As soon as the first air raid sirens sounded last winter, Elena Subach, photographer and curator in Lviv, began to worry. “Lviv itself is an open-air museum,” she told me. “You can’t hide it in a bomb shelter.” Across Ukraine, custodians mobilized to try to protect what they could and move movable items to safety. In Lviv, museum staff and volunteers scrambled to preserve the city’s treasures, placing steel plates on stained glass windows and preparing canvases for transport. Subach photographed these efforts. At the National Gallery in Lviv, she found a portrait of a woman obscured by bars of packing tape – the same tape Ukrainians soon learned to use to keep their windows from shattering under the impact of Russian attacks.
Protected works of art remind us of all that could not be saved, of the magnitude of Ukraine’s irrevocable loss. While Lviv’s works of art have survived to this day, the same cannot be said of those in Melitopol, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and far too many other cities where museums and communities have been razed to the ground by missile strikes.
When we spoke recently, Subach recalled seeing conservators preparing the 18th-century Baroque wooden sculptures of Johann Georg Pinsel, “the Ukrainian Michelangelo,” for storage. That day, at the end of February, Pinsel’s angels were barely visible under their bubble wrap. Angels (underneath) now reside in an unknown location, Subach told me, silently guarding Lviv from their temporary refuge. “Until victory, no one will eliminate them.”
This article appears in the October 2022 print edition.