Impressionist treasures surface in Russia

October 05, 1994|By New York Times News Service

After many years of enforced silence, the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, has announced that it has been holding a major trove of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings from German private collections that were taken to the Soviet Union at the end of World War II and have not been seen since.

The paintings, many of which were widely believed to have been lost, are to be shown at the Hermitage in March.

More than 70 works by such artists as Degas, Cezanne, Daumier, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir and van Gogh were sent there by Soviet military authorities in Germany, and consigned to the Hermitage, where they remained a strictly guarded state secret until after the regime fell in 1991.

Even after that, their existence was known to only a few people until a brief news item about the exhibition appeared last week in the St. Petersburg News.

The Hermitage has not identified many of the paintings, presumably because it does not want to leave itself open to private claims of restitution before the show.

As to the question of returning the paintings to Germany, the director of the Hermitage, Dr. Mikhail Pyotrovsky, said only that it was "a legal question, to be debated in court." He added permission for any art treasures to leave the country must come from the Russian government.

The show in March will certainly include a Degas masterpiece, "Place de la Concorde," which is constantly reproduced in books on the artist with the annotation "Missing. Believed destroyed," and "The White House at Night," which van Gogh finished six weeks before his death in 1890.

d,.100l The question of restitution for artworks taken in wartime remains touchy. "An exhibition of this sort still raises delicate questions," said Mr. Pyotrovsky, who was in New York over the weekend.

"We decided to make it. We announced it in St. Petersburg a few days ago. In principle, we have the permission of the ministry. We believe that in these matters the main thing nowadays is to show what we have, plainly and openly."

Mr. Pyotrovsky said he was co-chairman, with Dr. Werner Schmidt, the director of the Dresden museums, of a restitution commission composed of five German and five Russian museum directors. "Among professionals," he said, "there can be free, open and informed discussions. But when politicians intervene . . ."

He said it would be impossible to exaggerate the degree of secrecy that had been imposed by the Soviet authorities in the matter of the paintings from Germany. His father was the director of the Hermitage for 26 years, and Mr. Pyotrovsky began his own studies there in 1954, when he was 10.

"But I myself did not get to see the paintings from Germany until 1991, when I was made deputy director of the museum," he said.

"It was an unbelievable experience. No one had seen them for 50 years. No restorer had touched them for 70 years. Many of them came from the private collection of Otto Krebs, near Weimar, that had virtually never been seen at all. There was a period when we couldn't even find Krebs' initials."

Mr. Pyotrovsky said the Hermitage was now an "open museum." "We are there to show what we have, and to share our information with museum professionals," he said. "Ours is not, and never has been, a 'Russian museum.' We have national museums for our national art. The Hermitage is an international museum, a museum of all the world, and it should be open to all the world."

Describing his relations with museum directors in the west as better than with some of his colleagues in Russia, Mr. Pyotrovsky said, "We see the Hermitage as a member of the international family of museums."

The show of paintings will be followed by an exhibition of drawings, watercolors and pastels from the same sources.

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