The War between Ukraine and Russia and the Role of Art in Documenting the War
While several efforts have been directed towards saving Ukraine’s art and artifacts during the Russian onslaught, its artists also strive to depict the war and its impact through their works. An exhibition called “The Captured House”, which opened this week at Espace Vanderborght in Brussels, features works by contemporary Ukrainian artists made after the start of the Russian invasion on February 24.
“May this project not become a stream of ‘bad news from Ukraine’, but your personal conversation, a conversation in your kitchen at your leisure, with every Ukrainian whose life is in danger in our commune ‘Captured House'”, reads a note on the exhibition by curator Kate Taylor.
We look at some of the works in the exhibition, as well as some of the greatest war paintings of the 20th century.
Highlights of “The Captured House”
The project was reportedly dreamed up by Taylor around April after noticing Ukrainian artists were creating works in response to the war. Soon she began to follow the works, leading to the exhibition which has already traveled to Berlin, Rome and Amsterdam.
In a note about the exhibit on his official website, Taylor says, “It’s not just our war. It is a war for all of Europe, which we are defending and on which we stand as a shield, a shield of our lives and of your lives. People who remain 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, the relationship of Ukraine with Europe and our common values.
Featuring 200 works by 50 Ukrainian artists, the exhibition depicts different aspects of the war. Based in Kyiv when war broke out, artist Yuriy Bolsa depicts the “sounds of explosions” in his paintings and recalls how he fled to his village of Volyn “out of fear, like a small child hiding behind his mother “.
While artist Vlada Ralko notes that she used art as a language to talk about the war, Alevtina Kakhidze notes that in Ukraine today “anyone can be annihilated, regardless of gender, opinions , his good deeds or his crimes. Trees, animals and houses can also be destroyed at any time. Based in Odessa at the start of the war, Daria Koltsova dedicated her works to children who lost their lives in the war. With the growing number of children killed in the assault, she makes a clay sculpture for each of them in remembrance.
“It’s my ritual to honor every little life that’s been lost, my way of singing the last lullaby,” she wrote on the exhibit’s website. Ukrainian photographer Evgeniy Maloletka, meanwhile, exhibits photographs of death and destruction. “But the hardest part is death and people mourning their loved ones,” he wrote.
How did Ukrainian artists react to the war?
Months after the start of the war in Ukraine, artists from the country found center stage at the Venice Biennale exhibition which opened in April. Speaking via 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 the world. ‘art. Because they can see the power of art. It is an art that transmits feelings”.
Transported from Ukraine under police surveillance, the works included “The Fountain of Exhaustion” by artist Pavlo Makov, an installation featuring funnels with water drops arranged in a triangle, commenting on democracy.
At the Fridman Gallery in New York, some of Ukraine’s greatest female artists share the experience of war. The Aspen Institute in Colorado is hosting the “Beast of War, Bird of Hope” exhibit, featuring Ukrainian paintings and photographs 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 one. 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 called “Residency in Occupation”, intended to create works depicting the horrors of life in a country torn by war.
In May, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Ukrainian artists mounted an anti-war exhibit at Russia House that included photographs depicting war crimes, from seriously injured people to razed buildings. Meanwhile, at the nomadic European biennial Manifesta 14 in Prishtina, Kosovo, Hedwig Fijen, founder and director of Manifesta, proposed that Kyiv host the 2028 edition of the art event with the aim of helping to rebuild the cultural ecosystem and the country’s infrastructure.
Great art responding to the wars of the 20th century
While artists have been depicting battle scenes since ancient times – from its atrocities to the might of the mighty – the 20th century has seen several masterpieces depicting warfare. Perhaps one of the most famous war paintings is “Guernica” by Pablo Picasso. The 1937 oil on canvas was painted by the Spanish artist following 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.
Salvador Dali’s 1936 ‘Sweet Construction with Boiled Beans (Civil War Premonition)’ also portrays the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, portraying the self-destructive nature of war through a monstrous creature.
Made during the First World War, in the 1923 woodcut by German artist Kathe Kollwitz entitled “War”, the protagonists were those who remained – from elderly mothers to widows and children. His compatriot Otto Dix depicted a battlefield filled with wounded and dead soldiers in the triptych ‘Der Krieg’.
In recent years, American pop artist Roy Lichtenstein “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”.