Exhibition about Heroes in Kyiv Lenin unearthed

Back in the spotlight: Lenin and Stalin gaze at the heroes of yesteryear
Back in the spotlight: Lenin and Stalin gaze at the heroes of yesteryear | Photo: Goethe-Institut / Ivan Dinius

The National Art Museum in Kyiv is showing the exhibition Heroes. An Inventory in Progress. The co-production by the museum and the Goethe-Institut is politically provocative, but not only in the face of the turmoil in Ukraine. By Elise Graton

More than a year ago, when clashes between Maidan protesters and police escalated in Kyiv, Mariia Zadorozhna did not think twice and locked herself in the museum. The general director of the National Art Museum of Ukraine (NAMU) feared for its inventory should the building dating from 1899 be occupied by the authorities or the protesters. The front lines had moved directly to the museum door – halfway between Maidan Square and the government district.

Violent street fights and a continuous cloud of soot from burning tires paired with temperatures around minus 20 degrees made it impossible to relocate the collection of about 20,000 art objects undamaged to a safer place. So Zadorozhna and a few volunteer employees barricaded themselves inside the museum in mid-January.

They had the windows nailed shut with boards and the landscape paintings carried from the ground floor to the protected basement. They took turns keeping guard and sleeping on antique sofas until early March, when the situation gradually seemed to calm down after the removal of then-President Viktor Yanukovych and his flight to Russia.

“The state of emergency ultimately encouraged the long-wished-for transformation of the museum,” says Zadorozhna in retrospect. Although the museums had rid themselves of their function as instruments of propaganda with Ukraine’s independence in 1991, most had not much more to do than to manage the legacy.

Several years ago Zadorozhna’s team had already contacted the Goethe-Institut looking for ideas on how to restructure the museum to be a socially relevant place of learning and critical thinking. “We were long aware that the ground floor would have to be cleared for this purpose. But the emergency actions we had to take made it far easier to convince all the employees of doing it,” says Mariia Zadorozhna with a wink.

Heroes, saints and martyrs

Shortly before Christmas, the results of the German-Ukrainian collaboration were presented. The museum’s first monothematic exhibition opened its doors under the title Heroes. An Inventory in Progress and shows 180 exhibits from their own archives, all of them works portraying heroes, saints and martyrs. Employees from all divisions of the museum were permitted to take part in choosing the pieces. “We did not make decisions based on a majority vote,” explains Zadorozhna. “We negotiated until consensus was reached.” This was a minor revolution in the usually rigidly hierarchized institution.

The choice of the theme – “heroes” – allows the National Art Museum to reflect on the latest events. More than one hundred protesters were killed in the streets around the museum in February 2014. Altar-like flowers, candles and photos still tower where the “Heavenly Hundred” lost their lives. The erection of an official memorial is presently being discussed although no one yet knows who fired at the protesters. War is still raging on the eastern border with Russia.

The museum is taking a courageous step with its “inventory” – a step backwards. “You take an inventory to find out what you’ve got,” explains co-curator and art historian Michael Fehr from Berlin. So visitors to the museum are not welcomed by their present-day heroes, but by Lenin. The two-metre-high, solid marble statue had been hidden behind a false plaster wall in the museum after the fall of the USSR because it was too heavy to dispose of. Now it was unearthed again.

The following rooms offer a calculated play with changes of perspective. Abstract paintings that had long been kept from the public eye are scattered between Socialist Realism that adorned the history books in Soviet days. For the first time, portraits of Christian martyrs, adored saints and celebrated Cossacks do not look down at the viewer awe-inspiringly, but were deliberately hung lower in order to meet the visitors eye to eye.

Idealized oil daubs

In a nearby room, paintings and etchings document the rise of Taras Shevchenko to a hero. The son of Ukrainian serfs ascended to become a significant poet and painter to later be censored, locked up and finally forced into exile. A few rooms further on idealized oil daubs of Socialist workers meet a never-ending number of Lenin portraits: Lenin with students, Lenin standing before a cityscape, Lenin alone, Lenin in thought.

Lenin is always wearing the same cravat, the same facial expression. All of the pictures are haphazardly stacked over, on and next to one another against one wall, not only to shatter the myth of the icon, but also “to give the visitors a look behind the scenes,” explains educational director Maryna Skyrda. For this is exactly how the history of Ukraine has been stored in the museum basement for years.

One rarely glimpses sights of Lenin in the city anymore. Like the National Museum, twenty years ago all the other public institutions hid their statues behind walls. During last year’s Maidan protests the last remaining sculptures were toppled over or taken down. Although most in Kyiv tend to believe the “fall of Lenin” was ignoble vandalism, many of today’s visitors to the opening of the exhibition feel perplexed if not downright provoked being welcomed by a Lenin statue.

Yet positive voices are also heard form the public. Any serious debate about the Soviet legacy had been officially obstructed and hushed up for years until the pressure erupted on Maidan Square. The fact that the debate now has found its way for the first time into a public institution – particularly against the background of the complicated circumstances Ukraine now faces – is practically a heroic feat in itself.

The exhibition will continue until 17 May 2015 at the National Art Museum of Ukraine (6 Hrushevskogo St., Kyiv). This is a slightly updated version of an article that appeared in January, courtesy of the taz.