Curating under Communism: 'Politicians Come and Go, But Art Is Eternal'

Spiegel 13 July 2012
Irina Antonova has been director of Moscow's Pushkin Museum since just after Stalin died. In an interview with SPIEGEL, she discusses Vladimir Putin's attitudes to art, her childhood in Nazi Germany and why Russia shouldn't have to return cultural treasures taken from Germany after World War II.

Even when former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin were sweating peacefully in the sauna together, or later when President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were sitting in a sled together in St. Petersburg, a historical burden continued to tarnish German-Russian relations -- despite the fact that the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War was part of the past.

To this day, looted German art -- known as "trophy art" in Moscow -- lies in the vaults of Russian museums. Promises to reach mutually acceptable solutions to the problem have never been kept.

The different terms that the two countries use for the art treasures in question are revealing. Berlin views the works of art carried off by the Red Army after the end of World War II, on Stalin's orders, as stolen and is demanding their return. Moscow sees them as moral compensation for the atrocities that Germans committed during the war. Russia's "Extraordinary State Commission to Examine and Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed by the Invaders and their Accomplices on Soviet Territory" had listed 427 Soviet museums and 4,000 libraries that fell victim to the Germans. According to the commission, more than 110 million books and publications were destroyed. In February 1997, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, which was controlled by a majority of communists and nationalists at the time, declared the disputed artworks from Germany to be the permanent property of Russia.

The return of the art to Germany has also become an increasingly distant prospect because the previously strong relations between Berlin and Moscow have cooled considerably in recent years. The festival launching the "Germany Year" in Russia was opened in mid-June without the heads of state of either country. Owing to his busy schedule, President Putin apparently lacked the time to meet with German President Joachim Gauck.

According to the Russian Ministry of Culture, less than 10 percent of the art brought from Germany is still in Russia. Between 1955 and 1960, the Soviet Union returned 1.5 million museum artifacts to communist-ruled East Germany, including 1,240 works from the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden, 16,000 graphic works and more than 100,000 coins. The famous Pergamon Altar was also returned to Germany at the time, as was the "Green Vault," the treasure chamber of the Elector of Saxony.

Since 1996, the permanent collection at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts has included "Priam's Treasure," which the German businessman and amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered in Troy in 1873 and brought home to Germany. The museum's vaults also contain the gold of the Merovingians and the so-called Treasure of Eberswalde.

No one can explain Russia's position on the looted art dispute as bluntly and eloquently as 90-year-old Irina Antonova, who met with SPIEGEL in her office at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow. Next to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the century-old museum is considered to hold the most important collection of foreign art in Russia. Its collection includes 670,000 paintings, sculptures and archeological artifacts.


SPIEGEL: Irina Alexandrovna, you have worked at the Pushkin Museum for more than 60 years, and you've been its director for half a century. You have served under Stalin and Putin, and under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. To whom do you feel most connected?


Antonova: I feel connected to art. I serve art. Politicians come and go, but art is eternal. Believe me, I would have trouble listing all the culture ministers of Russia and the Soviet Union. By the way, I never saw Stalin in person, only from a distance on Red Square, when he stood on the mausoleum and watched parades. I only became museum director in 1961, eight years after Stalin's death.

SPIEGEL: What does the ideal relationship between the state and art look like?

Antonova: The state should provide maximum financial support to theaters, schools of art and museums, the way France did it when it paid for the major renovation of the Louvre in Paris. The government should stay out of art itself. We do not feel any pressure today, and we exhibit what we please. This is enormous progress compared to how things were in the Soviet era. There is no longer any art censorship in Russia.

SPIEGEL: Really? The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is only a few hundred meters from your museum. When young women with the punk bank Pussy Riot danced in front of an altar there in February to protest against Putin, they were arrested.

Antonova: Oh come on, do you think that's art? It was a campaign, and it was against the Church, not Putin…

SPIEGEL: But the women were singing: "Mother of God, chase Putin away."

Antonova: Then it was a political demonstration, and the church is the wrong place for that. I say this even though I'm not a religious person. And I say this even though it's not very popular in today's Russia to admit to not believing in God. Intruding into a church in order to insult the Church would not go unpunished in Germany, either.

SPIEGEL: But it wouldn't be punished with prison time. The three women have been in prison for four months, and two of them have young children.

Antonova: How they are to be punished isn't my business. I do know, however, that this kind of performance isn't to my liking. After all, not everyone who opens up his mouth and sings is an artist. We were also once victims of a similar act. In 1993, an artist who is quite well-known here came to the Pushkin Museum and relieved himself in front of a painting by Van Gogh -- and that's called "performance." It isn't art; it's a mess. I think that three months in prison wouldn't have hurt him because it would've given him a chance to think about what he'd done.

SPIEGEL: You once managed to hold an exhibition of the works of classic modern artists, such as Chagall and Kandinsky. From the standpoint of the Soviet cultural authorities, this was something of an insurrection.

Antonova: It wasn't an insurrection, but it was logical. For so many years, we weren't allowed to exhibit what we had in our collections. Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne were considered formalistic and bourgeois artists. When the Moscow-Paris Exhibition, with works by Chagall and Kandinsky, was to be brought to Moscow in 1981, the director of the famous State Tretyakov Gallery said: "Over my dead body." Well, we don't like dead bodies, so we held the show at the Pushkin Museum. It was a breakthrough.

SPIEGEL: Marc Chagall was the opposite of a painter of the Socialist realism school. How did you manage to exhibit his work?

Antonova: The director of the Louvre had introduced me to him in the late 1960s. I visited Chagall at his home in the south of France. We decided to hold an exhibition, but unfortunately Chagall died in 1985, shortly before the opening. I described him as a great Russian artist in an obituary for the Literaturnaya Gazeta, and the next day I received a call from the Ministry of Culture. They wanted to know if I was serious when I wrote that Chagall was a Russian. I replied: "Of course, just as opera singer Feodor Chaliapin and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff are Russians." They accepted that, and it was no small feat. Even museums became victims of repression under Stalin.

SPIEGEL: What did Stalin do?

Antonova: Owing to the German invasion, the State Museum of New Western Art was closed in 1941. It was not reopened after the war, and it was dissolved under a decree by Stalin in 1948. The decree began with the words: "The museum shall be liquidated." I saw it as my responsibility, in the face of this resistance, to gradually find a place for Impressionists in our museum.

SPIEGEL: Was anyone able to convince Stalin?

Antonova: Stalin was someone who couldn't be convinced. On his birthday in December 1949, an exhibition of gifts he had received as the Soviet leader was opened at our museum. Stalin died in March 1953, and the exhibition remained open until August.

SPIEGEL: What do you think of Stalin today?

Antonova: We lived at a horrible time in those days.

SPIEGEL: It must have discredited the idea of communism for you.

Antonova: Perhaps I'm going to disappoint you now, but I haven't lost faith in socialism to this day. It's obvious that Stalin was a tyrant. We chose the wrong path to socialism in the Soviet Union. But that doesn't mean that the idea is worthless. And I'm apparently not the only one who thinks so: The Socialists have now come into power in France.

SPIEGEL: …but they're really more like social democrats.

Antonova: I understand that. Every idea has to go with the times and take the unique aspects of a country into account. The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once wrote: "From an early age, I was accustomed to hating fat people because I had to sell myself for a lunch." To me, socialism means social justice.

SPIEGEL: We're not under the impression that Putin pursues socialist policies. Why did you support him in the recent election?

Antonova: Because he supports a balanced policy, also when it comes to culture.

SPIEGEL: What is his understanding of art?

Antonova: I've never spoken with him about that. When he came to an exhibition at our museum sponsored by Deutsche Bank in 2004, which featured the Expressionists and contemporary art, I noticed that it wasn't unfamiliar to him. Gerhard Richter was part of the show, for example. Putin understands that art has to change

Part 2: 'One Mustn't Confuse People with Their Governments'

SPIEGEL: What is your view of contemporary artists like the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei?

Antonova: The Dutch 17th-century artist Jan Vermeer -- now that's great art. Take, for example, his painting "Officer and Laughing Girl": the young woman in the house of ill repute, the officer with the big hat, the map on the wall. Vermeer was a master of illuminating the centuries-old themes of humanity -- love, fear, hope -- in everyday scenes. I had to weep when I saw the painting in New York's Frick Collection in 1963.

SPIEGEL: Are we to understand you as saying that, in your eyes, someone like Ai Weiwei is too far removed from reality in his art?

Antonova: He doesn't just remove himself from reality; he dispenses with it completely. A Vermeer or a Leo Tolstoy or a Fyodor Dostoyevsky, they take what exists as a basis for talking about the deepest and most important things. Contemporary artists don't want to talk about what exists. They talk about what doesn't exist. It's a different way to be creative, but it's not art.

SPIEGEL: So you have no use for the Documenta art exhibition in the German city of Kassel?

Antonova: It interests me. I look at it. But it isn't art.

SPIEGEL: You lived in Germany as a child. What memories do you have of those days?

Antonova: My father was a diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in Berlin from 1929 to 1933. I remember, for example, Fräulein Lotte, the chaperone at a summer camp. She was so strict that I wrote my mother tearful letters, begging her to fetch me home soon. I have fond memories of our sports instructor, Comrade Erich. He taught me how to swim. Germany gave me a love of sports. Even today, I still like to swim. I also liked Berlin's museums. You could run up and down stairs there. My father once took a photo of me in front of the Pergamon Altar. It was so hard for me to stand still for so long! I was a real wild one.

SPIEGEL: Was Hitler discussed in your house?

Antonova: Probably, but I was still too young to remember it today. Only one thing remained fixed in my memory. One day, my mother came home and said: "Irina, don't go out into the street. The Reichstag is on fire."

SPIEGEL: Where were you when the war between Germany and the Soviet Union began?

Antonova: On June 21, 1941, I had just completed my first year at the university and had received excellent grades. I was in a great mood, and I went to the cinema with friends. The war began the next day. My mother wept because she knew what war meant. I associate two feelings with those weeks. On the one hand, it was a time of great excitement. I felt like I was part of something larger. I was sure that Hitler would be defeated in two or three years, and that I was experiencing one of mankind's great moments. That's just the way young people are. On the other hand, I saw the hideous face of war, even though I wasn't at the front.

SPIEGEL: You were a nurse.

Antonova: At the beginning of the war, I worked for a short time in an ammunition factory, where I packed grenades into crates. Then I worked in a military hospital that primarily treated pilots who had been shot down near Moscow. During my first operation, I had to hold a leg while the surgeon amputated it. Suddenly I was holding it in my hand. I was shocked.

SPIEGEL: Which members of your family died in the war?

Antonova: My uncles Pavel and Mikhail, and my aunts Irina and Anna, didn't survive the siege of Leningrad. I don't know whether they starved to death or died in the bombardment.

SPIEGEL: How did the war change your image of Germans at the time?

Antonova: I was young and very politicized. It was clear to me that there were Germans and there were fascists. Of course, I knew that there were anti-fascists, as well, such as the communist Ernst Thälmann or the actor and singer Ernst Busch, whom I admired. One mustn't confuse people with their governments.

SPIEGEL: But isn't it also true that every nation has the government it deserves?

Antonova: Hmmm. I don't think that's 100 percent correct. We certainly know that there are other ways a government can come into power, such as through enemy conquest or the usurpation of power. I wouldn't hold an entire people responsible for this. Unfortunately, the masses can be seduced.

SPIEGEL: Were Germans simply seduced?

Antonova: Certainly, to some extent.

SPIEGEL: And the Russians, during the October Revolution of 1917?

Antonova: That revolution had its reasons; it was inevitable. Just look at the literature of the 19th and early 20th centuries: Alexander Blok, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. The people weren't seduced at the time. What became of the revolution is another story.

Part 3: 'A Historic Lesson for the Entire World'

SPIEGEL: Do today's Germans still bear a responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime?

Antonova: I don't think so.

SPIEGEL: Then couldn't the Kremlin also return the art treasures that were carried off from Germany to Russia after World War II, some of which are being kept at the Pushkin Museum?

Antonova: All I wanted to say is that the generation of Germans alive today isn't responsible for Hitler and the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, to be entirely clear, the issue of trophy art is primarily one of an ethical nature. It has to do with moral and not so much financial compensation for Russia. One cannot simply invade a country, destroy its museums and try to stamp out the roots of its culture, as the Germans did. This is a historic lesson for the entire world. After the end of the war, I went to Leningrad and the Peterhof Palace. Everything had been reduced to ruins.

SPIEGEL: International law and the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibit the theft of art.

Antonova: The Hague Convention is outdated because the nature of wars has changed. Nowadays, mankind needs a different mechanism, at an international level, to protect the world's cultural heritage. For a new convention, it would be sufficient to agree on one sentence: A country is liable, with its own cultural treasures, for the damage it inflicts on the cultural heritage of another nation. Then no one will drop bombs on the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I have proposed going to The Hague with this initiative. If they allow me to speak, I'll be happy to make an appearance there.

SPIEGEL: Article 16 of the 1990 German-Russian Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany obligates both sides to return looted art. Why has this yet to happen?

Antonova: As far as I can remember, the treaty doesn't contain such an obligation. Everything it says relates to works of art that were removed illegally rather than in conjunction with war.

SPIEGEL: Many in Germany disagree. Can Germans do anything to expedite the return of the disputed works of art to Germany?

Antonova: I don't think in terms of horse-trading, such as: You Germans can build us a Museum Island (ed's note: a major museum complex in Berlin) here in Moscow, and we'll return something to you. Something like that would never cross my mind.

SPIEGEL: Heinrich Schliemann found the Trojan treasure in what was then the territory of the Ottoman Empire and brought it back to Germany. By now, it's been kept in Russia for almost as long as it was in Germany before 1945. Perhaps one could argue over who owns it. But the famous gold of the Merovingians, from late antiquity, and the Treasure of Eberswalde, from the Bronze Age, are as much a part of the foundations of German culture as the crowns of the first czars are part of Russian culture. Shouldn't they be returned to Germany?

Antonova: I want to know where the things are that disappeared from Russia. The Germans haven't returned everything to us, either.

SPIEGEL: We aren't aware of anything that's being deliberately kept back. On a related matter, why aren't German and European researchers granted unrestricted access to your vaults?

Antonova: That's the prerogative of any museum. They get access when we do joint exhibitions. Besides, the Schliemann treasure is part of the permanent collection.

SPIEGEL: You recently said that, at 90, one either speaks the truth or keeps quiet. Are there still art objects from Germany in secret vaults in your museum or in other Russian museums, works that the world doesn't know about?

Antonova: I don't know what the world knows (laughing). But, seriously, and in all sincerity, there's nothing of significance -- and certainly nothing in my museum. I can't speak for the others. We've already returned most things.

SPIEGEL: In the past, it was even said that you had been sent to Germany to take art works to the Soviet Union.

Antonova: That's a myth. In fact, I was supposed to go to Germany, and I had already studied the old catalogues from the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden. I proudly wore the uniform of a major in the Red Army. Two weeks before my departure in June 1945, they said to me: "You stay here. You're still too young." I cried a bit, and then that was that.

SPIEGEL: Why did the Kremlin decide to return to East Germany the treasures from the Old Masters Gallery in 1955 and from the Green Vault in 1958? Some say that it was intended to strengthen Walter Ulbricht, who was in poor shape after the 1953 uprising.

Antonova: That was a decision by the government, one that I wasn't very happy about. We had already prepared a permanent exhibition here in Moscow, at the Pushkin Museum. We could certainly use the works of art from the Dresden gallery here these days (laughing).

SPIEGEL: You are alluding to the planned renovation and expansion of the Pushkin Museum, which is being done by the star British architect Norman Foster.

Antonova: Yes. Unfortunately, not everyone likes the design. Many feel that Foster is too ambitious. But I want modern, high-quality architecture of the 21st century and not yet another building with columns. We already have architecture from the other centuries. And Norman Foster has a lot of experience in combining the old and the new in museums.

SPIEGEL: Irina Alexandrovna, you're still running your museum at the age of 90. Did you ever feel the desire to do something different?

Antonova: I'm sometimes surprised about that myself. It's just the way things have happened. And I was so volatile as a child. I've remained a person without a lot of patience, but you need a lot of it to run a museum.

SPIEGEL: With its exhibits of Western art, the Pushkin Museum has always been a bridge between Russia and Western Europe. Do you think your country belongs in the European Union?

Antonova: Of course, because Russia is part of Europe. But it's also a bridge between Europe and Asia.

SPIEGEL: Irina Alexandrovna, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Matthias Schlepp in Moscow. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
© website copyright Central Registry 2024