Curating under Communism: 'Politicians Come and Go, But Art Is Eternal'

Part 3: 'A Historic Lesson for the Entire World'

Photo Gallery: Looted Art as 'Moral Compensation' Photos
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SPIEGEL: Do today's Germans still bear a responsibility for the atrocities committed under the Nazi regime?

Antonova: I don't think so.

SPIEGEL: Then couldn't the Kremlin also return the art treasures that were carried off from Germany to Russia after World War II, some of which are being kept at the Pushkin Museum?

Antonova: All I wanted to say is that the generation of Germans alive today isn't responsible for Hitler and the invasion of the Soviet Union. But, to be entirely clear, the issue of trophy art is primarily one of an ethical nature. It has to do with moral and not so much financial compensation for Russia. One cannot simply invade a country, destroy its museums and try to stamp out the roots of its culture, as the Germans did. This is a historic lesson for the entire world. After the end of the war, I went to Leningrad and the Peterhof Palace. Everything had been reduced to ruins.

SPIEGEL: International law and the Hague Convention of 1907 prohibit the theft of art.

Antonova: The Hague Convention is outdated because the nature of wars has changed. Nowadays, mankind needs a different mechanism, at an international level, to protect the world's cultural heritage. For a new convention, it would be sufficient to agree on one sentence: A country is liable, with its own cultural treasures, for the damage it inflicts on the cultural heritage of another nation. Then no one will drop bombs on the Louvre, the Prado in Madrid or the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. I have proposed going to The Hague with this initiative. If they allow me to speak, I'll be happy to make an appearance there.

SPIEGEL: Article 16 of the 1990 German-Russian Treaty on the Final Settlement With Respect to Germany obligates both sides to return looted art. Why has this yet to happen?

Antonova: As far as I can remember, the treaty doesn't contain such an obligation. Everything it says relates to works of art that were removed illegally rather than in conjunction with war.

SPIEGEL: Many in Germany disagree. Can Germans do anything to expedite the return of the disputed works of art to Germany?

Antonova: I don't think in terms of horse-trading, such as: You Germans can build us a Museum Island (ed's note: a major museum complex in Berlin) here in Moscow, and we'll return something to you. Something like that would never cross my mind.

SPIEGEL: Heinrich Schliemann found the Trojan treasure in what was then the territory of the Ottoman Empire and brought it back to Germany. By now, it's been kept in Russia for almost as long as it was in Germany before 1945. Perhaps one could argue over who owns it. But the famous gold of the Merovingians, from late antiquity, and the Treasure of Eberswalde, from the Bronze Age, are as much a part of the foundations of German culture as the crowns of the first czars are part of Russian culture. Shouldn't they be returned to Germany?

Antonova: I want to know where the things are that disappeared from Russia. The Germans haven't returned everything to us, either.

SPIEGEL: We aren't aware of anything that's being deliberately kept back. On a related matter, why aren't German and European researchers granted unrestricted access to your vaults?

Antonova: That's the prerogative of any museum. They get access when we do joint exhibitions. Besides, the Schliemann treasure is part of the permanent collection.

SPIEGEL: You recently said that, at 90, one either speaks the truth or keeps quiet. Are there still art objects from Germany in secret vaults in your museum or in other Russian museums, works that the world doesn't know about?

Antonova: I don't know what the world knows (laughing). But, seriously, and in all sincerity, there's nothing of significance -- and certainly nothing in my museum. I can't speak for the others. We've already returned most things.

SPIEGEL: In the past, it was even said that you had been sent to Germany to take art works to the Soviet Union.

Antonova: That's a myth. In fact, I was supposed to go to Germany, and I had already studied the old catalogues from the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden. I proudly wore the uniform of a major in the Red Army. Two weeks before my departure in June 1945, they said to me: "You stay here. You're still too young." I cried a bit, and then that was that.

SPIEGEL: Why did the Kremlin decide to return to East Germany the treasures from the Old Masters Gallery in 1955 and from the Green Vault in 1958? Some say that it was intended to strengthen Walter Ulbricht, who was in poor shape after the 1953 uprising.

Antonova: That was a decision by the government, one that I wasn't very happy about. We had already prepared a permanent exhibition here in Moscow, at the Pushkin Museum. We could certainly use the works of art from the Dresden gallery here these days (laughing).

SPIEGEL: You are alluding to the planned renovation and expansion of the Pushkin Museum, which is being done by the star British architect Norman Foster.

Antonova: Yes. Unfortunately, not everyone likes the design. Many feel that Foster is too ambitious. But I want modern, high-quality architecture of the 21st century and not yet another building with columns. We already have architecture from the other centuries. And Norman Foster has a lot of experience in combining the old and the new in museums.

SPIEGEL: Irina Alexandrovna, you're still running your museum at the age of 90. Did you ever feel the desire to do something different?

Antonova: I'm sometimes surprised about that myself. It's just the way things have happened. And I was so volatile as a child. I've remained a person without a lot of patience, but you need a lot of it to run a museum.

SPIEGEL: With its exhibits of Western art, the Pushkin Museum has always been a bridge between Russia and Western Europe. Do you think your country belongs in the European Union?

Antonova: Of course, because Russia is part of Europe. But it's also a bridge between Europe and Asia.

SPIEGEL: Irina Alexandrovna, thank you for this interview.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Matthias Schlepp in Moscow. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.

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From DER SPIEGEL

About Irina Antonowa
  • Irina Alexandrovna Antonova, 90, has been the director of the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow since 1961. Next to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the century-old museum boasts what many consider the most important collection of foreign art in Russia. The daughter of a Russian diplomat, Antonova spent time in Berlin as a child. During World War II, she worked in an arms factory and as a nurse.

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