Calvert Journal: In Ukraine, The Secrets of the Parkhomivka Museum

Article published by The Calvert Journal on January 16.

Text: Fabrice Deprez

Secluded deep in the Ukrainian countryside, the Parkhomivka Museum hides a treasure trove of apparently priceless art. But as the story of this rural gallery which exhibited the art world greats quickly becomes legend, questions on the paintings’ authenticity remain a mystery that few seem willing to unravel.

Elena Semenchenko enters the room with a studied hand gesture towards the crown jewels of her countryside museum. The two paintings, one by Kazimir Malevich, the other bearing the signature of Russian avant-garde master Wassily Kandinsky, are masterpieces that cemented this rural outpost’s unlikely reputation as an artistic haven, giving the museum its moniker as “Ukraine’s Hermitage”.

The Malevich has particular significance, the museum’s director explains, because the future founder of the Suprematist movement actually lived here for a few years in the 1890s. It’s one of the few unusual things about Parkhomivka, an isolated village of about 3,000 inhabitants almost 400km east of Kyiv. Another is the museum itself and the incredible artworks exhibited between its walls. Semenchenko also proudly showcases a landscape by the French impressionist Camille Pissarro, two Picasso drawings, and a portrait by Rembrandt student Ferdinand Bol.

But when the obvious question comes — how did such masterpieces land there? — Semenchenko turns away, and briefly hesitates. The Malevich and Kandinsky paintings were both gifted to Afanasiy Lunev, a local history teacher who founded the museum in the early 50s and died in 2004. She does not know who the generous donor was, nor when Lunev came into possession of those invaluable treasures (the last Malevich work to be publicly auctioned sold for $85m).

Is she not curious? “In his entire life, he never said,” Semenchenko answers. “I don’t know. Maybe it’s his secret.”

Lunev’s secret is part of a story that made Parkhomivka, an otherwise unassuming village deep in the Kharkiv region, a self-proclaimed hidden gem of the Ukrainian art world, with a treasure trove of more than 6,000 exhibits (only a small part of which are exhibited) only accessible to those ready to drive the 100km of pothole-ridden roads from Kharkiv, the regional capital.

Inside the Parkhomivka museum / Picture: Fabrice Deprez

It’s a story of abnegation and passion, of a beloved history teacher who, thanks to his stubbornness and charisma, managed to attract the attention of some of the Soviet Union’s most famous artists, and create a one-of-a-kind village museum. It’s a story that Ukrainians have long enjoyed reading and re-telling, with hundreds of articles and blog posts written about it since the late 90s. Some of them mention other incredible artworks reportedly stored in the museum — a Gauguin, a Renoir, a painting by Rembrandt himself, Manet, Cezanne, Matisse. “[There’s] no need to go abroad to see Rembrandt, Malevich, and Picasso with your own eyes!” Ukrainian TV channel 24 wrote on its website in May 2018. In 2019, then-Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin praised the museum on his Facebook page, encouraging Ukrainians to “come to the museum and bring their foreign friends […] to see this impressive collection.”

But it’s also a story that hardly seems to hold water when probed just a little bit closer. It’s not only the Kandinsky and Malevich which have never had a written statement of authenticity from an expert. “Spring,” a painting the museum says was gifted by the St Petersburg Hermitage museum “cannot be attributed to Camille Pissarro” despite the museum’s claim, according to Christophe Duvivier, the director of the Camille-Pissarro museum in Pontoise, France.

The Picasso drawings aren’t fake, according to a representative of Picasso Administration, the company in charge of protecting the painter’s inheritance, but neither are they genuine: rather, they are most likely to be authorised reproductions made for one of the Picasso exhibitions held in the Soviet Union. A ceramic attributed to Picasso and also exhibited in Parkhomivka could, however, be authentic, the company said.

The museum has quietly dropped some of the claims made over the years. The names Rembrandt, Cézanne, Manet or Renoir have disappeared, replaced in many cases by attributions to an “unknown artist”.

You can read the rest on the website of The Calvert Journal.

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