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

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

The first idea for a wartime version of Klimt’s famed 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 took over Russian television around then. But he reached his tipping point when his son came back from school one day and asked him to buy him a telnyashka, a striped shirt worn by Russian military, for a parade where he and his classmates had to sing a military anthem. “I knew then 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 24 February, 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 set designer 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 Russia’s military aggression, Yulia and Yuri had just moved into a new flat. They were doing repair works and preparing their six-year-old daughter for her first year of school. The war turned their lives upside down.

Yulia took her daughter and mother-in-law and fled to Kazimirova’s house in Berlin. After one month of volunteering, Yuri joined the defence army. But Yulia knew she had to return home to help her husband and 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 joined her in Lviv. “If something happens, the border is close, and we can leave,” she says. Now, Yulia is driving between Lviv and Kharkiv, crowdfunding and providing the military with cars, radios, food and medicine. “My husband texts me when he is able to see me. He tells me a date and a location—often it’s a town I’ve never been to—so I can come and be with him for an evening,” Yulia says.

Yulia and Yuri spent their daughter’s sixth birthday, and their own eighth wedding anniversary, apart. But they received one 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 crowdfunded from the print sales to Yura’s brigade. To stage the work, they hired two models who look like Yulia and Yuri to dress as a Ukrainian military solider and his lover. The woman, who resembles the red-haired woman in Klimt’s painting, wears a golden, candle-dripped dress. In the image, the pair kiss underneath a golden blanket. Instead of standing in a field of flowers, like Klimt’s original, the couple hide in a blue-walled barrack—the yellow and blue representing the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

“When I saw the picture,” Yulia says, “I recognised myself instantly in it. My husband and I have said goodbye so many times—on the border, in Ukraine, and when he went into the army. We have had so many last kisses, not knowing which would truly be the last one.”

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