The art of revenge


MOSCOW. (Anatoly Korolev, for RIA Novosti.)

 -- The recent celebration of the end of World War II noticeably soured cultural relations between Russia and Germany, as the latter used the occasion to issue a list of lost art works. Germany says that Russia holds no less than 250,000 items defined as displaced cultural treasures.

Russia has also been criticized at international conferences such as "Spoils of War. World War II and Its Aftermath" held in New York in January 1995. This conference was probably the most scandalous of all, and its main motif was that the Russian mentality contradicts European and American museum ethics.

Unfortunately, the opposite is actually the case. Practically all large world museums have to fend off claims continually, and every year courts have full agendas of complaints from those claiming museum works of art. The director of one American museum could not leave the U.S. for six years, because the French were demanding that Interpol arrest him for having bought a picture spirited out of France. New York's Metropolitan Museum, after returning to the Bavarian State Museum precious stones stolen by an American GI at the end of the war, requested that its name should not be mentioned. In other words, returning art is as dangerous as accepting it.

To return to the national mentality, Russian museum experts are unfortunately not so prudent.

Stripped of the Communist yoke, happy and naive, Russians dropped the old practice of secrecy. The magazine Trofei ("Spoils") appeared, showing a mass of art works that made their way to the country after the war. Archives were thrown open. The Poles, for example, have published a tome on cultural treasures appropriated by the Soviet Union. This book resulted from Russia's open-door policy, under which the Poles were allowed access to the declassified archives.

Russia thought its noble actions would be appreciated. But this was a gross miscalculation. Unfortunately, it was mainly Russia's fault for creating this situation, that same mentality was to blame. Khrushchev's dictatorial gesture of returning Dresden museum masterpieces to the GDR in 1955 was in fact a personal act of a leader, a self-willed despotic decision taken by a party top man, a gesture that was never discussed either by the people, or society, or experts.

The details show that Khrushchev was least of all interested in legality or any norms then in existence. No: By returning the pictures to the East Germans, he only wanted to spite the West Germans. The noble deed turned into a shadow of a political action. But to say that the gesture lacked noble motives is to forget the high emotional pitch of that move.

The Dresden masterpieces were unveiled in 1955 at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the crowds of smitten people who came to see - and say good-bye to - Rafael's Sistine Madonna, Giorgione's Venus and Titian's Caesar's Money sealed the act as something holy and willed by the people.

The Soviet Union returned 1,240 works of art to Dresden. In total, 1,850,000 art works were returned to the GDR, plus 71,000 books and 3 million archive files. And now, years later, even the decision on Dresden masterpieces is all but held against Russia.

How else can we explain the German point of view once expressed by W. Schmidt, director general of the Dresden state art collection, that the canvases had been neatly stacked in underground mines near Dresden and allegedly needed no restoration?

But let us recall the true story of how the Dresden treasures were uncovered. The prelude was the nightmarish British bombing of Dresden. In the early hours of February 14, the British carried out a raid with 1,400 bombers, which dropped 3,749 tons of bombs on the city, 75% of them incendiary. The first wave was followed three hours later by a second air strike, and a third attack eight hours after that. Dresden was no more. Casualties totaled 135,000 dead. The Zwinger Museum (home of the collection) suffered, too, with 197 pictures perishing in the flames. Other masterpieces were hidden elsewhere, in particular in deep stone quarries, where a railway car with pictures was taken. Schmidt gave an assurance that the mines were an ideal place for the pictures. Absurd!

Memoirs written by Soviet officer Lev Rabinovich, who discovered the cache, and the reminiscences of Marshal Konev tell a different story. True, in the mine gallery, behind two doors a light was on, and there were special thermal control units installed.

"But," Konev writes, "those who hid the pictures probably presumed that the stone recess would be dry. Unfortunately, ground water filtered through occasional cracks, the air temperature varied widely, and the climate installations were no longer working. The pictures were stacked in a random fashion, some wrapped up in parchment, others nailed up in crates, and still others simply set down leaning against the walls." When the pictures were taken to Moscow, restoration took a total of 10 years, from 1945 to 1955, the moment they were sent back.

In the intervening period they were secretly kept in the storerooms of Moscow's Pushkin Museum. And now we can see that since that time the museum's name has assumed a negative coloring in Germany (first in West Germany). Perhaps our mentalities are indeed too different?

A recent sensation complicated the situation. On the eve of the 60th anniversary of Allied victory over Nazism, the museum opened an exhibition called "The Archaeology of War: Return from Oblivion" and featuring a collection of antique art never previously shown.

The organizers did not conceal, but on the contrary, stressed the fact that this was a formerly famous collection of antique artifacts from Berlin museums. The exhibition caused a shock among the German cultural community.

It was believed that the collection, purchased by Berlin Kurfurst Friedrich III of Brandenburg in 1698 from Rome's chief antiquarian Giovanni Bellori, who served under Pope Clement X, was lost when the Russians stormed Berlin in May 1945. But all of a sudden an amazed public was presented with 350 exhibits, including three great masterpieces: A bronze figurine of Zeus from Dodona with a pomegranate in his hand, and two vases depicting a battle between Hercules and Poseidon, the god of the sea, and a scene with Hermes dancing in the company of goat-legged satyrs.

And imagine: Representatives of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation expressed regret that the Pushkin Museum launched the project "without informing and involving Berlin museums", and that the Russian side persistently turned down all requests from German experts for access to storerooms holding captured art.

Central to the decision to show trophy art was Irina Antonova, the museum director. For more than forty years she has been ruling the country's biggest museum with a hand of iron, and as an open public figure takes a tough stance.

For example, she may publicly admit the fact that her museum bought works of art from private owners that were most likely stolen by Russian soldiers in Germany. But in that situation, Antonova says, the museum was far more concerned for the fate of a masterpiece in awful disrepair and likely to crumble, rather than other moral subtleties. Such an answer must be credited for its honesty and courage. As should Antonova's correctness.

The antique collection is, however, a special case, and the museum deliberately took the step in order that no secrets and mysteries remain in the vaults between Germany and Russia. The noble impulse behind the exhibition could be missed only deliberately. Russia demonstrated to Europe that any omissions, secrets and lies are outdated in the common European home.

Most importantly, those who visited the show saw that the articles on display were glued together from hundreds of small pieces. In other words, they were the result of painstaking efforts to restore miniature artifacts. What had been left of the Berlin collection in May 1945 was a heap of fragments. Bronze, ceramic, bone and terracotta articles were all covered in mud, tar and ash, disfigured and broken. Each of the tens of thousands of fragments!

Also importantly, at first and for a long time no one suspected what these fragments were. These ruins could have been ignored and trodden down, but this was not done. On the contrary, the entire terrible-looking mass was dispensed into packages, and stowed in wooden crates, which were then taken to Russia and held until better times at a special museum fund in Zagorsk outside Moscow.

The new democratic Russia ended the fallacious practice of keeping art under wraps years ago, with a unique collection of gold artifacts from Troy going on public view in 1996. This time, the Pushkin Museum displayed the Friedrich and Bellori collection. But it was a special case.

The collection took two years of back-breaking work to take shape. Each fragment was scrutinized, described and scrubbed clean - especially difficult was the restoration of bone articles - and then using modern techniques was first assembled on a monitor and then put together by hand. The first inkling that the restorers were dealing with the antique collection from Berlin museums came when the early articles regained their original form and shape. Before that it would have been impossible.

Would it have been better if everything had remained lying in the ruins?

German museum experts are in fact nostalgic for the Iron Curtain, when the whole of Russia was one complete enigma.

Antonova was one of those who made Russia an open country. Sometimes, perhaps, it looks too open, and museum curators in many countries dislike this.

"We have already returned everything of prime interest," Antonova believes. "Together with the Hermitage museum we have returned to Germany about 1.5 million exhibits. Our museum colleagues in France and Britain are following this process anxiously. They keep asking us all the time if we are going to give away more. Why? Because they fear that this may set up a precedent and start an avalanche of mutual claims rolling. This they do not need. The principal museum treasures, they say, were redistributed in the course of the past century, and all collections are now formed and complete."

Worse still, occasionally the Russian side gets the impression that the spirit of revenge is lurking behind the not-so European policy of "getting everything back", and the ghosts of the Third Reich are hovering over Russia's museums.

Hitler himself ordered German museum experts to draw up a secret list of works of art and valuable articles that left Germany since 1500 to become foreign property. The Third Reich planned to cover as many as 400 years of European history under the plan. But democratic Germany broke decisively with Nazism, and Russia is well aware of that.

In a word, it is high time to put paid to mutual claims. Otherwise, they will never end and flood the whole of Europe, if not the world.

Russia has in recent years finally been moving from stonewalling to an offensive on this issue. It prepared several volumes of a general catalogue of Russian cultural treasures lost during World War II, although no complete list yet exists. It should at least be made public.

Topping this list of losses is the Church of the Assumption at Bolotovo Pole outside Novgorod, demolished by the Germans. Today this can be struck off from the list, as it has been restored through joint efforts by Germany and Russia. A week ago, President Putin handed out 2004 state awards in the Kremlin. Among the recipients were the architects who restored the church, Viktor Krasnorechyev and Ninel Kuzmina. This is one example of a real solution to problems existing between the countries in the delicate sphere of restitution.

Anatoly Korolev is a writer and journalist. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of RIA Novosti.

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