On a Monday afternoon in Cologne, Ukrainian curator Yuliia Berdiiarova meets me at the rear entrance of Museum Ludwig. The museum, next to the main train station and Cologne cathedral, is closed to the public on Mondays.
Berdiiarova, a 29-year-old art historian, worked at the Odesa Fine Arts Museum and the Mystetskyi Arsenal in Kyiv before the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In her role at Museum Ludwig, she has organized a school vacation program for Ukrainian refugee children and their parents. She also conducts research into Ukrainian modernism, which had previously been falsely attributed to the Russian avant-garde.
Berdiiarova offers to show me some of the artworks that will be displayed from June 3 as part of the exhibition, "Modernism in Ukraine 1900-1930s." The curator has been part of the Museum Ludwig team for almost a year, and she's helping to prepare this show.
Many of the works in this extensive exhibition, previously on show in Madrid, were removed from Ukraine due to the war, and had never before been displayed outside the country. The exhibition is completed by works that have been taken out of Museum Ludwig's storage.
We take the stairs to the first floor and walk through the museum, which is mostly empty. Berdiiarova says museums without people make her sad. "A lot of museums (in Ukraine) are still closed," she says. "It's a place for dialogue sometimes. It's a place for relief, to feel connection with history, to feel connection with other people."
Forced to flee war in Ukraine
Even in Cologne, Russia's war in Ukraine is ever-present for Berdiiarova. But she knows she's one of the lucky ones. Her position at Museum Ludwig and her stay in Cologne are financed by three different foundations. But last June, when she left Odesa, where she'd worked as a museum curator for six years, she didn't know what was next. She took a step into the unknown.
"It was a very hard decision to leave Odesa," she says. "I don't want to call it an adventure because adventure is something good, but it was not an adventure in a good way. It was just like a step into nothing. I had a really small bag. That was all."
That bag contained nothing more than her documents, ID and the most essential clothes. Berdiiarova has since had some of her clothes sent to her from Ukraine, and before me stands a stylish woman all in black: A turtleneck top, a suit, sunglasses. She says, with a wink, that she tries to look the part of a typical museum curator, inspired by the famous Kasimir Malevich painting, "Black Square."
Reclaiming Ukrainian names
Berdiiarova would have preferred to stay in Ukraine. She says that in the first few months of the war, she and her colleagues initially took works from the museum in Odesa to safety, but then life there became impossible.
She fled across to Warsaw, from where she continued first to Berlin, then to Cologne. Ukrainian colleagues sent her information about a program for Ukrainian curators in Germany from the Ernst Siemens Foundation.
She hasn't abandoned her homeland in Cologne; on the contrary, she says she's fighting in her own way: with words. At Museum Ludwig, she's corrected all the names of Ukrainian artists. "First, we freed the spelling of the cities from their Russian spelling. That was part of the Soviet Union's culture of appropriation, to Russify names of cities and people. We made Kharkov into Kharkiv again. The names were transliterated from the Russian alphabet into the Latin alphabet. And I'm very proud that Museum Ludwig agreed to the corrections."
The war has changed the view of Ukrainian art
So, the Ukrainian artist Alexander Bogomazov is now Oleksandr Bohomazov and the Ukrainian capital is now spelled "Kyiv."
The war has now helped familiarize the public with Ukraine and its art history – thanks in part to Berdiiarova's work. She combed through the Museum Ludwig's collection and not only came across names of Ukrainian artists whose names still had the Russian spellings, she also corrected national affiliations.
Kazimir Malevich, for instance, "had a Ukrainian passport during the Soviet era, where it was written that he was Ukrainian." Berdiiarova adds that he spent a significant portion of his career as a professor at the Kyiv Academy of Arts, and published texts in Ukrainian magazines. She says that Malevich's Ukrainian identity was suppressed, so he was always considered a representative of the Russian avant-garde.
Other Ukrainian artists, like Vasyl Yermilov, were also co-opted by the Russian avant-garde. The artist was born in Kharkiv in 1894 but was considered a representative of the Russian Constructivist movement. Now, on the initiative of Yuliia Berdiiarova, his works hang in a new context – alongside works by Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. "Late, but justice all the same," Berdiiarova says proudly.
Ukrainian artists liberated from appropriation
"We are trying to understand how the concept of the Russian avant-garde was part of the system of appropriation of culture in the post-imperialist area, and why it has so much power," she said. "Why was the imperialist background of the Soviet Union overlooked for so long in the first place? These are all very long processes."
So, along with numerous colleagues, she is compiling a list of all the Ukrainian artists in collections worldwide. The list is intended to prove how diverse the Ukrainian art landscape has been, and how Russian propaganda denied it a place in art history.
Even though she feels at home in Cologne – and the modern "Crane Houses" along the Rhine remind her of motifs from constructivist paintings, as she recounts with a smile – she also feels very lonely. So she wants to return to Odesa when her program ends, even though the war will probably not be over by then. "Odesa is my home. It's just too hard to be so far away. Sometimes it feels safer to be with your people, even when bombs are falling."