When the director of the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, Irina Antonova, this summer finally exhibited the works of art seized by the Red Army after the war, the shocked art world soon realised that the defiant parade of long-lost masterpieces from German and Eastern European collections was only the tip of the iceberg.
The museums which had borne the brunt of the plundering, those of former East Germany, are only now beginning to count their losses. Just as the very existence of the Moscow vaults had been denied, the unwritten rules of the Cold War also prohibited the East German museums from raising any questions about their missing treasures.
Illustrated lists recently published by two of them, the Kulturhistorisches Museum in Magdeburg and the Museum der bildenden Künste in Leipzig, now lift the veil on displaced or destroyed collections of remarkable richness and variety.
Of the two institutions, Leipzig had continued, throughout the Communist era, to enjoy a measure of international attention due to its remaining collection of considerable quality. Access had been relatively easy during the Leipzig trade fairs. The Magdeburg museum, however, named after Kaiser Friedrich until after the war, had practically no permanent collection on view and declined to provincial status.
For Magdeburg, therefore, the question of the destiny of its treasures is of truly vital interest, even more so, as there is reason to believe that significant items have survived despite post-war accounts of the total destruction of the collection. During the war, it had been removed to salt mines near the town of Stassfurt, around thirty miles south of Magdeburg. As retold in the recent publication, eye witness reports tell of repeated arson attacks between 13 and 16 April 1945, when the conquering American army had temporarily placed the mines under the guardianship of liberated Dutch forced labourers.
Photographs of the caves taken shortly afterwards show scenes of devastation. Strewn among rocks of salt broken from the walls there is the debris of incinerated ancient vases and lumps of molten metal from ancient coins. However, no trace at all is to be seen of canvases or of frames, and doubts remain about the extent of destruction suffered by the picture collection. Parts of that were in fact kept in the vaults of the Reichsbank in Magdeburg rather than the mines, although the records are contradictory, and this part of the collection certainly survived and fell into the hands of the Soviets.
At least one work, “Three putti” by Hans von Marées, an influential if melancholic exponent of German late Romanticism, has been spotted in Mrs Antonova’s summer exhibition of booty. Further objects from the Magdeburg collection have turned up elsewhere and have since been returned to their original owners. A medieval sculpture of St John resting his head on the lap of Christ, handed back by the museum in Hannover, had travelled to the West with the wartime director of the Magdeburg museum, Walther Greischel, when he fled in 1945. Greischel may also have had a hand in moving the painting of the interior of Magdeburg cathedral, a minor work by a local nineteenth-century master, which surfaced on the art market last year.
So there are several paths along which parts of the Magdeburg collection, if indeed its pictures and sculptures were plundered and not burned, could have been whisked away in 1945. There is the Dutch, the American and the Soviet connection; and there is Greischel, who eventually settled in Switzerland. Moreover, there is the visible proof of the continuing existence of some of the missing objects.
The present museum director, the historian Matthias Puhle, says there are tantalising hints that the most spectacular of the lost Magdeburg paintings, a Van Gogh of 1888 depicting the artist on the road to Tarascon among wheat fields (see p.1), may be hidden away somewhere, possibly in Holland. As it happens, the painting is documented by a faded colour photograph, to which the museum applied electronic wizardry to dazzling effect for display on the cover of its publication.
The losses which it lists run to 336 items and of these many are documented by black and white photographs from the museum’s own glass negatives. Among the paintings on the list are a Cézanne landscape of Auvers, dated around 1878, a Venetian capriccio by Guardi, several landscapes by Philipp Hackert and a Greek one by Carl Rottmann, an Amsterdam street scene by the German Impressionist Max Liebermann, a fair number of Dutch paintings, among them works attributed to Salomon van Ruysdael and David Teniers the younger, as well as a strong showing of nineteenth-century salon art and works by Feuerbach, Boecklin, Leibl and Lenbach.
The “Three putti” by Marées are in fact the remains of the decorative frieze belonging to one of his late triptychs, the “Judgement of Paris” of 1880-81, once in Berlin and also lost after the war. Whether the Pushkin museum will ever return the “Putti”, now incorporated into the regular collection and labelled “origin unknown”, is a question inseparable from the disputed ownership of trophy art.
Research into the losses at the Leipzig museum, published recently in its Jahresheft 1994, has yielded less spectacular results. So far, not a single one of the sixty-eight works which were plundered from a total of six hiding places, has been traced. The rest of the 183 pictures which the publication lists were definitely destroyed in air raids.
See p. 5, where the Director General of the Berlin Museums reacts angrily to the intransigence of the director of the Pushkin Museum.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Two museums in search of their history'