Defying Russian Missiles and Soviet Censors, Ukrainian Art Goes on Show

An exhibition in Spain is the first comprehensive survey of Ukrainian modernist art abroad. It was a long road from Kyiv to Madrid.

Museum workers removing “Shepherds” (1927) by Kyrylo Hvozdyk from a crate at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum on Tuesday, after the painting arrived from Ukraine.
Credit...Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

They left with just a couple of hours to spare.

Two trucks loaded with early 20th-century masterworks from Ukraine’s National Art Museum left Kyiv last Tuesday morning, shortly before the city was struck by the heaviest bombardment of missiles Russian forces had yet unleashed. The transport was headed for Spain, where the artworks will be on display as part of the exhibition “In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s,” at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, which opens Nov. 29. But first the works had to get out of Ukraine safely.

“We were very nervous,” said Svitlana Melnyk, the director of Kunsttrans Kyiv, a specialist art transporter hired for the task. Four employees packed the works at the National Art Museum on Monday, then loaded them onto trucks the next morning. “The whole of Ukraine was being attacked. We didn’t know if it was more dangerous staying in Kyiv, or getting out,” she added. Russia fired almost 100 missiles at Ukraine that Tuesday.

“The drivers saw Russian missiles pass overhead,” said Melnyk, who coordinated the transport. The journey was so hazardous that no company was prepared to insure the artworks while in transit in Ukraine, she added. Stress levels ramped up further on Wednesday night when the trucks were delayed for 10 hours at the border with Poland, after a stray missile killed two Polish citizens in the nearby village of Przewodow.

Melnyk said “diplomats were very helpful” in negotiating the trucks’ passage across the border. They eventually reached Spain on Sunday.

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Credit...Private European Collection
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Credit...Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

The Madrid exhibition of 70 artworks, mainly on loan from museums in Kyiv, will be the first comprehensive survey of Ukrainian modernist art in a foreign country. Many of the works were hidden for more than half a century in a secret vault at the National Art Museum, having been formally categorized as having “zero” value by Soviet administrators. The show’s organizers regard the international presentation of these early 20th century artworks, created at a time when Ukraine was striving to be recognized as a sovereign nation, as a defiant expression of Ukraine’s independence in the face of Russian aggression.

The exhibition also keeps the artworks safe. After the Madrid show closes on April 30, 2023, it is set to transfer to the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany.

“I’ve wanted to organize an exhibition of Ukrainian modernist art for the last six years,” said Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian-American writer and curator based in Italy, who is the prime mover behind the show and its accompanying book, published by Thames & Hudson. Co-edited by Akinsha, the authoritative 248-page text was always envisaged as the catalog for an exhibition, long before a physical location for the show had been found.

“It’s the opposite of how normal exhibitions happen,” said Akinsha. “I put the cart in front of the horse.”

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Credit...Matteo de Mayda for The New York Times

Akinsha found an ally in the international art collector and philanthropist Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, who is a board member at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, founded by her father.

Appalled by Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February, Thyssen-Bornemisza started a WhatsApp group called “Museums for Ukraine” to share information about cultural damage; the group included Akinsha as well as prominent artists and arts administrators. (“I have quite a rolodex of contacts,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza.) Akinsha sent a message suggesting an international exhibition to promote and safeguard Ukrainian modernist art. “We got talking, and the Thyssen Museum was immensely receptive to this,” Thyssen-Bornemisza said.

The exhibition begins with the Kyiv-trained Alexandra Exter, who lived and worked in Paris from 1906-1914, then returned to Kyiv, where she co-organized a 1914 breakthrough exhibition of Ukrainian Futurist art called “Kiltse” (“The Ring”). Her collaborator was Oleksandr Bohomazov, a Kyiv-based artist whose expressionistic street scenes and landscapes made during World War I are now being recognized as overlooked masterworks of European Futurism.

As the accompanying book points out, the attempt to forge a national visual culture in a region as geopolitically complex as Ukraine, wedged between the crumbling Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, resulted in a “polyphony of styles and artistic developments across a full range of media,” including theater design, cinema and architecture. The Ukrainian avant-garde’s radical reimagining of folk and Byzantine art, Cubism, Futurism, Suprematism and Constructivism by artists including Davyd Burliuk, Mykhailo Boichuk, Viktor Palmov and Vasyl Yermilov will all be represented in Madrid.

The survey ends with the extraordinary Soviet “Spetsfond,” or “Special Secret Holding,” that in 1937-1939 attempted to erase Ukraine’s modernist visual culture.

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Credit...National Art Museum of Ukraine
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Credit...Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

During Josef Stalin’s Great Terror of the late 1930s, many Ukrainian artists were branded “public enemies” and were either executed or given long prison sentences. More than 350 pictures, including many by the leading names of the Ukrainian avant-garde, were immured in the vaults of what is now the National Art Museum in Kyiv, owing to their “counterrevolutionary formalist methods.” This cache of long-lost artworks, which forms the core of the Madrid exhibition, has been painstakingly researched over the last eight years by Yuliia Lytvynets, who is now the museum’s director.

““The gap in the history of Ukrainian art was finally filled.” Lytvynets said in an email from Kyiv. She spent the early months of the war living in the National Museum with her colleagues. “We tried not only to take care of the collection 24 hours a day, but also not to forget about our scholarly research,” she said.

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Credit...Alexander Chekmenev

The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum show is just one high-profile initiative in the broader national and international campaign to preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage from annihilation or theft. There have been some devastating losses during the conflict. Earlier this month, a statement from the Ukrainian army said that the art museum in occupied Kherson had been subjected to mass looting shortly before the strategically important city was retaken by Ukrainian forces.

“People woke up to the fact that this was a culture war,” said Thyssen-Bornemisza, the collector. “Putin’s war on Ukraine is not just about stealing territories, but also about controlling its narrative.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia declared martial law in annexed areas of Ukraine in October and approved the removal of artworks to “preserve” them.

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Credit...National Art Museum of Ukraine
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Credit...Emilio Parra Doiztua for The New York Times

“Why is there a war in my country now? The war is against Ukrainian identity,” said Olena Kashuba-Volvach, a Kyiv-based co-curator of the Madrid exhibition.

She added that, in both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union, Ukraine and other nations were deprived of their identity. “Everything was defined as Russian,” she said.

Kashuba-Volvach said she believed that culture was the self-knowledge of a nation. “If we do not preserve Ukrainian culture during the war,” she added, “we will not preserve Ukraine.”