The romantic story behind a Russian photographer’s version of Klimt’s The Kiss painting, restaged for Ukraine

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Russian artist Andrey Kezzyn has been creating photographs over the past decade 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. At that time he lived with his family in Saint Petersburg. He was alarmed by the aggressive rhetoric that was dominating Russian television at the time. But he reached his turning point when one day his son came back from school and asked him to buy him one Telnyashka, a striped shirt worn by the Russian military, for a parade where he and his classmates 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 gold Klimt-like ceiling in his studio. “I held onto it and knew the time had come for this project,” he says. At that time he was working closely with the Ukrainian set designer Ksenya Kazimirova. She had told him the story of her close friend Yulia Sirenko, who was staying with her in Berlin at the time, and her husband Yuri, who was at home in Kharkiv.

Before the military aggression of Russia, Yulia and Yuri had just moved to a new apartment. They carried out repair work and prepared their six-year-old daughter for the first year of school. The war turned her life upside down.

Julia took her daughter and mother-in-law and fled to Kazimirova’s house in Berlin. After a month of volunteering, Yuri joined the Defense Army. But Yulia knew that she had to return home to help her husband and her country. “I love 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 came to her in Lviv. “If something happens, the border is close and we can go,” she says. Now Yulia drives back and forth between Lviv and Kharkiv, crowdfunding and providing the military with cars, radios, food and medicine. “My husband texts me when he can see me. He tells me a date and a place – often it’s a city I’ve never been to – so I can spend an evening with him,” says Yulia.

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

Kezzyn and Kazimirova decided to tell the couple’s story through art and donate the money they raised from print sales to Yura’s Brigade. To stage the work, they hired two models who look like Yulia and Yuri to dress up as a Ukrainian military soldier and his mistress. The woman, who resembles the red-haired woman in Klimt’s painting, wears a gold dress streaked with candles. In the picture, the couple kisses under a gold blanket. Instead of standing in a flower meadow like Klimt, the couple hides in a barrack with blue walls – yellow and blue stand for the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“When I saw the picture,” says Julia, “I recognized myself in it immediately. My husband and I said goodbye so many times – at the border, in Ukraine, when he went into the army. We had so many last kisses not knowing which would really be the last.”

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