Treasures of Ukraine: A Nation's Cultural Heritage
This book appears just as reports emerge that Russian forces have looted museums in five Ukrainian towns under their control. Not just rank-and-file soldiers but art experts are removing paintings, photographs, and statues and putting them in waiting trucks. Does it matter? Could art from this out-of-the-way land have much value? The answer is YES—for Ukraine and everyone interested in civilization.
As this book documents, the artistic heritage of Ukraine goes back thousands of years before our current era. Treasures of Ukraine contains more than 220 color images that showcase everything from Scythian gold, Byzantine icons, and wooden churches to gold-domed cathedrals, avant-garde masterpieces, and political art after the Orange Revolution. The accompanying texts by specialists on each period explain the history and significance behind the pieces.
This book tells Ukraine’s broader history through a survey of its art. The entire survey is engaging and enlightening but of necessity is highly compressed. Many names and issues are mentioned but very briefly identified. A two-page chronology, in fine print, takes the reader from pre-historic Neanderthals to today’s barbarian invaders. Placed at the end of the book, a chronology helps anchor many highlighted developments in time, but it might better have been placed near the opening pages.
An especially interesting section of the book addresses “The Dawn of Modernism.” It describes and illustrates the works of Oleksandr Murashko and Mukhallo Zhuk, Art Nouveau artists who interacted often with kindred souls in Vienna, Munich, Berlin, and Paris. While these modernists painted before the era of Stalin and Socialist Realism, a subsequent cultural thaw witnessed how the creations and techniques of Le Corboisie impacted the architecture of educational institutions in Kyiv such as the Vernadsky National Library, named for the father of environmentalism in the Soviet Union.,
What sets Ukrainian artists apart today from their European contemporaries is that most Western artists are able to make art without being shot at. The current war and its effect on Ukrainian culture are part of the broader history of Ukraine, a battleground contested at various times by Mongols from the east, Turks from the south, Russians from the north, and Poles and Lithuanians from the west. For the past three centuries, Russia has been the dominant power in the region, and Ukrainian artists and intellectuals have struggled to keep their language and culture alive despite repression, starvation and war.
Vladimir Putin, like many dictators, wants to bend history to his ends. Russian troops, acting on his orders, have seized cultural artifacts from the parts of Ukraine they have invaded, while artworks in unoccupied Ukraine remain in peril from air attacks.
Yet the human urge to make art continues. As the text for an exhibition that opened in Kyiv this past June stated: “Pain and shock do not exhaust our lives. There is also hope, persistence, devotion, love. There is still beauty and there is a future.”
Walter Clemens, Associate at the Harvard Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, is completing a book on the Russia-Ukraine war.