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The Invasion of Ukraine Has the Art World up in Arms

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With the recent invasion of Ukraine, we’re reminded that more often than not, human lives aren’t the only casualties of war. Priceless works of art also tend to pay the price of fighting. Especially in a highly ideological war, art and culture are at the center of things and can’t always make it out. During the Second World War, art theft and looting unfolded on a massive scale that left pieces by the likes of Raphael, Gustav Klimt, and Vincent van Gogh, scattered, without homes, throughout the world. And now, with the war over Ukraine in full swing, art once again finds itself in danger. This time, however, with the invasion of Ukraine, artists and curators are stepping up to protect precious works of art that have no business being collateral damage in the middle of so much violence.

Since the Russian invasion, Ukrainians are filling their cars with as much of their lives that will fit and fleeing Kyiv. Because so many are desperately trying to escape, the traffic is hardly moving. Photo: Pierre Crom

Just yesterday, for instance, Raimundas Malašauskas, who curates the Russian pavilion at La Biennale di Venezia, pulled out of this year’s exhibition. So did artists Alexandra Sukhareva and Kirill Savchenkov. Their resignations may not shift the course of the war, but it makes a big statement. The Russian pavilion was designed by architect Alexey Shchusev and built between 1913 and 1914, and though it’s closed three times since its inception, it’s never shut down as a political response to an ongoing war. Savchenkov took to Instagram and admitted, “As a Russian-born [artist], I won’t be presenting my work in Venice.” 

Their resignation is out of deference to those who had to halt their work on the Ukrainian pavilion because of the Russian invasion, which, since it began only a few days ago, has forced more than 400,000 Ukrainians to become refugees, rushing to the border. And male Ukrainians between 18 to 60 are prohibited from leaving the country. They’re staying to fight for their land, freedom, and culture.

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The Russians, however, aren’t making defending themselves easy: Their soldiers stormed Ukraine from all angles, destroying everything in their path while en route to Kyiv. One of the many architectural casualties is the Ivankiv Historical and Local History Museum, in its namesake city northwest of the capital. Russian soldiers burned the museum, which was home to 25 works by 20th-century folk artist Maria Prymachenko, to the ground. Her work may not be as widely known as some of her more internationally established counterparts, but Maria Prymachenko is a household name in Ukraine. 

In fact, one of her works was the decorative backdrop on Ukrainian stamps throughout the 1970s, and 12 years after her death, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared that 2009 was the year of Maria Prymachenko. Today, so many of her colorful works are nothing but ash, blanketing the floor of their former home, which is now just a pile of rubble. In response to the hateful acts against Ukraine and its cultural relics, Ukraine has called on UNESCO to revoke Russia’s membership to the organization.

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