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"Galicia’s Mystifier. On Vlodko Kostyrko" Żanna Komar
“In order to create a topic – one must create a work of art” – says Vlodko Kostyrko.

Above all, he has created himself. In the late 1990s and at the beginning of the first decade of the 21st century he became well-known in Lviv – as an omnipresent artist. His metaphorical, inspiring and bizarre paintings packed through and through with layers of subtext can be perceived as puzzles in which fantasy intertwines with various historical facts and figures. Painting has been and remains his most important discipline – although not the only one. Thanks to his manifestos he has become a public figure. He made his presence felt as the interior designer in the most prominent cult clubs in Lviv. Then he made his presence felt there in person, as a bohemian VIP, surrounded by his own paintings and Lviv’s intelligentsia making plans for the future.

Kostyrko studied painting first in Lviv, at the famous art school named after Ivan Trush. Later he studied art history at the Catholic University of Lublin. In 1995, the year of his graduation, he was already a well-known figure in Lviv’s artistic circles.

His art reflected the crisis of the post-Soviet transformation in Ukraine, the ideological transformation, and was made in response to the vacuum of ideals that emerged in the new space created after 1991. Kostyrko found himself in a peculiar historical moment, when it was as if a time/space portal was opening up, making a transition to a new reality possible. A place for new magical ideas appeared. A chakra.

The idea that has become a leitmotif for him is Galicia, or rather Halychyna, or rather both Galicia and Halychyna combined – because his reference to history is non-national; instead it is territorial-civilisational.

In praise of the old-new Galicia he began to create figurative paintings after the fashion of the old masters, whom he knew from his art history classes, and drawing mainly on Mannerism. Kostyrko’s paintings, like those of the Italian Mannerists, are characterised by dramatic sharpness and crispness, exaggerated expression in posture and movement, as well as colour and visual dissonance. Another quality that his works have in common is the attitude behind them, an elitism oriented towards the cognoscenti, the connoisseurs, the erudite. In this form Kostyrko resurrected the tradition of Halychyna’s medieval chivalric culture. Such paintings include “Halychynians on a Crusade”, “The Brothers Rostislavovich” and a whole pantheon of “cursed” Halychynian knights painted together with the royal history of Galicia, and Coloman and his coronation.

He shed light on the Enlightenment, drawing upon Roman mythology and combining it with historical figures. The painting “Lemberskiy Janus”, whose face is that of Joseph II, Holy Roman Emperor, highlights one of the most important points of the whole game, namely the moment of the first reincarnation of the term “Galicia” and the formation of Galicia and Lodomeria within the Habsburg Empire. Above this alternative space, which the author describes poetically, and with a mixture of megalomania and romanticism, as “the culture of the Halychynian civilization”, a flag billows, bearing an image of the beloved Emperor Franz Joseph (in the painting entitled “The Halychynian Shroud”) and the entire mythology of the Golden Age of good mother Austria – meaning the entire 19th century, up to the fin de siècle.

Such a heroic mythology of Galicia could well have been created two hundred years ago, but this never happened. Admittedly, there were personifications of Galicia – the best one being the sculpture on the edifice of the Galician Court. At that time Galicia appeared to be a local, provincial version of the Habsburg myth. And it is in this sense that the allegory of Galicia was a mirror image of the fundamental conflict in the entire monarchy – a conflict between the transnational, universal empire of order and loyalty, which could not give rise to any individual model of “imperial nationalism” on the one hand, and the national aspirations of its many different subjects on the other.

Two centuries later, Kostyrko re-enchants this world. He proposes a new attractive system of signs, to assist in defining one’s own coordinates in a new reality. He creates a new mythology.

Lviv and Galicia versus Pan-Ukraine
Thus armed, Kostyrko not only creates a new iconography for the history of Galicia – he even dares to speak about the topic, using words. And the words are controversial. He surprised his compatriots with his publications on Halychyna, on its place and role in relation to the other regions of Ukraine; he has stirred up a discussion among the intellectuals, senior experts and luminaries tackling the topic of Galicia in Poland and in Ukraine.
Kostyrko believes that the Halychynians are not fully Ukrainians, that the land – Ukraine – was formed by the Donetsk and the Dnipropetrovsk districts, and that it is the inhabitants of these regions that make up the Ukrainian nation; that the Halychynians began to call themselves Ukrainians only in 1918 in accordance with a decree by Emperor Charles I Habsburg; that the Halychynians’ Shevchenko-mania is ridiculous, or at any rate does not merit any serious treatment; that the Ukrainians and the Halychynians are divided by deep cultural differences. Bolstering himself with the authority of Mykhailo Hrushevsky, he speaks of inevitable separation of the Halychynians from the Ukrainians, by analogy to the separation between the Croats and the Serbs. And he adds that the return of Halychyna to European countries is unavoidable.

Latin versus Cyrillic script

In Volodymyr Kostyrko’s system of signs there is one more vital element – rebellion against “the East”, this time in terms of the alphabet. In some of his publications he ostentatiously rejects the Cyrillic script. By writing in the Ukrainian language, but in the Latin alphabet, he manifests Galician separateness and an anti-Byzantine sentiment. This demonstrates a clear reference to Turkey, which under the rule of Atatürk rejected the Eastern calligraphy, opting for a pro-Western direction of its development. Therefore Kostyrko uses phonetic transcription of the Ukrainian language in Latin script, and together with him a certain “caste” of Ukrainian intellectuals in Lviv use this alternative alphabet in their everyday life.

Kostyrko’s actions, the fact that he begins by separating Galicia from Ukraine, is a natural strategy in accordance with Joseph Campbell’s theory. Campbell proposed the concept of the monomyth – a personal myth called the hero’s journey, which everyone realises in their lives and which is everyone’s own story. The monomyth draws upon all mythological resources, unfolding according to one of the possible outlines. The first stage is separation, says Campbell. The stage of separation is a crucial and indispensible phase in the process of becoming a hero; it is his initiation. Success, popularity, interest and the wide spectrum of opinions and emotions that Kostyrko’s artistic works have caused once again prove how deeply contemporary men and women are still rooted in myths – that is, in fact, in their own tribal intuitions, despite living in the 21st century. And, argues Campbell, myths also determine contemporary art and politics.

Kostyrko’s “separatism” according to his contemporaries

The co-founder of the “Dzyga” Art Association and of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Vlodko Kaufman, considered a cult figure in Lviv’s artistic circles, admires Kostyrko-the artist for his insane audacity in his treatment of the history of Halychyna and Ukraine. Speaking personally, Kostyrko is at the same time a voice of the whole artistic milieu, whose reception of his art is clearly positive. However, while Kostyrko as an art project is not only not questioned, but in fact very valued, in contrast his views expressed in writing have caused resentment and distaste. It was noticed that the idea of Galician separatism seemed like a genuine threat in the context of recent revolutions. Ola Hnatiuk, for instance, strongly criticised Kostyrko’s publications, seeing in them a serious demonstration of irresponsibility on the part of both the author and the publisher (in this case Ji magazine). This response to Kostyrko was expressed during an important Galician debate in 2003. The topic of the absent artist kept resurfacing, like a jack-in-the-box, and every participant in the debate was obliged to adopt some position towards him.

This is how the Lviv-born Kostyrko administers a coup de grâce to the cultural policy generated by yesterday’s nomenclature and focusing on national costumes; he opposes post-Soviet and anti-Galician Pan-Ukrainianism, which for the sake of building a new Ukrainian identity compensates it with Lviv regionalism.

In this sense, aware of his social role, Kostyrko becomes a voice of part of his milieu. For example, Mykola Riabchuk disagrees with Kostryrko’s ideology, and yet his book, “Dwi Ukrajiny” (Two Ukraines), was published in 2003 with the artist’s painting on its cover.

There is also another opinion: that Kostyrko’s controversial observations are an integral part of his art. All this is supposed to be a happening, a play, and his articles are only a caricature and do not express the region’s interests. Taras Voznyak calls Kostyrko a performer, and to describe his artistic activity borrows a term from youth slang: prykol, meaning a joke or a prank intended to shock.

The cautious Yaroslav Hrytsak ignores neither Kostyrko himself nor the phenomenon of his art. He considers the artist as a symbol of the new generation, and sees a future for the likes of him. In turn, Bogumiła Berdychowska believes that in what seems like a “happening” today, serious question marks may appear tomorrow.

In conclusion, it is tempting to quote from Ziemowit Szczerek’s famous book “Przyjdzie Mordor i nas zje” [Mordor Shall Come and Shall Eat Us], which again touches upon separatism that perplexes us so much, all the more so as the prototype for one of his main characters was Volodymyr Kostyrko. “All this west-Ukrainian separatism was, however, an armchair dilemma… They sat in one new pub after another, absorbed Lviv that was ‘Europeanising itself’, all this European Spring, whose smell was becoming ever more widespread in the city. They smoke fags, drank liqueur and bullshitted about how beautiful it was going to be once Halychyna had at last separated itself… From that Russified, Sovietised rusty old fuselage, from Cossack Ukraine, from Zaporozhye and the Wild Fields… This didn’t stop them at all from waxing on about the fantasy of ‘Green Ukraine’ in the far east of Russia and about how worthwhile it would be to get back from Russia ‘Ukrainian Kuban’. And so as a matter of fact there was no separatism. Oh the yarns I had to spin in my PhD dissertation and articles.”

And Kostyrko? What about Kostyrko? He is Lviv’s art superman. In the mid-20th century the role of superman meant responsibility for the whole world, and ideally, saving it. However, the aim of the contemporary, postmodernist hero of the 21st century, gazing at the world at his feet, is to just have fun! Moralising has nothing to do with it.

Translated from the Polish by Ewa Kowal

Żanna Komar – PhD, born in Ukraine, lives in Poland, art historian, theoretician of architecture, and museum curator, member of the academic staff at the Institute of European Heritage, part of the International Cultural Centre in Kraków. Author of numerous publications on the history of architecture and art, including the book „Trzecie miasto Galicji. Stanisławów i jego architektura w okresie autonomii galicyjskiej” [The third city of Galicia.
Stanisławów and its architecture in the period of Galician autonomy, 2008]. She writes about Art Nouveau, historicism, modernism, contemporary art, and totalitarian and modern architecture in present day Poland, Russia, and Ukraine.
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