Sunday, March 6, 2022

Art & War

Even though our troops are not involved the war between Russia and Ukraine seems close to home probably because we have thought of Russia as the rival if not the enemy of the U.S. for most of our lives. Now war could reach our shores if not by violence then by the newest weapon, cyber-attacks, not to mention the fact that last week Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert.

What I have not thought about that much is how do you protect art from the indiscriminate bombing and mortar shells? Of course, I should have remembered the devastation of art collections and historical monuments in Iraq and Afghanistan not to mention World War II.

Statistics show that there are 5,000 museums in the Ukraine as opposed to 35,000 in the U.S. Of course, these are not all art museums but still the number represents a whole lot of art including archeological objects. Of course, the safety of art comes second to the safety of people but without the art and artifacts a nation loses its history. Erasing the concept of Ukrainian culture may be the intent as Russia attempts to take over a country that at one time was part of its empire and make it part of Russia again.

The Russians already burned down a museum in the province of Kyiv which housed the work of an internationally recognized Ukrainian folk artist, Maria Pryimachenko (1919-1997) and 25 of her paintings were destroyed. Upon seeing an exhibition of her work in Paris Picasso is said to have commented, ““I bow down before the artistic miracle of this brilliant Ukrainian.”

What to do particularly when you are concerned for your family, friends, and staff? The director of the Museum of the History of Ukraine in the Second World War said that in “a great feat” the staff had moved the most important pieces to a “safe location”… and where might that be? I presume bomb shelters are for people not art.

Of course, the Ukrainians are trying to secure their museums and the Odessa Art Museum has put up barbed wire around the museum which might stop looters but won’t do much against a direct attack or bombing. To mitigate the latter, art has been moved to the safest place within the walls of the museum, the basement. The Lviv Municipal Art Center near the Polish border took a different direction: it has opened its doors to those fleeing the war zone to offer “a place of temporary respite for displaced people and for all those who require psychological calm.”

The art world is reacting. The Royal Opera House in London has cancelled the Bolshoi Ballet appearance this season. Artists are withdrawing works of art lent for Russian exhibitions. One curator has demanded that an exhibition he organized be closed immediately but, in the maelstrom, international loans are held hostage until ways can be found to return them.

Can Ukraine’s patrimony of treasures, which includes Scythian gold, be transported out of the country for safe keeping? This, of course, would be one solution. In spite of the imminent danger the law must still be obeyed and to move art over the border one must get government permission. At least one museum that had applied to do so as tensions rose had still not received a government release when the invasion began. Here is a pectoral, ca. mid 4th century, from Tovsta Mohyla, Ukraine.

Patty Gerstenblith, professor at DePaul University and director of its Center for Art, Museum & Cultural Heritage Law, recently urged the Western art market to self-police against the illegal trade of looted Ukrainian artworks and archaeological artifacts. Easier said than done, if the art trade had adhered to that admonition during and after WWII there would be few fewer claims today for the art looted by the Nazis.

Communication with the outside world is difficult but museum staff have been able to do so on social media. Eventually, when it is all over, we will learn what art has been preserved and how it was done, but for now all we can do is pray the brave museum directors and curators of Ukraine survive and succeed in their mission.

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