A Light That We Are Still Able To See – Parkhomivka: Ukraine’s Greatest & Most Obscure Art Museum

Eastern Ukraine brings to mind many images and none of them seem to be good. The common perception is an area of flat, featureless land with smoldering industrial cities and gritty coal mines beset by post-Soviet decline. The largest city Kharkiv is known for its Soviet style of architecture whose main hallmark is gigantism. Add to this an on again, off again war that has fomented lawlessness across the Donbas region and it is little wonder that the area is avoided by most tourists visiting Ukraine. Thus it is quite surprising that one of Eastern Europe’s premier art museums is to be found in the region. And this museum is not located in Kharkiv or one of the other major cities, but in a village deep within the rural countryside. Works by some of the most famous names in 19th and 20th century art call the Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum home. The only question is which ones are original and which ones are not.

To find the museum in Parkhomivka is no easy task. There are two options, take public transport or rent a car. Either way, means navigating the rural roads of Ukraine, never a pleasant experience even in good conditions. A prospective visitor first heads west out of Kharkiv on the P46 highway, after a couple of hours the road takes a slightly bend in the middle of nowhere. This is the beginning of the T1702, notable for its numerous potholes and plethora of patches covering the roadway. For all the money spent on patching, an entirely new road could have likely been built at a much cheaper cost. The short, unhappy jaunt on the T1702 ends at Krasnoktusk with its trio of onion domed Orthodox churches and ubiquitous Soviet war memorial. There is a right turn onto an even more rural road which after fifteen bumpy kilometers leads to Parkhomivka.

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum

Parkhomivka History and Art Museum (Credit: Андрей Руденко)

A Personality Of Passion – Afanisay Lunev’s World Of Art
In the midst of what would otherwise be just another nondescript Ukrainian village, stands Parkohomivka’s vaunted History & Arts Museum. It has to be one of the most unlikely places in the world to discover great art. The museum is housed in a former manor house covered in a coat of pink. While the building’s exterior retains a bit of its former splendor, no one would mistake it for the home of a world class art museum. The structure is a definite upgrade from the museum’s first home, the local village school where the collection was held until 1963. The village school was the beginning of not only the collection, but also the story of the man who was responsible for its procurement.

Following the end of World War II, Afanisay Lunev came to Parkhomivka to teach in the village. His passion for art and literature was boundless. This led him to start a modest museum inside the school showcasing books from his private collection. On weekends, Lunev went to flea markets in Kharkiv, where he discovered masterworks by Soviet artists at cut rate prices. From this humble start the collection began to expand dramatically. Lunev’s students also helped bring in prized pieces. Before long the village school had a sizable collection of art. After the museum moved to the manor house, Lunev’s collection began to incorporate works from world renowned artists. How did a teacher in a village backwater of Soviet Ukraine manage to acquire paintings created by such titans of art as Camille Pissarro and Pablo Picasso?

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Afanisay Lunev with schoolchildren

Lunev’s method was quite simple. He built personal relationships with directors and curators at institutions such as the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg and Tretyakov State Gallery in Moscow. These museums were willing to donate surplus artworks that would have otherwise been resigned to a life in storage. The trust placed in Lunev was tremendous. His personality and passion were such that he could sway potential donors. The collection eventually reached some 6,000 pieces by the time of his death in 2004. This was an incredible achievement by any stretch of the imagination. The only question now is which works of art are authentic and which are reproductions. The provenance of many paintings is vague, unknown or open to question. Thus in the museum, rather than have the artist’s name next to a work, there is instead a question mark.  Despite this, it is generally agreed that most of the artwork is original.

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky

The Journey Within – Art & Life Forever
An opportunity to view the collection brings visitors to the museum, an estimated 150,000 per year to a remote village with a population of only 3,900. Such is the magnetic allure of the work of Van Gogh and Van Dyck, Rembrandt and Renoir, Manet and Mayakovsky. Lesser known artists are displayed just as prominently, many of them Ukrainian, whose acts of timeless creation cover the walls. Famous names draw travelers to the museum, but a relative unknown can make just as great an impression. Nothing illustrates this better than the mesmerizing Winter Landscape by Konstantin Kryzhitsky. Born in Kiev, Kryzhitsky lived and worked for many years in Gachina near St. Petersburg in Russia, but would often return to central Ukraine to paint landscapes and scenes. In Winter Landscape, Kryzhitsky was quite literally able to capture a moment frozen in time.

The painting portrays one side of several homes in a turn of the 20th century Ukrainian village. The homes are largely covered in snow, but the areas that are not – wood fences and gates, yellow siding and windows – have been painted with such realistic representation that they seem taken from a photograph. Above the houses rises a truly startling yellow sky. In this sky Kryzhitsky managed to create a color that only nature and imagination can produce.  A timeless moment has arrived just after dawn, setting the entire world alight with a blinding vivacity. While on the far right of the painting, a small, solitary figure with their back to the viewer walks gingerly into the brightness of a Winter Landscape. This painting, like hundreds of others at the museum, is indicative of the passion that guided Afanisay Lunev in building his collection. Just as a specific painting caught Lunev’s eye, it can also capture a viewer’s imagination. And it is through the imagination that we see an expression of the world that is a reflection of ourselves. Great art takes us to a timeless place where we can live forever. And Parkhomivka History & Arts Museum is where that journey begins.



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