In 1938, Winston Churchill, observing the clouds of war gathering over Europe, declaimed in a speech, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sustain and encourage them….The Prime Minister [Neville Chamberlain], who spoke with so much feeling and thought on this subject, has reminded us of the old saying that it is by art man gets nearest to the angels and farthest from the animals.”
By the early 1940s, Churchill had become England’s prime minister, war was raging across the heart of Europe, and the Museum of Modern Art was sponsoring such artists as Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Marc Chagall, Marcel Duchamp, and others who were seeking to escape the carnage of the Nazi blitzkrieg. Additionally, as MOMA’s website notes, from 1938 onward, the museum mounted exhibitions by artists who were on the ground in Europe, such as Luis Quintanilla: An Exhibition of Drawings of the War in Spain, and Yank Illustrates the War, which featured artworks by a wide range of American servicemen, including the brilliant cartoonist Bill Mauldin.
In our own time, too, many world leaders have been consorting with the beasts rather than the angels, a trend most nakedly manifested on February 24 of this year, the day Vladimir Putin’s Russia invaded Ukraine. MOMA’s attempts last century to educate Americans about the dangers of fascism and the aggressive wars launched by such dictators as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini is echoed today by SONYA, an exhibition in the East Village that features work by contemporary Ukrainian artists. The show benefits Sunflower Network, which to date has delivered over a million dollars worth of humanitarian relief to Ukraine, including 4 x 4 ambulances, medical supplies, and hygiene products. In that spirit, the press release notes, “All gallery proceeds from the exhibition will be used to fuel our mission of delivering humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in need.”
A number of artists in the show hail from Kharkiv, Ukraine, where they studied at the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts. Bob Basset (born Serhii Petrov) has been exhibited around the world, with work featured in Vogue and other fashion venues. His 2010 Cyberdog Gasmask is made to be worn, its leather and gas filter motif viscerally embodying a citizenry with a history of repelling invaders, whether the Mongol empire, in the 13th century, Adolf Hitler, in 1944, or Vladimir Putin now.
There are 10 artists in the exhibition, all from Ukraine, including Polina Kuznetsova, whose painting My Hero (Zelenskyy) Dreams envisions Ukraine’s valiant young president not in the regal pinstripes of power but rather in a reddish robe crinkled like a plastic tarp. Although painted in 2020, the vision captures qualities that were apparent in a young, democratically elected leader who has now become a freedom fighter at the front of a citizenry enduring harrowing hardships since this past February.
The singly-monikered Burenko has contributed Yūutsu II (2021), an example of what the contemporary Ukrainian painter terms “sick-pop.” Indeed, with a gradated gray horizon that looks more like smoke than clouds, and sparse, wilting vegetation, his compellingly abstracted landscape can be seen as a premonition of the devastation wrought by the Russian onslaught.
Visit the website to see all the works on view. The art is high caliber, and the cause is righteous. ❖
352 East 13th Street
November 10 – December 2
Opening reception: Wednesday,November 9, 6-9 p.m.
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