Twice rescued

The photo exhibition "Twice Rescued" is organized by the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts together with the Russian Centre of Science and Culture in Chennai. The exhibition, dedicated to the 77th anniversary of the Great Victory, will be opened on September 3, 2020 due to the situation with the coronavirus. It will feature photographs showing the results of many years of museum conservators' work with art objects that were damaged during the Second World War.

At the end of the war in 1945, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts received artworks brought from Germany to the Soviet Union as restitution. In the first post-war decade, the efforts of museum specialists - curators and conservators- were aimed at saving the painting masterpieces from the Dresden Gallery, many of which required immediate conservation treatments.

In the early 2000s, researchers and object conservators began to study and restore monuments of ancient art, including a large number of burnt and deformed fragments of ceramics, metal, bone and glass. The results of these years of work done by the team of conservators from several museums and specialized workshops in Moscow, were presented at the exhibitions in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts "Archaeology of War. The Return from Nonexistence" (2005) and "The Art of Ancient Cyprus" (2014). In 10 years, more than 750 museum objects have been conserved and restored. In 2015, a project to conserve Donatello's bronze sculptures, as well as some works by other masters of Western European Renaissance sculpture, was launched together with the Bode Museum.

The exhibition "Twice Rescued" presents only a small part of the objects from the "Transferred art" collection restored at the Pushkin State Museum - 30 photographs of unique works of ancient and Western European art. The specially created page on the Pushkin State Museum Department of Conservation website will introduce you to the history of the museum collections, the fate of individual objects and the remarkable results of the work done by our conservators, thanks to whom these pieces have found their second life.

The Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum

The State Museums of Berlin is one of the oldest and most extensive museum associations in Western Europe. The history of Berlin's museums began with the collection of the Brandenburg Electors, the so-called Kunstkammer, which was formed in the late 16th century. During the following centuries, the collection was continuously expanding, which led to its division into several museum collections. Formed on the basis of the Kunstkammer, collections of objects of natural history and ancient art turned into separate museums, and the most valuable objects of decorative and applied art were the Berlin Castle collection. The nineteenth century saw the opening of many new museums built by the famous architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) and his students. The following museums were opened to the public: the Royal Museum (now the Old Museum, 1830), the New Museum (1855), the National Gallery (1861), which in the 20th century was called the "Old National Gallery" after the "New" was opened. The erection of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum on Museum Island continued the era of rapid construction.

From the very beginning, the Kaiser Friedrich Museum was intended to be a museum of Italian Renaissance art, because by this time Berlin had the largest collection of Italian sculpture and painting outside Italy. Wilhelm von Bode (1845-1929) was the initiator and inspirer of the idea of creating a museum with its own building and collection. He was an art historian and museum worker who for many years conducted an unprecedented campaign for the acquisition of art in Italy and abroad. The interiors of the newly opened museum reflected Bodet's taste as a collector: paintings, sculpture and decorative art objects were exhibited together, which distinguished the museum setting from the traditional one. Separate halls, such as the Rotunda or Basilica, were an attempt to recreate the architecture and interior decoration of Italian churches. Others, filled with many small objects, became kind of cabinets of curiosities, reminiscent of the interiors of private collectors' houses.

A few years later, the turn to expand the premises reached the Berlin Antique Collection - in 1910 the construction of the Pergamon-Museum began on the nearby territory. In addition to the famous Pergamon Altar, it displayed the collections of the West Asian Museum and the Museum of Islamic Art. From 1930 to 1939, the German Museum was located nearby, where masterpieces of German sculpture were exhibited.

The Friedrichshain park bunker

With the outbreak of World War II, the management of the State Museums of Berlin were concerned about the preservation of objects from museum collections. In 1939 the exhibitions on Museum Island were closed to the public, the objects were packed and prepared for transportation.

A large number of different works of art - ancient, Western European, Asian and other - were housed in several vaults in Berlin and its suburbs, which were considered safe. The original plan of the German military command did not assume that the city would be attacked from the air, but already in August 1940, the first bombing of Berlin by the British Air Force showed that this was not the case.

The response to the air threat was the construction of massive concrete structures in Berlin's three major parks - in the Zoological Garden, Friedrichshain and Humboldthain - so-called flak towers (Flaktürme) - of about 60 x 60 m in size and equipped with anti-aircraft guns. The location (far from the townhouses) and the height of the towers were dictated by the need for a wide firing sector. Nicknamed "firing cathedrals" by the designer Friedrich Thamm, the anti-aircraft towers also had a considerable ideological meaning - they were supposed to symbolise enormous military power, bring peace and hope to the citizens' hearts. Their architectural design was the responsibility of Albert Speer's bureau, who personally discussed the plans with Adolf Hitler.

The technical arrangement of each anti-aircraft battery required, in addition to the main gun tower, another fortified structure at a short distance from it - from which guidance and radar were conducted. These multi-storey buildings, with reinforced concrete walls of about two metres thick, were called "leitturm" ("control towers"). Their windows and doors had steel panels 5-10 cm thick with massive locking mechanisms, and the building's volume was about 40 thousand m3. The control towers still had plenty of space left after the equipment and personnel of the Luftwaffe were placed. For this reason, in two of them - in the Zoological Garden and in the Friedrichshain Park - the administration of the Berlin Museums was given the opportunity to shelter the collections.

The Friedrichshain Tower in its lower tier housed more than 1600 paintings from the collection of the Berlin Picture Gallery and, on the floor above the sculpture, collections of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, the Antique Collection, the Museum of Decorative Arts, the National Gallery and the Asian Art Collection.

Berlin, 1945

Already at the end of 1944, Berlin's fortified depositories, which had reliably protected works of art in the previous years of the war, ceased to give confidence to the German command. In an atmosphere of strict secrecy and lack of transport, from November 1944 to April 1945, several freight expeditions evacuated more than 1,200 paintings from the bunker in Friedrichshain to the Kaiseroda salt mine in Merkers, some 400 km southwest of Berlin. It was there, together with other valuable finds - the Reichsbank gold reserve and the famous bust of Nefertiti - that they were discovered in April 1945 by the US Army, which had a special unit set up to look for works of art (MFA&A).

The fate of the rest of the collections in Berlin was different. Since the capture of the city by Soviet troops on May 2, 1945, the efforts of the trophy brigades, which performed a function similar to that of the U.S. Armed Forces, were focused on the evacuation of works of art from the Zoo bunker. According to the agreement on the quadripartite division of Berlin, the territory of the Zoological Garden was to be in the British sector of occupation, and museum collections would be transferred to the Allies. All valuables from the vault, including the famous "Priam Treasure", were hastily evacuated to the Soviet bridgehead Berlin-Karlshorst for shipment to the USSR. The monumental reliefs of the Pergamon Altar were a great difficulty to transport.

By this time in a bunker in Friedrichshain, formally under the control of the Soviet troops, the first of two devastating fires had already occurred. At first, a vault in the lower tier caught fire, which housed large paintings - their evacuation was impossible. More than 400 first-class works of art, among which were seven major works of Rubens and the workshop, famous "St. Matthew" by Caravaggio and "Kingdom of Pan" by Signorelli, were irrevocably lost. The first fire, which happened between May 5 and 6, was followed by the second one, which happened between May 14 and 18 and destroyed the museum storage in the upper tier of the bunker. Among the many collections kept there were: ancient and medieval sculpture, Byzantine, Chinese and Japanese art, decorative ceramics, jewellery, coins and frames. The causes and exact circumstances of both the first and second fires have not been established, although there are good reasons to believe that at least one of them was the result of arson.

The Pushkin State Museum, 1945–1946

Unlike the paintings; the sculptures, ceramics and decorative objects in the bunker in Friedrichshain were not completely destroyed by fire. The first analysis showed that some of the collections could be saved under the layer of ashes and debris generated by the fire. The works, which began in autumn 1945 led by an archaeologist, professor of Moscow State University V. Blavatsky, and lasted until the spring of 1946, were full archaeological excavations - the most important task was to identify each found object. Several thousand extracted fragments were sent by two different trains to Moscow and Leningrad, which led to the separation of the collections.

The director of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts. D. Mercurov, who insisted on replenishing the funds with the trophy collections, somewhat overestimated the capabilities of the museum, which needed more space and specialists. It was out of the question to start a full restoration of works from the Berlin collections in the State Museum of Fine Arts, where at the same time there was the collection from the Dresden Gallery and several others brought from different regions of Germany - the Moscow museum itself, which survived the evacuation of funds and experienced all the hardships of war time, had many problems. Nevertheless, a significant amount of conservation work - identification, gluing of fragments, cleaning - was carried out in the early 1950s by a small number of conservators.

Merkurov's ambitious plans to create a museum of world art were not destined to come true, and the policy of the USSR on the issue of trophy art in the 1950s took a different course. Partly following the example of the U.S. government, which returned 200 masterpieces of painting to museums in West Berlin, after a lengthy tour of cities in the U.S., the Soviet Union launched a large-scale campaign to return the displaced property to museums in East Germany and Poland. The return of the Dresden Gallery's paintings, which was preceded by an exhibition in Moscow, was its most famous episode. As a result of the transfers of 1955-1958 from the 2.5 million objects taken by the Soviet troops, 1.5 million returned to the East German Democratic Republic. Before that, exhibitions were held in Moscow and Leningrad, which were attended by over 1 million people. After they were over, the exhibits were delivered to Berlin, where shortly before that the old building of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum was opened to the public under a new name - the Bode Museum. A large part of the exhibition was taken up by sculptures extracted from the bunker in Friedrichshain and restored in the Soviet Union.

Work with the Transferred Art Collection in 2000 - 2016

Not all objects recovered from the Friedrichshain bunker were transferred back to the GDR. Many fragmented objects that lost their original appearance and needed large-scale restoration work remained in custody of the museums of Moscow and Leningrad. It is safe to say that fears of spoiling the positive political effect of the return of the newly acquired and restored works of art in East Germany by transferring objects that too closely resembled the disabled from the war played a decisive role. However, while remaining in Soviet museums in a special secret position and occupying limited storage resources, these works could not be exhibited or used in any way. A temporary solution to the problem was to transfer the objects to the Archive of Artworks under the Ministry of Culture of the USSR, which took place in 1963. From this depository, located on the territory of the The Trinity Lavra of St. Sergius in Zagorsk (now Sergiev Posad), the objects from the special collection began to return to the museum only after the collapse of the USSR, in the late 1990s - early 2000s. For several decades the pieces were covered by the veil of secrecy: they were seen only by a few museum curators who came with inspections, for researchers and museum visitors they virtually ceased to exist.

Only the next generations of museum curators and restorers were able to study and process all these materials. Often they did not have any information about the work of their predecessors in the 1950s. The specialists of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts started to restore the collection of antique ceramics, which consisted of burnt and deformed fragments packed in war-time newspapers, in 2002. The result of the work of a huge team of conservators from several museums and specialized workshops was the exhibition "Archaeology of War. Returning from Nonexistence" opened in April 2005. It features the works of antique ceramics, bronze and carved bone that were in the bunker in Friedrichshain. Much of the damage seemed to be irreversible at first sight, and the difficulties encountered by the conservators required the development of new techniques. The exhibition showed the importance of cooperation with the German colleagues, which at that time was just beginning. In November 2005, a conservation colloquium was held with conservators from Berlin working on similar tasks. The Pushkin State Museum conservators approached the next project dedicated to the art of Ancient Cyprus with experience, which made it possible to present more than 300 restored exhibits - painted vases, terracotta and miniature statuettes from the Bronze Age to the era of the Roman Empire - at the exhibition in 2014.

Donatello and other Renaissance masters: research and conservation

In 2015, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts began a new project dedicated to the conservation and restoration of Italian Renaissance sculptures from the former Berlin collection. The project, from the very beginning intended as an interaction between the two museums, is conducted in cooperation with the Bode Museum in Berlin.

The works of famous Renaissance masters such as Donatello, Andrea del Verrocchio, Luca Della Robbia and others, which are still kept in depositories of the Moscow Museum, are extremely difficult to restore. Made of marble and limestone, the sculptures cannot bear high temperatures as it causes them to lose their structural strength. Restoration of many of these sculptures requires unique methods and special studies.

Since March 2016, Russian and German conservators have been sharing their experience and methods of work. The participation of Berlin specialists provides effective assistance to Russian conservators among other things because Berlin has preserved original moulds taken from sculptures to make plaster casts. These moulds give an idea of the original form of the objects and are used to fill in the losses. Since 2018, Russian specialists have been training in Berlin, where they work on objects with similar damages.

On the Russian side, specialists from the Kurchatov Institute National Research Centre, which cooperates with the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in several areas, have joined the project. Prolonged treatments did not become an obstacle to the return of these significant works of sculpture to the public. A series of conferences held by the Moscow and Berlin curators in Berlin (Bode Museum), Florence (Max Planck Institute for Art History) and Trento (University of Trento) presented to the scientific community preliminary results and announced the existence of 57 sculptures that were considered lost after World War II. A special page was opened to the public at www.museumconservation.ru containing photographs, information and conservation dossiers on the objects included in the project. The information has been translated into four European languages and is regularly updated. In January 2019 the first bronze statue "John the Baptist", considered to be the work of the famous Florentine sculptor Donatello, conserved within the project, was exhibited at the Pushkin State Museum. Its conservation was completed by the discovery of original fragments which were previously considered lost. It is one of the most valuable works now available to museum visitors from all over the world. An exhibition of 15 more restored bronze sculptures is scheduled for October 2020.