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The Ukrainian Conundrum in Three Paintings

Unexpected developments in Ukraine are occurring at a very fast pace. On Saturday February 22nd, the dismissal of President Viktor Yanukovych and the release of Yulia Tymoshenko clearly marked a turning point in the crisis, surprising many observers. No less important were the seizure of Crimea by Russian troops a week later and the protests in eastern and southern Ukraine. For months we have been witnessing a political drama which has already created its own myths and political symbols.

March 21, 2014 - Florent Parmentier - Articles and Commentary

21.03.2014 Eugène Delacroix - Liberty Leading the People detail - WGA6179

"Eugène Delacroix" - Liberty Leading the People Photo: Web Gallery of Art (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

Being confronted with this crisis which is often difficult to grasp, artistic metaphors might indeed explain a lot about what is happening now and what might happen. The photogenic EuroMaidan popular protests seemed directly inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s painting “Liberty Leading the People” from 1831. This amazing painting, probably the only one of the painter with a political flavour, was originally titled “Scenes of Barricades”, a description which would definitely fit the Maidan. Universally, this picture is often painted with new colours as it embodies the will of popular change, revolutionary ideals and the call for freedom. It was directly inspired by the July Revolution of 1830 (also known as “les trois Glorieuses”), when King Charles X of France was toppled, as was Yanukovych in 2014. The former – as the latter – wanted to crush the liberal opposition, which was fighting for the openness of the regime. As their contemporary descendants in Ukraine, politicians and citizens from the middle class had called for civil disobedience and street actions. Mobilisation in the French capital was able to oust the authoritarian and unpopular king who spent the rest of his life in exile. Comparable dynamic opposition and outcomes have taken place in Kyiv, where citizens have considered the non-signing of the Association Agreement with the EU to be an affront, synonymous with a farewell to European values.

21.03.2014 Goya 3may menBut on Wednesday February 20th, the streets of Kyiv were more like Francisco Goya’s painting “The Third of May 1808” (“El Tres de Mayo”), the sad day of the shooting of the Napoleonic troops in Spain after the rebellion of May 1808. It is definitely an archetypal image of the horrors of war in which soldiers and victims face each other abruptly across a narrow space. The same sense of horror, disgust and malaise were felt when the Berkut and the protestors faced each other in Kyiv’s streets. By his use of light, Goya depicted forcefully the execution of innocent people like those who have fallen at the Maidan. By its blackness, it also recalls the difficult and uncertain time that Spain experienced then. Today, Kyiv is on the verge of bankruptcy and its sovereignty is threatened; the country remains strongly divided, while current political leaders do not enjoy a high level of trust. We can only hope that no bloodshed comparable to Goya’s painting will ever occur in the future of Ukraine.

The next steps in Ukrainian politics are somehow difficult to anticipate, as the situation will probably remain unstable for the forthcoming weeks, at least until the upcoming presidential elections on May 25th. If a painting can be useful to catch the current atmosphere, it is probably one by Wassily Kandinsky, a Moscow-born artist who spent his childhood in Odessa, “Improvisation 21A”. This colourful painting, done for the amazement of spectators, appears at first sight simple to grasp. Some features may seem obvious for the international press: Tymoshenko would probably be among the favourites of the next presidential elections. Ukrainian politicians will probably quickly sign the Association Agreement… Yet if we look at the painting more closely, “Improvisation 21A” actually has many implications of different kinds. A peculiar example of this can be seen with respect to the expressions of tension and spontaneity in the painting, the emotions being represented with dots and lines. As such, the work is eliminating any linear perspective: it refers to both the chaos and upheaval of society. We may also add the uncertainty of Ukraine’s relations with Russia…     

An earlier version of this article was published in the French newspaper Libération (February 26th 2014).

Florent Parmentier, PhD, is programme director for the Master of Public Administration in Sciences Po, Paris. He specialises and lectures on European Neighbourhood Policy (mainly the Eastern Partnership and Moldova) and energy politics.

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