Protect a ‘goya’ in a Ukrainian bunker | International


There is a Goya maja sheltered in a secret bunker in western Ukraine. It is accompanied by a Saint Jerome by José de Ribera and half a thousand other works of art from the 18 museums of the Lviv province. They are a small part, the most precious, of the 65,000 artistic pieces that are exhibited in cultural centers in this region bordering Poland.

On February 24, the same day that Russia began the invasion of Ukraine, a plan prepared to the millimeter was launched to secure the pictorial and sculptural heritage of the country’s cultural capital. It’s not just about saving art from the bombs, explains Taras Voznyak, general director of the patronage that manages these 18 museums, it’s also about avoiding possible looting if there were a change of regime.

Voznyak is an expeditious man who commands his staff like a small army from his office in the Potocki Palace. From his neck hangs a small walkie talkie that he uses at the same time that he follows current affairs on a screen out of the corner of his eye. Above her head hangs a family portrait of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, sovereign of Galicia, the region of which Lviv was the capital. The palace in which her office is located is the home of the National Gallery of Art. It is a French-style mansion built in 1880 as the residence of Count Alfred Józef Potocki, a Polish nobleman who became Prime Minister of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The rooms of the palace house a large collection of European paintings, but not all the walls have works hanging: many are empty after the paintings were transferred to a bomb-proof shelter. On each of the missing paintings there is a pink label that the team of Hanna Legeza, deputy director of the museum, placed to mark the ones that the technicians had to load on the trucks.

The three phases of the contingency plan

All museums in the world have contingency plans in case of catastrophe, says the general director, be it a fire or a war. The difference is that in Ukraine they already have experience in this matter. In 2014, when the war broke out in Donbas, in Lviv they carried out the first phase of the program of saving their art, and the transfer of fundamental works to their shelter. The second phase is activated in the event of a “direct attack” on the museums and consists of saving what is possible from among the works that remain in their place. So far there is no indication that the Russian invader has bombed monuments or museums. Which doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

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The third phase of the plan is the most confidential because it is the one that involves the evacuation of state assets abroad, Voznyak points out, not only from Lviv, but from other parts of Ukraine. The works will be stored in European museums with which a temporary transfer has already been agreed. Their transfer abroad is intended to prevent their abduction. “Remember what happened in Syria or in Iraq,” says Voznyak: “Sometimes, more than the bombs, the biggest danger is the looters who take advantage of the transition between one power and another.” Everything is contemplated, including the interregnum that would cause the fall of the Government of Ukraine and the takeover of the country by the Russians.

There is a heritage that cannot be moved, especially the urban one. In recent days, the statues adjacent to the headquarters of the City Council and the provincial government have been covered to prevent their destruction as much as possible in the event of bombing. Also the windows of historical buildings, such as the Ethnographic Museum, from 1890, or the stained glass windows of the Greek-Catholic Church of the Assumption —of Byzantine rite, majority in Western Ukraine—, have been protected with steel or wooden plates . “It doesn’t cost anything to put up these protections, but the truth is that they can do little against a missile,” admits Voznyak. “Rather it will depend on what God decides.”

Workers in Lviv wrap the city’s statues to try to protect them from possible bombings and attacks. Pavlo Palamarchuk (AP)

Lviv’s Old Town is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. The losses to art and architecture that would be caused by a Russian bombardment such as the one that has suffered the center of Kharkov, in northeastern Ukraine, would be incalculable. Voznyak believes that a great dilemma in armed conflicts, an unresolved question of a moral nature, is whether a person should give his life to save a work of art: “No one knows how he would react to this situation. Would you die to save a painting?

The largest exhibition pavilion of the Potocki Palace, of modern creation, has already been stripped of its cultural use and has been enabled as the main distribution center for humanitarian and medical material in the city. One of his coordinators, Yuri Popovich, worked before the conflict as a computer programmer. He now fights to save lives. A cultured and multilingual man, with a good level of English and Italian, he remembers that he had been in this pavilion before, but as a visitor. “Here in Lviv we could not imagine that the war would come one day, we thought that Donbas was very far away, 1,200 kilometers away. We were wrong,” says Popovich. Under a stone carving of Lucas Evangelista leaning on the figure of the bull, Popovich is hoarse giving instructions about a shipment of mattresses. He stresses that what they need most is medical supplies, especially for the front. As an admonition he adds: “In the European Union they may believe that they are far from this as we believed that the Donbas was, but their future is at stake here.”

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