Reclaiming Ukrainian art history – DW – May 28, 2023

On a Monday afternoon in Cologne, Ukrainian curator Yuliia Berdiiarova met me at the back entrance of the Ludwig Museum. The museum, next to the main train station and Cologne cathedral, is closed on Mondays.

Berdiiarova, a 29-year-old art historian, worked at the Odesa Museum of Fine Arts and the Mystetskyi Armory in Kyiv before Russia invaded Ukraine.

In her role at the Ludwig Museum, she organized a school leave program for Ukrainian refugee children and their parents. She also conducts research on Ukrainian modernism, which has previously been mistaken for a Russian pioneer.

Berdiiarova offered to show me some of the artwork that would be on display from June 3 as part of the exhibition, “Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930.” The curator has been a member of the Ludwig Museum team for almost a year and she is helping to prepare for this performance.

Many of the works in this extensive exhibition, previously shown in Madrid, were moved out of Ukraine due to the war and have never been shown abroad. The exhibition is completed by works that have been removed from the Ludwig Museum’s inventory.

We took the stairs to the first floor and walked through the museum, which was mostly empty. Berdiiarova said the museum had no people to upset her. “A lot of museums (in Ukraine) remain closed,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a place for dialogue. It’s a place to release, to feel connected to history, to feel connected to others.”

Forced to flee the war in Ukraine

Even in Cologne, Russia’s war in Ukraine was always present for Berdiiarova. But she knew she was one of the lucky ones. Her place at the Ludwig Museum and her time in Cologne were funded by three different foundations. But last June, when she left Odesa, where she had worked as a museum curator for six years, she had no idea what would happen next. She took a step into the unknown.

A woman wearing a medical mask walks near
Kazimir Malevich, whose iconic painting “Black Square” is considered a representative work of modern art, has long been classified as a Russian avant-garde.Image: Sergei Fadeichev/Tass/IMAGO

“It was a very difficult decision to leave Odesa,” she said. “I don’t want to call it an adventure because adventure is a nice thing, but it’s not an adventure in a good way. It’s just like going to zero. I have a very small bag. That’s all.”

That bag contained nothing but her ID, identification, and most essential clothes. Berdiiarova has since sent her some clothes from Ukraine, and in front of me is a stylish woman dressed in all black: turtleneck, vest, sunglasses. She winked saying she was trying to look like a typical museum curator, inspired by Kasimir Malevich’s famous painting, “Black Square”.

Reclaim Ukraine’s name

Berdiiarova would prefer to stay in Ukraine. She said that during the first few months of the war, she and her colleagues initially brought the works from the museum in Odesa to safety, but then life there became impossible. .

She fled to Warsaw, from where she continued first to Berlin, then to Cologne. Her Ukrainian colleagues sent her information about a program for Ukrainian curators in Germany from the Ernst Siemens Foundation.

She did not give up her hometown of Cologne; on the contrary, she says that she is fighting her own way: verbally. At the Ludwig Museum, she corrected all the names of Ukrainian artists. “First, we freed the spelling of cities from their Russian spelling. It was part of the Soviet appropriation culture, to Russify the names of cities and people. We turned Kharkov. become Kharkiv again. The names are transliterated from the Russian alphabet into the Latin alphabet. And I am very proud that the Ludwig Museum has agreed to correct it.”

The war changed the view of Ukrainian art

So, Ukrainian artist Alexander Bogomazov is now Oleksandr Bohomazov and the Ukrainian capital is now spelled “Kyiv”.

The war has now familiarized the public with Ukraine and its art history – thanks in part to Berdiiarova’s work. She went through the Ludwig Museum’s collection and not only came across the names of Ukrainian artists whose names were still spelled in Russian, she also corrected the country links.

For example, Kazimir Malevich “has a Soviet-era Ukrainian passport, which states that he is Ukrainian.” Berdiiarova adds that he has spent a significant part of his career as a professor at the Kyiv Academy of Arts, and publishes articles in Ukrainian journals. She said that Malevich’s Ukrainian identity was extinguished, so he was always considered a representative of the Russian avant-garde.

An abstract collage by Vasyl Yermilov during restoration by the Ludwig Museum, Cologne, in May 2023.
This work by Vasyl Yermilov is among those on display in the exhibition “Ukrainian Modernism” in ColognePhoto: Sabine Oelze/DW

Other Ukrainian artists, such as Vasyl Yermilov, were also co-opted by the Russian avant-garde. The artist was born in 1894 in Kharkiv but is considered a typical representative of the Russian Constructivism movement. Now, on Yuliia Berdiiarova’s initiative, his works hang in a new context – alongside works by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. Berdiiarova proudly said: “It’s late, but the justice is the same.

Ukrainian artists are liberated from appropriation

“We are trying to understand how the Russian avant-garde concept is part of a system of cultural appropriation in the post-imperialist region and why it has so much power,” she said. “Why has the foundation of Soviet imperialism been ignored for so long in the first place? These are all very long processes.”

So, along with many colleagues, she is compiling a list of all Ukrainian artists in worldwide collections. This list is intended to demonstrate how diverse the Ukrainian art scene is and how Russian propaganda has denied it in art history.

Though she feels at home in Cologne – and the modern “Cane Houses” along the Rhine remind her of the motifs in constructivist paintings, as she tells returned with a smile – she also felt very lonely. So she wants to go back to Odesa when her show is over, even though the war probably won’t end after that. “Odesa is my home. It’s too hard to be too far away. Sometimes I feel safer with my people, even when bombs fall.”


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