When Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, the director of the National Art Gallery in Kiev was only thinking about how to preserve the paintings. As air raid sirens sounded in the Ukrainian capital, Yuriy Vakulenko packed his bag and headed to the gallery, where he stayed for 66 days. He stood ready in the basement with a bulletproof vest and gas mask, looking at the artwork. It was then that he decided to operate to save them, and has now revealed to Reuters how it happened.
Vakulenko didn’t want to take the paintings to warehouses abroad to collect dust, so he asked if European museums would be interested in hosting exhibitions of Ukrainian works of art. Two Swiss museums, the Museum of Art and History in Geneva and the Museum of Fine Arts in Basel, agreed to his proposal.
“I came up with this idea so that our paintings go to a safe place, but continue the cultural struggle of our gallery,” Vakulenko told Reuters.
The Geneva Museum, which held paintings from the Prado Museum in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, sent the necessary boxes to transport the artworks safely.
The Rath Museum, which hosts the temporary exhibitions of the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, is now organizing the event “From Dusk to Dawn”, where the works of Ukrainian painters from the Kiev gallery are on display.
Vakulenko revealed how the works of art ended up abroad. The journey to the Polish border took two days and secret arrangements were made for the safe transport of the paintings.
“The most important thing was secrecy about their transport on the territory of Ukraine. Only a very few people who were directly involved in transport and security knew the details,” says Vakulenko.
The Basel exhibition features 49 works from the 18th-20th centuries by Ukrainian artists such as Ilya Repin and Volodymyr Borovikovsky. Many painters were educated in Russia, which linked them to the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union:
“We’re used to this label of ‘Russian art,’ but it’s more than that. It’s a way to look more critically at their history and raise awareness,” said Olga Osadshi, assistant curator of the Basel Art Museum, about the Kiev gallery’s initiative.
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