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

Irina Antonova has been director of Moscow's Pushkin Museum since just after Stalin died. In an interview with SPIEGEL, she discusses Vladimir Putin's attitudes to art, her childhood in Nazi Germany and why Russia shouldn't have to return cultural treasures taken from Germany after World War II.

Photo Gallery: Looted Art as 'Moral Compensation' Photos
REUTERS

Even when former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former Russian President Boris Yeltsin were sweating peacefully in the sauna together, or later when President Vladimir Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder were sitting in a sled together in St. Petersburg, a historical burden continued to tarnish German-Russian relations -- despite the fact that the Soviet Union had collapsed in 1991 and the Cold War was part of the past.

To this day, looted German art -- known as "trophy art" in Moscow -- lies in the vaults of Russian museums. Promises to reach mutually acceptable solutions to the problem have never been kept.

The different terms that the two countries use for the art treasures in question are revealing. Berlin views the works of art carried off by the Red Army after the end of World War II, on Stalin's orders, as stolen and is demanding their return. Moscow sees them as moral compensation for the atrocities that Germans committed during the war. Russia's "Extraordinary State Commission to Examine and Investigate German-Fascist Crimes Committed by the Invaders and their Accomplices on Soviet Territory" had listed 427 Soviet museums and 4,000 libraries that fell victim to the Germans. According to the commission, more than 110 million books and publications were destroyed. In February 1997, the State Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, which was controlled by a majority of communists and nationalists at the time, declared the disputed artworks from Germany to be the permanent property of Russia.

The return of the art to Germany has also become an increasingly distant prospect because the previously strong relations between Berlin and Moscow have cooled considerably in recent years. The festival launching the "Germany Year" in Russia was opened in mid-June without the heads of state of either country. Owing to his busy schedule, President Putin apparently lacked the time to meet with German President Joachim Gauck.

According to the Russian Ministry of Culture, less than 10 percent of the art brought from Germany is still in Russia. Between 1955 and 1960, the Soviet Union returned 1.5 million museum artifacts to communist-ruled East Germany, including 1,240 works from the Old Masters Gallery in Dresden, 16,000 graphic works and more than 100,000 coins. The famous Pergamon Altar was also returned to Germany at the time, as was the "Green Vault," the treasure chamber of the Elector of Saxony.

Since 1996, the permanent collection at Moscow's Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts has included "Priam's Treasure," which the German businessman and amateur archeologist Heinrich Schliemann discovered in Troy in 1873 and brought home to Germany. The museum's vaults also contain the gold of the Merovingians and the so-called Treasure of Eberswalde.

No one can explain Russia's position on the looted art dispute as bluntly and eloquently as 90-year-old Irina Antonova, who met with SPIEGEL in her office at the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, within sight of the Kremlin in Moscow. Next to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the century-old museum is considered to hold the most important collection of foreign art in Russia. Its collection includes 670,000 paintings, sculptures and archeological artifacts.


SPIEGEL: Irina Alexandrovna, you have worked at the Pushkin Museum for more than 60 years, and you've been its director for half a century. You have served under Stalin and Putin, and under Brezhnev and Gorbachev. To whom do you feel most connected?

Antonova: I feel connected to art. I serve art. Politicians come and go, but art is eternal. Believe me, I would have trouble listing all the culture ministers of Russia and the Soviet Union. By the way, I never saw Stalin in person, only from a distance on Red Square, when he stood on the mausoleum and watched parades. I only became museum director in 1961, eight years after Stalin's death.

SPIEGEL: What does the ideal relationship between the state and art look like?

Antonova: The state should provide maximum financial support to theaters, schools of art and museums, the way France did it when it paid for the major renovation of the Louvre in Paris. The government should stay out of art itself. We do not feel any pressure today, and we exhibit what we please. This is enormous progress compared to how things were in the Soviet era. There is no longer any art censorship in Russia.

SPIEGEL: Really? The Cathedral of Christ the Savior is only a few hundred meters from your museum. When young women with the punk bank Pussy Riot danced in front of an altar there in February to protest against Putin, they were arrested.

Antonova: Oh come on, do you think that's art? It was a campaign, and it was against the Church, not Putin…

SPIEGEL: But the women were singing: "Mother of God, chase Putin away."

Antonova: Then it was a political demonstration, and the church is the wrong place for that. I say this even though I'm not a religious person. And I say this even though it's not very popular in today's Russia to admit to not believing in God. Intruding into a church in order to insult the Church would not go unpunished in Germany, either.

SPIEGEL: But it wouldn't be punished with prison time. The three women have been in prison for four months, and two of them have young children.

Antonova: How they are to be punished isn't my business. I do know, however, that this kind of performance isn't to my liking. After all, not everyone who opens up his mouth and sings is an artist. We were also once victims of a similar act. In 1993, an artist who is quite well-known here came to the Pushkin Museum and relieved himself in front of a painting by Van Gogh -- and that's called "performance." It isn't art; it's a mess. I think that three months in prison wouldn't have hurt him because it would've given him a chance to think about what he'd done.

SPIEGEL: You once managed to hold an exhibition of the works of classic modern artists, such as Chagall and Kandinsky. From the standpoint of the Soviet cultural authorities, this was something of an insurrection.

Antonova: It wasn't an insurrection, but it was logical. For so many years, we weren't allowed to exhibit what we had in our collections. Renoir, Matisse, Picasso and Cézanne were considered formalistic and bourgeois artists. When the Moscow-Paris Exhibition, with works by Chagall and Kandinsky, was to be brought to Moscow in 1981, the director of the famous State Tretyakov Gallery said: "Over my dead body." Well, we don't like dead bodies, so we held the show at the Pushkin Museum. It was a breakthrough.

SPIEGEL: Marc Chagall was the opposite of a painter of the Socialist realism school. How did you manage to exhibit his work?

Antonova: The director of the Louvre had introduced me to him in the late 1960s. I visited Chagall at his home in the south of France. We decided to hold an exhibition, but unfortunately Chagall died in 1985, shortly before the opening. I described him as a great Russian artist in an obituary for the Literaturnaya Gazeta, and the next day I received a call from the Ministry of Culture. They wanted to know if I was serious when I wrote that Chagall was a Russian. I replied: "Of course, just as opera singer Feodor Chaliapin and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff are Russians." They accepted that, and it was no small feat. Even museums became victims of repression under Stalin.

SPIEGEL: What did Stalin do?

Antonova: Owing to the German invasion, the State Museum of New Western Art was closed in 1941. It was not reopened after the war, and it was dissolved under a decree by Stalin in 1948. The decree began with the words: "The museum shall be liquidated." I saw it as my responsibility, in the face of this resistance, to gradually find a place for Impressionists in our museum.

SPIEGEL: Was anyone able to convince Stalin?

Antonova: Stalin was someone who couldn't be convinced. On his birthday in December 1949, an exhibition of gifts he had received as the Soviet leader was opened at our museum. Stalin died in March 1953, and the exhibition remained open until August.

SPIEGEL: What do you think of Stalin today?

Antonova: We lived at a horrible time in those days.

SPIEGEL: It must have discredited the idea of communism for you.

Antonova: Perhaps I'm going to disappoint you now, but I haven't lost faith in socialism to this day. It's obvious that Stalin was a tyrant. We chose the wrong path to socialism in the Soviet Union. But that doesn't mean that the idea is worthless. And I'm apparently not the only one who thinks so: The Socialists have now come into power in France.

SPIEGEL: …but they're really more like social democrats.

Antonova: I understand that. Every idea has to go with the times and take the unique aspects of a country into account. The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once wrote: "From an early age, I was accustomed to hating fat people because I had to sell myself for a lunch." To me, socialism means social justice.

SPIEGEL: We're not under the impression that Putin pursues socialist policies. Why did you support him in the recent election?

Antonova: Because he supports a balanced policy, also when it comes to culture.

SPIEGEL: What is his understanding of art?

Antonova: I've never spoken with him about that. When he came to an exhibition at our museum sponsored by Deutsche Bank in 2004, which featured the Expressionists and contemporary art, I noticed that it wasn't unfamiliar to him. Gerhard Richter was part of the show, for example. Putin understands that art has to change.

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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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