Moscow proudly displays the looted art it once denied

FROM HELEN WOMACK

in Moscow

Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum, who for years doggedly denied Moscow was holding treasures confiscated from the Nazis, yesterday performed an elegant volte-face as she opened an exhibition of some of the best "trophy art".

Expressing delight that the times now allowed her to be frank, she advised visitors to pay particular attention to two works by Goya at the centre of the show.

But the occasion was marred by a row with Germany, which felt its post- war friendship with Russia entitled it to be consulted before the Goyas and 61 other pictures by European masters, including El Greco, Tintoretto, Renoir and Manet, went on public display.

Introducing the exhibition entitled "Saved Twice Over", Ms Antonova said the world should not blame Russia for hiding the art for 50 years but should be grateful Stalin's confiscation squads "saved" it from the ruins of Berlin in 1945, handing it over to Russian museum workers who "saved" it again through painstaking restoration work.

By contrast, Germany was able to produce little of the vast quantity of Russian art looted by the Nazis during their occupation of Soviet territory because most of it had been lost, she said.

That went down badly with German diplomats who wandered through the exhibition making copious notes about the paintings. Like the press corps, they had received invitations only a few days before the opening instead of being involved at the planning stage.

"Today we have heard one-sided opinions, distorted facts and omissions from the very person who for so long denied the art was here," the German press attach, Reinhold Frickhinger, said.

He noted that the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, which recently previewed its own trophy-art exhibition, due to open next month, had handled matters better by inviting some of the descendants of German owners to see their lost possessions. This created a degree of goodwill while complicated negotiations continue between the Russian and German governments over who should finally keep the art.

To ordinary Muscovites who are expected to queue up to see the Pushkin's exhibition the row will be of little interest compared with the wonderful glowing paintings, some of which came from German state museums but most of which belonged to private collectors, often Jewish. The 63 pictures represent about one sixth of the trophy art held by the Pushkin.

Goya's Carnival on the Square and Female Portrait are likely to arouse interest because there are no other examples of the Spaniard's work in Russia. Art lovers who have not had the opportunity to travel know of him only through books. Other exquisite works include Portrait of a Man with Whiskers and The Fall of Man by the German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach and A Nude Drying Herself and Dancer with her Left Leg on a Bench by the French Impressionist Edgar Dgas. There is one English painting, Portrait of a Youth by George Romney, which found its way to Russia via a private German buyer and then by Soviet confiscation.

The exhibition vindicates the work of two Russian art historians, Grigory Kozlov and Konstantin Akinsha. They risked their careers to tell the world about the hidden treasures at a time when the authorities were still denying that they existed.

The pair were students when they first heard from their professors about hundreds of thousands of priceless art works that had been dumped in dark storerooms across Russia by the confiscation squads.

Later, they obtained proof of the art's existence when, while helping to clean the Soviet Ministry of Culture, they found discarded papers which turned out to be the transport documents that had accompanied the works from Berlin.

The trophies included not only paintings, graphics, sculptures and archaeological treasures from Germany but art from France, Poland and the Netherlands that had been looted by the Nazi occupiers.

Treasures which came from the eastern part of Germany were given back in the 1950s because Moscow had comradely relations with what was then East Germany. Much fanfare attended this restitution, allowing Moscow to cover up the fact that it still had works from the West.

The first official to admit this was Yevgeny Sidorov, appointed as Russia's new Culture Minister after President Boris Yeltsin defeated the hard-line coup attempt in August 1991.

Gradually, trophy art began to emerge. For example, pictures from the city of Bremen have already been seen.

Later this year, the Koenigs Collection of Old Master drawings from the Netherlands will go on show, after which the Dutch hope to get it back. Next year will see the most exciting trophy exhibition of all - a display of gold that the 19th-century German archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann dug up from the site of Troy.

Ms Antonova assured her guests that all the treasures which had fallen into the hands of the Soviet state had been well looked after and would see the light of day.

But she could give no assurance about art picked up by Soviet servicemen, acting on a freelance basis, in Berlin in 1945. Many former military and KGB officers are thought to have European art on the walls of their flats and there is little chance it will be returned.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing