Lviv reopens art galleries 'to show we are alive'

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Lviv reopens art galleries 'to show we are alive'
Artworks covered in bubble wrap at the National Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine on May 3, 2022. Some parts of the National Gallery’s 65,000-piece collection are being put back on exhibit in the organization’s network of galleries for Ukrainians hungry for culture in the midst of war. Finbarr O’Reilly/The New York Times.

by Jane Arraf

LVIV.- At Lviv’s grand and imposing Potocki Palace, now this western province’s National Gallery, workmen rolled coats of deep-apricot paint over walls that until a few months ago held works by French painter Georges de La Tour and other baroque masters.

These days, the walls are empty because those works, along with paintings by Francisco Goya, Peter Paul Rubens and Titian, valued at millions of dollars each, have been whisked away to secret locations to protect them from the threat of Russian airstrikes.

Now, some parts of the National Gallery’s 65,000-piece collection are being put back on exhibit in the organization’s network of galleries for Ukrainians hungry for culture in the midst of war. For gallery director Taras Voznyak, putting up the work is an act of resistance.

“Putin now has the goal of turning Ukrainians into nobody, into nothing,” he said, adding, “In order to show that we are alive, we have opened several branches.”

The Borys Voznytskyi Lviv National Art Gallery, as it is formally known, maintains 18 branches in buildings that include palaces, castles and cathedrals across Lviv province.

Located 40 miles from Poland and boasting centuries of ornate architecture, Lviv’s city center is a UNESCO world heritage site, stamped by the influences of several empires, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Ukraine’s cultural capital, Lviv was a popular European tourist destination before the war, drawing 2.5 million visitors a year. Though not immune to Russian attacks, during the war it has become a refuge for displaced Ukrainians fleeing places devastated by Russian bombardment.

Voznyak said he might next month even open the main gallery in the ornate century-old palace, now being readied with repainting and repairs. Voznyak said he was also planning online exhibits and, perhaps in the future if he had funding for it, exhibitions in spaces built underground — a measure he said that could help galleries adapt to the new era of war.

“Life does not stop,” said Voznyak, 64, seated in front of a portrait of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa.

In fact, sometimes art accelerates, even as bombs rain down.

Two Ukrainian artists, Vlada Ralko and Volodymyr Budnikov, spent a month living in an unused gallery in the suddenly empty palace after the Russian invasion, Voznyak said. They donated dozens of works they had produced, many of them depicting the war, to the museum.

“This art was created in these times, in this palace — it’s living art,” Voznyak said, adding that the work would be exhibited in late spring or summer, perhaps in a castle about 50 miles east of Lviv.

Western Ukraine is awash with castles, a legacy of its past under several rulers, including Poland and the Austro-Hungarian empire. The city’s center is stamped by the influences of several cultures, and because it was an administrative capital, it has long been a center for art and opera.

Voznyak is unabashedly chauvinistic about his country’s strong artistic traditions, an outgrowth of Ukraine being at the crossroads since medieval times of a main trade route between Europe, India and China.

“I don’t want to offend Americans, but everyone grows up in a certain aesthetic environment,” he said, going on to inevitably offend some Americans. “It’s not absolute, but if you grew up in a place like this, you have a better chance of having taste.”

A moment later, he pointed out the American, Australian, Canadian, British, Polish and Lithuanian flags flying next to the Ukrainian flag outside the gallery in recognition of their help in Ukraine’s war effort. A Swiss company was providing help free of charge, he said, to turn humid underground spaces into temperature-regulated storage sites for some of the artwork.

“We have hung the flags of our allies — those who help us most to preserve both the museum and this city,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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