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Ukraine today: Art flowering in war

The trauma of invasion has a long history before Putin. Ukraine artists draw on it in remarkable ways, reaching back to the modernist movement of a century ago.


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:

Oleksiy Sai, “Bombed 1,” 2020
Oleksh Revika, “What Fears Dream About.”

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:

Davyd Burliuk, “Carousel,” 1921, National Art Museum of Ukraine.

To see more from the Madrid exhibition, In the Eye of the Storm: Modernism in Ukraine, 1900-1930s: Thyssen-Bornemisza.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Slader is an Oregon painter, digital artist, sculptor, and photographer. His youthful art ambitions were detoured by an almost forty-year career as a litigator, child-advocate, and attorney for survivors of sexual abuse. Although a Portland resident, David's studio is in the Coast Range foothills, along an oxbow of the Upper Nehalem River, where he alternates making art with efforts to reforest his land. In the Fall, a run of Chinook salmon spawn outside his studio door.

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