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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Lviv Art Gallery is 100 years old

Ukraine’s largest museum still without national status
27 February, 2007 - 00:00

A festive concert at the opera house, an exhibit called The Origins of the Gallery Roots, the launch of publications devoted to the museum’s art collection, and the opening of the European Art Division at Potocki Palace are just some of the cultural events dedicated to the centennial of the Lviv Art Gallery, which is being celebrated as a significant event at least by the local intelligentsia.

This gallery is largely responsible for Lviv’s reputation as a city-museum. People often make special visits to explore the art collection located in the city center and the ancient castles and palaces in Lviv oblast. They arrive all keyed up, ready to take their time paying tribute to all this beauty.


The history of the inception and subsequent years of the Lviv Art Gallery is the stuff of adventure novels and films. It would make an excellent action packed with heroic characters, patriots of Lviv, with shots fired and mysteries unraveled, with tears and laughter that are always present in the midst of life.

For art collectors life in Lviv was a joy at the start of the twentieth century. Because of the chaos reigning in the Russian empire in 1905-07, thousands of art works passed through Lviv in an endless flow and were purchased by fast-thinking antiquarians. True, something was left in Lviv and for Lviv. The huge rooms of the city archives were stacked wall to wall with hundreds of objets d’art bought for or donated to the future city gallery. In February 1902, one of the municipal budget items specified that it was meant for purchasing works of art.

The need to create such a museum in Lviv was first publicly discussed in 1862, when the Polish artist Korneli Szlegel wrote an article for a local newspaper, which echoed the opinions of many citizens. But 50 years passed before the idea was realized.

In late 1906 meetings lasting well into the night took place at City Hall in an effort to figure out how to raise 225,000 crowns, or 90,000 rubles, an enormous sum of money, to buy the sugar industrialist Ivan Yakovych’s art collection. The collection consisted of 2,000 items, including 400 paintings, mostly by old artists Members of the municipal commission made a trip to the village of Sitkivtsi (now part of Vinnytsia oblast) where Yakovych had his estate and finally purchased the collection. It was smuggled to Lviv — the Zbruch River then marked the border between Austria and Russia — and installed in the halls of the Art and Industry Museum. The first exhibit opened on Feb. 14, 1907.

Ihor Khomyn, head of the Lviv Art Gallery’s collections department, says, “A scandal broke out immediately because the signatures on some works of art by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens, and others were fakes. Residents of Lviv had traveled abroad enough to know these artists’ true styles. The scandal could not be hushed up, so an expert was invited from Vienna, who confirmed some of the signatures and rejected others, although later it was rumored that he had been bribed. Today all of the 250 items on display have been authenticated. Only Nicolas Poussin’s Resurrection of Lazarus is listed as belonging to the Poussin school, although I have been to Paris and seen several Poussins. This picture doesn’t look like part of that school.”

Despite the scandal, Warsaw’s Illustrated Weekly correctly pointed out that this acquisition had finally launched the process of creating a municipal art gallery, making a breakthrough from far-fetched plans to reality, even if it cost too much.

Now that they had items for display, they needed premises. The Lviv novelist and scholar Wladyslaw Lozinski died in 1913 [sic], bequeathing his art collection to the city and the building accommodating it to his nephew Valerii, who later sold the house to City Hall. This former palace owned by Isabella Diduszycka at 3 Stefanyk St. is still the main building of the Lviv Art Gallery. It is also proof that municipal authorities sometimes honor art, ensuring that a creative heritage is handed down to posterity in the social, not just family, context.

By 1914 the gallery had only 1,500 items, but a number of precious works of art had been donated. A donation from the collector Mykhailo Tepfer formed the nucleus of a large collection of self-portraits by Polish artists. The Przybyslawski family donated a collection of 417 medals. Boleslaw Orzechowicz contributed his collection of canvases, sketches, miniatures, large number of coins, weapons, furniture, and bronze items, which had taken him 30 years to amass. In 1914, when Russian troops were billeted on his estate in Kalnykiv, not far from Lviv, he asked City Hall to save his collection from looting. It was then loaded on 15 horse-driven carts and transferred to Lviv.

The Second World War had a great impact on the life of the gallery. A document from 1940 reads: “The newly established Lviv State Picture Gallery, based on the Public Gallery of the City of Lviv and the former Ukrainian National Museum, also comprises the nationalized collections of the magnates Diduszycki, Goluchowski, Lubomirski, Bowarowski, Baden, Count Pininski, et al.; also, paintings from the museums of the Stauropegion Brotherhood, Theological Seminary, Archdiocesan Museum, castles in Krasychyn, Pidhiria, etc.” In 1940 alone the gallery’s collection was enriched by 4,188 precious items by way of “nationalization.”

During the war the gallery’s collection suffered irreparable losses. The Germans confiscated 150 paintings that were never returned. Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait was transferred to Cracow, and Gossart’s Portrait of a Lady ended up in the private residence of Governor Wechter; 5 boxes with 98 works by Western European and Polish artists were transported to Nowy Wisnicz. The efforts of the gallery staff to hide the most precious works of art, which had not been looted, in the basement of Dominican and Bernadine monasteries also rates a novel, as does the selfless work of the curators when the gallery was headed by Borys Viznytsky. Expeditions were dispatched to Galicia almost every day to save works of art on religious themes. Some were snatched from fires, while others were found in garbage heaps and brought back to the museum on an old truck. Quite a few things were purchased with state funds — something that happens very seldom today.

Today the collection numbers some 8,000 paintings, about 6,000 statues, and a large number of medals and medallions made by Polish and Western European artists (over 1,200 items, 300 artists). About a thousand canvases are on display in all sections of the gallery. There are considerably fewer statues. Practically no medals are displayed. All told, visitors are lucky to see 10 percent of the gallery’s holdings.

Of course, here you will not find works by Leonardo da Vinci, but in terms of European art the Lviv gallery is unmatched in Ukraine. Under the Soviets it was second only to the Hermitage and the Pushkin Museum. There are entire collections, like the collection of Austrian art, which did not exist elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Its centerpiece is Georges de la Tour’s masterpiece Payment, dating to the turn of the 17th century. The canvas has never been restored, and one can clearly see the creative level achieved by the artist. Nowhere else in Ukraine will you find a matching collection of pencil sketches, watercolors, pastels, easel paintings, and etchings — some 10,000 items in all, each stored properly. Some works of art require restoration when the old lacquer has to be replaced, but none has ever been removed from the collection. Viznytsky and the rest of the staff keep an eagle eye on this.


The Lviv Art Gallery has a rich collection that other museums in Ukraine and abroad can rightly envy. It has finally received quality printed matter that sheds extensive light on its precious works of art. Two large de luxe catalogues have been published. The first catalogue, entitled 150 Masterpieces of Polish Paintings in the Collection of the Lviv Art Gallery, is a joint Ukrainian-Polish project. The author is Ihor Khomyn, the gallery’s head of collections. The Ministry of Culture of Poland financed the preparation of the reproductions and other technical work. The printing was done by the State Art Gallery of Sopot and its director, Zbigniew Zbuski, was the key initiator and supporter of the publishing project. Each of the 150 reproductions is accompanied by a concise biography and summary in Polish. An English version of the book will be published soon.

“Another interesting aspect of this publication,” Khomyn notes, “is that it includes works that have never been reproduced, for example, Franz Joseph being welcomed in Cracow. The emperor was touring Galicia and after Cracow he went to Lviv. Because of its size (it is so large it was stored rolled up) no one in Poland knew that we had it, and when they found out they helped us with restoration materials. Or take Marcela Gerasimowycz’s Ravens’ Prey. Visitors to the gallery haven’t seen it yet. There are three versions of Wilhelm Leopolski’s Death of Acernus. We have one; another is in Wroclaw, and a third is in Poznan. Wawel Royal Castle funded the restoration of the Lviv painting.

“Poland’s Ministry of Culture has expressed a desire to help us restore such large canvases as The Battle of Vienna (stored at Olesko) and the Battle of Parkany. By the way, this catalogue was unveiled in several Polish cities: Poznan, Cracow, Wroclaw, Sopot, and Warsaw. My Polish colleagues have told me that no Polish museums have such a serious publication with so many top-notch reproductions.”

The other art catalogue has 240 pages and is entitled The Lviv Art Gallery: 112 Works from the Collection. Work on this Ukrainian publication took nearly four years. Printing art catalogues in Ukraine is a rare occurrence because it is very expensive. However, the head of the Gerdan Company, Orest Sheika, considered it necessary to undertake the funding and presented the book to Lvivites on the occasion of the gallery’s centennial. The book is a souvenir that can be proudly given to any guest to Ukraine or art lover. The book is bound in English linen and has a jacket. Although the first print run is small (1,500 copies each in Ukrainian and English), it is very much in demand. The Industrial Union of Donbas was the first to send a money order for 500 copies for presentations, followed by a number of Lviv banks. The Gerdan Company donated 10 percent of the print run to the Lviv gallery.

Work on this publication began in a symbolic way. Sheika met with Professor Mykola Bevz with whom he signed an “agreement of commitment” on a napkin at the Cafe Don Quixote, both undertaking to contribute something to the legend of Lviv. The result of this pledge is two projects: “Lviv, a Monument of UNESCO’s Historical Heritage” (underway) and the above catalogue. The Gerdan Company, however, decided to go one further. Before long Prospekt Svobody (Freedom Avenue) will be lined by 30 digital billboards, each showing a work of art displayed at the gallery (“so that both Lviv residents and visitors will know what we have”).

Perhaps the most significant event during the gallery’s centennial festivities was the launch of the European art department at Potocki Palace. Its curator, Oksana Kozinkevych, is convinced that this is a special occasion not only for the city but all of Ukraine: “Our collection of world-class artworks has an extremely broad range, from antiquity to the 18th century. Long before the opening date we kept receiving calls from people asking permission to see it. So on several occasions we allowed access to students and scholars, and once again we became convinced that there is keen public interest in the arts in Ukraine, especially among our young people. Therefore, we must use the capacities of our palace to the best advantage, holding guided tours for young visitors and involving noted Lviv artists, art critics, and historians.”


Lviv gallery preferred to art arsenal project

Borys Viznytsky, the director of the Lviv Art Gallery for the past 45 years, looked somewhat concerned despite the festive atmosphere.

Mr. Viznytsky, the expression on your face isn’t exactly jubilant. Why?

B.V.: I’m sorry, but the palace roof is leaking. Obviously, the repairs and restoration work were not done properly. No one observes any laws in Ukraine. The law states that all restoration work must be done under the aegis of a state authority for the protection of monuments. Lviv doesn’t have such a government body. There is just the oblast administration’s department for the protection of monuments, and it has no authority whatsoever. Ideally, this body should be monitoring the observance of all legal norms, demanding observance of the law, and levying fines on offenders. It should also deal with restoration work. Here it is being dealt with by the Municipal Construction Department. They don’t have a single specialist in the sphere that we require. It is necessary to commission such work and monitor it on a professional level. I got in touch with Mayor Andrii Sadovy, who dispatched a large commission, so fortunately they are starting to do something because water has leaked all the way down to the basements, where our storage space is supposed to be.

There are whispers about Svirzh Castle on this festive occasion. This must be another reason for your concern.

B.V.: This is a small castle but it has caused great concern. It is one of the most interesting castles in western Ukraine of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In the 1960s it was placed under the jurisdiction of the Architects’ Union of the Ukrainian SSR, which began restoring it. Restoration continued in the 1970s and 1980s. A large room was prepared as a conference hall; there were 40 other rooms and a restaurant, but then government funding stopped and they started looking for sponsors. Lishosp tried to do something but failed. The palace’s security guards has sued the management for back wages, and preparations were underway to start selling museum furniture to pay off the debts.

There was nothing the architects’ union could do to help because of the lack of funds, so we signed an agreement with them on joint ownership of the castle. This was supposed to be an all-Ukraine “House of Creativity,” where members of various creative associations could relax and hold conferences. We even hired security guards; we were doing some practical work...Now a businessman is making arrangements to purchase the castle, which he needs to complete his happyness.

The regional administration decided to allow the castle to be leased on concession. A sober look at the concession shows that it allows the lessee to own some property in return for token rent (even though it would be ridiculous to assume that this businessman won’t have to part with a large sum for this privilege). Anyway, the oblast state administration is insisting on a 50-year concession. Then there will be private-property and no-trespassing signs all over the place; no one will get near it for the next 50 years, and God knows what will happen afterwards.

We have a law on concession; it reads that only public buildings are eligible, unless they are located in recreational zones. A government decree allocates Svirzh Castle 22 hectares of land, including lakes and woods. All this pains my heart because I have much experience of bitter losses. Novy Rozdil Castle used to house a sanatorium. Eventually, the castle and all its outbuildings, including 12 hectares of parkland, a dining hall, and a dance pavilion, were sold for 460,000 hryvnias. Half a million hryvnias is what you pay for a small mansion in a Kyiv suburb. The new owner saw precious things - 12 reliefs - in the castle. Ten of them were copies and three were made of marble, valued at four million dollars. Anyway, he hasn’t done anything for almost five years. Part of the roof has collapsed. I might as well mention that he came to see me once, and I asked him why he had bought the property. He replied, “I bought it and I’ll sell it one of these days.” I then asked why he had dismantled the facilities. He said, “I was afraid they would be stolen.”

He dismantled them without official authorization: the prosecutor’s office had issued a ban. Right now he should be fined 1,000 times the amount of his official salary and forced to return the palace to state ownership by a court ruling.

They say our president asked for your permanent presence in Kyiv.

B.V.: I was invited to head Ukraine’s largest museum that will be located in the vicinity of the Kyivan Cave Monastery. It is supposed to be called the Art Arsenal and will be housed in a huge late-17th-century building. That’s a very interesting project for me; it is supposed to illustrate Ukrainian history spanning 20,000 years, from the Stone Barrow, the Trypillian Culture. The idea was conceived by our president, and you will agree that being placed in charge of this project would be very prestigious and involve experts from all over the world. But how can I leave Lviv with so many unresolved problems? I will only be able to help the new project because there are so many things to do here. There are four castles, in Zolochiv, Pidhirtsi, Zhovkva, and Svirzh. And I am not going to give up on the latter, so I will probably have to raise this question with the president. Meanwhile, the Intellectual League of Lviv has forwarded a lengthy message to our head of state, asking him not to deprive the people of this castle.

When will your art gallery be granted national status?

B.V.: We are expecting it. After all, the Lviv Art Gallery is Ukraine’s largest museum and it must have national status. However, this requires budget funding. We are currently being sustained by the oblast budget, but it cannot shoulder the burden of providing for 15 operating museums. The Lviv Oblast State Administration would be happy to hand us over to Kyiv, which must be considering the unhappy option of sustaining another 15 museums and a large art gallery. We are on the horns of a dilemma; we are not needed either here or there. From what we know, four members of the Ukrainian cabinet have signed an edict. We may start receiving state funding beginning in the next half-year, so our gallery has a chance of obtaining national status.

Mr. Viznytsky, there is talk in connection with this status, that the castles will be separated from the gallery and placed under another ministry’s jurisdiction, like the construction ministry.

B.V.: I also heard such conversations, even at the ministry, along with talk that Viznytsky may close half of them. How can I close them? All this was created for Ukraine and it took 45 years of painstaking work.

Ukraine is praying for your health; if you get sick, everything will trickle away.

B.V.: We have a very strong team. I only hope they don’t appoint another director, who will be amenable to persuasion and given promises. There was already a conversation about placing Olesko Castle under the jurisdiction of Busk raion. The then head of the oblast state administration said, “Look at Viznytsky! He doesn’t know how to do business. I would set up a little hotel in the castle and quite a few couples would be eager to spend a night there...I would charge every couple $200. Do you think we would have to look for customers?”

You do this just once and everything else will fall to pieces, so I am trying hard to keep everything under control. I am also planning additional work. New ideas seem to appear every so often. From now on creative soirees will be held at Pinzel Museum on the last Saturday of every month, from six p.m. until midnight; these will involve the Philharmonic Society, Opera House, and other institutions. Something like this will have to be organized in the hall of Potocki Palace. We will also have to publish a gallery chronicle and a collection of research papers. There are many plans. Fortunately, they are gradually being realized. God is helping us ! ы

By Iryna YEHOROVA, The Day