are quite a few museums in Kyiv but there is one that I
have always loved to visit in preference to all the
others, the Museum of Western and Oriental Art. Even in my young years I was
enamoured of it, in fact so much that I played truant and
instead of school went to the Museum (for me it was
always the Museum with the capital “M”). The moment I
walked in I felt I was being pumped with positive
emotions. In my student days I thought it was because the
marvelous works of art there radiated a very special kind
of energy that would give me an emotional uplift and a
similar thing should happen in any museum of this kind.
But now I think there was also something else to it,
there was something in the building itself housing the
Museum that was special. For ten long years the Museum
was closed as a major restoration and renovation effort
was undertaken. It has taken so long to renovate it. In
the meantime I have had a lucky chance to visit the
Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Louver in Paris, the
Pinakothek in Munich, Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Plus,
I've been lucky to see dozens of museums in Vienna,
Berlin, Brussels, Hanover, Krakow and Budapest. Recently
when the Museum opened at last I immediately decided I
should go and see what had been done with it. Not without
some reservations though. I was afraid I would be
old recollections were too strong yet. It is always very
sad to lose one's cherished memory
once again walked through the halls enjoying the solemn
nobility of the Italian masters of the fifteenth century:
Bellini, Perugino, del Celayo; the refined psychological
insights of the Spaniards: Velasquez, Morales, Zurbaran;
the dramatic power of the old Netherlandish masters, the
sweeping life-loving gaiety of the Dutch and Flemish
masters of the seventeenth century, the exquisite
elegance of the French Baroque and rococo. I once again
saw the four unique Byzantine icons of the 6th century
AD. There are only twelve icons of this kind in the whole
world that have been preserved to our day. They were
painted with special wax-based paints. Eight of them are
to be found in churches, and four of them - in Kyiv, in
the Museum of Western and Oriental Art.
Brief History of the Museum The Tereshchenko's were among the most prominent people of the nineteenth century in Ukraine. One could really write a long epic novel about them. Mykola Tereshchenko and his brother Fedir were the sons of a peasant who had been a serf, a virtual slave. In spite of their humble beginning, they rose to prominence, became millionaires, great business magnates.
|They were what is called now “self-made men.” Having accumulated considerable wealth, they became patrons of art. They contributed and donated big sums of money (“enormous sums” as they were called by their contemporaries) to culture, medicine and all kinds of social projects. Among their descendants one finds politicians, diplomats, businessmen, scientists and scholars, leaders of independence movement. Unfortunately, in Ukraine very little is known of the biographies of the Tereshchenkos themselves and of their descendants. And now researchers have to dig for the precious documents in the archives of Moscow and St. Petersburg because so much had been lost and destroyed in Ukraine in the turbulent years of Revolution and Civil War. The decades of the communist rule in Ukraine proved to be disastrous for the Ukrainian cultural heritage and now so much has to be unearthed and recreated. How the Museum came to be in the seventies of the nineteenth century, which was the time when so much was being built in Kyiv, the Tereshchenkos bought several plots of land at the place of the present-day Tereshchenkivska Street. The street is rather short but its shortness does not prevent it from having three museums there now, and all the three are historically connected with the Tereshchenko family.||
| The museums used to be the
private houses of the brothers Tereshchenko, Mykola's
daughters Frosyna, Varvara and Olga. Varvara Tereshchenko
married Bohdan Khanenko, a lawyer and scion of an old
Ukrainian aristocratic family (one of Khanenko's
ancestors was a Hetman of Ukraine; Hetman — a military
and to a certain extent political leader of Ukraine of
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries). The
Khanenkos lived for some time in Moscow, then in St.
Petersburg and in Warsaw where Khanenko occupied a high
position in the regional court of justice. They traveled
widely all around Europe. Khanenko commissioned excellent
artists to paint portraits of his wife (among the better
known ones were the Spaniards Pantes and Cieca). It is
not clear what motivated the very successful lawyer and
his wife, the daughter of a millionaire, to move from the
capital of the Russian Empire to the provincial town of
Kyiv (at that time it was provincial). No documents have
been found so far that could help understand better their
motives, but in all likelihood the main reason was their
nostalgia for their native Ukraine.
By the end of the nineteenth century the Khanenkos had amassed a vast art collection whose individual pieces had been purchased in Paris, Madrid, Venice, Rome, Brussels and Warsaw. The well-known Russian collector Tretyakov gave Khanenko advice where to look for outstanding works of art in the Russian collections. It was from the Khanenkos' collection that the Museum later sprang up. But it must be admitted that their collection was wider in scope and the variety of exhibits was more extensive and was not limited to Western and Oriental art as it is now. There were archaeological pieces dating to the times of Kyivan-Rus-Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian paintings of much later times. The Khanenkos' collection also included exhibits of the early mediaeval Italian art.
Bohdan Khanenko had “his own”, very personal, view on art and its history and development. He wanted to bring together under one roof works of art of different cultures but of the same epoch and thus show the underlying unity of the world art, and also create a special atmosphere in which these pieces of art would reveal all their qualities to their best advantage.
Claude Vernet. A Storm in the Sea. 18th century.
|Vira Vinohradova, Museum's
As Mrs Vinohradova was telling me the story of the Museum and of Khanenko's idea concerning the ways of exhibiting an art collection, I realized that she was talking of that feeling that I got whenever I visited the Museum. I think Khanenko did manage to get his ideas realized in full because even now, entering each successive hall, devoted to a particular period of world art history, I am immediately plunged into a special mood. If you walked through the Museum and imagined it emptied of all works of art, then the halls might look somewhat unreasonably eclectic as one room imitates Gothic style, next — Baroque, still next — Renaissance, but filled with works of art of the corresponding periods of art and of corresponding styles, everything falls into place and looks belonging in there. The Khanenkos wanted the pieces of their collection “to feel comfortable” in their house and they decorated their rooms correspondingly. Probably I am wrong but I think that all the major museums have one disadvantage compared to the Khanenkos' house: they were all of them originally been built as royal palaces and only later they were turned into museums and Khanenkos' house was originally meant to be “a dwelling” for their art collection as well as place to live in.
I do not know of any other place like this anywhere else in the world. But the Khanenkos' house was not just “a dwelling for their art collection”, it was a mansion, a house they lived in. It was a place where Ukrainian intellectuals used to come to discuss the burning political issues of their time and talk about eternal values of art. Any visitor to the Khanenkos' house could walk through the halls and rooms and enjoy the great art exhibited there. Bohdan Khanenko was an indomitable public figure sitting on various charity commissions.
promoted the creation of a museum of Kyiv's history and
was instrumental in establishing a Polytechnic (his
father-in-law was among the main donators). Times of
Trials and Tribulations “Very fortunately for himself
Bohdan Khanenko died in early 1917,” said Mrs
Vinohradova at one point of her story about the Museum. I
was shocked to hear such a statement but a second later I
understood what the Curator meant: Bohdan Khanenko, a
great patron of art and refined intellectual, did not
live to see the ruinous results of the Bolshevik
revolution and almost total destruction of culture. His
wife was not as lucky. In his will he bequeathed his art
collection and many thousands of his books to the city of
Kyiv he loved so much. His only condition was: both the
art works and the books must be accessible to the public.
His wife was appointed to carry out the terms of his will
(the Khanenkos had no children and Varvara was the sole
During the revolution and civil war that followed Kyiv changed hands many times. For several months the city was even occupied by the German troops. Varvara Khanenko was offered by the Germans to be evacuated together with the art collection to Germany. She was promised personal safety and a safe place to store the art works at, but refused to leave Kyiv. Many members of the Tereshchenko family did leave and in a sense they did right. But Varvara Khanenko stayed put in her house.
|Through all the bloodshed and
violence she managed to save the house and the collection
from being plundered. It was nothing short of a miracle.
A respite in hostilities came in early 1918. It did not last long, only six months, but the Khanenko collection was given the status of a museum and thus the will of Bohdan Khanenko was fulfilled. It happened at the time when Ukraine was under the rule of Hetman Skoropadsky. His role in the history of Ukraine is controversial but as far as I am concerned a lot speaks in his favor. Skoropadsky was a former general, a descendant of a noble family of a very long aristocratic tradition. He did not manage to save Ukraine from further troubles but among the things he did was the establishment of the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine under whose official patronage the Khanenko museum was placed.
But the stability was short-lived. In 1919 the Reds captured the city of Kyiv and in accordance with Lenin's decree all the private art collections were to be nationalized. Varvara Khanenko was paid a visit by a group of Bolshevik “art historians and connoisseurs” (most of whom were in fact illiterate but armed to the teeth) and informed that the collection was “to be confiscated.” This announcement was tantamount for her to a death sentence but her upbringing and excellent manners did not let her down: she did not make a scene, showed no grief or any emotion at all in front of the Bolshevik barbarians.
Bolshevik authorities showed “a great benevolence”
towards Mrs Khanenko: she was allowed to stay in her
house and live in a tiny room that previously had been
occupied by her parlor maid. But at the same time she was
strictly forbidden even to have a look at her art
collection, already not hers, but “the state's.” She
was a courageous woman and at night she stealthily crept
downstairs and walked through the rooms with her art
treasures. Varvara Khanenko died in 1922 and a faithful
servant had her buried next to her husband at the
cemetery of the Vydubetsky Monastery. The same servant
continued to work in the Museum for 32 years as a
cleaning woman. She must have considered her life away
from the Khanenko house impossible. She also took care of
the Khanenkos' graves. For quite a long time there stood
an unadorned cross at the graves with an inscription
carved into it which read: “To the Khanenkos from
The fate treated the collection rather mercilessly. In the mid-thirties the communist authorities undertook “putting museum collections in order in accordance with the latest achievements of the communist scholarship.” It meant that some exhibits were moved from one museum to another and some exhibits from that other museum were moved elsewhere, and so on. Thus, a number of items of the Khanenko collection was moved to the Russian Museum, some went to the History Museum. The Museum of Western and Oriental Art, as it was officially called then, was given a number of items from other collections.
In 1941 shortly before the Nazi German troops occupied the city of Kyiv, a considerable part of the Khanenko collection was evacuated, and not a day too soon. During the German occupation quite a few items from the collection were taken away to Germany. But the mansion itself survived the fires, bombings and shellings. The eminent scholar and art historian Hylyarov stayed in Kyiv all through the three terrible years of German occupation and took care of the Museum in the best way he could. After the Red Army recaptured the city from the Germans, the Soviet power “honored” Hylyarov for saving the Museum from being totally gutted and despoiled by arresting him and putting him into prison for “collaboration with the Nazi German invaders.”
After the war the Museum was brought back to life but by the end of the eighties it became clear that it must be closed for urgent repairs. The Museum was closed down just at the time the Soviet Union was disintegrating.
Art des Claudio Coello. Portrait of a Carusian Bishop. 18th century.
was not enough money allocated for the renovation,
inflation was so high it was impossible to keep up with
it. All the Museum items were carefully preserved in the
basement. It was only last year that the City
Administration found enough money to give to the Museum
for completion of the repairs and renovation. Curator
Vinohradova's Story in her Own Words: "We have lived
through very difficult times indeed... For several months
we, the Museum staff, had to live right in the Museum to
make sure the collection would come to no harm. Once we
discovered mildew on the crates in which the exhibits
were kept in the basement. Imagine our horror? Thanks
God, the cursed fungi did not affect any of the
collection's items themselves.
We tried to restore the interiors the way they looked in the Khanenko times, to recreate the very special atmosphere. I do hope we've managed to do that. In one of the rooms which used to be part of the library we have established a memorial section commemorating the Khanenkos. Quite soon we'll open the Antiquity and Oriental Sections of the Museum and an exciting collection of the mediaeval stained glass. Some of the items from the Museum were recently shown in Finland at an exhibition sponsored by the wives of the presidents of Ukraine and Finland.
exhibition was a success both with the public and the
press. Our Museum has been invited to take part in the
grandiose international exhibition 2000, devoted to two
thousand years of Christianity by sending some of our
exhibits. All in all, in spite of the fact that it has
taken so much effort, money and time to revive the
Museum, it all pays. Culture lives on, people come to our
Museum in great numbers.” Yes, I've seen crowds in the
Museum, people of all ages, from all walks of life. I've
seen those who looked definitely being “in reduced
circumstances.” In fact there seemed to be more
visitors of the latter category than in the Soviet times
when the entrance fee was symbolical twenty or so
kopecks. And I could not help thinking that an outcry
heard from many quarters about “the loss of
spirituality,” “disintegration of cultural values”
in Ukraine is, to say the least, a gross exaggeration. We
are going through a period during which the people are
establishing their cultural priorities: some watch soap
operas in their free time, some are attracted to reading
and watching bloodthirsty thrillers, but others who
probably in minority will always be attracted to the
Beauty personified in art. The Beauty has a right to live
on and the Museum where the Beauty is presented in its
most concentrated form will live on as well. Let's hope
that the times of trial and tribulations are all in the
past for the Museum. It does deserve to be treated with
love and consideration, to live in peace and give joy to
those who care to come and visit it.