Russian exhibit re opens postwar art dispute

The New York Times 18 May 2005
Steven Lee Myers

MOSCOW -- A week ago, on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in Europe, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Vladimir Putin appeared together in Red Square in a symbolic nod to the reconciliation of Germany and Russia.

But a few blocks away, a museum exhibition showed how the war's dark legacies continued to divide the two countries. Shortly before Victory Day, as May 9 is known in Russia, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts put on display 552 ancient works of art, including Greek bronzes, vases and amphorae; Etruscan figures; fragments of Roman wall paintings; and Coptic amulets carved from bone - all meticulously restored.

None had been seen in public in more than 60 years. All are spoils of war, seized by Soviet troops from the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and carted back to Moscow. The exhibition - especially because of its timing - could easily be viewed as either a memorial to the ravages of war or the taunt of a boastful victor.

"This can hardly be understood - not only by the German public," said Christina Weiss, Germany's culture minister, after the exhibition opened April 26.

Russia and Germany have long sparred over tens of thousands of artworks that the Soviet Union captured and then claimed as compensation for the incalculable damage caused by the Nazi invasion of Soviet territory in 1941. For the Germans, each new exhibition is a painful reminder of the artistic and cultural heritage that was lost.

Irina Antonova, the Pushkin's director, said the exhibition's critics should be grateful. "I think this is proof of our good will," she said in her office, not far from the three rooms where the exhibition was on display. "We have carried out a colossal amount of work. Why should people be upset about it?"

The exhibition's title - "Archaeology of War: The Return From Oblivion" - hints at the Russian pride that has been an undercurrent of the anniversary commemoration this year. For all the flaws of the Soviet Union, the thinking goes, its victory over Nazi Germany was an unassailable achievement.

The museum's curators and two dozen restorers spent five and a half years doing an inventory and restoring the works, which were salvaged from the ruins of a bunker near the Tiergarten in Berlin. (Which side destroyed the bunker is a matter of dispute; the museum says it was German troops, while German officials say records suggest that the cache was intact when Soviet troops arrived.)

After the war, the art spent decades in boxes, mixed with ash and soot, in storage in Sergiyev Posad, a city north of Moscow. "Most of the objects were picked up with shovels," said Lyudmila Akimova, the exhibition's curator and head of the museum's department of antique art and archeology. "They were mixed with dirt and covered with tar. Whatever we managed to restore to this date, we included in the exhibition. There is still more work to do."

Much of the pottery, for example, had been reduced to shards that restorers pieced together, in some cases incompletely. A Greek red-figure vase from 470 B.C., depicting the murder of Aegisthus by Agamemnon's children, Orestes and Electra, has regained its form, though significant gaps had to be patched.

A stunning bronze sculpture, the Zeus of Dodon, made in the fourth century B.C. and just 30 centimeters, or 12 inches tall, had been badly charred by flames, Akimova said.

While restoration may have brought the works back from oblivion, their provenance is not nearly so obscure. Virtually all the works once belonged to Germany's state museums in Berlin. Akimova said that research had traced some of the works to specific collections amassed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and that several of them were well known to art historians.

"I feel joy, of course, that these objects are back in the world," she said, showing visitors around the exhibition's three halls the other day.

The anniversary of victory over the Nazis, celebrated in the Soviet Union and now in Russia as a major national holiday on May 9, has revived the debate over looted art, as well as over Stalin's legacy and the Soviet Union's postwar domination of Eastern Europe.

But despite hopes that the passage of time and even the personal friendship of Schröder and Putin could lead to a significant return of art to Germany, Russia's cultural officials have steadfastly refused to reopen the issue. They cite a Russian law that allows the return only of trophies taken without authorization - as opposed to those officially seized as compensation - and of works belonging to anyone who suffered from Nazi repression.

Anatoly Vilkov, deputy chief of the federal agency that preserves cultural heritage, said in a newspaper interview in February that Russia had 249,000 works of art, as well as 260,000 archive files and more than a million books, that had been taken from Germany as war compensation.

The most famous is a collection of gold known as Priam's Treasure, which was recovered by the German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in 1873 in what he believed to be ancient Troy. The Pushkin displayed the treasures in 1996 and has since dropped any question of its return.

The gold is back in storage.

"Everything that the Soviet Union took as compensation, which includes Schliemann's gold as well, is not subject to return," Vilkov told the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets.

Weiss, who visited St. Petersburg last month to return a reproduction of a Greek statue that had belonged to Czar Nicholas I and his wife, said that Russia's recalcitrance "strains our relations, endangers pieces of art and adds to the annoyance of German museum directors."

Germany has not made any specific legal claims to the works in the new exhibition, but officials have expressed frustration that German art experts were not even consulted about the show. Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin, complained that he had learned of the exhibition only from news reports.

Martin Roth, general director of the State Art Collections in Dresden, praised the restoration work and the exhibition.

But he said the Russian attitude toward its collections of German artworks reflected a "nationalistic perspective" that was thwarting cooperation in recovering works that disappeared during the war, regardless of questions of ownership.

"This could have been a perfect example of working together," he said in a telephone interview. "This is world culture we're talking about."
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