yana hudzan i want to put down the last bouquet
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Yana Hudzan: “I want to put down the last bouquet”

24 February marks one year since the morning on which the first Russian missiles landed on sleeping Ukrainian towns and the eight-year war entered its hot phase. To mark the anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, G.ART Gallery is preparing a large-scale exhibition in Berlin entitled “Hardened. The Ukrainian Phenomenon”, which will display the works of contemporary Ukrainian women artists. Yana Hudzan will present paintings on canvas.

Yana Hudzan was born in Berezne (Rivne region), she studied in Lviv and became an artist in the sacred arts. In her work, she combines the techniques of icon painting with pop art, plein air painting with decorative art.

February: the shock made the whole body ache

The days before February 24, after Russia announced its annexation of the eastern Ukrainian regions, were very difficult for Yana. She was panicking, thinking about the imminent start of a full-scale war, not knowing if she should pack a “worrying suitcase”. It even seemed to her, childishly naive, that if she didn’t pack, if she didn’t give in to the alarm, the war wouldn’t start.

The artist slept through the rocket attack at dawn on February 24, her relatives told her about the war over the phone. For the first day she was in a state of shock. The shock was so bad that her whole body ached and she couldn’t even stand up straight, let alone walk out the door of her flat in Lviv. She decided, once she had recovered somewhat, that she would continue working on the big painting she had started the day before, but it was very hard to concentrate.

Soon Yana realised it was better to leave the large regional city, a convenient target for Russian shelling, and – barely making it through Lviv’s train station, filled with thousands of refugees – she left for the small resort town of Truskavets, where she grew up and where her parents lived. She wanted to be close to her loved ones, to support them. Unfortunately, for the first month Yana could not paint, she was mentally and physically ill. She thought in despair that Ukraine had no future, the country would be overrun by a much stronger enemy.

Grief and flowers

At the end of March, the artist realised that she was unhappy without painting, without her life’s work. Her first works – which later developed into the series ‘Flowers of Memory’ – were literally art therapy, a recitation of her experiences. The impulse for their creation was the impressions of the funeral processions which Yana had seen during her visits to Lviv. Solemn columns with plenty of flowers marched through the city centre, following the coffins with the bodies of Ukrainian soldiers. People would kneel along the streets at the sight of the procession, saluting the dead. 

Another highlight was the improvised memorial wall on Halytska Square in the centre of Lviv, with pictures of the war dead surrounded by flowers and candle-lamps. And also a new war cemetery, created next to the famous old Lychakiv Cemetery, a museum-reserve. The graves of Ukrainian defenders are strewn there with fresh flowers, says the artist.

The second image in the series ‘Flowers of Memory’ is of Ukrainian cities destroyed by the Russian army (Kharkiv, Mariupol…). In documentary photographs, Yana saw characteristic black cones rising up the walls of houses from burned-out flats, and in her imagination they turned into bouquets.

Yana explains her concept: ‘Flowers are a familiar attribute of a holiday, a symbol of joy, of love for people. But now their symbolic meaning has changed, they have become an attribute for funerals and mean grief, farewell to fallen soldiers, cities destroyed by artillery and rockets, people who died right in their flats. I want to put down the last bouquet. It is a terrible price we pay for being alive, for the fact that Ukraine still exists.

“Colour is my protest against war”

painting yana hudzan war flowers
Yana Hudzan “War flowers”

Works from the “Flowers of War” series were presented at Ukrainian Art Week in Bruges, Belgium. One of these paintings was included in the exhibition “Hardened. The Ukrainian Phenomenon. Despite the complex and tragic theme the artist explores, there is a special solemnity in the painting – probably due to its colour scheme. 

“Most of my colleagues after the hot phase of the war started working in subdued colours, if not achromatic,” says Yana. – But for me the aesthetics of colour have always been important. And now I intuitively want to see more colour – this is my protest against the war. On the one hand, my work is mournful, but on the other hand, it is aesthetic. I try to squeeze a wealth of colour out of my palette as much as possible.

The tree of life, the memory of the generation

painting yana hudzan tree of life
Yana Hudzan “Tree of life I”

The second work by Yana Hudzan belongs to the Tree of Life series. The tree of life in different cultures represented the world order with the “lower” underworld, the “middle” human world and the “upper” heavenly world. Also, as a symbol of generation, it connects ancestors and descendants in time. In Ukrainian culture, the tree of life has been and remains one of the main symbols, and can be seen especially often on embroidered towels (rushnyk) and hand-painted Easter eggs (pysanka).

“The colourful, joyful background in this work,” says Yana, “refers to the peaceful, comfortable life in most other countries on the planet. And the coal-black wood is the Ukrainian reality, all the grief that has descended on us because of the war unleashed by Russia. Every day we live in fear, in anxiety, every day we see death.”

After six months of war, Yana left for an art residency in Finland, where she hoped to find an opportunity to work without constant anxious thoughts and blackouts, as is the case in Ukraine. She was struck by the contrast between the haggard refugees with children on the Ukrainian-Polish border and the bright, calm people on the Finnish train. “Of course I understand that the world has a right to move on in joy and peace,” says the artist, “but how tragic this contrast is!” Yana was far from immediately able to relax in peaceful Finland, she felt her body constantly tense from the accumulated anxiety. A developed capacity for empathy caused Yana to experience the Ukrainian events as personal grief, and her nervous system was drained.

There is a work in the series with the opposite arrangement of colours – a bright tree on a black background. “This is a symbol of Ukrainians who, despite everything, live, work, fall in love and find reasons to be happy. Life does not end, but it takes place on a black background of war, which cannot be forgotten. Air-raid sirens and the sound of explosions burst into our dreams, our business, our friendships, forcing us to leave our unfinished coffee on the café table and go down to the shelter. And all the time we feel guilty towards those who died, and who are now at the front, for our little joys and celebrations. We are very tired of the emotional swings. And my work tells, among other things, about the psychological contrasts of our days.”

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