On February 25, 2022, the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Hungarian journalist András Földes photographed a young woman breastfeeding a child in the Kiev metro. The city’s subway stations had become the places that promised shelter to residents of the Ukrainian capital. Here they sought refuge. Földes posted the photo of the breastfeeding woman on Instagram. Within hours it went viral and became famous.
The motif of the picture was used by the artist Maryna Solomennykova, who lives in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, to create her work “Madonna of Kiev”. “This woman with her child was a symbol for all the Ukrainian mothers who sheltered from Russian attacks in air raid shelters have to hide.”
Her “Ukrainian Madonna” received even more attention than the photo that inspired her. A copy of it hangs in a church in Naples and the original is now in the recently opened exhibition “Timeless. Ukrainian Contemporary Art in Times of War” in Berlin’s Bode Museum. Curator Olesia Sobkovych, who is herself from Ukraine, chose it along with a dozen other art objects from the Ukraine for the show.
Focus Ukraine: New accents in the Bode Museum
The Bode Museum is considered one of the most beautiful museums in the German capital. It is part of the Museum Island and appears to rise out of the water where the Spree divides. Its round dome is reminiscent of a temple. The museum houses an internationally renowned collection of medieval sculptures and Byzantine rarities – including numerous carved wooden images of Christ, Mary and saints as well as complete altar groups.
This atmospheric place, with its spacious, light-filled halls and high ceilings, is rarely crowded. Medieval sculptures are less attractive than the stars of the Berlin museum scene – the bust of Nefertiti or the Pergamon Altar. A year ago, shortly after the start of the Russian attack, thanks to the support of the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, the museum hired art historian Olesia Sobkovych, who had fled Kiev. She had curated several large exhibitions in her hometown – some of them on highly topical political issues, such as the children of Donbass. In the Bode Museum she wanted to give new impetus.
“Timeless” combines medieval with modern art
The appointment of the new art historian fitted in with the museum management’s desire to engage with the ongoing war. The problem was to build a bridge between today and the Middle Ages. Now the modern Ukrainian exhibits, which reflect the experience of the first months of the war partly in epic and religious forms, stand between the medieval exhibits.
Each modern object was juxtaposed with a medieval “double” – an exhibit each expressing a similar emotion. Ukrainian art does not stand alone, but works in a larger context. In the Middle Ages, it was about “fear, desperation, grief and death”, as the head of the museum’s sculpture collection, Paul Hofmann, puts it – in other words, about feelings that the Ukrainians, who are experiencing the brutal war in their country first-hand, now have for themselves Through the connection to today’s tragedy, medieval exhibits have, according to Hofmann, “regained their astonishing vitality”, they appear “timeless”.
“The Ukrainian Madonna” in dialogue with a funerary stele
Liveliness and authenticity were the criteria on which Olesia Sobkovych based her selection of Ukrainian artworks. Not only did she set her sights on established artists, she also brought in works by lesser-known artists. Just like Maryna Solomennykova’s work, which became known through Instagram.
Alisa Lozhkina’s painting “Flight into Egypt” (right) hangs next to a 15th-century bas-relief on the same subject
Combining social media art and medieval woodcuts is a risky proposition. The curator Sobkovych contributed her expertise. “It’s not charity, our Ukrainian colleagues are superior to us, especially when it comes to digitization,” said Martin Hoernes, Secretary General of the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation. The foundation also finances other placements of Ukrainians in German museums.
In the “Timeless” exhibition a rare find from Egypt enters into a dialogue with the “Madonna of Kiev”: a funerary stele depicting a breastfeeding young woman from the 4th or 5th century AD. The title of the exhibition can be experienced in harmony with these two figures – their effect is “timeless” – in contrast to wars, which eventually come to an end.
The real “Madonna”, a woman named Tatjana Bliznjak, reached a safe place in western Ukraine a few days after András Földes took the picture of her.
The exhibition “Timeless. Contemporary Ukrainian Art in Times of War” in Berlin’s Bode-Museum runs from March 17th, 2023 to March 17th, 2024.