Irina Antonova: Looted art is 'the price paid for remembering'

Deutsche Welle 8 March 2016
By Anastassia Boutsko

As a historical Cranach exhibition takes place at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, the museum's former director Irina Antonova tells DW what it's like to work with looted art hidden in the basement.

The grande dame of the Russian art scene, Irina Antonova, will be celebrating her 94th birthday on March 20, 2016. By the time of her retirement in 2013, Antonova had been the director of the renowned Pushkin Museum in Moscow for more than half a century. She had also become known as something of a hardliner in the fight between Russia and Germany over looted art from the Nazi period.

"Trophies," as these works of art taken from German museums are known in Russia, have been stored in the depot of the Pushkin Museum since 1945. Among them are "Priam's Treasure," gold jewelry brought from Troy by archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann, the Bronze Age Treasure of Eberswalde and numerous Cranach paintings from Gotha.

For many years, most of these treasures have remained out of the reach of both the public and researchers. Until now, as some of the Cranach works have gone on display as part of the exhibit, "The Cranachs - Between Renaissance and Mannerism." DW's Anastassia Boutsko sat down with Antonova to discuss the meaning of this occasion and her role in art history.

DW: When you began your career at the Pushkin Museum in 1946, a number of boxes were arriving in Moscow from Germany. Included in the boxes' contents were paintings done by Lucas Cranach of Gotha. Now, 70 years later, a Cranach exhibition has opened and a number of images from Germany are on display for the first time. What does that feel like for you?

Irina Antonova: This exhibition is very important. We know very little here in Russia about the development of German art. We have only a few representative samples from Germany's Old Masters in our museums, something that has just happened over the course of history. While we have few works by Dürer and Cranach, we have a number of pieces of French, Italian and Dutch art. This magnificent international project serves to balance that out.

At the Cranach exhibition in Moscow, more than half of the images come from Gotha; 17 of them are behind closed doors in the depot of the Pushkin. All of them had once belonged to the historical Cranach collection of the Electors of Saxon. Several of your German colleagues are hopeful that one day the collection can be united again. Is this a real reason for hope?

I'm not a fortune-teller. Here in Russia, we have a law about artworks that came into our hands following the Second World War, but it only applies to the fraction of the treasures that were rescued from the war by the Red Army. The majority of works were returned to German museums, archives and libraries, for which we were never comparably rewarded. Instead, we had to deal with 400 Russian museums that had been completely destroyed during the war.

Do you agree with the Russian law on looted art that went into effect in 1998 and which essentially thumbed its nose at the Hague Convention for the protection of cultural items? For some of the works taken from Germany, like the Merowinger jewelry and the Cranach paintings, these things are part of the national identity.

I know that this is a painful problem for some of those in Germany who are dealing with it. But you know, during the war, I worked as a nurse; I had to remove the amputated legs of young soldiers and pilots who were shot near Moscow. We're speaking about a completely different kind of pain.

I find the law regarding cultural objects that have come into other hands via war as one that is fair in so far as it serves as a reminder. We need to remember the terrible episodes of the Second World War, which needs to remain a historical example for us all. Those who destroy the cultural identity of one people should pay with a part of their own cultural identity. Perhaps this will in future deter the destruction of another culture's artworks. At the moment, such a mechanism for bullying into deterrence doesn't exist.

In 1955, the Politburo of the Soviet Union made the decision to return some of the goods to East German museums and as a result of that decision, the collection of the Berlin Museum Island was returned. Gotha likewise took back 21 of the 40 Cranach paintings at that time. Why did the other pieces remain in Moscow? What were the criteria employed for splitting up the collection?

I don't know. But I also don't know about a fundamental decision made to return the collections to East Germany. I do know that a decision was made to return works to Dresden's Old Masters Picture Gallery. At the end of March 1956, we were called into the office of the Pushkin Museum's director, who told us that the gallery in Dresden would be re-opening for the second time. He said, "So, go on, get to work!"

You've known for many years what an unbelievable treasure was being stored within the secret warehouse of the museum and yet you as museum director were never able to share the works with anyone. How did that make you feel?

This question has been asked a thousand times! Do you believe that I really wanted it to be that way? No, it didn't make me happy at all. People think that I, as a museum director, must have been moaning about, "No, I won't show that!" and then changing my mind, "No wait, of course I'll show it!" One knows very well that as a museum director, whether in Germany or elsewhere, one must hold fast to the rules and laws that are given. And if you are not in agreement with the laws, you have to grab your jacket and leave.

Irina Antonova speaks to DW's Anastassia Boutsko

Were you in agreement with the return of the paintings to Dresden and other German collections?

I wasn't director at the time, just a researcher there. No one would have paid my opinion any mind.

Would your opinion - just theoretically, of course - have been different?

We don't need to discuss what ifs. I may have disagreed with one or two of the choices.

Besides, the pictures from the Dresden Old Masters Picture Gallery were actually saved by us. I remember very well what those pictures looked like when they arrived. On Titian's "Zinsgroschen" for example, the wood was warped, the colors were blistering, everything was covered in mold. Without the aid of Pavel Korin, the renowned artist and restorer at the Pushkin Museum, the painting would have been lost. At the time, he suggested that we not restore the work immediately, rather to wait until it had dried. So for two years, we allowed the artwork to dry and then began the restoration.

We gave back so many paintings! Raphael's "Sistine Madonna," Rembrandt's "Saskia in Red Hat," the "Bathsheba at the Fountain" by Rubens and Giorgione's "Sleeping Venus." Yes, that too was out of respect for German culture.

The other works remain here as a deposit, the price paid for remembering. As they lay in the cellar that wasn't okay, but now, when they're so beautifully presented, it's wonderful!
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