Imagination cannot escape trauma. It can be driven to new heights, it can be squashed into numbness, or it can be driven underground. But it cannot escape. Today, the Ukrainian nation’s very existence as a unique culture is under assault. But that is nothing new. Ukraine has known the staccato rhythm of violence for centuries, all united by a common purpose: to eliminate Ukraine’s national and cultural identity. Catherine the Great deported much of the population; Stalin tried to Russify through mass famine; the Nazis invaded and murdered untold thousands—followed by a resumption of Soviet suppression and subversion (it is a habit). What kind of art can survive repeated campaigns of obliteration?
Yet Ukrainian art today, drawing on a long history of stubborn resistance and daring creativity, exhibits a vibrant war-torn energy as its artists search for the visual vocabulary to tell their stories of fear, grief, and hope. Here are a couple of examples:
Today’s Ukrainian artists have a strong tradition to draw on, including a remarkable flowering of modernism in the early Twentieth Century. An exhibit focusing on that period, In the Eye of the Storm, recently opened in Madrid at the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum, letting us peek through a history window that few outside of Ukraine have explored. Many of the paintings in this exhibit had to be covertly transported to Spain from Ukrainian museums in a truck caravan dodging the blasts of one of the war’s heaviest Russian missile strikes.
Here is one vivid example from the 1920s:
To see more from the Madrid exhibition, In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s: Thyssen-Bornemisza.