On Tuesday, November 15th, Russia unleashed its most brutal shelling of Kyiv to date, with over a hundred missiles raining down on the Ukrainian capital and knocking out power to much of the region. However, two trucks departed the city only hours earlier carrying crates of some of the country’s great examples of twentieth-century art. Their destination? Over 2,000 miles away in Madrid. The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, one of the three great museums of Madrid after the Prado and the Reina Sofía, just opened a new exhibition of Ukrainian modernist art this past Tuesday, of which these recently-evacuated works were the final additions. The Associated Press is calling the show “a feat of cultural defiance.”
According to the museum, the early twentieth century was such a turbulent time for Ukraine, with the collapse of the Russian Empire, the First World War, the Russian Revolutions of 1917, a war of independence, and the Stalinist purges. But this produced one of Europe’s greatest and most influential circles of modernist artists. Around seventy works are now on loan from Kyiv’s National Art Museum and the Museum of Theater, Music, and Cinema, as well as from private donors. The artists represented include many great Ukrainian masters like Sonia Delaunay and Vladimir Baranov-Rossine. Also featured are artists that have gone relatively unnoticed in the West, like Oleksandr Bohomazov (seen above), Viktor Palmov, and Kazymyr Malevych. Further, the exhibition highlights works by members of the Kultur Lige, a secular Jewish organization formed in Kyiv to promote Yiddish-language theater and literature. Many of these works were actually kept from public display by Soviet authorities for decades, having claimed they had no value or significance. The Thyssen-Bornemisza claims that this is “the most comprehensive survey of Ukrainian modern art to date”… at least, outside of Ukraine.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian writer and curator who has been trying to get an exhibition of Ukrainian art staged in the West for six years. Akinsha teamed up with Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, whose father sold the family art collection to the Spanish government in 1993 to found the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. It was only after Russia’s invasion at the end of February 2022 that the pair began contacting artists and museum administrators, talking about the threat to Ukraine’s tangible cultural heritage and how staging an exhibition at a Western museum could help. It was nothing short of a miracle that the last works from the national art museum left Kyiv before the Russian attack. According to the director of the art transport company hired for the job, the drivers saw the Russian missiles passing overhead as they left the city. Even after a ten-hour delay at the Polish border, the trucks and their contents reached Spain after five days. The exhibition, In the Eye of the Storm, is set to run until April 2023.