Ihor Kozhan, director of the Grand Gallery, opposite the Lviv Opera House, described the rush.
“There are ego enthusiasts in Moscow who don’t mind killing children, let alone destroy art,” he said. “For our history and heritage to survive, all art must go underground.”
Throughout Ukraine, artists, gallers, curators and museum directors desperately but carefully unleash, embrace and hide the country’s vast cultural bounty as the onslaught of Vladimir Putin looms. The statues, stained glass windows and monuments are covered with debris-resistant material. The underground bunker is full of paintings.
Russia’s artillery has been heavier in the eastern half of the country, and the two richest cities in Ukraine in terms of cultural heritage, Lviv and Odessa, have benefited from overtime. For example, the latter volunteers took several days to pile up hundreds of sandbags around the monument to the Duke of Richelieu, a Frenchman, one of the founders of an international port city. Only his head and his extended right arm remain uncovered.
The country’s two largest cities, Kyiv and Kharkov, were struck early in the war and have already suffered catastrophic losses.
The windows of Kharkov’s main museums have been blown away, and the 25,000 works of art inside have been exposed to sub-zero temperatures and snow for several weeks. The city’s opera and ballet theaters were bombarded extensively.
Maria Prymachenko’s 25 works, one of Ukraine’s most famous painters, are famous for their colorful representations of Ukrainian folklore and rural life, with Russians visiting museums in towns on the outskirts of Kyiv. It was burnt down when it was bombed. Other museums in the capital are still inside, as those who would have evacuated have fled.
“The city center has been severely damaged, some of which are ruins and monuments dating back to the 11th century,” Lazarre Eloundou Assomo, director of the United Nations World Heritage Program, told reporters last week. “It is the whole cultural life that is in danger of disappearing.”
The deliberate destruction of national and cultural heritage is considered a war crime, but UNESCO has not yet canceled its upcoming summit in Russia.
When Russian troops are trying to surround Odessa, the museum there surrounds itself with a razor wire.
“Believe me, it looks really wild to me,” said Kirill Lipatov, director of science at the museum.
Like the museum in Lviv, the interior walls are now exposed, Lipatov said, but he refused to reveal whether his most valuable work had evacuated outside the city. .. Several works, including the iconic 19th-century Russian works by Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin, were painted in the museum — a glamorous palace dating back to the 1820s — and never left behind.
“The first thing that came to my mind was that the Ukrainian museum protects Russian masterpieces from Russian aggression,” said Lipatov. “I can’t wrap my head.”
Even if they struggled to believe it, the museum director also said that their plight was almost unfamiliar. Ukraine has been stripped of artwork many times by intruders over the past century.
After Russia invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, dozens of works on the peninsula were moved to Russian museums. Thousands of works were brought to Germany by Nazi soldiers during World War II. A portrait of the director, Jakov Garkin, who evacuated the museum in Odessa during World War II, is displayed in Lipatov’s office.
For many of the interviewees, saving art was secondary to saving lives. Because the pride of Ukrainian culture is a source of deep inspiration for resistance to aggression. President Putin has revealed that Ukraine is considered part of Greater Russia. The controversial artists here say they deny Ukraine’s unique heritage.
Taras Bosnjak, director of the Lviv National Museum, said: “Putin knows that without art, without our history, Ukraine’s identity would be weakened. That is the point of his war. It erases us and becomes a group of crypto fascist zombies. To assimilate. “
Museums often have their own bunkers and a wider network in Europe, and while museums are reliable for accommodating parts of art, independent galleries and artists are dependent on each other.
One of the most successful efforts to protect Ukrainian contemporary art is underway in the western city of Ivano-Frankovsk, where a group of artists have turned an underground cafe into a bunker. Working day and night in a network of van drivers, the work of more than 30 artists is brought here from all over Ukraine, from delicate collages to hanging sculptures to giant 6×14 foot paintings. I’ve been. The 11 displaced artists were also provided with a place of residence to continue to produce art throughout the war.
“Many of our artists question their role. For example, should I pick up a gun? Is art as a weapon too late?” As a member of the group One curator, Anna Potiomukina, 25, said. “But creating art while Russia is bombing museums and studios is a great need for resistance.”
With the exception of a pile of petit-wrapped art waiting to be taken to a bunker, the group is full of familiar creative cultures: devoted to funky furniture, Apple computers, books on gender and feminism. Shelf, sticky note-covered walls, and photos of members and their friends who looked stylish and happy before the war.
Lviv-based performance artist and painter Yaryna Shumska describes herself as a recorder on her website, “Memory of Objects and Their Invisible Stories.” She wants to bring her most important work to Ivano-Frankovsk, but she is worried that she will be damaged. In the process. If she needs to escape from Lviv, she may want to leave her art as it is and let her bomb fall elsewhere.
“My friend’s studio in Kharkov was bombed and all that’s left is an empty catastrophe,” Shumska said in her studio, with huge paintings scattered on the canvas, some of which were in October. Dedicated to her deceased husband. “It’s an impossible question to ask yourself. Can you say goodbye to my work, which is like an extension of my body?”
The survival of so many Ukrainian art depends on where the bomb will eventually fall.
In Odessa, Lipatov states that the 123-year-old museum is so delicate that it always burns to the ground when hit by a shell.
The bunker of Ivano-Frankovsk is also not explosion-proof. A direct hit will bury the hundreds of pieces hidden in it, and in the best scenario only some of them will be saved. Last week Russia bombed an airport in the city.
“Now this is all we can do. Now no one is famous and no one is jealous. No one’s art is more important than anyone else. All competition and existential crises are withheld. We have to do everything we can now, otherwise we risk losing everything. “
Siobhán O’Grady of Kyiv contributed to this report.