‘Fight with our art’: Ukrainian artists take centre stage at Frankfurt book fair

Illustrator Oleg Gryshchenko took a 17-hour bus ride and a flight to get to the Frankfurt book fair. But it was worth it, he says, to promote Ukrainian culture in the face of Russian aggression.

Ukrainian book illustrator Frankfurt Book Fair
Ukrainian book illustrator Oleg Gryshchenko speaks during an interview with AFP during the Frankfurt Book Fair. Photo: ANDRE PAIN / AFP

“I have not joined the army but we can fight with our art,” Gryshchenko told AFP on the opening day of the fair, at a display of pictures by Ukrainian illustrators’ group Pictoric.

“A lot of Ukrainian artists have joined the military and I am proud — but I am better at drawing than with a gun.”

Gryshchenko is part of the major Ukrainian presence at the world’s biggest publishing event: authors and industry figures appearing throughout the week at the country’s large stand.

President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to address the fair on Thursday, part of the fair organisers’ efforts to support Ukrainian culture against what they see as the propaganda disseminated by the invading Russian forces.

Gryshchenko travelled with girlfriend and fellow illustrator Olena Staranchuk — once he had obtained the necessary authorisation to leave Ukraine.

With no civilian flights out, the took a lengthy bus ride to Poland for an event there, before flying on to Frankfurt.

“We were tired but we have be here to present Ukraine,” said 37-year-old Gryshchenko. “I would even travel for 20 or 30 hours.”

READ ALSO: Zelensky to address Frankfurt book fair as Ukraine stars

‘Culture as a weapon’

Setting up the large Ukraine stand in the cavernous conference centre posed a number of challenges, not least getting furniture and books overland to Frankfurt.

Getting them out of Kyiv was further complicated by the recent Russian missile strikes there, said Sofia Cheliak of the Ukraine Book Institute, part of the culture ministry.

Getting them from Kyiv to Frankfurt took about two days, said Cheliak, who helped organise the stand.

“Because of attacks, everything was closed. It was quite hard to find a car, and organise the whole process.”

But the stand is there, with a wide array of Ukranian books of every variety. It also has a stage, above which a large red light flashes when air raid sirens go off back in Ukraine.

Forty-six Ukrainian publishers will take part in the five-day fair, which opened Tuesday. Among the many authors attending are the well-known “punk poet” Sergiy Zhadan.

Ukrainian officials see high-profile events such as the fair as key to pushing back against Russia’s attempts to wipe out the country’s identity.

“Russia uses culture as a weapon,” said Ukrainian Culture Minister

Oleksandr Tkachenko, in a video message to the fair Tuesday.

He accused Moscow’s forces of having burned Ukrainian books and replaced them with Russian literature. “Russia is fighting against Ukrainian people and our identity.”

Emerging from Russia’s shadow

While Ukrainians have top billing at the fair, Russian state institutions, which usually run their nation’s stand, have been banned. Instead, prominent opponents of President Vladimir Putin have been given the stage.

While the Ukrainian publishing industry initially ground to a halt following Russia’s invasion in February, it has since rumbled back to life.

Sales may not be what they were before the conflict, but some types of books are proving popular, said Cheliak: Ukrainian history for example — and how to deal with trauma.

Pictoric sees the fair as a chance to show the world that Ukraine is about more than war — their displays includes not just illustrations inspired by the conflict, but others from before the war, covering a range of subjects.

“A lot of people did not know anything about Ukraine, and now we have a chance to show them what Ukraine is,” said one of the group’s illustrators, Anna Sarvira.

“For a long time we stayed in the shadow of Russia… We are trying to change that.”

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Beckmann self-portrait breaks German auction record

A self-portrait by expressionist artist Max Beckmann smashed the record price for a painting sold at auction in Germany, when it was put before buyers in Berlin on Thursday.

Beckmann self-portrait breaks German auction record

As the hammer came down, the highest bid for Beckmann’s “Selbstbildnis gelb-rosa” (Self-Portrait Yellow-Pink) stood at 20 million euros ($21 million).

Beckmann’s work, which features the artist during his Dutch exile from Nazi Germany, is widely considered a masterpiece.

The sum was “the highest price that has ever been offered for a painting”, auctioneer Markus Krause told the room to applause.

Including fees, the price of the self-portrait will come to €23.2 million, according to the auction house Grisebach.

The previous German record was set in 2018 by another of Beckmann’s works, “Die Ägypterin” (The Egyptian Woman), which fetched €4.7 million.

READ ALSO: Art in Germany: 10 critically acclaimed galleries you can’t miss

The record price for a painting by the artist was set in 2017 when his work “Hölle der Vögel” (Bird’s Hell) — among Beckmann’s most important anti-Nazi statements  – sold at Christie’s in London in 2017 for £36 million.

Beckmann’s self-portrait was initially a gift to his wife Mathilde, known as Quappi, who kept it until her death in 1986. The picture had been in a private Swiss collection for decades, and not shown in public since the mid-1990s.

The painting was displayed behind glass at a public preview ahead of the auction to guard against vandalism by climate activists who have recently been targeting artworks.

Beckmann (1884-1950) enjoyed massive acclaim in Germany during his lifetime, with top dealers placing his work with private collectors and major institutions.

That was until the Nazi regime labelled his daring, politically charged art “degenerate” and removed his paintings from German museums in 1937.

READ ALSO: Germany returns final Nazi-looted artwork from pensioner’s trove

Professionally thwarted and increasingly under threat, Beckmann left for Amsterdam, where he lived in self-exile for a decade before moving to the United States.

Beckmann would ultimately die in New York at the age of 66, of a heart attack on a sidewalk on his way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Paintings by Beckmann, now considered one of the most important artists of the 20th century, have exploded in value in recent decades.

The most paid for an artwork this year was $195 million, for an iconic portrait of Marilyn Monroe by American pop art visionary Andy Warhol.

The bumper price tag is the second largest all-time behind Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”, which sold in 2017 for $450.3 million.