Art heist at the Louvre of Kherson: Russia’s war on Ukrainian identity
KHERSON, Ukraine — The thieves entered the museum on October 31, removed the paintings from their frames and loaded them onto cargo trucks.
It took them four days to empty the Kherson Regional Art Museum, known as the Louvre of Kherson, and make off with more than 10,000 works by Ukrainian, Russian and European painters.
Police are investigating, but who did it is no mystery. Russian forces looted the museum and three others as they retreated from Kherson city late last year.
“They stole everything,” said Alina Dotsenko, the art museum’s director, who ranked the incident as worse than the Nazi plundering of the city in the 1940s.
To Dotsenko, what happened in Kherson was not just an armed robbery. It was part of a wider Russian campaign to deny Ukrainians their existence as a distinct people and nation.
The full-scale invasion ordered by President Vladimir Putin one year ago this week was a land grab, but it was premised on Moscow’s claim that Ukraine is not a real country.
Although Kyiv is hundreds of years older than Moscow, Putin has attempted to justify his war with an interpretation of history that asserts that Ukraine is part of Russia.
For many Ukrainians, the widespread attacks on cultural institutions of the past year are an attempt to erase their heritage and absorb them into an empire-minded Russia.
Hanna Skrypka, the Kherson art museum’s deputy director, estimated the Russians stole 80 to 85 percent of the collection of 14,000 works, including those by Ukraine’s masters and rare depictions of its past.
“This was the proof of our identity,” she said.
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A week after the Russians cleaned out the museum, Ukrainian forces pushed them out of Kherson city and back across the Dnieper River.
But the Russians weren’t done.
On Nov. 30, they shelled the museum with artillery.
The Bone Thieves
The St. Catherine’s Cathedral was a museum of atheism during the years when the Soviet Union controlled Ukraine. It re-opened as an Orthodox church in 1991, when Ukraine gained independence.
Inside the thick sandstone walls, Father Vitaly lifted a trap door set into the wooden floorboards and descended a staircase to a dank room.
The crypt beneath the church was the tomb of Grigory Potemkin, Kherson’s founder and the lover of Russian empress Catherine the Great.
The grave is empty now. The casket is gone. So are Potemkin’s bones, which were kept in a cloth bag. Ten Russian soldiers spirited them away, claiming the Ukrainian military was planning to bomb the church.
Instead, after looting the 18th-century cathedral, the Russian army fired artillery at it. One shell landed in the grass near the columned entrance. Father Vitaly said emergency services workers removed the rocket the day before.
More shells hit the park directly behind the church, and when the Russians blew up the TV tower next door, the explosion shattered the church windows.
“Thank God, nothing else,” he said.
Before the invasion, the cathedral served a congregation of about 350, and three times as many at Easter and Christmas. But the river that has become a frontline is close, and no more that 60 turn up now.
“A lot of people left the city, and this part of the city is really under constant shelling,” the priest said. “So they are afraid.”
“The city is empty, like a ghost city, but thank God the people survive and come back and everything will be as it was before.”
But it won’t be exactly as it was, not since the grave-robbers dropped by. Father Vitaly said Potemkin’s remains were just bones. “We don’t need to be so upset about it. It’s not religious, just historic.”
“History is in the heart of the people, the memory of people. A lot of things were lost but the major part is we should remember who we are. History is good but the main thing is life.”
He said he tells his congregants not to be angry, and to support each other because the suffering will end.
“All wars finish,” he said.
Russia’s assault on Ukrainian cultural sites has been relentless. According to UNESCO, 240 of them have been damaged in the past 12 months — 105 churches, 86 buildings of historical or artistic interest, 19 monuments, 18 museums and 12 libraries.
During the last three weeks of the Russian occupation of Kherson city, Russian forces looted not only the art museum and cathedral, but also the history museum and national archives.
Members of Russian’s FSB security service arrived at the Kherson Regional Museum on Oct. 24 and stole silver, gold, Greek vases and war relics, according to Human Rights Watch.
From the archives, Russian forces took 18th and 19th century documents, maps, urban plans, pre-war newspapers, and almost everything related to the pre-revolutionary period, Human Rights Watch said.
“Kherson residents had already suffered months of torture and other abuses during the Russian occupation, and then watched their cultural and historical heritage get packed up and taken away,” the group added.
“This systematic looting was an organized operation to rob Ukrainians of their national heritage and amounts to a war crime for which the pillagers should be held to account.”
But instead of erasing Ukrainian nationalism, the war appears to have invigorated it.
Outraged at Putin, many Russian-speakers have renounced the language. Ukrainians have changed street names and torn down statues associated with Russia.
In Kyiv, a monument to Ukrainian-Russian friendship was dismantled. An Odesa street was renamed after Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister.
Ukrainians call it derussification and decolonization.
An Art Museum without Art
In the basement of Kherson’s art museum, gold-painted picture frames with ornate edging were stacked against the walls. They were all the Russians left behind.
On the morning the Russians began fighting their way into Kherson from the south side of the river, Dotsenko went up to a rooftop and looked at the Antonivskyi Bridge.
“I wanted to blow it up,” she said.
But the Russians quickly seized the city, and she focused on trying to save her museum. Dotsenko had worked there since it opened in 1978. The artworks were like her children.
“It was my life,” she said.
At the time, the three-storey structure, once the city hall, was undergoing renovations. It was fenced off and the paintings were kept in a storage room.
Since the gallery walls were mostly bare, Dotsenko tried to maintain the ruse that the artworks had been moved due to the construction.
And for a time, it worked.
To support the facade, she kept staff she knew she could trust, and sent the rest home to work remotely. Plainclothes Kherson police who were part of the city’s partisan movement quietly replaced her security guards, she said.
On May 2, the Russians set up a checkpoint nearby, and a dozen gunmen entered the gallery by breaking down the door. They handcuffed the guard face down and took his keys.
Two days later, a man phoned Dotsenko and introduced himself as part of Kherson’s new administration. He would not give his name but asked her to organize an exhibition at the government building.
She told him the museum was empty, but he responded that was a lie and he knew everything. He told her to report to his office at 9 a.m. “We will teach you to respect the new authorities,” he said.
She knew what that meant. She had heard from her police contacts the Russians were arresting their opponents and locking them in detention centres known as basements to be tortured and executed.
That night, she packed a bag and left the city, leaving her deputy, Hanna Skrypka, in charge.
Dotsenko believes the museum was betrayed by two former employees who collaborated with the Russians.
She doesn’t know what else she could have done. The city was under occupation. Checkpoints clogged the streets. Sneaking out thousands of artworks was an impossible task. “How?” she asked.
On July 19, the Russians returned to the museum and appointed a local lounge singer as the new director. They searched Skrypka’s home and took her phone and the museum keys.
“They asked where is the most valuable, expensive work,” Skrypka said. She refused to help them, she said, and was told to stay home, but she kept watch on the museum, peering through fences to monitor what the Russians were up to.
At the end of October, the Russians called Skrypka back to the museum and told her to make a list of all the artworks. They locked her inside and did not permit her to leave for two nights, she said.
The Russians who came to take the paintings seemed to know what they were doing. “To see their actions, in reality they are representatives who have a background in museums,” Skrypya said.
About 70 workers were involved. While they handled the art carefully at first, they became more reckless as they ran out of time and did not use gloves.
The streets outside were closed. Five trucks and two school buses were parked outside. Everything was carried into the vehicles.
“We saw how they moved it out, like rubbish,” Dotsenko said.
Locals filmed the operation discretely with their phones. Satellite images captured two moving trucks and a van parked outside on Nov. 1. But nobody could stop it.
Dotsenko was despondent to see her life’s work being loaded into “dirty trucks.” It was like watching her kids being kidnapped, she said. “I had the feeling I’m dying.”
The paintings that were taken included portraits, landscapes and still lifes dating back hundred of years: “Cossacks in the Steppe,” by Serhiy Vasylkivsky; and “On the Dnipro. Kherson,” by Oleksii Shovkunenko.
“All of the time the Russians try to destroy our culture,” she said. “It was always like this.”
Skrypka also believes the Russians didn’t want to leave behind any traces of Ukrainian identity, nothing that would show how Ukraine is distinct from Russia.
“I think they want to collect memory,” she said.
The theft has ruptured Kherson’s links to its past, she said. She wants the collection back. “We have hopes that most of our works will return,” she said.
“Yes, we are hoping.”
Stolen Artworks Turn up in Crimea
By scanning social media, museum staff have traced some of the artworks to the Central Taurida Museum in Simferopol, a city in Crimea, the Ukrainian region that Russian troops invaded in 2014.
Photos show the paintings being carried into the entry hall and stacked against walls. In one, a woman walked past a stolen piece, “The Ancient Walls of Vilnius,” by Augustunas Savockas. It was casually upended at the end of a pile.
Victor Zaretskyi’s “Still Life With Flounder” was spotted in another photo, sitting on the floor of the Crimea gallery. Precious artworks treated like garage sale offerings.
Dotsenko said staff were working to locate them. She doesn’t know if the entire collection was moved to the Crimea museum or if it was scattered.
The world needs to know what Russia did, she said, and those responsible must be brought to justice for their attack on Ukraine’s heritage.
“The people loved our museum so much,” she said. “It was really a temple.”
JR’s Gigantic New Installation in Hong Kong, Unveiled Ahead of Art Basel, Has Worried the City’s Feng Shui Masters. Here’s Why – artnet News
The French artist JR has created a monumental outdoor installation for Hong Kong to celebrate the city’s art month this month. But the installation, which depicts a high jumper, has drawn criticisms from several feng shui consultants and fortune tellers, who argued that the work looks like a person who fell off from a building from afar, and hence projecting a bad omen. Titled Giants: Rising Up, the installation was unveiled this week ahead of next week’s Art Basel Hong Kong, which has its VIP days beginning March 21. Commissioned by the shopping mall Harbour City and on view until April 23 at the Ocean Terminal Deck in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, the work, which measures nearly 40-feet-tall and 40-feet-wide (12 meters high and 12 meters wide), is the famed artist’s first offering in Asia from his ongoing “Giants” series. “The gigantic art installation depicts a larger-than-life high jumper floating in mid-air adjacent to Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbour, with her body bending gracefully and her head back facing the fabulous skyline,” the press release wrote. “The high-jumping athlete appears to jump off the ground and enjoys the sensation of free fall,” the press statement continued, adding that the athlete’s move represented “take off,” referencing to a “Giants” installation on view at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. JR also added “a touch of Hong Kong” by fusing the image with a bamboo scaffolding, a construction technique regarded as “safer than steel” that has been listed as the city’s intangible cultural heritage.
But JR’s artistic creation failed to appeal to some feng shui consultants, as well as practitioners and believers in the traditional art of Chinese metaphysics and divination. “Doesn’t it look like someone who fell off from a building landing on a bamboo scaffolding, and the body is pierced through by the bamboos?” asked feng shui master Po Sin in a recent video on his YouTube channel. Po Sin’s view was echoed by a recent Facebook post penned by feng shui practitioner Steve Lee, who also shared a similar impression of the work. Their views were also echod by some internet users. Feng shui is understood as the ancient Chinese study of arranging one’s surroundings in order to facilitate the positive flow of energy or bring fortune, and is widely adopted in interior design and architecture in Hong Kong. Some non-believers, however, criticized it as mere superstition. Po Sin, nevertheless, went on saying that although bamboo scaffolding was distinctively from Hong Kong, and it could be aesthetically pleasing, the depiction in this JR work was not appealing. “You can have people climbing on a bamboo scaffolding, but not having someone landing on it on a person’s back,” the master said, adding that the out-of-context jump looked like the jumper was diving into the sea, which has a bad connotation in the local cultural and lingual context. Artnet News has reached out to Harbour City for comment, but did not hear back by publishing time.
Lee, the feng shui practitioner, also compared the bad omen projected by JR’s new work with that of American artist Kaws’s Kaws:Holiday public installation in Hong Kong that was on view in March 2019. The installation saw the gigantic, crossed-eye inflatable sculpture of Companion lying flat on its back floating on Victoria Harbour, which Lee interpreted as the “fortune basin” of Hong Kong. “Call me superstitious, but placing a ‘floating dead body’ in the middle of Victoria Harbour, the sight is unbearable,” Lee wrote in a post in March 2019. Lee then followed up with another post in October 2019, when the city was rocked by pro-democracy protests that had tipped off in June, sparked by the anti-extradition law movement. “The artwork ‘dead body in Victoria Harbour’ was merely a prophecy,” he wrote, predicting that the city will continue to suffer in subsequent years, affecting all local citizens regardless of age and political orientation. Whether or not Kaws’s installation could be read as an omen, in reality, the city was nearly cut off from the rest of the world for almost three years under stringent Covid restrictions. The authorities continue to crackdown political dissents since the implementation of national security law in 2020 and the revival of the use of colonial-era sedition law, which saw hundreds of activists, pro-democracy politicians, and journalists arrested. The city’s stock market index, Hang Seng Index, plunged from its high note at over 30,000 in May 2019 to 14,863 in October 2022, its lowest since 2009. Is JR’s new artwork really a bad omen? Benson Wong, a former Hong Kong Baptist University political science professor-turned astrologer and psychic, noted that in this case, the meaning of the work is defined by viewers. If the work is associated with negative meanings, the work is seen as “a projection or manifestation of such negativity and unlucky energies,” Wong told Artnet News. “It is a reflection of collective consciousness.”
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‘A real beauty’: Gottfried Lindauer painting set to break auction record
International Art Centre/Supplied
The portrait of Harawira Te Mahikai, chief of the Ngāti Kahungunu Tribe, is the finest to come to market according to an art expert.
A rare Gottfried Lindauer painting is set to break records when it goes to market on March 29, with one art expert deeming it “the finest to ever come to market”.
Lindauer was a man who, along with C F Goldie, excelled in painting important Māori subjects throughout his life, as well as depictions of Māori life during this time period.
He also produced many pieces of little-known or ordinary Māori people, most of them wearing European dress, as would have been the case in their daily life.
Richard Thomson, the director of the International Art Centre, said the Lindauer up for auction was a “real beauty”.
The painting is a portrait of Harawira Te Mahikai, chief of the Ngāti Kahungunu Tribe, and a signatory of the Treaty of Waitangi.
At the time of his death in 1886, Te Mahikai was the last tattooed chief of Waimarama.
“It has all the hallmarks of a Lindauer, you don’t see them that often in this kind of quality,” Thomon said.
A Gottfried Lindauer portrait of Huru Te Hiaro was repaired and moved from Te Papa to Aratoi Museum in Masterton for a Lindauer exhibition (first published June 2017).
The piece was painted in 1883, and Thomson thinks Lindauer perhaps painted it when his son Hector was born and saved to gift to him when he turned 21.
“This one is a real masterpiece, and I think it’s one of the best to come to market ever,” Thomson said.
“It’s in pristine condition, and it was owned by Lindauer himself until he gifted it to his son Hector in 1908.”
The piece was held by descendants of the Lindauers until 1988, when it was bought by a private collector who it has been with ever since.
Lindauer pieces have had a high profile as of late due to the brazen heist of two of the pieces from the International Art Centre in April 2017.
The paintings, which were of Māori elders Chief Ngātai-Raure and Chieftainess Ngātai-Raure, were finally recovered and returned to their rightful owner in December 2022, over five years after they were stolen.
Although the Lindauer up for auction is not one of the stolen paintings, it is the first one to come up for sale since the paintings were recovered.
Thomson said despite “the heightened awareness”, the story of the stolen Lindauers won’t “add fuel to the value of it”.
“It’s probably going to be a record price, and I would be surprised if it wasn’t – it’s almost a certainty,” Thomson said.
The director believes the piece could hit the million dollar mark, and wouldn’t drop below $500,000.
The auction is taking place at the International Art Centre on March 29, and you can register your interest here.
Museums Rename Artworks and Artists as Ukrainian, Not Russian
A year into the war, institutions face pressure to note the Ukrainian roots of artworks and artists long described as Russian. It’s not always simple to write a wall label.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York changed the name of one of its Edgar Degas pastels Friday morning from “Russian Dancers” to “Dancers in Ukrainian Dress,” the second Degas it has reclassified since Russia invaded Ukraine.
The National Gallery in London renamed one of its Degas pastels “Ukrainian Dancers” from “Russian Dancers” last year. And the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles updated an old item on its website to note that Degas’s dancers were Ukrainian, not Russian.
The adjustments reflect a movement that is currently underway at museums all over the world, spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Many are re-examining — and, in a growing number of cases, relabeling — artworks and artists from the former Russian Empire and the former Soviet Union to better reflect their Ukrainian origins.
“Scholarly thinking is evolving quickly,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, said in a statement, “because of the increased awareness of and attention to Ukrainian culture and history since the Russian invasion started in 2022.”
But the process is not always straightforward, particularly when museums try to reflect the nationality of artists, and not just where they were born. The Met recently revised how it classifies three 19th-century painters previously described as Russian — Illia Repin, Arkhyp Kuindzhi and Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky — to draw attention to their Ukrainian roots.
It updated two of the names with their Ukrainian transliteration, followed by the Russian name: Illia Repin (Ilia Efimovich Repin) and Arkhyp Kuindzhi (Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi).
But after the Met changed the description of Aivazovsky from “Russian” to “Ukrainian” on its website, some critics pounced, pointing out that he was in fact Armenian. (“The Met Shouldn’t Have Reclassified Ivan Aivazovsky as ‘Ukrainian,’” an essay in Hyperallergic argued.) So the Met re-reclassified him: Aivazovsky is now described as “Armenian, born Russian Empire [now Ukraine].”
Activists and art historians have been pressuring museums to rethink how they label art and artists, arguing that given Ukraine’s history of subjugation under the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, its culture should not be conflated with that of its rulers. Museums in the United States and Europe are complicit in its colonization, the critics argue, if they don’t honor the artistic contributions of Ukrainians.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has changed the way it labels works by Degas, Illia Repin and Arkhyp Kuindzhi. Jeenah Moon for The New York Times
“It’s like stealing heritage,” said Oksana Semenik, an art historian in Kyiv who has been pressing for change. “How you can find your identity? How you can find your culture?”
The failure to distinguish Ukrainian artists and artworks has been particularly painful, activists say, at a time when so much of Ukraine’s cultural heritage has been damaged or destroyed in the current conflict, including museums, monuments, universities, libraries, churches and mosaics.
Many museums are reconsidering the identification of holdings that have long been lumped in the general category of Russian art. Among the museums that Semenik has sought to change have been the Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum and the Jewish Museum.
The Museum of Modern Art in New York described artists as “born in present-day Ukraine” in its recent exhibition “In Solidarity.”
“Nationality descriptions can be very complex, especially when making posthumous attributions,” Glenn D. Lowry, the director of the museum, said in a statement to The Times. “We do rigorous research and approach the descriptions with sensitivity to the recorded nationality of the artist at death and birth, emigration and immigration dynamics, and changing geopolitical boundaries.”
The Met has been considering such updates since last summer in consultation with its curators and outside scholars. “The changes align with The Met’s efforts to continually research and examine objects in its collection,” the museum said in a statement, “to determine the most appropriate and accurate way to catalog and present them.”
The subject of what the Met now calls “Dancer in Ukrainian Dress” was initially identified as “women in Russian costumes” in a journal entry in 1899, the museum explains on its website. “However, several scholars demonstrated that the costumes are, in fact, traditional Ukrainian folk dress, although it has not been established if the dancers were themselves from Ukraine.”
The Met has revised its wall text for artworks such as Kuindzhi’s painting, “Red Sunset” (circa 1905-08), which was put on display last spring following a statement of support for Ukraine from Max Hollein, the Met’s director, and Daniel H. Weiss, the president and chief executive.
The Met’s European Paintings department currently describes Kuindzhi as “Ukrainian, born Russian Empire,” the website explains, “to reflect the dual, intersecting nationalities identified in scholarship on the artist.
“He was descended from Greeks who moved to Mariupol from the southern coast of Crimea in the 18th century,” it continues. “Greeks from Crimea are classed among the Pontic Greeks, who originated in what is now northeastern Turkey and migrated widely through the surrounding region.”
While “Red Sunset” is safe in the Met’s collection, the Kuindzhi Museum in Mariupol, devoted to the artist’s life and work, was badly damaged by Russian airstrikes.
Asked whether it was revising the identification of works in the Jewish Museum’s collection, Claudia Gould, the director, said that her institution tried to take a nuanced approach to classification. “For artists born in the Russian Empire or former Soviet Union, as well as many other regions with ever-changing borders, we use the historical regions at the time the work was made and/or their present-day equivalent,” she said in an email.
Semenik, the art historian from Kyiv, has been pressing her case with museums.
“Ukraine is not the former Russian Empire,” Semenik wrote in a January letter to the Brooklyn Museum. “It was colonized by Russia centuries ago.”
Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, said that since last summer, the European Art department has been revising the way it presents biographical information relating to nationality for objects in its collection, “precisely in response to the urgent and complex legacies of empire, colonization, and displacement that the war on Ukraine has thrown into relief.”
The museum has been expanding its wall labels so that they describe an artist’s place of birth and death, noting any change in national borders. For instance, the artist Repin’s biographical line now reads: “Chuhuiv, Ukraine (former Russian Empire), 1844 — 1930, Repino, Saint Petersburg (former Kuokkala, Finland).”
Though it may be a challenge to satisfy everybody, “we believe that this approach better highlights the histories of war, colonization, and independence,” Pasternak said, “that may be obscured when classifying by nationality.”
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