"The Glory of Byzantium" exhibition: commentary and interview

by Ika Koznarska Casanova


This is the second and final part of an interview conducted on the occasion of "The Glory of Byzantium" exhibition held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, March 11-July 6.

The interview was conducted with Helen C. Evans, associate curator for Early Christian and Byzantine Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and co-curator of "The Glory of Byzantium" exhibition, and Olenka Z. Pevny, research assistant at the Department of Medieval Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Q: Given the uncertainties and controversy surrounding the subject of Kyivan Rus' with regard to the question of the origin of Rus' and the issue of the common heritage of modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, how did you deal with this potentially problematic issue in terms of: preparatory work in your dealings with cultural institutions and government agencies in securing the loans; and, in terms of the actual exhibit, for instance, the provenance of objects on display and the essay on Kyivan Rus' in the exhibition catalogue?

A: Dr. Evans: Dr. Pevny worked very hard and very successfully in getting the editorial staff to recognize the need to use the languages of the countries that were lending works to the exhibition as opposed to doing what would have been done a decade earlier when everything would have been translated into Russian and we would have dealt with the Russian Ministry of Culture.

And so, on a very simple level, she spent a vast amount of time working with the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute on the transliteration system and on how to present this issue. That is something we considered at great length.

With respect to the broader question, we understood that the heart of Kyivan Rus' was Kyiv, and we went there for the loans that we wanted most. When Kyiv agreed to lend, it was later that we went to Russia and Belarus. We already had a basis for the loans.

As far as we are aware, there are no problems with the provenance in terms of the political transfer of the works we borrowed.

Dr. Pevny: We acknowledged the medieval state of Kyivan Rus'. We also recognized the three modern-day countries that occupy some of the territories that formed the Kyivan Rus' state.

Again, I think this was possible because of the disintegration of the Soviet Union, and again, because Kyiv was the capital of Kyivan Rus', so that we went there first. We very much wanted works from that city to form the core of the exhibition just as in the first section, we tried and successfully got loans from both Turkey and Greece to represent the core of Byzantium proper.

We recognized the present-day boundaries of each state. Also, everything was transliterated from the modern languages of the political entity from which the work was borrowed. So if an object comes from Ukraine, the name is transliterated from Ukrainian, from Russia - from Russian, and from Belarus - Belarusian.

Q: In terms of art as heritage and part of a nation's patrimony, are there any disputed works that form part of the Kyivan Rus' segment of the exhibition to which potentially conflicting claims could be put forth?

A: Dr. Pevny: Each country wanted to be recognized at the exhibition and agreed to lend. We did not borrow works whose ownership is controversial. For example, the mosaics from St. Michael of the Golden Domes are borrowed from Kyiv and not the mosaics that have survived and are now at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

In terms of the provenance for many of the pieces - like the Ostromir Lectionary or the icon "The Archangel with the Golden Hair" - the provenance is debated in scholarship. We actually don't know where the works were made. We dealt with this by acknowledging the two common sites that are acknowledged as possible provenance for these works.

Q: Have there been any changes or revisions in the labeling of objects that form part of The Metropolitan's Byzantine collection in order to reflect recent geopolitical changes in Eastern Europe, specifically the break-up of the Soviet Union?

A: Dr. Evans: We have added Ukraine to the works that are from Kyiv.

We have very few works out on permanent exhibit in the medieval section to which this question applies.

We do have pieces from the hoard (a rich and representative collection of Kyivan Rus' jewelry) that were acquired by J. Pierpont Morgan at the turn of the century.

Q: Will any scholars on Kyivan Rus' be taking part in the two-day international symposium on Byzantium to be held at The Metropolitan Museum on May 23-24?

A: Dr. Evans: We're having an enthusiastic attendance at the international symposium. There will be both young scholars from the former Soviet bloc countries and the great old scholars.

There will be a strong Ukrainian presence at the symposium - something which I think is a first - and it's part of a growing pattern.

Prof. Ihor Sevcenko will be giving the keynote lecture on May 25. Ludmila Miliaieva (professor at the Kyiv Academy of Arts and a specialist on medieval Ukrainian art) will give a lecture on the late 12th to mid-13th century Byzantine wood relief icon ("St. George and Scenes from His Life," which was discovered by Profs. Lohvyn and Miliaieva in a local museum in Mariupol in 1965).

By the way, Prof. Sevcenko's books "Ukraine Between East and West"and "Byzantium and the Slavs," and Prof. Miliaieva's book "Ukrainian Icons From the 11th-18th Centuries" are available at the museum's bookstore in connection with the exhibition.

Q: Transliterations in the catalogue, for both proper and place names, are from the languages of the participant countries; that is, they are from Ukrainian, if they apply to Ukraine, or from Georgian, Armenian, etc., rather than from Russian, the way it would have been done a decade ago. Why did you opt for the phonetically Russian form "Kievan" Rus' instead of the Ukrainian form "Kyivan" Rus'?

A: Dr. Evans: In the compromises worked out throughout the discussions in terms of not only of Ukraine but several other countries, we agreed to go with the well-known spelling of major cities, which is what the editorial department wanted.

At the time it seemed reasonable in part because the spelling within Ukraine was fluctuating as the transliteration was being worked out. And in part when we tried to send packages addressed to the Ukrainian spellings the Fed Ex packages were returned to us, noting that no such city exists.

I think that if the catalogue was coming out next year, the new spelling would be stable enough that we would have fought harder for its use.

In any case, the issue was something we knew. We had made the decision to stay with the old spelling. It wasn't that we were not aware that there was another spelling, but the argument of the editorial department that people would know the old spelling and know the city, that if we changed to the new spelling which was not yet known - that we would get that Federal Express package back.

Part of the problem is to make the information available both to the public that's aware of the history and to make it accessible to those who don't know the nuances of the history.

Dr. Pevny argued quite convincingly in her essay that Rus' was not a simple state. We have to start studying the material in a much more sophisticated manner than past history books tended to give.

Q: Is there anything you would like to add?

A: Dr. Evans: As a non-Rus', I would like to say I hope the catalogue contributes to a more intense study of the art and culture of Kyivan Rus', including the translation of major works from Ukrainian scholarly literature.

Also, I should like to expand a bit on the transliterations. When we started the catalogue, it was suggested we use English for all the names of the sites of Kyivan Rus' and of the other neighbors of Byzantium whereas we'd be using French, Italian or German for sites of those countries. My office objected, noting that if one is going to use Italian names for Italian sites one should use Ukrainian names for Ukrainian sites.

In the end, we were constrained by the contract with the lending institutions as to how they wanted to be identified. So after all of our debates, it turned out that some institutions filled out their names in English while others did not. It's not quite as pure a pattern as we argued for, but one of the aspects - the sites and languages were recognized.

Dr. Pevny: I hope this exhibition raises awareness of Kyivan Rus' so that there is more of a desire to study it.

Also, I hope the public and museum curators realize that there is art both in Russia and Ukraine that's worth exhibiting, that it can draw in crowds and thus help popularize the art of Eastern Europe.

Dr. Evans: And by extension, tourism. If people leave this exhibition excited by the art and want to see where it came from - this helps the economy of Ukraine.

Q: The exhibit has elicited a strong and enthusiastic response.

A: Dr. Evans: So far, it's been very positive and outstanding.

Dr. Pevny: According to the chief registrar's tabulations, in mid-May the number of visitors to the exhibition was at 250,000 - which is quite a good response.

Dr. Evans: We're very pleased with the response of the Ukrainian community and appreciate their support in attending the exhibition and lectures.

We very much appreciate the support because large attendance convinces the museum that there is a perceived awareness and interest on the part of the public. Hopefully, it will also convince universities that there are students who would be interested in this field, that there's a need to hire scholars.

We're delighted that we've been able to present the exhibition in a way that has engendered that response, because I think we're both completely legitimate in the scholarly context and that we've also respected the medieval culture of a number of states that have made very important contributions to the history.

Dr. Pevny: I think we have managed to put together the best exhibit of Kyivan Rus' works thus far in the West with the loans we have gotten. Every work in the (Kyivan Rus') room is very significant - ranging from the mosaics from the Cathedral of the Mykhailivskyi Zolotoverkhyi Monastery, to the Ostromir Lectionary, to the "Archangel with the Golden Hair."


Press coverage of the exhibition has alluded to the relative unfamiliarity of the American public with the cultural traditions of Byzantium as opposed to the cultural traditions of the West. "The Glory of Byzantium" offers American audiences the opportunity to experience the scope and brilliance of Byzantine civilization.

By extension, general unfamiliarity with regard to Kyivan Rus' is all the more prevalent. Among journalists and scholars, one encounters repeated references to Rus' as Russia and to the people of Rus' as Russians.

In spite of the supplemental material and documentation provided by the museum in conjunction with this exhibition, it seems old habits die hard.

For example, the exhibition catalogue refers to the 12th century icon "The Archangel with the Golden Hair" as one of the masterpieces of Kyivan Rus' painting, and notes the difficulty of assigning the work's provenance to either Novgorod or Kyiv.

In The New York Times review of the Byzantium exhibition, titled "Embraced by Mystic Wonders" (March 14), the icon "The Archangel With the Golden Hair" is referred to as "a gauzily romantic Russian landmark" and the work is referred to in the photo caption as a "Russian icon."

The Wall Street Journal, in a piece titled "Heaven On Earth" (March 28), recounts how Grand Prince Volodymyr chose the Orthodox faith over other faiths, and concludes - "And this is how the Orthodox faith came to Russia."

The persistence of such misconceptions notwithstanding, one must hope that the exhibition, which has already done so much to clarify misconceptions about Kyivan Rus', will help remedy the situation and will contribute to an awareness of Ukraine and its rich cultural heritage on the part of the general public. And so, the directors and curators of museums in Ukraine will not be disappointed, nor will their compatriots in the diaspora.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, June 8, 1997, No. 23, Vol. LXV

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