Art at war | cultural whisper

From the mighty of Demna Gvasalia Balenciaga fashion show to the disappearance of artists and collectors of oligarchs in Europe, as well as the multiple initiatives launched to help the humanitarian tragedy, the world of art and fashion is grappling with the reality of the war in Ukraine. But the situation also raises the important question of the role of culture and the arts in times of crisis.


When war broke out in Ukraine on February 24, Fashion Weeks were in full swing in a Europe just emerging from Covid.
Designers, fashion journalists and influencers suddenly found themselves in the spotlight and apologizing for the frivolity of their activities amid a humanitarian crisis unfolding nearby.

Beyond expected messages condemning the war and invitations to donate to Ukraine, the fashion industry at first continued as usual, as if helpless to do more, uneasy with the horrors of war. Giorgio Armani’s decision to turn off the music to hold his Milan fashion show in silence was the first official acknowledgment of the situation.

But then came Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga who fled Georgia as a child when his country was in civil war. Amid reports of more than 1.5 million refugees arriving in Europe from Ukraine, Gvasalia greeted guests with Ukrainian flag T-shirts and invited them to watch a Balenciaga fashion show where shivering models, clutching trash bags apparently full of belongings, fought against a biting wind on a snowy catwalk: few guests left the show without tears in their eyes.

“At times like this, wrote Gvasalia in a preamble, “fashion loses its relevance and its true right to be exhibited. Fashion Week looks like some kind of nonsense. I thought for a moment about canceling the show that my team and I have been working hard on and that we’ve all been looking forward to. But then I realized that canceling this show would mean giving in, surrendering to the evil that already hurt me so much almost 30 years ago. Adding to this in a later interview, he said: ‘As a brand, we have to do something. We can’t take up arms and go fight there, but we can use our voices.

Balenciaga’s powerful message raised questions about the role and responsibility of the art and fashion world in a European war.

The first response from fashion brands and cultural spheres was to cut all ties with Russia, with Russian artists and companies beginning to feel the repercussions of Vladimir Putin’s decisions, either because of their political support for the Russian autocrat or because of their morally unapproachable position.

In the world of classical music, conductor Valery Gergiev and opera singer Anna Netrebko have had their performances canceled and their positions withdrawn because of their support for the Russian regime.

The Royal Opera House has canceled the Bolshoi Ballet’s traditional summer season. Meanwhile, the Russian pavilion has withdrawn from the Venice Biennale, with its Russian artists and curators declaring that “there is no place for art when civilians are dying under missile fire, when Ukrainian citizens hide in shelters when Russian protesters are silenced”. .

Netflix has suspended its streaming service in Russia, while Warner Bros, Disney and Sony have halted movie releases in Russian cinemas. Back in the fashion world, Hermès, LVMH and Chanel have closed their stores.

But severing cultural ties with Putin’s Russia also means returning loaned artifacts. Earlier this week, the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg requested that pieces currently on display at an exhibition in Milan be returned by the end of March. In London, the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is currently presenting an exhibition on the Russian imperial jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé, presents works on loan from museums in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. The V&A spokesman said the museum was dealing with “a rapidly evolving situation”.

Meanwhile, the lavish donations of wealthy Russians to British art institutions are in the spotlight. Petr Aven, a banker close to Vladimir Putin, currently a donor and trustee of the Royal Academy of Art in London, will leave his post and the RA will return his recent donation for the Francis Bacon exhibition.

Beyond severing ties with Putin’s Russia, cultural institutions have focused on supporting Ukraine, its artists and cultural heritage. Nearly 50 European cultural networks – representing thousands of theatres, art festivals and venues – are committed to receiving and hosting Ukrainian artists, and to organizing performances and events as part of a spectacle of support to the country. A petition was also signed by more than 600 peopleincluding National Theater Artistic Director Rufus Norris.

“We are extremely concerned about the impact of the invasion on civil society. Over the past decade, we have developed close ties with peer organizations in Ukraine – supporting ongoing artistic dialogue and exchange, thriving democracy and long-term collaboration with future generations through flagship initiatives of civil society, such as the EU’s Eastern Partnership,’ the letter states. , stating that international collaboration “must be supported at all costs”.
“Our organizations are ready to receive and host artists, stage performances, organize events, inform and facilitate access to resources and advocate for a peaceful solution,” he adds.

In a world of art and fashion that knew no borders, the decisions to cut all ties with Russia and support Ukraine were swift.

Inexorably, culture becomes a key component of the war against Putin’s Russia. Earlier this week, culture secretary Nadine Dorries told Parliament that “culture and sport can be just as effective as economic sanctions if used in the right way”. She added: ‘Over the past week I have worked to mobilize the full force of British soft power against the Russian state and have exerted pressure – both public and private – on all sectors, to use every lever at their disposal to entrench Putin’s position as an international pariah. Culture is the third front of the Ukrainian war. His statement echoes the language of Gvasalia and leaves no room for ambivalence.

But beyond the responsibility of artists to uphold morality, we need culture more than ever to help us make sense of it all.


Support Ukrainian cultural initiatives and more

Dance for Ukraine: The world of ballet comes together in a special gala, Dance for Ukraine.

#CookForUkraine Olia Hercules, London-based Ukrainian chef, Russian food writer Alissa Timoshkina and culinary influencer Clerkenwell Boy has joined forces to launch the #CookForUkraine fundraising program. More than 60 restaurants and bars are currently taking part, pledging to serve Ukrainian specialties or organize other fundraising initiatives to raise money for those, especially children, fleeing war.

#Ukrainesupportpledge on Instagram: buy artwork with a pledge

@Artforcharitycollective : Auction for the benefit of Choose Love on March 16 at 10 p.m. GMT

Choose Love has launched fundraising for the Ukraine crisis, with donations earmarked to support projects (that meet Choose Love’s criteria) that provide vital aid and services to those still in the country or fleeing the country. Learn more here.

The Beauty Banks is currently supporting several UK-based charities which are collecting essentials for people who have left their homes for neighboring countries. More information will be shared in the coming days here.

Toilet Amnesty provides large-scale donations of essential hygiene products to refugees in Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Moldova. They also started a fundraiser to cover donation storage costs and transportation costs. Learn more here.

The Disaster Emergency Committee launched the Humanitarian Appeal for Ukraine for families who left their homes with only the items they could carry. Find out how you can help here.

The Red Cross Ukraine Crisis Appeal is using donations to help those affected get food, water, first aid, shelter, medicine and warm clothing. Learn more here.

Helen D. Jessen