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Ukrainian wartime art: pain, anger and laughter

Ukrainian artists disproved the well-known expression “When the guns are talking, the muses are silent”. They suffered the shock and disorientation of the early days of the war, but even when they lost the chance to work quietly in their studios, they did not stop creating. We will remember those terrible times by their work, in which despair was mixed with rage and hope.

Do we need art in a time of war?

A huge number of great artists live in Ukraine. The creative life is most active in the big Ukrainian cities – Odessa, Kharkov, Lviv, Uzhgorod. But the centre of significant creative events is the capital of Ukraine Kiev. Here there are professional art institutions, a large number of museums and galleries. During the first days of the war, many artists, especially from Kiev, Kharkov, Chernigov and the regions that had taken the hit from the invaders, were forced to evacuate in a hurry. Some found refuge in western Ukraine, others fled to Europe, the USA and Israel… Many artists did not leave their homes, but due to the constant threat of shelling they were unable to work as before.

The confusion in society was so great at first, that the question was whether culture was really necessary now. Would artists be able to create under war conditions at all? But soon their first works appeared on their personal blogs – art came alive! The first war-time works were created with whatever was at hand. Painters became graphic artists – they used coloured pencils and gel pens. Monumentalists were content with the minimum – sheets from albums or notebooks. What mattered was not size and material, but the opportunity to express their feelings, their attitude to what was going on.

 

 

Cultural diplomacy: artists as emissaries of Ukraine

 

The themes of the works usually corresponded to the public mood and information streams. The artists immediately reacted to news about a bomb dropped on a theatre full of people in Mariupol, the massacre in Bucha near Kiev, the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva, the destruction of a museum of the genius Ukrainian philosopher and writer Grigory Skovoroda by enemy shells…

Gradually the reflections became more complicated and the subjects expanded. Artists began to work with oil paints, acrylics, made posters, printed graphics. The tragedy of Ukraine had a huge resonance in the world. In different countries exhibitions of Ukrainian art were held: in Italy (within the framework of Venice Biennale), Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Poland, Czech Republic, Spain, the USA and others. Of course, exhibitions have begun to open in Ukraine itself, and the works of artists are also presented in online venues. Today, Ukrainian artists, wherever they are located, are emissaries of their country; their work is no less important than that of photographers and journalists.

 

Road diaries and ancient tragedies

 

We can already name some names and trends, although the list is huge, with new works appearing every day – we are in fact witnessing a cultural explosion.

For example, Matvii Vaisberg, one of the most successful contemporary Ukrainian realist painters, had to evacuate his family from Kiev to Germany. His impressions formed the graphic cycle “Road Diary”, where everything was an excuse to create expressive drawings on black paper – a night road lit by headlights, clouds over the sea, a window splashed with rain, a green field… In the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, Vaisberg looked at old masters (Tintoretto, Rubens, Grünewald) and made studies based on these timeless paintings. The Crucifixion, created 400 years ago, looks desperately relevant today. Like ancient warriors who have lost their arms, legs, fragments of ammunition for thousands of years – through these “wounded” sculptures Matvii Vaisberg showed a feat of defenders of Mariupol, “Azovstal”.

 

 

Of current relevance today is the creative style of artist Polina Kuznetsova (who was evacuated from Kharkov), famous for her special magical view of nature. The desolate landscapes, meadows and forests that Polina loves so much are now deafeningly silent because of the war. The black sacks with the bodies of the innocently murdered are reminiscent of ships heading for the sky. This symbol of death, the black sack, also appears in the works of other artists. They remind us that in every sack there is a person who just recently was alive.

 

 

Oleksii Revika, another artist from Kiev, is working on a graphic series in which he conveys the power of Ukrainian tragedy through the corporeality. In a classical manner, he depicts the naked bodies of the dead under the rubble, found with their hands tied in mass graves, and the bodies of living, strong people who fight for their freedom with antique power.

 

 

The language of symbols in Ukrainian art

 

Kateryna Kosianenko combines modern themes with iconic and folk traditions in her oil paintings in the style of magical realism. Time seems to stand still in her paintings. Soldiers of the Ukrainian army look like the heavenly army on the ancient icons. The Ukrainians in their ancient clothes stand side by side with the modern townspeople in the frightened crowd. Angels hold up a mirror, in which a green courtyard and a young family on a bench are reflected, and all around are the black ruins of that pre-war courtyard and high-rise buildings… It is worth noting that biblical themes and symbolism are very common in Ukrainian art of the war times. Their inner depth, their strength, which has been accumulating for two thousand years, creates a matrix of perception.

Blackened by fire, half-destroyed high-rise buildings, mentioned above, are another eloquent symbol of war, which is also found in many works. It is a symbol of the sudden loss of everything one has: a flat, favourite things, photographs, children’s toys. A symbol of a lost city, because many Ukrainian towns and cities have been reduced to rubble by Russian army shelling. But, worst of all, it is a symbol of death, as high-rise buildings have become mass graves, and the exact number of victims is unknown…

 

 

Reflection in the form of a poster – laconic and vivid 

 

Artist Anton Logov is known for his abstract works and large-scale installations. But during the evacuation he started creating small watercolour works in a naive manner: cars shot on the roads, in which people tried to leave the occupation, a bullet-riddled hat of a dead 13-year-old boy, a portrait of a little boy who came to his mother’s grave, houses destroyed by rockets, burial pits in the yards… The laconic colour range and clear messages bring Anton’s works closer to posters. In fact, some of his works have already been used for posters and posters.

 

 

Mykola Honcharov, who is an excellent graphic artist and poster designer, also works productively with digital poster techniques. His images are unambiguous, clear and hit the mark. For example, he “armed” the monuments to the writers Grigory Skovoroda and Taras Shevchenko, and to Prince Volodymyr the Great, who had christened Kievan Rus, so that they, too, could destroy the enemy. By the way, works by Anton Logov and Mykola Honcharov were shown at the Venice Biennale.

 

 

Laughing at the enemy as a weapon

 

Another technical approach, rather unexpected, is demonstrated by Julia Tveritina, who now lives and works in China. Her creative style is close to the comic strip: dynamic, vivid, with a cinematic construction of each “frame”. The heroes of the works are ordinary people – they have left the occupied territories under bombardment, they have sat in basements with their children, cats and dogs, they have returned to their liberated homes and seen the destruction, dirt and excrement of the occupiers everywhere. Julia’s work, based on true stories, whimsically combines pain, anger and humour.

Yes, Ukrainian artists – Vladyslav Shereshevsky, Serhiy Pozniak, Maksym Palenko and others – also create cartoon works. Yes, humour can also kill a cruel enemy by making him silly and funny. And it can also be a distraction from hard news, a breather, and Ukrainians are funny people.

Ukrainian wartime art is the documentary evidence, embodied in an artistic form. Immediate reflection and sincere feelings (often close to affectation) fill the works with incredible power. One day, these works will become part of the history of art, will be catalogued and find their way into private and public collections. Today, we can only watch with admiration as the artists struggle desperately with brushes and pencils in their hands.