The romantic story behind a Russian photographer’s version of Klimt’s kiss, re-enacted for Ukraine

For the past ten years, Russian artist Andrey Kezzyn has been creating photographs that he describes as “postmodern copies of Klimt”.

The first idea for a wartime version of Klimt’s famous painting The kiss (1907-08) came to Kezzyn in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea. He was living in St. Petersburg with his family at the time. He was alarmed by the aggressive rhetoric that gripped Russian television at this time. But he reached his tipping point when his son came home from school one day and asked him to buy him a telnyachka, a striped shirt worn by the Russian army, for a parade where he and his comrades had to sing a military anthem. “I knew then that we had to leave Russia,” he explains. Kezzyn and his wife applied for artist visas and moved to Berlin with their two children.

Eight years later, when Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Kezzyn already had a golden Klimt-like blanket in his studio. “I held it and knew the time for this project had come,” he says. He was working closely with the Ukrainian scenographer Ksenya Kazimirova at that time. She had told him the story of her close friend Yulia Sirenko, who was then staying with her in Berlin, and her husband, Yuri, who was back home in Kharkiv.

Before the Russian military aggression, Yulia and Yuri had just moved into a new apartment. They were doing repair work and getting their six-year-old daughter ready for her first year of school. The war changed their lives.

Yulia took her daughter and her mother-in-law and fled to Kazimirova in Berlin. After a month of volunteering, Yuri joins the defense army. But Yulia knew she had to go home to help her husband and her country. “I like Berlin and Europe as a guest. But I don’t want to live my life there,” she says.

After a month, Yulia’s daughter and mother-in-law joined her in Lviv. “If something happens, the border is close and we can leave,” she said. Now Yulia drives between Lviv and Kharkiv, finances crowdfunding and supplies the army with cars, radios, food and medicine. “My husband texts me when he can see me. He gives me a date and a place – often it’s a city I’ve never been – so that I can come and spend an evening with him”, explains Julia.

Yulia and Yuri spent their daughter’s sixth birthday and their own eighth wedding anniversary apart. But they received a gift from their friend Kazimirova: an image celebrating their love.

Kezzyn and Kazimirova decided to tell the couple’s story through art and donate the money they raised from the sale of printed matter to Yura’s brigade. To stage the work, they hired two models who look like Yulia and Yuri to dress as a Ukrainian military soldier and his lover. The woman, who resembles the red-haired woman in Klimt’s painting, wears a golden dress bathed in candles. In the image, the couple kiss under a golden blanket. Instead of standing in a field of flowers, like Klimt’s original, the couple hide in a barracks with blue walls, the yellow and blue representing the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“When I saw the photo,” says Yulia, “I instantly recognized myself in it. My husband and I said goodbye to each other so many times – at the border, in Ukraine, and when he joined the army We had so many last kisses, not knowing which one would really be the last.”

About Catharine C. Bean

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