polina kuznetsova grief dreams and a cage in the rain
Category: Latest, Reflections

Polina Kuznetsova: Grief, dreams and a cage in the rain

Polina Kuznetsova: Grief, dreams and a cage in the rain

24 February marks one year since the morning when the first Russian missiles fell on sleeping Ukrainian cities and the eight-year war entered its hot phase. For the anniversary of the Russian-Ukrainian confrontation, the online art platform G.ART Gallery is preparing a large-scale exhibition in Berlin – “Hardened. The Ukrainian Phenomenon”, which will present contemporary Ukrainian artists. Polina Kuznetsova will present paintings on canvas.

Polina Kuznetsova is originally from Kharkiv and is educated as an artist with a long experience in teaching and interest in psychology. Polina’s artworks have long ago entered the international market, and have been represented at major exhibitions. In her artwork, she has gone from the decorative nature of modernism through restrained realism to today’s magical realism filled with universal symbolism and inner strength.

February: “I hear explosions. Is this it?”

The border with Russia is 30 kilometres from Kharkiv. In February, tensions were noticeably thickening. One night Polina was walking around the city, taking pictures and rejoicing at how beautiful, comfortable and safe it had become. Deep in her heart, there was a growing awareness that Kharkiv would no longer be the same, it was necessary to preserve its memory, but at the same time, she drove away the thought of the coming big war.    

During those days, artists gathered together not only for exhibitions and lectures but also to “warm themselves to each other. On 23 February Polina stayed up late in her friend’s studio and half-jokingly said “If war breaks out, I will hide here with the children,” as the workshop was in the basement of an apartment building.

At night Polina could not sleep. Around 5 a.m. on February 24, she heard distant sounds “that are unmistakable” and wrote on Facebook, “I can hear explosions. Is that it?” When she started getting responses from Odesa, Kiev and other cities about the explosions there, it got really scary. One of Polina’s sons was at home, the other was spending the night at his grandmother’s in Kharkiv’s Saltivka neighbourhood and had rushed home. In the morning, residents of the neighbourhood saw the first Russian tanks in the distance. In the following months, Saltivka – where family and many of Polina’s friends lived – was subjected to terrible shelling and was destroyed.

“We were an island of fun…”

People were running through the streets of Kharkiv with suitcases, cars were rushing around, and spontaneous evacuations had begun. Polina was shopping for food and water, wondering how soon the Russians would be in the centre of Kharkiv and whether they should stock up on sausages… By evening, when the Russian tanks were still gone, Polina realized – the Ukrainian army was fighting. A strong feeling of security was felt that day, and it still holds.

Polina spent the first two weeks with her sons and friends in the very basement workshop that had been turned into a bomb shelter. “We helped the occupants of the house and were an island of fun and emotional support for everyone,” she recalls. She was persistently invited abroad by acquaintances, but first, the safety of others had to be taken care of.

Rescue operation on 8 March

Polina’s grandparents finally, after much persuasion, got out of Saltivka and left for France. The 14-year-old girl, one of the artist’s sons, was under occupation near Kharkiv together with her mother. They had to run a long distance under fire to a place on the outskirts of the city where Polina’s friend’s car was waiting. They said the Russians had placed Grad artillery launchers next to their houses and were hitting Kharkiv without stopping. This “rescue operation” took place on March 8, International Women’s Day. After calming down and drinking wine to celebrate the occasion, the women decided they needed to get the children out. Pauline was confident that she would settle her sons in a safe place and return to her refuge.

Black grief, pink dream

On 9 March she left her hometown with her sons. Already on the evacuation train she realised that she would not be able to return soon. “Something in me broke in that dark train,” the artist recalls. – I was no longer my usual cheerful self, ready to support everyone. Going through all those events was psychologically very hard. In Lviv, in western Ukraine, Polina said farewell to her homeland in earnest, crying and not knowing what was to come.

Luckily Polina knew where she was going; she was given a flat in Estonia. There, in the kitchen, she created her paintings. Her friends told her you shouldn’t sit in a basement, she should be working and talking about Ukraine, and the sense of responsibility, she says, helped her gather her strength. Her first war work, ‘Love and Sadness’, in which black grief wrestles with a rosy dream, was begun while she was still at the asylum. Polina sold this painting but decided not to sell all her later works in the hope of putting on an exhibition.

Indeed, in December, her exhibition “The Times” (“Chasi”) with works from 2022 opened in Kyiv. The planning and organization of this event was compelling reason for Pauline to return from evacuation to Ukraine. Visitors to the exhibition were very emotional about the Ukrainian paintings, some people were in tears. “My therapist told me that art now helps to release emotions, and I have seen this myself by talking to the audience,” says Polina.

“My cry has found its shape”

Pauline painted the main paintings of 2022 in a month and a half. She had never worked at such speed, and it was the result of intense emotional and physical turmoil. The cry of the fleeing was created in March and Pauline put it like this: ‘My cry has found its form’. The artist was finally able to express her feelings and her pain.

In her next work, an irrational image of a “baby” emerged, strange and disturbing. An Estonian friend of the artist said that he expresses “the banality of evil”, quoting the famous definition of fascism by researcher Hannah Arendt. “Evil babies” have become protagonists in other works as well. Pauline explains this image through the teachings of Freud. In the depths of the human soul live a primal, dark unconscious evil, ego, rage, an endless ‘want’. These impulses are safe and even sympathetic in an infant, but in an adult, without conscious control, they turn into a destructive force. Such a person picks up weapons and plays with other people’s lives like puppets. In Apparition, where this theme is deepened, a trio of “babies” with khaki halos attack their mother, who is crowned with a crown of thorns.

“All the pain, violence and death don’t fit inside me”

Another theme that emerged in the works of 2022 is existential “nausea”, about which the artist wrote: “All the pain, violence and death don’t fit inside me. I want to tear it all out of me because it is too much…”. Indeed, in the days when the painting was being made the city of Kherson was liberated, there was information about the tortured residents, prisons and torture chambers, and it was tough to realise that all this was happening nearby. There was no longer any strength to absorb the news, but it was impossible to tear oneself away from the news feed either. Against this backdrop, the painting “Hope”, which was created on the eve of the liberation of the Kharkiv region, Polina’s homeland, and her decision to return to Ukraine, looks particularly bright.  

A Cage in the Rain

Another angle on Ukrainian arts about war is presented by Polina Kuznetsova’s performance “Cage”, a video of which will be shown at the exhibition “Hardened. Ukrainian phenomenon”. It took place in September 2022 in Tallinn’s Vabaduse (Freedom Square, which is symbolic). Under an unplanned cold pouring rain, it sat for two hours in a cramped cage with “Bucha”, “Izum” and “Azov” written on it – the pain points of Ukraine. In those days, Russia was preparing a show trial in Mariupol for the Azov regiment leadership and was building cages for Ukrainian heroes. In addition, there were reports of inhumane conditions under which Ukrainian prisoners were being held in Olenivka – cramped conditions, hunger, illnesses and torture. Polina was accompanied in the cage by a guy from Mariupol, who decided to support the action. “It would have been nice for a performance to be silent,” says the artist, “but we had fun chatting, trying to entertain each other.

Polina and her sons arrived in Kyiv on 10 October and saw smoke over the city – that was the day Russia launched a missile strike directly at the centre, hoping to demoralise the Ukrainians. The war was still going on.

Share this post