For half a century, dozens of great masterpieces of Western art have been hidden, presumed lost, in a sealed St Petersburg store-room. Now, for the first time, we can see them
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The Independent Culture
IN 1945, the Red Army rolled across Germany, uncovering as it passed secret stores of museum art hidden away for safekeeping, as well as the caches of private collectors. While Russian private soldiers were not above looting, the army also had its official War Trophy officers charged with appropriating the most valuable art they came across and shipping it back to Russia. The vast majority of the art they took was given back to East Germany in the 1950s, but there are many small caches left in museums across the Soviet Union. Their existence has only been admitted over the past few years.

Among the most sensational is a group of 74 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from German private collections that has spent the past 50 years in a small store-room on the second floor of the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. "Everyone knew they were there, but no one spoke about them," Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the museum, told me recently. He himself was first permitted to see the paintings in their secret store in 1991. The store-room was sealed by the curator with a wax seal; it was opened occasionally for restorers to check the condition of the pictures. To ensure that storage space is not tampered with, the Hermitage, to this day, uses wax seals - which cannot be mended once they are broken.

Next month, however, the hidden paintings will be put on exhibition to the public at the Hermitage. The finest of them are reproduced here - for the first time in a British publication. Most are completely unknown to the public, having spent the decades between their creation and their seizure by the Soviet army in 1945 in little-known private collections. War Trophies that were left in Soviet museums after 1958 were hidden from the public and treated as top secret. It is still not clear why this ruling was made. It was only two years ago that the existence of War Trophy art hoards was revealed by two courageous Russian curators, Konstantin Akinsha and Grigory Kozlov - who lost their museum jobs as a result. A joint Russo-German Restitution Commission was established in 1992 and is gradually preparing lists of the material stored in Russian museums. Mikhail Piotrovsky, of the Hermitage, and Werner Schmidt, director of the Dresden museums, are joint chairmen of the Commission. Their work has not yet led to any restitutions. The Germans argue angrily that the art works in Russia were "stolen" from them. Not so, say the Russians; they were removed from Germany in an orderly and responsible fashion, in accordance with the dictates of Russian law. It is unlikely that the Russians are going to hand them back without compensatory payments or donations from Germany - whose armies destroyed the contents of innumerable Russian palaces and museums during the Second World War. Meanwhile, Mikhail Piotrovsky is determined that the public should be allowed to view the German treasures that have lain hidden in his museum. Later this year, the Hermitage will show Impressionist graphics from the same German collections, followed by artefacts excavated by Heinrich Schliemann at the site of ancient Troy. But next month's exhibition will be the blockbuster; so many unknown masterpieces of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, the painting styles most admired by Nineties art lovers, will never be presented simultaneously to the public again. !


`Place de la Concorde' (above)


1875, 78.4 x 117.5cm

This is the greatest masterpiece going on show at the Hermitage. It shows Degas's well-born friend and fellow artist Vicomte Lepic with his two daughters. Lepic was an expert print-maker and taught Degas to make monotypes; they also shared a fascination with horse racing. Lepic himself bred hounds; his champion "levrier Russe", called Albrecht - perhaps after Durer? - is included in the painting. Otto Gerstenberg, a German insurance magnate, bought the picture from Degas's dealer, Durand Ruel, in 1911 for 120,000 francs. He left it to his daughter Margarete Scharf, who gave it for safekeeping to the National Gallery in Berlin at the outbreak of war; the Russians found it in a bunker in the Zoological Gardens, along with the National Gallery's pictures

`Taperaa Mahana' (left)


1892, 72.3 x 97.5cm

Gauguin's Taperaa Mahana ("Late Afternoon") was painted on the artist's first visit to Tahiti, in 1892. Albert Kostenevich, the Hermitage cataloguer, suggests that the two elegant girls in hats in the foreground are on their way to a party; the group of ladies gossiping in the backround under the trees is almost exactly echoed in another of Gauguin's paintings, Parau, Parau ("Words, Words") in the Hermitage's own collection. Taperaa Mahana is from the collection of Otto Krebs, a German manufacturer of boilers who died in 1941. This collection, of very uneven quality, makes up some 85 per cent of the Hermitage exhibition. Taperaa Mahana was previously known only from a poor quality black and white reproduction

`L'Absinthe' (above) by PICASSO, 1901, 65.2 x 49.6cm

Picasso painted three images of "The Absinthe Drinker", using a different model in each case - but always underlining how the subtle poison of the alcoholic beverage was destroying the health of his subject. This rapidly sketched but powerful gouache underlines how little flesh is left on the girl's bones - despite the courage suggested by her smile and strongly jutting jaw. It comes from the Krebs collection and was hitherto only known from a poor black and white reproduction

`Baigneurs' (right)


1890-91, 54.2 x 66.5cm

Cezanne's series of paintings of bathers is among his most highly regarded work, and Albert Kostenevich of the Hermitage considers this one of the finest of the series. It comes from the Krebs collection

`Berthe la Sourde' (left)


1889, 76.6 x 57.5cm

Toulouse-Lautrec painted this portrait of a prostitute known as Berthe la Sourde (Berthe the Deaf) in the Montmartre garden of his friend M. Forest. It was a big garden in lower Montmartre, and Forest gave Lautrec the keys; he painted many pictures there. There are two Lautrec portraits of Berthe. This gouache is shown on his easel in a contemporary photograph of the artist and model seated in the Forest garden. It comes from the Krebs collection

`Paysage avec une maison et un laboureur' (below),

by VAN GOGH, 1889, 33 x 41.4cm

A small jewel of a painting, with a highly original treatment of the perspective of a hillside, Paysage avec une maison et un laboureur was painted near St Remy in Provence. Some Van Gogh scholars, knowing the painting only from an old black and white photograph, have doubted its authenticity and have not included it in their publications. Its power will be one of the surprises of the exhibition; Kostenevich has chosen to reproduce it on the cover of the catalogue

`Dans le Jardin' (right), by RENOIR

1885, 170.5 x 112.5cm

A rare example of an Impressionist "genre" painting. Adopting the story- telling approach of contemporary academic painters, Renoir depicts an imaginary proposal of marriage. His own wife posed for the girl, while a young painter friend, Henri Laurens, posed for the ardent lover. It is another of the Gerstenberg paintings found by the Russians in the Berlin Zoological Gardens