George Voronovsky’s Visions Of Ukraine From Miami Beach
What causes one artist to depict his traumas through some of the most horrific imagery ever produced in art history while another who experienced much the same paints beautiful, bucolic, peaceful, joyous pictures?
Si Lewen (1918–2016) saw the rise of fascism in Europe first-hand, fleeing his native Poland for France and then the United States after Hitler assumed control of Germany in 1933. Ukrainian George Voronovsky (1903–1982), similarly, immigrated to America. That would not be until 1951, however, a decade after the Germans took over Ukraine in 1941.
Voronovsky was among the millions of Ukrainians spared death for not being Jewish, but he was nonetheless enslaved in the regime’s forced labor camps, traumatized and separated from his family.
In an exhibition on view now at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, previously reviewed by Forbes.com, Lewen’s desire to recall this time and process what he saw revealed itself in a shocking series of black and white drawings detailing the endless cycle of war. Frightening, angular, frenzied, serrated images. Columns of soldiers. Officers barking orders. The snapping dogs of war. Blood spatters. Rats. Barbed wire. Coffins.
The worst of times.
Voronovsky’s choice was to paint vibrant community festivals, colorful costumes, peace, tranquility, scenes of communal agriculture, happy residents going about their work, birds–my god, the birds!
The best of times.
Voronovsky’s the best of times can be seen now 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, made his way south to Florida by 1970. There, he embraced Miami Beach, a destination at the end of the rail line booming with Eastern European immigrants of his generation long before it was a notorious narcotics capital or international nightlife destination.
“George Voronovsky: Memoryscapes” features 60 of his mostly untitled and undated works, the majority of which depict youthful memories of a beloved life in Ukraine. Voronovsky transformed his Miami Beach hotel room into a paradisiacal art environment filled with these paintings and carved Styrofoam sculptures in the last decade of his life.
“When I saw the work in person I just about died,” Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-taught Art at the High Museum, told Forbes.com. “The surface quality of his painting across all of the different substrates he used–cardboard, canvasboard, canvas–is just breathtaking, and the Styrofoam sculptures boggle the mind with their delicacy. We committed to the show long before Russia invaded Ukraine, but of course that gave the exhibition an urgency and relevance. As one friend told me upon seeing the show, the Ukraine that Voronovsky upholds in his paintings is the Ukraine people are fighting for.”
While not unknown prior to this presentation, Voronovsky’s work was well out of any artistic mainstream, even from Jentleson and the High which possesses the finest collection of Southern folk art in the country.
“I often hear from people who have or know of the work of a self-taught artist that they think we might be interested in, but it is very rare that such artists have an entire body of work that is as compelling as Voronovsky’s,” Jentleson said. “The rich colors and beautiful compositions of his paintings translated easily as digital images, enough to get me to tentatively commit to the show, and of course his life story is fascinating as well.”
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 Kyiv. He also painted his American present, the bustling cityscapes and waterfronts of the rapidly transforming South Beach, but it’s the Ukraine pictures which stand out.
Without the financial means to purchase canvas in large quantities, he repurposed discarded cardboard including pizza boxes for many of his paintings, and he used Styrofoam, aluminum cans and coffee tin lids to create sculptures of flowers, fish, birds and woodland creatures.
These are reproduced in astounding abundance recalling contemporary Wisconsin painter Tom Uttech’s (b. 1942) landscapes of the north woods which would have appeared to him much the same as the pre-war Ukraine of Voronovsky’s childhood–the 49th parallel forms the political border between the U.S. and Canada and runs directly through Ukraine.
Thick forests. Fertile soil. Tremendous wildlife.
Voronovsky, like Uttech, pictures birds in numbers scarcely imaginable today, half a century into a human-caused collapse of biodiversity resulting in the loss of 70% of wildlife populations globally since 1970. But that’s the way it used to be, both in America, where flocks of the now extinct passenger pigeon were so great they could darken the sky, and in Ukraine.
“Voronovsky’s works are so idyllic that it can be easy to assume they are pure fantasy,” Jentleson said. “As we researched the kinds of flora, fauna, landscapes, architecture, and cultural traditions he was depicting, however, we realized that they almost all depict real places and experiences he likely had as a child in Ukraine and Crimea.”
The show brings receipts, displaying murals of historical photographs that anchor his paintings in his life experience.
“Doing this gives weight to what a powerful force the human memory is, both in terms of how long we can hold on to core memories, and how Voronovsky was able to use those memories to create, through his art, a kind of homecoming to Ukraine that otherwise eluded him,” Jentleson explains.
Around 1978, Gary Monroe, a young photographer who had been capturing life in Miami’s South Beach neighborhood—especially scenes of its flourishing elderly community—met Voronovsky after glimpsing the beauty of his creations from the sidewalk. Monroe and his circle of friends frequently visited with the artist, helping him access art supplies and documenting his life and art in photographs, film and writing, some of which is featured in the exhibition.
Monroe has made a life’s work champion Florida folk and self-taught artists including the Florida Highwaymen. When Voronovsky died, he left his art and personal effects to Monroe, who has gifted several pieces to the High, making it the first museum to acquire Voronovsky’s work.
The acquisitions and exhibition continue the Museum’s longstanding commitment to celebrating Southern self-taught artists. While Voronovsky took a roundabout way getting there, his work shares much with the Southern-born self-taught artists in the High’s collection.
“His use of cardboard as a substrate connects him to artists like Bill Traylor and Nellie Mae Rowe,” Jentleson said. “Rowe also used some Styrofoam in her work, but I’ve never seen an artist carve such a brittle material so beautifully. He is also connected to many artists in the collection, from Rowe to Howard Finster to David Butler or Annie Hooper, who created all-encompassing art environments with their art.”
Voronovsky, of course, was not immune to the darker emotions his wartime experiences would have embedded in him, but he never painted them. He never painted hunger or suffering or loss. In this way, his pictures are reminiscent of ledger drawings by imprisoned Southern Tsitsistas (Cheyenne) warriors who faithfully recreated images of their free life on the Plains, the buffalo hunts and ceremonies, following the Red River War and capture by the Army.
It’s uplifting, in a sense, thousands of miles from home and loved ones and familiarity, traveling back in the mind, recreating these places through art; surely those hours spent remembering and reproducing such scenes were happy ones, and, doubtless, melancholy.
For Voronovsky, maybe that’s where the birds come in. Jentleson thinks so and created a special installation of them in the exhibition’s final gallery.
“No matter where Voronovsky was in his life, he would have been able to admire birds, whether in the yard of a Nazi labor camp or on the shores of South Beach,” she said. “Their freedom of movement and also their ability to travel long distances in flocks that stay together may have meant something to him as someone who was forcibly displaced from his beloved homeland, only to move through much of his life alone.”