Categories: Art market

From Ukrainian Dreamer to Parisian Maestro: The Artistic Odyssey of Vassil Khmeluk

‘Anyone who looks at Vassil Khmeluk’ s paintings

perceives them as a miraculous balm that heals the soul.’

Oleksandr Fedoruk

Vassil Khmeluk was a talented young dreamer who was part of the Ukrainian National Republic (UNR). During the second wave of artistic emigration, he and his older brother Ilya, who was a warrior of the UNR, had to leave their homeland. At the age of 17, Ilya went to Prague, while Vassil went to Krakow where he received his first professional studio at the Academy of Arts.

Vassil Khmeluk was a gifted expressionist painter who spent more than fifty years of his life working in Paris. He is buried in Montparnasse. Although he is well-known among experts, his name may not be familiar to the general public. 

Khmeluk had to choose between two passions: poetry and painting. He started drawing at the age of nine, and his father, a wealthy engineer from the village of Zhmerinka (Berezovka) in Ukraine, noticed his son’s talent and supported him by hiring reputable teachers and providing him with a splendid studio.

Taras Saliga, head of the literary department at Lviv National University (named after I. Franko), has written a report titled “The Prague Experimenter from Berezovka” which describes Khmeluk’s literary pursuits and experimentation in the field of poetry. According to Saliga, Khmeluk’s greatest achievement in life is his ongoing experimentation. The formal poetics of Khmeluk’s works are mainly based on his understanding of European aesthetic trends in literature. However, Khmeluk’s personal journey is different. This is evident in his poem “On the Death of V. Kryzhanovsky” which was written in honor of a talented artist who died on the emigrant trail.

Portrait of a young woman wearing a hat. Gouache.

When discussing the works of V. Khmeluk, it is important to consider both his poetry and painting. While his poetry often exhibits expressive features of surrealism, such as the splitting of reality, his painting showcases an excellent sense of color and nervous, expressive strokes. Despite the brevity of his poetic career, which was cut short by his move to France, his painting absorbed him completely. Nevertheless, even this short-term fascination is interesting for researchers, as it helps to present Khmeluk as an integral artistic phenomenon. It is important to note that behind his various “masks,” Khmeluk’s pain as an exiled man crying for his homeland and spiritual twin is revealed.

Vassil Khmeluk was a poet and illustrator who belonged to the ‘Prague poetic school‘. He created three poetic works in a short span of time which were referred to as ‘moths’ by art historian, Oksana Pelenska, in her article ‘Three ‘moths’ of the Ukrainian avant-garde’. Pelenska highlights that Khmeluk, along with other representatives of the Ukrainian art school, developed a new visual perspective in Prague and played a significant role in shaping the Ukrainian book art, which eventually became a part of European modern art in the 20th century.

After finishing his studies in Prague in 1928, Vassil Khmeluk left the city for good. He had to choose between poetry and fine art, and ultimately chose the latter. Oles Noga, an Associate Professor at the Lviv Academy of Arts, discussed the active participation of Ukrainian artists in Paris during the first half of the last century. He particularly highlighted the Ukrainian Community in Paris, which was associated with famous names such as O. Arkhipenko, M. Boychuk, and M. Kasperovych. Several young talents joined the renowned “Boychuk School” and exhibited their works at many exhibitions. Their works received positive criticism from the French audience, and they created a foundation for the next artistic wave of Ukrainian talents (30-50s), to which Vassil Khmeluk belonged.

In a letter he wrote to his relatives, he described his initial days in Paris: “I paint pictures and never stop. At the Paris exhibitions, my artwork is very well-received among art enthusiasts. I live like the poorest of the poor – on the rooftop. The sun is scorching, but I still work for 10 hours every day, not every day though. I have to eat properly, because if I have a few francs, I buy paints. Let painting and the Khmeluk family, whom we will try to glorify, live!”

Recognition of an artist from Ukraine

The greatest school for the young artist was the artistic Parnassus itself, with its museums, incomparable architecture, turbulent artistic life and amazing freedom of creative activity, the atmosphere of freedom and liberation. In Khmeluk’s painting, the influence of the French school of art was felt in Europe, combining the powerful currents of Western and Eastern civilisations. Vassil Khmeluk’s work introduced the Ukrainian artistic culture into the bright temple of European culture. With invisible threads he absorbed the best pages of French painting and made them his spiritual flesh, his aesthetic essence. All the artists of the Ukrainian emigration were familiar with the work of Vassil Khmeluk. He was deeply respected by the refined Parisian public and highly esteemed by professional critics. In particular, the authoritative French critic Charles Künstler described Khmeluk’s painting as “a spectacular performance” in which all the brightest hopes of a man were concentrated.

Vassil Khmeluk’s genius is embodied in portraits, landscapes, colours and graphics. His works are proudly displayed in world museums and private galleries in Paris, Lucerne and Stockholm.
Vassil Khmeluk’s almost 58 years of life and creative work ended on 2 November 1986 in Montmartre. In his obituary, the famous graphic artist, literary critic and translator Sviatoslav Gordinsky wrote: “Vassil Khmeluk, an outstanding artist and creator, died in Paris. His passing into eternity went almost unnoticed by the Ukrainian press. But he was one of the most outstanding representatives of the Ukrainian Parisian school of painting since the early 30s’.

Individual exhibitions were held in Parisian galleries: A. Poyet (1936), Wolman (1935, 1938), Tessin (1942), J. Allard (1946), Durand-Ruel (1943, 1945, 1947, 1956, 1960, 1967, 1972), Paulette Jourdain (1950), in London (Redfern, 1944), New York (Durand-Ruel, 1946 and 1948; Leonard Hutton, 1962), Munich (1958), Geneva (1980). In 1974 he took part in the ‘Russian Look’ exhibition in Heidelberg (FRG).
In 1959, he married the Spanish model Maria, who inherited his works.
He is buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris. His works are represented in the Lviv Art Gallery, the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, museums in Lucerne, Stockholm, Toronto, New York, Munich and Philadelphia.

How Vassil Khmeluk conquered the French capital

The first person to purchase some of Khmeluk’s paintings and display them at important exhibitions was the Russian collector Shchukin. Upon Shchukin’s recommendation, the bright Ukrainian colorist, who worked at the intersection of Post-Impressionism and Expressionism, came to the attention of one of the most influential Parisian marshals, Ambroise Vollard, who was an undisputed authority among collectors and had promoted other famous artists such as Cezanne, Klee, Matisse, Picasso, Mayol and others. From 1932-1939, Khmeluk had 12 exhibitions all over the world, eight of which were solo.

He became a new star in Paris, with his popularity spreading from salon to salon and from gallery to gallery. Khmeluk continued to learn and enjoy the expression of colors, the plasticity of compositions, and the concentration of emotions on canvas. At the invitation of collector Heinrich Thyssen, Khmeluk lived in Switzerland for over a year, and in 1942, the Thyssen Institute held a large solo exhibition of the Ukrainian artist’s work. In 1943, the powerful French gallery, Durand-Ruel, offered him a very lucrative contract, and after the war, even the French government purchased some of Khmeluk’s paintings.

Recognition of an artist from Ukraine

Khmeluk’s success in the art business began after he met collector Sergei Shchukin, who bought several of his paintings. This led to Khmelyuk gaining attention from other noble clients. Eventually, the French collector Ambroise Volard exhibited the works of the Ukrainian artist in his gallery as well.

Heinrich Thyssen, a German entrepreneur and collector, invited Khmeluk to work in Switzerland in 1939. Thyssen, the youngest son of the industrialist August Thyssen, got married to a Hungarian baroness in 1906 and was given the title of Baron Bornemis de Cason. In 1932, Thyssen moved to Switzerland where he became a renowned collector. In 1993, the Spanish government acquired Thyssen’s collection, which continued to be collected by his son after his death, for $350 million. Today, the collection is known as the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and is one of Madrid’s famous museums. Khmeluk lived in Lugano for several years, and in 1942, a major exhibition of his works was held in the halls of the Thyssen Institute.

The French government also started buying Khmeluk ‘s paintings, continuing to do so even in the difficult post-war period. Comparing the artist’s colourful palette in chronological order, one can see how it changed from gloomier, darker tones in the 1930s to more vibrant and brighter tones in the 1950s-60s. Some of the famous paintings by Khmeluk are ‘Evening in the South’ (1940), ‘Still Life’ (1940), ‘Jester in Blue’ (1949), ‘Landscape over the Sea’ (1949), ‘Concert’ (1951), ‘Pheasant’ (1959), ‘Still Life on a Red Background’ (1960s), and others, according to historians.In 1939, the German entrepreneur and collector Heinrich Thyssen invited Khmeluk to work in Switzerland. Thyssen, the youngest son of the industrialist August Thyssen, married a Hungarian baroness in 1906 and acquired the title of Baron Bornemis de Cason. In 1932 Thyssen went to live in Switzerland, where he became famous as a collector. In 1993, Thyssen’s collection, which after his death continued to be collected by his son, was acquired by the Spanish government for $350 million, and today, under the name of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, is known as one of Madrid’s famous museums. For several years Khmeluk lived in Lugano, and in 1942 a major exhibition of the artist was held in the halls of the Thyssen Institute.

The French government also began to acquire Khmeluk ‘s paintings, continuing to purchase canvases for French museums even in the difficult post-war period. Comparing the artist’s colourful palette in chronological order one can notice how it changed from more gloomy, dark tones in the 1930s to more saturated and bright tones in the 1950s-60s. Among the famous paintings historians name: ‘Evening in the South’ (1940), ‘Still Life’ (1940), ‘Jester in Blue’ (1949), ‘Landscape over the Sea’ (1949), ‘Concert’ (1951), ‘Pheasant’ (1959), ‘Still Life on a Red Background’ (1960s) and others.

Between 1932 and 1939, Khmeluk held twelve exhibitions displaying his artworks in galleries located in Marseille, Warsaw, and London. During his artistic process, Khmeluk did not limit himself to any particular theme, but rather painted portraits, landscapes, and still lifes, and did graphic designs. While his style is mainly categorized as post-impressionism, it is difficult to fully describe the depth of his work in one word.

Vassil Khmeluk is on display at Malab’Art Gallery in London

Today, numerous collectors in Europe are seeking Khmeluk’s paintings, with some works fetching tens of thousands of pounds or euros. For instance, a painting titled ‘Lawyer’ by Khmeluk was recently sold for 50,000 pounds sterling at an auction in London. The artist has highly sought after because he was brought up by the ‘Paris school’ of painting of the first half of the twentieth century, which emphasized pure color and he incorporated bright colors in his works.

After the artist’s death, his archive was inaccessible because his widow had hidden it and did not make any contact with anyone. It was only after her death that the heirs were able to access the archives and Khmeluk’s legacy. It is worth noting that the heirs organized an auction in the suburbs of Paris where they sold all his heritage. Representatives from Ukraine were also present at the auction, and many of Khmeluk’s works are now in private Ukrainian collections.

The Malab’Art gallery is currently showcasing a picture by the distinguished artist Vassil Khmeluk, which demonstrates Khmeluk’s unique style that continues to fascinate admirers and collectors of paintings.


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