Babyn Yar: The tragedy of Babyn Yar: memories and art

12:13 Sep. 30, 2016

The tragedy of Babyn Yar: memories and art

Monument in Babyn Yar (Photo by Oksana Zabuzova)

Ukrainian historian and diplomat Dmytro Ishchenko on how Kyivan artists opposed both totalitarian regimes

On the 29th of September, 1941, Kyiv witnessed the beginning of the unprecedented massacre that went on for the next two years. In the ravine known as Babyn Yar, the Nazis murdered approximately 100,000 people. Almost entire Jewish population of Ukraine's capital, including women and children perished there, under the storm of German bullets. The same bullets did away with numerous prisoners of war, local Roma, Ukrainian nationalists, Communists, and patients of Kyivan psychiatric clinics.

These days Ukraine is honouring all the victims of this demonic crime remembered as one of the darkest pages in the history of the Holocaust and World War Two. What happened in Babyn Yar is our common tragedy – common in both national and international dimensions.

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A sign saying that over 100,000 people shot in Babyn Yar. The text is written in Ukrainian, Russian, and Yiddish. The plates with the inscription are places in front of the monument, which we will discuss below (Photo by Dmytro Ishchenko) 

Ensuring its commemoration, however, was not an easy task. After the war, the Soviet apparatus proved to be incrementally hostile to the very idea – especially with regard to the murdered Kyivan Jews. Nevertheless, the public (or, to be more precise, some groups of the then Ukrainian society) demanded the truth to be remembered. The authorities had to make some concessions and, at the end of the 1960s, they commissioned the monument to ‘the citizens of Kyiv and prisoners of war' killed in the ravine. In 1976, it was officially opened.      

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Photo by Oksana Zabuzova

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Photo by Oksana Zabuzova 

Despite the unpopularity of Soviet-era art with the contemporary middle classes, this sculpture deserves some appreciative attention. Its authors managed to express the indescribable symphony of pain felt by those on the verge of death. We see a group of figures, whose bodies compose one dramatic unity, clinging to life, agonizing, and falling into the abyss. This work follows the long artistic tradition, known in Europe since Greco-Roman antiquity.

The best example of its earliest manifestation is, of course, the famous statue of Hellenistic age, which depicts the murder of the Trojan priest Laocoon and his two sons by three giant serpents. The ‘Laocoon Group' inspired the artists of Ancient Rome, as well as the sculptors and painters of the Renaissance and post-Renaissance Europe.

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Laocoon and His Sons. Vatican Museum, Rome. (Source: Wikipedia)

In 1509, the statue was excavated in Rome. The common view is that this is an example of the so-called Hellenistic baroque of the 2nd century BC. It may be a copy of much earlier (possibly bronze) original. Cambridge researcher Nigel Spivey uses perhaps the optimal description of the ‘Laocoon Group' – i.e. ‘the prototypical icon of human agony' in Western art.    

The Romans had their own peculiar form of expressive group sculpture with particularly tragic mood. The Sarcophagi of the first three centuries AD depict scenes of battles, mass murders and fallen bodies.

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The Portonaccio sarcophagus with battle scene between Romans and Germans, c. 180 CE. (Source: Wikipedia)

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The Fall of Phaeton, Roman sarcophagus, 2nd century CE. (Source: Wikipedia)

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The ‘Grande Ludovisi' sarcophagus with the scene of a battle between Romans and Germans, c. 251 CE. (Source: Wikipedia) 

Christian Europe supplemented the eternal theme of war and pillage with three more motives essential for the artistic tradition we chose to discuss. These were the fall to Hell, the massacre of the innocents, and the descent from the cross.   

The sculpture of Romanesque and Gothic styles tended to present these stories by showing the emotive entwinement of figures.

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Former abbey church of Sainte-Marie in Souillac, France. Romanesque trumeau against the inner western wall (1120-1135).(Source: www.portalsaeule.de)

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Souillac, France. Former abbey church of Sainte-Marie. Trumeau details (1120-1135). (Source: www.portalsaeule.de) 

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Giovanni Pisano (c.1250 –c.1315), the Gothic pulpit of Sant' Andrea Church, Pistoia, Italy (1301). Detail of the ‘Massacre of the Innocents'. (Source: Wikipedia) 

The Netherlandish and German painters of the 15th century further dramatized the depiction of the fall from the earthly life to the dark realms beyond it. The works of Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), many would claim, reflect the crescendo of this dramatization.

 

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(Left) Hans Memling. Last Judgement (late 1460s). Right-hand panel. National Museum, Gdańsk.

(Right) Dirk Bouts. Hell (1470). Right-hand panel of ‘Last Judgement' triptych. Now in Louvre, Paris. (Source: Wikipedia)

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(Left) Hieronymus Bosch. Fall of the Damned into Hell (before 1490). Now in the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy.

(Right) Hieronymus Bosch. Hell (after 1490). Palazzo Ducale, Venice, Italy. (Source: Wikipedia) 

The Renaissance combined the Christian manner of depicting pain with the forms inspired by the rediscovered Greco-Roman legacy. Michelangelo in his frescos for the Sistine Chapel was among those few who paved the way for this more complex style of expression. 

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Jacopo Sansovino. Deposition (c. 1510). Now at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Michelangelo. Details from the Sistine Chapel ceiling: the Deluge. Vatican, Rome. (Source: www.escuelapedia.com) 

It certainly was the Baroque that introduced the visual drama peculiar to the artistic display of death and suffering for the centuries to come. Peter Paul Rubens is one of those revolutionaries, who must be mentioned in this connection with the outmost respect.

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Peter Paul Rubens. Massacre of the Innocents (1611-12). (Source: Wikipedia)

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Peter Paul Rubens. The Decent from the Cross (1612-1614). (Source: Wikipedia)

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Peter Paul Rubens. Horror of War (1638-1639). (Source: Wikipedia)

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Karl Georg Merville. Fall of the Angels (1781). Alabaster Rococo sculpture, plasterwork on choir wall, St. Michael Church, Vienna. (Source: Wikipedia)

Just as their predecessors, the artists of Rococo and Neo-Classicism depicted death and the fall to hell. 

Many Romantics of the 19th century aspired to revive the tragic expressionism of Rubens and other Baroque masters. These efforts brought the metaphorical depiction of a tantalized group of people into the art of modernity.   

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Théodore Géricault. The Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819). Romantic painting. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Francisco de Goya. A Pilgrimage to San Isidro, a fragment (1819-23). Museo del Prado, Madrid. (Source: Wikipedia)

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William Blake. The Lovers' Whirlwind (1824-1827). The Romantic illustration of Hell in Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy, Canto V. (Source: Wikipedia) 

The great master Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) built the bridge between this style and the 20th century sculpture. His ‘Gates of Hell', inspired by the depiction of Inferno in Dante's ‘Divine Comedy', is probably the best illustration of this transition. The sculptors who worked after Rodin simply could not avoid his influence.

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Auguste Rodin. The Gates of Hell, Kunsthaus in Zürich, Switzerland. The depiction of Dante's Inferno. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Auguste Rodin. The Gates of Hell. Detail. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Auguste Rodin. The Gates of Hell. Detail. (Source: Wikipedia)

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Auguste Rodin. The Gates of Hell. Detail. (Source: Wikipedia) 

And now, let us take another look at the monument in Babyn Yar.

Its emotional intensity is rooted in the art of previous epochs. It tells the story of one particular tragedy, and yet it is the story of the whole humankind.

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Photo by Dmytro Ishchenko

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Photo by Dmytro Ishchenko 

The authors of this sculpture had to surpass those multiple obstacles the Soviet bureaucratic machine repeatedly put before them. In many ways, by honouring the victims of the Third Reich, the Kyivan artists opposed the system constructed by another totalitarian regime – that of the Kremlin.

At present, the power of art is still a weapon against the oppression. And it is art that may empower our collective memory with feelings and understanding.    

Read also The Soviet-Nazi division of Poland

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