Interest in the art of Matvey Kogan-Shats, a master of ”plein air” painting and one of the most prominent Ukrainian landscape artists of the second half of XX century continues to increase dramatically. The number of personal exhibitions both in Ukraine and abroad proves that, with the leading museums of Ukraine proud of being in possession of his artwork. His rare sensitivity to nature, fine perception of colour and light, masterly plying of the brush are characteristic of his paintings and seemingly never fail to impress the viewers. He was born in 1903 in Mogilev-Podolsk to a family of provincial actors. The family had been touring for many years until they eventually settled in Odessa. Kogan-Shats started exploring his artistic talent at an early age and worked part-time as a stage designer at the theatre. He then entered the Institute of Art where he became a student of Teofil Fraerman and Pavel Volokidin, both whom were exceptional artists of their time. In 1934 the institute was relocated to Kiev, where Kogan-Shats became a student of Aleksey Shovkunenko who was a member of the Union of Southern Russian Artists and whose outstanding students – Kiriak Kostandi and Gennadiy Ladyzhenskiy – had great influence over the development of the future artist. His works were widely recognized as amongst the finest by living Russian artists and as early as 1939, paintings by Kogan-Shats were regularly included in the official state touring exhibitions. During the Second World War he held a commission in the Soviet Army, but continued to paint. At the end of hostilities he resumed his career, and in 1947, being already a well-known professional artist, he was elected a Member of the Union of USSR Artists. At that time the campaign for ideological pureness of art, based on a Decree about Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and writer Mikhail Zoshchenko was organised. The “witch-hunting” for decadents and detractors began. The main culprit was Ukrainian poet Volodymyr Sosyura, so eventually the whole trend of “bourgeois decadence” was named “sosyuorshina”. There were in fact some compromising documents against him, as Sosyura used to serve in the Petlyura troops during the Civil war. Of course, having such a background, he could hardly pretend to like Soviet authorities and tried his best to disguise that reality.
Despite the obvious hardships of life under the communist regime, which would extend even to the great wheat fields of the Ukraine, Kogan-Shats’ paintings display an optimism rarely associated with Russia during the Stalinist and Cold War era. Now it is clear that there was a subconscious wish not just to steer away from the war and post-war hardships, but also from the terrible famine of the 1930’s that was still very much in people’s memories. The authorities could not but feel guilty about this crime and were trying to conceal it. So Kogan-Shats’ refusal to depict the achievements of the Soviet state, by not painting the electric power stations or industrial plants was the main issue between him and Soviet authorities. All his life Kogan-Shats would try to paint Ukrainian landscapes without any trace of industrial or agricultural activity, so he perfectly fit in with the denounced “sosyurovets” group. At the same time it had a positive effect on Kogan Shats’ life. In 1950’s when the authorities focused on the cosmopolite movement, he had already gained the reputation of “sosyurovets” and was allowed to work without any further pressure. At that time, artists would work for the state that was sponsoring them, while the interests of the state were represented by the Art Council that would choose their painting for the Art Foundation.
The first workshop of Kogan-Shats was only six square meters and he had to share it with two other artists – Nikolai Khodchenko and Boris Rapoport. It being so small, they had to take turns in painting. Nonetheless, the artist worked productively with landscape painting that eventually came to dominate his artistic career. His paintings were calm and well-balanced, and would attract little criticism. Kogan-Shats was rather friendly with prominent representatives of the Ukrainian cultural elite: Bazhan, Ryl’sky, Malyshko, who appreciated his fine feeling for Ukrainian nature and would acquire his paintings for official institutions like the Ministry of culture and the Art Foundation, as they looked perfect in the official establishments. Kogan-Shats painted most of his works “en plein air”, with a large part being painted in the village of Sednev where he spent some of the happiest time of his life in the House or Arts. Artists from all over Ukraine and the Soviet Union would go there to practice the art of landscape painting. The ambience of old willow trees on the banks of the Psel river was special to artists, and few could remain indifferent to this amazingly lyrical and picturesque area which was known to possess a wonderful range of colours. He would regularly visit this area that never ceased to inspire him, and subsequently resulted in a large part of his art coming from this location. Each of his paintings has a unique character and colouring. He had a special feeling for nature, being a master of plein air painting, could feel its ever-changing state, and he would often finish a painting in a single session. Nature seemed to come alive in his paintings, and it was as if one could hear the leaves rustling in the trees with the clouds seemingly moving slowly in the clear blue sky; snow would gleam in white, lilac and blue undertones on a frosty afternoon. Artists such as Sergey Grigoriev and Alexey Litvinenko were inspired to work alongside him. In continuation of the best art traditions of the first quarter of the XX century, Kogan-Shats managed to preserve and pass on his invaluable legacy to the next generation of artists.