A secret convoy of two trucks carrying 51 rare works of art slipped out of Kiev early Tuesday, hours before waves of Russian missiles began raining down on the capital and other cities in Ukraine.
A mission to transport the works west to Lviv, across the border to Poland and then 3,000 km across Europe to Madrid was unexpectedly dangerous, even in wartime. Much of the country was plunged into darkness as energy infrastructure came under fire. Lviv was the target as the trucks passed.
As the trucks approached the border between Ukraine and Poland, a stray missile fell into the nearby Polish village of Przewodów, threatening a major escalation of the war.
After five days of travel, the artworks reached their destination, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in the Spanish capital, where they will be featured next week in a major exhibition of Ukrainian avant-garde art.
In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930 is supported by Museums for Ukraine, an initiative supported by European museums and galleries to protect and honor Ukrainian cultural objects and collections.
The exhibition claims to be the most comprehensive overview of Ukrainian modern art to date, including previously unseen works on loan from the National Art Museum of Ukraine and private collections.
The 70 works on display include oil paintings, sketches, collages and theater designs, and showcase works by Ukrainian modernists Oleksander Bohomazov, Vasyl Yermilov, Viktor Palmov and Anatol Petrytskyi. It also showcases works by artists who were born and started their careers in Ukraine but became famous abroad, including Alexandra Exter, Wladimir Baranoff-Rossine and Sonia Delaunay.
Ukrainian modernism developed against the backdrop of World War I, the collapse of empires, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the ensuing Ukrainian War of Independence, and the eventual establishment of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
During the Stalinist repression of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, artists, writers and theater directors were imprisoned in gulags and executed.
Art collector Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, who founded Museums for Ukraine in March, said the trucks carrying the artworks were “secretly packed to protect the visual reference of the largest and most important export of Ukraine’s cultural heritage that has since emerged from the country has left. the beginning of the war”.
She added: “Getting these works to safety was not without risk, but the priority to do so remained largely because the Russian military has shown consistent disrespect for the covenants of the Hague Convention. They have committed massive looting in all occupied territories and more than 500 cultural heritage buildings have been destroyed.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine was “not just about stealing territory, but about controlling the nation’s narrative and cultural heritage,” she said. “As we watch history repeat itself, this exhibit is a powerful reminder of how close we are to another disaster.”
The exhibition opens with a video message from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A symposium of European cultural figures will discuss the role of cultural solidarity in times of crisis.
The exhibition runs in Madrid until April and then moves to Cologne and possibly other European locations.