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Threatened by war, Ukrainian paintings find refuge in Switzerland

By Gabrielle Tetrault Farber

GENEVA (Reuters) – When Russia sent troops to Ukraine a year ago, the director of Kyiv’s National Art Gallery had only one thing in mind: the safety of the paintings.

As air sirens blared, Yuri Vakulenko packed a bag and headed to the gallery, where he would spend the next 66 days living in the basement, armed with a bulletproof vest and gas mask, and tending to the exhibits.

Vakulenko, not wanting the paintings to gather dust abroad, asked European museums if they would be interested in showing modified versions of two exhibitions that were already held in Ukraine.

Two Swiss museums, the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and the Kunstmuseum Basel, agreed.

“This was an idea that would allow our paintings to be in a safe place while allowing our gallery to keep fighting on the cultural front,” Vakulenko told Reuters from Kyiv.

The Geneva museum, which took over paintings from Madrid’s Prado Museum during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, sent packing materials to ensure safe shipment.

The Musee Rath, which houses the temporary exhibitions of the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, is now showing “From Dusk to Dawn” and is showing works by Ukrainian painters from the Kiev gallery.

Also on view are the crates in which the paintings were transported from Ukraine, weeks after the Kiev gallery’s windows were shattered by a nearby shell.

Vakulenko said it was impossible to insure the paintings through Ukraine, so security guards escorted the shipment on its two-day journey to the Polish border.

“The most important thing was to keep secret the movement of cargo on the territory of Ukraine,” Vakulenko said. “The details of cargo movements were known only to a very limited circle of people directly involved in the transportation and security process.”

The exhibition in Basel features 49 works from the 18th to 20th centuries by Ukrainian-born artists such as Ilya Repin and Volodymyr Borovykovsky. Many of the painters were trained in Russia and were associated with its empire or the Soviet Union.

But the exhibitions challenge the concept that the works fit into an overarching understanding of Russian art.

“It was an important project to understand the narrative of their collection and also to look at (its) history more critically and consciously,” said Olga Osadtschy, deputy curator at the Kunstmuseum Basel, about the Kiev gallery’s initiative.

“We’re all used to the label ‘Russian art,’ but there’s so much more to it than that.”

(Reporting by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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