While several efforts have been directed toward safeguarding Ukraine’s art and artefacts during the Russian onslaught, its artists are also striving to depict the war and its impact through their works. An exhibition titled ‘The Captured House’, which opened at Espace Vanderborght in Brussels this week features works of contemporary Ukrainian artists made after the Russian invasion began on February 24.
“Let this project become not a stream of ‘bad news from Ukraine’, but your personal conversation, a conversation in your kitchen to your heart’s content, with every Ukrainian whose life is in danger in our common ‘Captured House,’” reads a note on the exhibition by curator Kate Taylor.
We look at some of the works from the exhibition, as well as some of the greatest war paintings of the 20th century.
The project was reportedly ideated by Taylor around April after she noticed that Ukrainian artists were creating works responding to the war. Soon, she began following the works, leading to the exhibition that has already travelled to Berlin, Rome and Amsterdam.
In a note on the exhibition on its official website, Taylor states, “This is not just our war. This is a war for the whole of Europe, which we are defending and standing on as a shield, a shield of our and your lives. People who stay in Ukraine protect the country, help to survive and people who continue to appeal not only directly against the war but also because of our cultural codes, the roots of our common identity, Ukraine’s relationship with Europe and our common values.”
Featuring 200 works by 50 Ukrainian artists, the exhibition portrays different aspects of the war. Based in Kyiv when the war broke out, artist Yuriy Bolsa depicts the “sounds of explosions” in his paintings and recalls how he fled to his village in Volyn “out of fear, like a little child hiding behind his mother”.
If artist Vlada Ralko notes that she has used art as her language to speak about the war, Alevtina Kakhidze notes that in Ukraine today “anyone can be wiped out regardless of sex, views, good deeds or crimes. Trees, animals, and houses can be destroyed anytime as well.” Based in Odessa when the war began, Daria Koltsova dedicated her artwork to children who have lost their lives to the war. With the number of children who are being killed during the onslaught growing, she is making a clay sculpture for each of them in remembrance.
“This is my ritual of honouring every little life that was lost, my way of singing the last lullaby,” she writes on the exhibition website. Ukrainian photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, on the other hand, is displaying photographs of death and destruction. “But the hardest thing is death and people mourning their relatives,” he writes.
Months after the war in Ukraine began, artists from the country found centerstage at the Venice Biennale exhibition that began in April. Speaking via a web link, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said, “Art can tell the world things that cannot be shared otherwise…There are no tyrannies that would not try to limit art. Because they can see the power of art. It is art that conveys feelings”.
Transported from Ukraine under police supervision, the works included artist Pavlo Makov’s ‘The Fountain of Exhaustion’, an installation featuring funnels with dripping water arranged in a triangle, commenting on democracy.
At New York’s Fridman Gallery, some of Ukraine’s leading women artists are sharing the experience of war. Aspen Institute in Colorado is hosting the exhibition ‘Beast of War, Bird of Hope’, featuring Ukrainian paintings and photography created in response to the war. “One of the most moving sequences of three photos shows an old woman holding her head in her hands, a new mother holding her baby in her arms, and a group of workers holding body bags in a desolate field,” reads a note on the exhibition on the Aspen Institute website.
In the Ukrainian city of Kherson, painters, photographers and playwrights have come together to form an underground art residency entitled ‘Residency in Occupation’, directed at creating works depicting the horrors of living in a war-torn country.
In May, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ukrainian artists put together an anti-war exhibition at Russia House comprising photographs depicting war crimes, from the severely injured to razed buildings. Meanwhile, at the nomadic European biennial Manifesta 14 at Prishtina, Kosovo, Hedwig Fijen, the founder and director of Manifesta, has proposed that Kyiv should host the 2028 edition of the art event in a bid to help rebuild the country’s cultural ecosystem and infrastructure.
While artists have been depicting battle scenes since ancient times – from its atrocities to the might of the powerful – the 20th century has seen several masterpieces portraying war. One of the most famous war paintings perhaps is Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. The 1937 oil on canvas was painted by the Spanish artist in the aftermath of the Nazi bombing of Guernica, Spain. The monumental black and white work depicts misery and pain, including a wounded horse, a bull, dismembered soldiers and wailing women.
Also depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War was Salvador Dali’s 1936 ‘Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)’, portraying the self-destructive nature of war through a monstrous creature.
Made during World War I, in German artist Kathe Kollwitz’s 1923 woodcut titled ‘War’, the protagonists were those left behind – from elderly mothers to widows and children. His countryman Otto Dix depicted a battlefield filled with wounded and dead soldiers during the war in the triptych ‘Der Krieg’.
In more recent years, American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Whaam!’ in 1963 commented on the Vietnam war, through a depiction based on a panel from the 1962 DC war comic ‘All American Men of War’.
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