Ukrainian artworks hidden underground during Russian bombings

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Ihor Kozhan, the director of the grand gallery opposite the Lviv Opera House, explained the rush.

“There is an egomaniac in Moscow who doesn’t care about killing children, let alone destroying art,” he said. “If our history and heritage is to survive, all art must go underground.”

Across Ukraine, artists, gallery owners, curators, and museum directors are desperate but cautious in unhooking, packing, and stowing the country’s vast cultural endowment as Vladimir Putin’s onslaught draws near. Statues, stained glass windows and monuments are covered with shrapnel-proof material. Basement bunkers are crammed with paintings.

As Russian bombing has so far been heavier in the eastern half of the country, two of Ukraine’s most culturally rich cities, Lviv and Odessa, have benefited from extensions. It took volunteers in the latter, for example, days to stack hundreds of sandbags around a monument to the Duke of Richelieu, a Frenchman who was one of the founders of the cosmopolitan port city. Only his head and outstretched right arm remain uncovered.

Kyiv and Kharkiv, the country’s two largest cities, were hit early in the war and have already suffered devastating casualties.

The windows of Kharkiv’s main art museum were blown out, leaving the 25,000 works of art inside exposed to freezing temperatures and snow for weeks. The city’s opera and ballet theaters were shelled extensively.

25 works by one of Ukraine’s most famous painters, Maria Prymachenko, famous for her colorful depictions of Ukrainian folklore and rural life, were burned when Russians bombed the museum where they were housed in a town outside Kyiv. Other museums in the capital are boarded up, their works still inside because those who would have wanted to evacuate have fled.

“City centers are badly damaged, some of which have sites and monuments that date back to the 11th century,” Lazare Eloundou, director of the United Nations World Heritage Program, told reporters last week. “It’s an entire cultural life that is in danger of disappearing.”

Deliberate destruction of a country’s or culture’s heritage is considered a war crime, but UNESCO has yet to cancel its next summit, due to be held in Russia.

As Russian troops attempt to encircle Odessa, the Fine Arts Museum there has been surrounded by barbed wire.

“Trust me, it looks very wild to me too,” said Kirill Lipatov, the museum’s scientific director.

As in Lviv’s museums, the walls inside are now bare, Lipatov said, but he refused to reveal whether his most prized works had been evacuated from the city. Some of the pieces were painted inside the museum — an ornate 1820s palace — and have never left, including iconic 19th-century Russian works by Ivan Aivazovsky and Ilya Repin.

“The first thought that came to my mind was that a Ukrainian museum would protect Russian masterpieces from Russian aggression,” Lipatov said. “I can’t take care of it.”

Even as they struggled to believe it, museum directors said their plight was hardly unknown. Ukraine has been robbed of its artworks by invaders several times over the past century.

After the Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, dozens of works located on the peninsula were transferred to Russian museums. During World War II, thousands of works were brought to Germany by Nazi soldiers. In Lipatov’s office hangs a portrait of Yakov Galkin, the director who evacuated the Odessa Museum of Fine Arts during World War II.

Many respondents said that saving art is only secondary to saving lives because Ukrainians’ pride in their culture serves as a deep source of inspiration for their resistance to the invasion. Putin has made it clear that he views Ukraine as part of Greater Russia, a claim artists here say denies Ukraine’s distinct heritage.

“With any invasion, some culture loss is inevitable,” said Taras Voznyak, director of the Lviv National Art Gallery. “Putin knows that without art, without our history, Ukraine will have a weaker identity. That is the crux of his war – to wipe us out and assimilate us into his population of crypto-fascist zombies.”

While museums often have their own bunkers or larger networks in Europe that they can rely on to house some of their art, independent galleries and artists rely on each other.

One of the most successful efforts to protect Ukraine’s contemporary art is taking place in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, where an artist collective has converted an underground cafe into a bunker. Working with a network of truck drivers, the works of more than 30 artists – from intricate collages to hanging sculptures and huge 6-by-14-foot paintings – have been brought here day and night from across Ukraine. Eleven artists who fled their homes were also offered residencies to continue producing art during the war.

“A lot of our artists question their role – shouldn’t I take up arms? Is art as a weapon too slow to act?” said Anna Potyomkina, 25, a curator who is part of the collective. “But creating art while Russia is bombing museums and studios is a big and necessary part of the resistance.”

Aside from the bubble-wrapped stacks of art waiting to be taken into the bunker, the collective is full of familiar creative culture: funky furniture, Apple computers, a shelf of books on gender and feminism, walls covered with sticky notes and pictures of members and her friends looking stylish and happy before the war.

Yaryna Shumska, a Lviv-based performance artist and painter who describes herself as a chronicler of “the memory of objects and their invisible stories” on her website, would like to transport her most prized artworks to Ivano-Frankivsk but fears they will be damaged in the process. If she has to flee Lviv, she will probably leave her art where it is and hope the bombs will fall elsewhere.

“My girlfriend’s studio in Kharkiv was bombed and all that’s left is an empty disaster,” Shumska said in her studio, which was littered with huge paintings on canvas, some dedicated to her husband, who died in October. “It’s an impossible question to ask yourself: Can I say goodbye to my work, which is almost like an extension of my body?”

The survival of so much Ukrainian art will ultimately depend on where the bombs fall.

In Odessa, Lipatov said the 123-year-old Fine Arts Museum is so delicate that it would almost certainly burn down if hit by a shell.

The bunker in Ivano-Frankivsk is not bombproof either. A direct hit would bury the hundreds of pieces hidden there and, at best, only save a few of them. Last week, Russia bombed the city’s airport.

“Right now, that’s all we can do,” Potyomkina said. “Right now, no one is famous, no one is jealous, no one’s art is more important than anyone else’s. All rivalries and existential crises are put on hold. We must do everything we can now, otherwise we risk losing everything.”

Siobhán O’Grady in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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