In Paris Then, in Kyiv Now, Visions of Freedom and Bravery
For me the year in culture can be divided into two eras: before Feb. 24, after Feb. 24.
Before, I felt pretty certain nothing would command my attention like “Jacques-Louis David: Radical Draftsman,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s icy, cerebral, unrelentingly rigorous exhibition of drawings from the years around the French Revolution. No one had ever staged a full-scale show of David’s works on paper, and this one offered an unusual vista of an artist whose grand paintings put reason before passion, and ideals before blood relations. In four drawings for his “Death of Socrates,” finished in 1787, we saw the philosopher prepare to drink the lethal cocktail rather than repudiate his beliefs. Eight sketches for his “Brutus,” leading right up to 1789, showed the Roman consul refusing to mourn his traitorous sons as their corpses are hauled away.
My feelings for this greatest of Neoclassical artists, who spun Roman precedents into propaganda for the Reign of Terror and then for Napoleon, have cycled over many years between adulation and queasiness. In front of these drawings at the Met, I fell in love with David again: with his intensity and his frigidity; with how, in his shadow, today’s “political” art looks as benign as patty-cake. Here were the slow, accretive processes of someone ready to die, or indeed to kill, for a vision of civic virtue.
And then, a week after the Met show opened: Feb. 24. I couldn’t turn off the livestreams of the Kyiv night sky, lit up with white flashes, deranged by baying sirens and crackling shells.I watched, from the secure distance of my phone, as refugees streamed westward and those who stayed went underground. Later I went in person, to see what had been destroyed and who was fighting back. Why does culture matter, to a person, to a nation? In Paris, in Kyiv? In 1789, in 2022? Because, in times of great upheaval, you need exemplars to look toward. Because, when you might lose everything, you must sum up what should never be forgotten.
An invasion is not a revolution. The young artists caught up in Europe’s largest conflagration since World War II are working amid a campaign of terror; David, by 1791, would become a terroriste himself. Nevertheless, when culture took on the dimensions of survival, Ukraine’s artists have done what I thought could no longer be done: They have met history head-on. Their work is not the work of victims. It is the work of combatants — of active participants in an explicit culture war, proving every day that civic values can help defeat a supposedly superior adversary.
“We don’t always have sufficient resources to speak to this evil and be treated as equals,” the viper-tongued poet and novelist Serhiy Zhadan writes in “Sky Above Kharkiv,” his forthcoming book that chronicles life in the city as cluster munitions have rained down on civilians. “Yet our language has turned out to be much stronger than any attempt to compel us to remain silent, to forgo calling a spade a spade, or to forgo pronouncing the names we use to identify each other. We are trying to stand up to death; we are trying to stand up to absolute silence.”
In war zones or in exile, on a bunker-cast for a few dozen viewers or in front of tens of thousands at the Brandenburg Gate, Ukraine’s writers, filmmakers, painters and world-beating DJs have fought their battles every bit as formidably as their army has fought theirs. In the nearly empty Odesa Fine Arts Museum stands a full-body cast of the Crimean-born Maria Kulikovska, made of the gelatin that mimics human tissue in ballistic testing, with flowers pressed into the substitute flesh. Vic Bakin, one of Kyiv’s most compelling young photographers, shifted from his moody, black-and-white portraits of ravers and models to stark, full-color reportage from Bucha and Irpin. Ukrainian literature retains a documentary impulse that runs rings around our self-centered autofiction; Artem Chekh, the soldier-author of “Absolute Zero,” volunteered for the armed forces again, and kept writing.
Electronic music, especially, has led the charge for Ukrainian defiance at home and abroad. The young composer Oleh Shudeiko, who performs as Heinali, livestreamed from a Lviv bomb shelter his gossamer adaptations of medieval polyphony for modular synthesizers. On “From Ukraine, For Ukraine,” a darkly brilliant new omnibus album by the cutting-edge Kyiv label Standard Deviation, grief and rage melt into impudently beautiful contemporary threnodies. Gasoline Radio, a noncommercial station launched in Kyiv just this year, has kept Ukrainian house, techno and even folk music streaming worldwide, even amid the power cuts. Repair Together, a volunteer initiative, brings club kids to liberated towns, clearing the wreckage at 140 beats per minute.
All over Kyiv, outside Saint Sophia Cathedral and at gas stations by the highway, there’s a government billboard campaign with a one-word slogan, overlaid on images of soldiers, firefighters, grandpas, dog walkers. The word is bravery, a quality we honor in others but have grown lazy in asking of ourselves. David, too, was an artist-propagandist who put bravery at the core of civic life, and, revisiting “Radical Draftsman” after the Russian invasion, I found that his hard lines had taken on the force of a commandment. His Horatii triplets, arms raised as they pledge to fight to the death for the Roman cause. His Sabine women, stepping between two armies, risking their lives and their children’s to stop the fighting. His Spartans at Thermopylae, who refused to surrender to a vastly larger invading army — and whom the Zelensky administration invoked after the siege of Mariupol, which it styled “the Thermopylae of the 21st century.”
Is art worth dying for? No, I don’t think so. But art can summon us to perceive what we cannot live without, through forms and chronicles that might — in the words of one unnamed revolutionary critic, looking at David’s drawing of “The Oath of the Tennis Court” in 1791 — “exude a love of country, of virtue and of liberty.” On my desk, now, there’s a glass vial containing a single ear of wheat, each spikelet charred black at its edges. It was a gift from a Ukrainian curator, now a refugee in Paris, and it came from a field near Kherson that the occupiers burned as collective punishment. Thousands of these burnt wheat stalks lay underfoot in an exhibition of paintings and ceramics made since Feb. 24. The show was called “Terre Libre.” Free land.