The Hermitage displays II art trophies

November 27, 1992|By New York Times News Service

ST. PETERSBURG, Russia -- The night before a Red Army officer, Viktor Baldin, ordered his troops back to Russia at the end of World War II, he crammed a suitcase with sketches found in the basement of a German manor 50 miles northwest of Berlin.

After nearly 50 years in storage, the contents of that suitcase are now on display at the Hermitage Museum here. The drawings are by Rembrandt, Van Dyke, Duerer, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Rodin, van Gogh and many other German, Italian, Dutch and French artists spanning four centuries.

This is the first time the Hermitage has shown war trophies that until recently it denied having in its vast basement. The exhibition runs until mid-January.

Among the 138 drawings are van Gogh's penciled sketch of "Starry Night" (the painting is on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art through Jan. 17), a 1522 Duerer self-portrait and a Rembrandt chalk etude for his "Landscape With Three Windmills."

All the works had hung in the Bremen Museum until British bombs began falling on the city and museum officials decided to move them to a country house, which Red Army soldiers looted several years later as they returned home.

"I remember well that day in May of 1945 when all the pictures on display now were stacked in the dark corners of the basement," said Mr. Baldin, his voice fading as he glanced around the noisy exhibition hall, once the ballroom of Czar Nicholas II.

He recalled with dismay how his troops began tearing through the sketches at the country house. "I managed to collect a whole suitcase," he said. "The next morning we set off for Russia."

Mr. Baldin, the former director of the State Museum of Russian Architecture in Moscow, added that the exhibition had only a third of the drawings he saved.

Some of the sketches look worn from the journey. All are displayed in gold or natural wood frames with white mats. Most bear the stamp of the Bremen Museum.

The Hermitage exhibition raises the question of what other treasures seized during World War II are in the museum's catacombs and whether those treasures will ever be returned to the countries from which they were taken.

"I promise more surprises," said Vladimir Matveyev, the curator of the Hermitage, while declining to discuss the question of repatriation. "Our task is to make sure these items are once again seen," he said. "It's the government's problem to decide who gets what."

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition, Yevgeny Sedera, the tTC Russian minister of culture, said, "There will be new exhibits, new paintings by great artists, which for a long time were imprisoned in the storerooms of the museum."

Mr. Sedera said that Russia was prepared to discuss the return of the art in exchange for things German soldiers took from Russia.

Mikhail Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, said, "We hope this is the first step toward resolving a point of contention between Russia and Germany."

His father, Boris Piotrovsky, was director of the museum during World War II and is credited with saving its collection by shipping priceless paintings and artifacts behind the Ural Mountains, beyond the reach of German soldiers.

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