A secret convoy of two trucks containing 51 rare works of art slipped out of Kyiv early last Tuesday, hours before waves of Russian missiles began raining down on the capital and other cities across Ukraine.
A mission to transport the works west to Lviv, across the border to Poland and then 3,000km across Europe to Madrid was unexpectedly hazardous, even for wartime. Much of the country was plunged into darkness as energy infrastructure came under fire. Lviv was targeted as the trucks passed through.
As the trucks approached the Ukraine-Poland border, a stray missile fell in the nearby Polish village of Przewodów, threatening a major escalation of the war.
After five days on the road, the artworks reached their destination, the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza in the Spanish capital, where next week they will go on display 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 backed by European museums and galleries to protect and celebrate Ukrainian cultural objects and collections.
The exhibition claims to be the most comprehensive survey of Ukrainian modern art to date, with previously unseen works on loan from the National Art Museum of Ukraine and private collections, among others.
The 70 works on show include oil paintings, sketches, collages and theater designs, and presents works by the 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 the first world war, collapsing empires, the 1917 Russian revolution and ensuing Ukrainian war of independence, and the eventual creation of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic.
During the Stalinist repression of the Ukrainian intelligentsia, artists, writers and theater directors were imprisoned in the gulags and executed.
The art collector Francesca Thyssen-Bornemisza, who founded Museums for Ukraine in March, said the trucks containing the artworks were “packed in secrecy to safeguard the visual reference of the largest and most important export of Ukraine’s cultural heritage to have departed from the country since the beginning of the war”.
She added: “Bringing these works to safety was not without risk, but the priority to do so remained largely because the Russian military has demonstrated consistent disrespect to the covenants of The Hague convention. They have instigated massive looting in all occupied territories, and over 500 cultural heritage buildings have been destroyed.”
Russia’s war in Ukraine was “not only about stealing territory but about controlling the nation’s narrative and cultural heritage”, she said. “As we watch history repeat itself, this exhibition is a powerful reminder of how close we are to another disaster.”
The exhibition will open with a video message from the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. A symposium of European cultural figures will discuss the role of cultural solidarity in times of crisis.
The exhibition will run in Madrid until next April, and then move to Cologne and possibly other European venues.