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A Ukrainian enthusiast who founded several museums
Mr Borys Voznytsky is the curator of the Lviv Picture Gallery; he is the founder of 15 other museums to which he pays regular visits. Most of the time this energetic person is on the move and Ulyana HLIBCHUK did have to try several times before she managed to get him to give an interview.
Mr Voznytsky is an honorary academician of the Academy of Arts of Ukraine, a doctor emeritus of the Krakow Pedagogical Academy, and a recipient of many awards, but he calls all these honours “vanity and futility,” and his work is what he really cares for.
Iknow that you devote a great deal of your time to the preservation effort of architectural landmarks. Could you expand on it?
I’ll begin from afar. Back in 1946, the soviet authorities disbanded the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine. Several hundred churches were closed in the Land of Lvivshchyna alone, Greek Catholic priests were forced either to become Orthodox priests, or… Those who refused were arrested and exiled to Siberia to be put in concentration camps there. I know of at least six hundred priests arrested and exiled… When I became curator of the museum, I began travelling to villages, in which there were abandoned churches, and collected icons, liturgical objects, and everything else that could be called religious art. In the 1960s and 1970s, these expeditions in which I involved art historians and enthusiasts salvaged about twelve thousand items worthy of being kept in museums. If we had not done that, all of them would have been destroyed. According to some estimates, now they are worth more than four billion dollars… But we managed to save from destruction only a part of the treasures that those churches contained. The soviets used the churches as warehouses for all kinds of things like fertilisers, for example. Or they just pulled the churches down… I cherish the memory of those years of salvaging expeditions. Initially, we did not even have an automobile, but later we borrowed a small old truck from the Lviv Opera House, and after some repairs we drove around in that truck. At first, we targeted the churches that dated to the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but later we widened our search for abandoned church treasures to the churches of later centuries. We did find some unique pieces, some of which were already falling apart and had to be carefully restored.
Where did you put all those things that you brought from your expeditions?
At first, we stored them in an abandoned church. I hoped that church could be made into an excellent museum, but when I realized that the soviet authorities would never allow a museum of religious art, I had to think of something else. And then I thought of the Olesky Castle, a place that could hold all those treasures. The Castle itself is a museum so it was but natural to keep objets d’art there. We could not exhibit them — there was only a small portion of all those treasures exhibited but as far as the place of storage and safe keeping was concerned, the castle was an ideal place. We don’t let lay visitors into the storerooms — only art historians and restorers can have an access. Anybody who goes into them, gets overwhelmed — so much art concentrated in those storerooms! The current president of Ukraine Victor Yushchenko once visited the Olesky Castle in the 1990s at the time when he was still governor of the National Bank of Ukraine. He spent several hours looking at all those treasures…
Back in the soviet times, we had little hope altogether that we would be able to exhibit anything of what we had brought from the abandoned churches but the then Ukraine’s communist party leader surprisingly enough okayed the idea. Once he paid a visit to the Olesky Castle and it was me who took him around. When he saw all that art in the storerooms he exclaimed, “How beautiful these things are!” And that was it. So, some of the things could be exhibited. Later, we used many of those treasures to set up new museums.
In Lviv and in the Land of Lvivshchyna. But among the museums in the founding of which I was instrumental were various kinds of museums that did not have anything to do with those treasures that were kept in the Olesky Castle. One of such museums is in the town of Zolochiv. Once it was a castle which in later times was used as a prison. But after repairs and restoration we opened the Museum of Oriental Civilisations there, the first one of its kind in Ukraine.
When was that castle built?
In the early seventeenth century. Among the builders were Tartars who were allowed to settle in a village situated in the vicinity. The village is still there — it’s called Voronyaky. Their descendants speak Ukraine, are Christians but in their appearance one can see some features that reveal their Tartar roots… The architects of many of the castles and palaces in the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries were invited from western Europe. In the town of Zbarazh, for example, there is a palace that was designed by an Italian architect, and the Pidhoretsky Castle was designed by Andrea Delaqua from the city of Venice.
Any museums founded recently?
Yes. Recently we opened a museum of Ivan Vyhovsky (hetman of Ukraine in the seventeenth century — tr.) in the village of Ruda. In this village was the Vyhovsky’s residence. He was one of the first to realize that the treaty with Russia signed by the hetman of Ukraine Bohdan Khmelnytsky was fraught with danger for the future of Ukraine and he tried hard to find ways out but failed. He gathered forces and in a major battle with a Russian army inflicted a crushing defeat on it. However, the Poles who contended for control of Ukraine, did not think it was in their interests to have such a strong political figure in Ukraine. Through treachery he was captured, accused of treason and executed. We do not know where he was buried and are still looking for his burial place.
Let’s get back to the art treasures you were speaking about.
All right. Among those who saw them was a Polish minister of culture. He was very impressed and said that he dearly wished that they had something comparable in Poland. He said that a royal palace was being restored in Poland but there was hardly anything that could be exhibited in that palace after the restoration was completed.
Do you know what the percentage is of the items that are exhibited in museums and which are kept in storerooms?
In Europe, on average, about seventy percent of items that museums possess are exhibited. In Ukraine, on average, less than 30 percent are exhibited and in Lviv we can exhibit only three or four percent of what we potentially could exhibit in our museums.
Does it mean that there is not enough space in the available museums or that the items kept in storerooms are of inferior quality?
There is not enough space in our museums — most of the items kept in storerooms are of excellent quality and of high artistic merit. Take the Lviv Picture Gallery, for example. In the soviet times it was one of the biggest galleries in the whole of the Soviet Union. The maintenance of such a gallery involves a great effort. Incidentally, one of the problems was how to exhibit properly huge canvases depicting battles. One of these pictures is nine meters by ten (27 by 30 feet). It shows The Battle of Klusheno. It was painted by the Lviv artists Shiman Bohushovych, of Armenian descent. The Battle of Khotyn by Kestler and Stekh, painted in 1674, and the other two depicting the themes from the rule of the Polish king Jan Sobesky are of great sizes too. The Poles once asked to borrow the picture The Battle of Khotyn for an exhibition in Warsaw. At first, I refused to lend it — because of its size it would be a great problem to transport it. Besides, it was not in a very good state of preservation. But the Polish minister of culture and other officials kept pressing us into lending that picture to be shown at an exhibition. And then they promised to pay money for the time it would be shown in Poland. And we agreed to lend it. We used the money for repairs in the gallery. And when later we had similar requests we knew what to charge...
Do you keep travelling and looking out for neglected art treasures?
Not as much as earlier but I still do it. And some serendipitous discoveries do happen. I knew, for example, that in the village of Stary Rozdil there was an old palace dating from the nineteenth century. In the soviet times it was turned into a sanatorium. The sanatorium was closed down and once I paid a visit to that village and to that palace, I discovered it in a dilapidated condition but it still had some of the statuary which was thought to be mostly plaster copies of the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome. When I examined them closely, I discovered that though some of those sculptures were covered with dirt, they did not look like plaster copies at all. I scratched the surface and discovered marble. Later, further examination by the specialists confirmed that those were marble statues dated from the times of ancient Rome and Greece. Now they are being restored.
Photos by Andriy KLIMASHEVSKY
Borys Voznytsky, a Ukrainian culture
The Pidhoretsky Castle in the Land
The Olesky Castle where the artifacts
The castle in the village
A castle in the village of Svirzh.