Against a backdrop of Russian bombardments, border closures and a 2,150-mile truck journey across Europe, Spain’s Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum teamed up with the National Art Museum of Ukraine. Workers secretly brought dozens of 20th century Ukrainian avant-garde artworks to Madrid, Spain. The exhibition is a show of support for the war-torn country.
“In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s” opened to the public this week. The show features some 70 works. It will run until next April.
This is the first time that such a large body of modern art has left Ukraine. Organizing it was a feat of cultural defiance. Organizers want to counter Russia’s narrative that Ukraine doesn’t rightfully exist and that its art is really Russian.
“We wanted to act as a protector of these works that are extremely unique and rare, but also to do it by celebrating the value of Ukraine’s immense legacy that has been completely forgotten and appropriated by Russia over the last decades,” says Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza. The Swiss-born art collector and activist is one of the exhibition organizers.
An international art exhibition of this type would normally take several years to organize. This one came together in a matter of months.
Getting the paintings to Madrid was the stuff of wartime drama.
After months of preparation, the works were packed into two trucks in the early hours of November 15. Just hours later, Russia unleashed a wave of attacks on Ukraine’s capital. But with a military escort, the trucks left the city safely.
On the way west, however, the trucks had to pass through the city of Lviv, which also came under surprise attack. They made it to the Polish border early Wednesday, but it was closed following the landing of a stray missile just inside Poland. Eventually, the border reopened. The convoy sped to Madrid, arriving November 20.
The paintings’ styles range from figurative art to futurism and constructivism. They were created during a turbulent period for Ukraine. The country experienced collapsing empires, world war, revolutions, and the war of independence before the eventual creation of Soviet Ukraine.
Under Soviet leader Josef Stalin, repression in Ukraine led to the execution of dozens of writers, theater directors, and artists, including some whose work is in the Madrid exhibition.
For much of the early 20th century, many of the works were locked away by Soviet authorities, considered worthless because their creators were deemed to be bourgeois (middle or upper class). That unintentionally led to their conservation.
The works went back on display with Ukraine’s independence in 1991. They were later returned to vaults and warehouses to protect them from Russia’s invasion.
“We know what happens when Russians occupy territories and get hold of the museums. They loot everything,” says curator Katia Denysova, referring to the fate of an art museum in Kherson. Kremlin forces occupied the city in southern Ukraine for eight months until Ukrainian forces recaptured it earlier this month.
This isn’t the first time art and war have collided. The “Monuments Men” worked to save historic treasures during World War II.
Art and beauty are gifts from God. He Himself is beautiful: “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” (Psalm 50:2) Art may help us understand more about ourselves and others. Christian artists bring praise to God. Even the art of unbelievers often raises questions or depicts trials for which only the gospel has answers. For those reasons, it is often worthwhile to preserve artworks.
In April, the show will move to Cologne, Germany. It will be displayed there until September.
(A pianist plays during the opening of the Ukraine art exposition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum in Madrid, Spain, on November 28, 2022. The piano is in front of a painting by Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Bohomazov called Sharpening of the Saws. AP/Paul White)