Source – WSJ by A.J. Goldmann
It isn’t every day that a major museum clears out a portion of its permanent collection to make way for a temporary show.
Then again, “In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s,” at the Thyssen-Bornemisza National Museum Madrid, is not just another exhibition.
Fifty-one of the 70 artworks that make up this essential show arrived in Madrid on a special convoy that left Kyiv in the early hours of Nov. 15, the day Russia launched its largest aerial attack yet on Ukraine. Missiles whizzed overhead as the two trucks and their precious cargo crept toward the Polish border, where they were detained for 10 hours after a stray missile landed inside Poland. After much diplomatic wrangling, the convoy continued its journey to the Spanish capital unimpeded.
“We can thank Mr. Putin for such amazing Indiana Jones-style adventures,” said Konstantin Akinsha, the Ukrainian-American art historian and curator who spearheaded the exhibition, a monumentally challenging undertaking intended both to showcase artists little-known outside of Ukraine and to safeguard artworks trapped in a warzone from destruction or looting.
While a handsome catalog, published by Thames and Hudson, was in the works for several years, the Madrid exhibit was planned only following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.
The narrative flow and structural integrity that Mr. Akinsha and his co-curators Katia Denysova and Olena Kashuba-Volvach have brought to the exhibition, billed as the most comprehensive survey of Ukrainian modern art to date, are all the more impressive given the show’s improvised nature. (The artworks, explained Mr. Akinsha, will not return to Kyiv for the foreseeable future. A version of the show will open in June at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany.)
By and large, the artists featured in “In the Eye of the Storm” are not household names. The few that are—El Lissitzky, Kazimir Malevich and Sonia Delaunay (née Sarah Stern)—are more often referred to as belonging to the Russian avant-garde. It is clear that part of the show’s aim is to claim them as central players in Ukrainian Modernism.
Lissitzky was a member of the Kultur Lige, a Jewish socialist cultural organization during the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic that was founded in Kyiv in 1918 and was disbanded in the 1920s, shortly after Ukraine became part of the Soviet Union. Lissitzky is represented in the show by “Composition” (1919), a Cubist-like canvas of stormy saturated colors and dynamic shapes that is one of the artist’s earliest abstract works. Pasted in its center is a fragment of a Yiddish text, similar to the klaf, the small parchment rolled up inside of a mezuzah, the Jewish amulet hung on doorposts. The work suggests that Lissitzky saw no contradiction between Yiddish tradition and avant-garde artistic tendencies.
Anatol Petrytskyi’s costume designs for Minister Pinh in ‘Rurandot’ at the State Opera Theatre, Kharkiv, 1928PHOTO: MUSEUM OF THEATRE, MUSIC AND CINEMA OF UKRAINE
That all-embracing ethos of experimentation and cultural cross-pollination lies at the heart of much of the work on display here. Many of the artists trained in Western Europe and their creativity was fired up by the epoch’s various cultural isms. The exhibition’s first gallery is devoted to Cubo-Futurism, a fusion of the French and Italian styles that took hold throughout the Russian Empire in the 1910s.
Alexandra Exter’s “Bridge, Sèvres” (c. 1912), one of the earliest works in the show, is a rigorously geometric landscape whose multiple viewpoints are rendered with rhythm and balance. Simplified or fractured forms and increasing abstraction also appear in her “Three Female Figures” (1909-10) and a 1913 still life from the Thyssen collection (one of several of the museum’s holdings that appear in this show), while their exuberant colors—blue and yellow in particular—show the influence of Ukrainian folk art.
Further sections take us to Kharkiv, the first capital of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, between 1919 and 1934, and the hotbed of a utopian culture promoted by the policy of Ukrainization, which sought to invent an identity that was both Ukrainian and Soviet.
Constructivist and Suprematist compositions by Borys Kosarev and Anatol Petrytskyi join Vasyl Yermilov’s Bauhaus-like typefaces and his dynamic designs for the Chess Room at the Central Red Army Club in Kharkiv (1920), which embed folk motifs in off-kilter geometrical structures. A generous selection of 1920s set and costume designs from the Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema of Ukraine further attests to a creatively fecund early Soviet culture that embraced avant-garde sensibilities.
The works toward the end of the show reveal artists active in Kyiv and Odessa eclectically drawing on Byzantine art and early Renaissance frescoes, but also on Novecento Italiano and Neue Sachlichkeit. The panoply of styles and influences and the confidence to combine them at will was a defining feature of Ukrainian art throughout the decade. At the Soviet pavilion at the Venice Biennale, 32 Ukrainian works were shown in 1928 and 1930.
Stalin interpreted this degree of cultural autonomy as a threat and, shortly afterward, commenced his violent purge of Ukraine’s intellectuals and cultural elite, which included many of the artists whose works are displayed here. With Russia once again embarked on a murderous project to erase Ukrainian identity and culture, this urgent exhibition takes on a rare moral dimension.