – because the people themselves, their lives, their feelings and emotions make the city.” [iii]
Mariyinski Park, originally designed in 1874 in front of the Mariyinski Palace, was one of Shishko’s favorite subjects. He painted it during all seasons and all weather, creating scenes of summer leisure as well as the snow laden trees and pathways of winter. In many ways, Mariyinski Park reflects the evolution of the city, changing and expanding over time in rhythm with the social changes of each era. The cast iron fountain that appears in many of Shishko’s canvases, for example, was added to the park in 1900; in 1921, the Kiev citizens who defended the city against the Bolsheviks were buried here; in the 1970s, there was a children’s railroad. The most recent reconstruction of the park occurred in 2000.
Shortly after his return to Kiev, Shishko set out on another journey, this time to the Carpathian Mountains to the west and south. [iv] As with Samarkand, he painted a series of canvases exploring the landscape in many different seasons and conditions. Although most of the images are from 1947, this was a location that the artist would return to several times over the years. This particular series of canvases also mark the beginning of more experimental painting in the artist’s oeuvre.
Shishko’s approach to painting in his Carpathian Mountain project is in direct contrast to the government-sanctioned Soviet Realism prescribed by Stalin’s regime. In general, it might be described as Impressionistic, a stylistic vocabulary that stood out starkly in the context of Soviet art of the 1940s. Whether or not Shishko intended to take a stand for a more expressive style, he cannot have forgotten the deadly price that his former teacher Boychuk had paid for the privilege of adhering to his own vision. Propitiously, relief would come in 1953 when Stalin died and a more open-minded Nikita Khrushchev took the reins of power in Moscow. Khrushchev’s more collaborative approach to Ukraine resulted in significant economic growth–even for artists–in the 1950s.
At some point during the late 1940s or early 1950s, Shishko married and soon had a daughter. His career was well established and he gradually became a familiar figure in the streets of Kiev with his easel and palette; and, as most photographs of him reveal, always wearing a beret. In 1956, he made another extended painting trip, this time to the Crimea, perhaps in response to that region’s new status as part of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic which the Russians had “transferred” back to Ukraine in 1954. Very much like the first generation of Impressionists, Shishko tended to spend concentrated time in a particular locale in order to create a series of images based in part on the changing times of day and seasons. How much Shishko knew of painters like Claude Monet or Paul Cézanne remains uncertain. A painting titled Koncha Zaspa from 1967 looks very much like the artist has seen Monet’s work. [v] However, the isolation of Soviet bloc countries behind the “iron curtain” was substantial, and contemporary scholarship has not yet filled in the gaps resulting from those years.
For most of the 1960s, 70s and into the 80s, Shishko stayed close to home. His wife was very ill and his daughter was disabled, requiring his presence on a daily basis. Inna Kitsul notes that “these things are not usually talked about” and indeed, there is little information available beyond the fact that Shishko’s wife and daughter were both incapacitated in some way. [vi] The paintings, however, continue to offer glimpses of life in Kiev as well still lifes with lillies or cornflowers or bright poppies. As he narrows his focus to still lifes, Shishko seems to expand his experimentation with color, growing ever more expressionistic in his application of paint and his juxtaposition of intense hues.
Shishko’s work received considerable public recognition over the years. He received the People’s Artist of the USSR award twice, first in 1964 and again in 1974. In 1982, he received the Taras Shevchenko Laureate of the State prize, an award that was particularly meaningful because of its association with the Ukrainian poet and artist. Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861) “laid the foundations for the creation of a fully functional modern Ukrainian literature. His poetry contributed greatly to the growth of Ukrainian national consciousness, and his influence on various facets of Ukrainian intellectual, literary, and national life is still felt to this day.” [vii] In short, Shevchenko was a Romantic artist whose life, writing and visual art resonated with Ukrainian aspirations for the future.
Perhaps the most extensive public acclaim came in 1987 when the Kiev History Museum mounted Shishko’s first solo exhibition; he was sixty-eight years old and had been earning a living as an artist for nearly forty years. Again, the sharp difference between Ukraine and western European art practice is evident–-gallery shows in the Soviet republics were virtually non-existent.
Sergey Shishko died on April 26, 1997, seven years after Ukraine became a sovereign, independent nation. He is buried in the Baikove Cemetery in Kiev.
Janet Whitmore, Ph.D.
Chernivtsi Regional Art Museum, Chernivtsi, Ukraine
Karkov Art Museum, Kharkiv, Ukraine
Kiev History Museum, Kiev
Luhansk Art Museum, Luhansk, Ukraine
National Museum of Ukrainian Fine Art, Kiev
[i] The artist’s name has several spelling variations. The Russian version is Sergey Fedorovich Shishko (with “Sergey” sometimes spelled “Sergei” as well). In Ukrainian, his name is Serhii Shyshko. For research purposes, it is useful to look under both of these names.
[ii] The Russian Academy of Arts, as it was called in 1933 when Shishko was there, began life as the Imperial Academy of Arts under Empress Catherine the Great in 1764. It was officially abolished in 1918 after the Russian Revolution and then re-invented as the Institute of Proletarian Fine Arts in 1930, then as the Russian Academy of Arts in 1933. After the end of World War II, the school was moved to Moscow where it remains today.
[iii] Inna Kitsul, “Kyiv Suite in Bukovyna” No. 44, 6 September 2011. See: https://day.kyiv.ua/en/article/time-out/kyiv-suite-bukovyna
[iv] The Carpathians consist of a large crescent-shaped series of mountain ranges running from the southwestern edge of the Czech Republic through Slovakia and along the southern border of Ukraine, then swinging west agin around Hungary and Romanian Transylvania. The vast central plain of Hungary lies on the western side of the mountains.
[v] Koncha Zaspa is a historic neighborhood along the Dnieper River in the southern part of Kiev. Shishko’s handling of flat patches of sunlight, the bright unblended colors, and the twisted tree trunks along the river are reminiscent of Monet’s work in southern France. More research on possible modernist influences in Ukraine would be welcome.
[vi] Inna Kitsul, “Kyiv Suite in Bukovyna” No. 44, 6 September 2011. See: https://day.kyiv.ua/en/article/time-out/kyiv-suite-bukovyna
[vii] M. Antokhii, D. Darewych, M. R. Stech and D. H. Struk, Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine, “Shevchenko, Taras” (Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies Press, 2004). This article has an extensive bibliography, including references in English. See: http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CS%5CH%5CShevchenkoTaras.htm