Veniamin Kushnir was born on January 7 in the village of Rudka of the Kamianets Okruha (today’s Khmelnytsky Region), not far from the town of Dunaivtsi. His mother stemmed from a wealthy family, and his father was a tailor.
He started painting in his early years and received his first drawing lessons from the teacher of the Dnipropetrovsk Art College, who lived during the war years in Dunaivtsi. There remained landscapes and sketches, created by the young artist during 1943–1947.
Veniamin’s father gave his son to the tailors’ workshop for training, which didn’t last long since Veniamin was recruited in the military.
After finishing his military service, he got enrolled in the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics at the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv, yet soon afterwards he quit the university and dedicated his life to making art. He brought his works to the Kyiv State Art Institute, where he received positive feedbacks.
He studied in the Department of Monumental and Decorative Art at the Lviv State Institute of Applied and Decorative Art, inter alia, in the art studios of Roman Selskyi, Yosyp Bokshai, and Ivan Hutorov. As his graduation piece Kushnir presented his picture “Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s Universals”, painted in a realistic manner.
He lived in Dnipropetrovsk. He worked hard, taught in the art college, and exposes his works at the exhibitions.
He entered the Artists’ Union of the USSR.
He moved to Kyiv. Firstly he lived in the art studio situated in a simple five-storied khrushchovka building close to Lysa Hora, after a while he received a one-room apartment. He worked mostly in the genre of landscape painting. In the years to follow he created the following paintings: ”Back from the Field”, “Ploughing”, “Plowland”. He also painted a series of landscapes “Caucasus” and “Hosta”.
He participated in the International Exhibition of Fine and Applied Arts, presented within the framework of the 6th World Festival of Youth and Students (Moscow, 1957).
Kushnir started working in the artist collective studio, situated on the territory of the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra. That’s where he created his programmatic paintings, marked by the national imagery and unique style of the artist – “Wood Choppers” and “Raftsmen” (both dated 1959–1960).
He finished work on the paintings “Red Poppies” and “Trembita”, started in 1959. The last one became the pinnacle of Kushnir’s artistic achievement (at the present time the picture is kept in the Andrey Sheptytsky National Museum in Lviv). Its symbolism,according to Andriy Okhrimovych, relates to Taras Shevchenko’s lines: “…all the folk must in their hands sledge-hammers take and axes sharp - and then all go that sleeping freedom to awake.” Albeit its boldness, monumentality of the composition and the manner in which it was painted, the picture received wide recognition and was reproduced on the leaflets that were published in a mass edition.
He exposed his works in the republican exhibition in Kyiv and the All-Union art exhibition in Moscow.
He became an active member of the Club of Creative Youth “The Contemporary” and was in charge of its art section. He stayed in touch with Vasyl Symonenko, Eugene Sverstiuk, Opanas Zalyvakha, Ivan Svitlychny, Alla Gorska, Les Tanyuk and other prominent representatives of Ukrainian intelligentsia, so-called Sixtiers. Their striving to revive national traditions in verbal creativity, music and painting met the opposition of the authorities, therefore in 1964 the club was shut down. And yet the following year, as if that weren’t enough, first reprisals took place. On Kushnir the most traumatizing impact was made by the arrest of Opanas Zalyvakha.
He travelled a lot across the Carpathians. That was the time when the series of paintings “Dzembronya”, “Kryve Pole” and “Yasinya” were created, made in his distinctive decorative manner.
Approximately in the same period he obtained a workshop on the street of Academician Filatov and an apartment on Dashavska street. Yet those signs of material well-being contrasted with general negative attitudes towards him that prevailed within official circles of the Artists’ Union. Eventually, this resulted in the fact, that his works were less and less exposed at the exhibitions.
He participated in the jubilee art exhibition, dedicated to the 150th birth anniversary of Taras Shevchenko. That was virtually the last exhibition of the 1960s at which his works were represented.
He travelled across Crimea, created series "Koktebel" and "Theodosia" and painted his picture “Kobza”.
He travelled across the Carpathians and Podolia. The outcome of his wanderings resulted in a series of abbozzi “Kryvorivnya”, “Nova Ushytsya”, “Stara Ushytsya”, “Kamianets-Podilskyi Castle”.
He painted a picture “Rhapsodists”, in which he depicted the threesome musicians in his characteristic realistically-decorative manner.
He created one of his most dramatic paintings – “Scherzo”, in which he depicted an image of Ukraine being raped. Figures of soldiers, deliberately impersonal and faceless, that broke into cosmologic space of Ukrainian hut, serve as embodiments of absolute evil deprived of any particular signs of ethnicity. He also created pictures “Prometheus” and “Disciple of Truth” (“To My Fellow-Countrymen, Living, Dead and As Yet Unborn…”, Taras Shevchenko’s portrait).
Kushnir created a series of paintings based on Taras Shevechenko’s poetry: “Maria”, “There is nothing nicer…”, “There is a glen beyond a glen …” etc.
After a long break, he participated in the exhibition, dedicated to the 100th birth anniversary of Lesya Ukrainka.
He painted the picture “Mothers”, in which he embodied an ideal image of motherhood. Ordeals that befell this art piece eloquently reflect the attitude towards painter of the current authorities. Firstly the picture found itself in the vocational school in Zolotonosha, where it was used as a window shield, and later on it was thrown away in the attic. Similar fate also befell other works of the artists, for instance his pictures “The Holiday”(1974) and “The Bride” (1975).
He created first sketches of his picture “Dovbush”, on which he would work during the next three years. The composition of painting was structured in a similar manner of his early work “Trembita Players’ (1961): the canvas is intersected by long diagonals of trembitas in the first case, and the riffles in the second one. Trembitas call for awakening, and the riffles bring death to the enemies.
He worked on the tapestry “Boyan” for the Kyiv hotel “Lybid”.
In addition to “Dovbush” that he finished in 1982, Kushnir also painted pictures “Hayfield on the Desna river” (1986) and “The Land” (1987), worked on sketches of the picture “Ustym Karmaliuk”, “Gregory Skovoroda”, created series of Kyiv and Carpathian landscape paintings.
From the end of the 1980s and till the beginning of 1990s the artist created a number of socially acute, almost publicistic paintings, through which he tried to comprehend events that took place in the country – such as collapse of preceding political ideals, moral and material impoverishment, fever of the first independent political movements and so on. Among the most significant art pieces one should name his small paintings “Kyiv Spring” (1988), “Emancipation” (1989), “Rally” (1990), “Self-portrait with a Candle” (1991). In this last piece Kushnir depicted himself in the image of Diogenes, who withstands the rush of the oncoming mob and is looking for a human.
He created paintings “Mother and Son”, “Juda’s Kiss”, “Christ in the Crown of Thorns”.
He died in Kyiv on July 19.