Museum of Russian Icons presents Jacques' Menagerie

Museum of Russian Icons presents Jacques' Menagerie

The Museum of Russian Icons will be presenting Jacques' Menagerie: Hnizdovsky Prints from the Christina and George Gamota Collection,March 16 - July 7, 2019, featuring works by acclaimed Ukrainian-American painter and printmaker Jacques Hnizdovsky. Curated by Anna Winestein, director of the Ballets Russes Arts Initiative, the exhibition includes 40 of the artist's iconic prints depicting animals, plants, cityscapes, and narrative scenes, alongside an early oil painting and several rarely seen early works.

Born in Ukraine, trained in Poland and Croatia, Jacques Hnizdovsky (1915-1985) was a refugee to the US who traveled a difficult road through life. Embraced by American viewers and collectors, his art expressed his capacity for joy, humor, and hope, most often in black and white. His boldly graphic and playful images, most famously a series of portraits of animals from the Bronx Zoo, have been widely recognized and beloved for over half a century.

This exhibition presents highlights from a single collection of Hnizdovsky prints (woodcuts, linocuts, and etchings), as well as one of his paintings, which are rarely exhibited. The collection was assembled by Christina and George Gamota, a Ukrainian-American family who had a personal connection with the artist and shared Hnizdovsky's experience of displacement, hardship, and adaptation in the course and aftermath of World War II, passing through the same displaced persons camps. The works, mostly images of animals and plants, as well as an occasional portrait or still-life, acquired very personal symbolism for different members of the Gamota family. This show, presented in partnership with the Ballets Russes Arts Initiative, tells the story of both Hnizdovsky and the Gamotas in the intimate setting of the Museum's Contemporary Exhibition Gallery.

Special programs include a celebratory opening with a collectors roundtable on April 6th, a curator lecture on Hnizdovsky in Context on May 4th, and a concert by renowned cellist Yosif Feigelson on June 22nd.


Jacques Hnizdovsky was born on January 27, 1915 in the village of Pylypcze in western Ukraine, the youngest of seven in a family of titled landowners of Polish descent. The family's lands were near the city of Borshchiv, then under Russian Imperial rule and today part of Ternopil Oblast, Ukraine. Just two years later, two Revolutions in 1917 unleashed a time of great upheaval and war, with several self-proclaimed independent Ukrainian states, the Red Army of the nascent Soviet Union, the White Army, and a newly independent Poland all battling for control of the region. The 1921 Treaty of Riga assigned the region to Polish rule, which ended with the Soviet invasion in September 1939, followed by German occupation 1941-1944, and permanent absorption into the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Under Soviet rule, his family's estate would be confiscated and many relatives would find themselves in Siberian exile. Leaving for seminary in Poland in 1929 protected Hnizdovsky from some of this, but at a price. After the age of 14 he never saw his family again.

Hnizdovsky earned a scholarship to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where he pursued his artistic training until the German bombing of Warsaw drove him to Zagreb. There he continued his studies at the Croatian Academy of Fine Arts, working mostly on painting and sculpting human subjects and evincing an early interest in portraiture. Although he would go on to become an internationally recognized print artist, that would be later and without formal instruction. Influenced by the works of Dürer, Ukrainian baroque engravings, Japanese Ukiyo-e and Chinese brush painting Hnizdovsky was, in fact, entirely self-taught in printmaking.

After surviving the War and then years in a displaced persons camp, Hnizdovsky arrived in the US in 1949, penniless, yet determined to succeed as an artist. The turning point in his career and his life came when a leading curator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, A. Hyatt Mayor, chose one of his woodcuts for a Purchase Award at a Minneapolis Institute of Arts exhibition. Hnizdovsky gave up his work as a commercial artist in Minnesota, and moved to New York City to pursue fine art full time. In the 1950s he also spent time in Paris (where he met his wife), painting its architecture and public spaces. In 1962 his print, The Sheep, received First Prize at the annual exhibit of The Boston Printmakers Association, going on to become one of his most prized creations.

Best known for woodcuts of flora and fauna, Hnizdovsky produced hundreds of paintings, watercolors, pen and ink drawings on different subjects, as well as over 375 full-format prints (almost 250 woodcuts, plus linocuts and etchings) and numerous bookplates (ex libris), many of them also small woodblocks.

The artist created illustrations for numerous books during his lifetime, including The Poems of John Keats, 1964; The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1967; Flora Exotica, 1972; The Poems of Thomas Hardy, 1979; The Traveler's Tree, 1980; The Poetry of Robert Frost, 1981; Signum Et Verbum, 1981; and his works have continued to be used extensively as illustrations in new volumes since.

Hnizdovsky's works have been exhibited widely and are in the permanent collections of many museums worldwide, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Chrysler Museum, Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation, Henry Art Gallery, Louisiana Arts and Science Center, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, National Museum of American Art, New Orleans Museum of Art, New York Public Library, Philadelphia Museum of Art, The U.S. Information Agency, Library of Congress and White House, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Winnipeg Art Gallery, and Yale University, among others. His work was included in several international traveling exhibitions, among them a 1963 Contemporary American Graphic Arts show touring the U.S.S.R.

Jacques Hnizdovsky passed away on November 8, 1985, just days after printing his last woodcut, Washington Monument, a tribute to his adopted country. His archives are housed at the Slavic and Baltic Division of the New York Public Library.

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