History & Culture

This exhibition traces the restoration of priceless artefacts damaged during World War II

Amphora, after restoration   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

In 1945, as the Second World War was nearing its end, the unimaginable happened.

A bunker in the Berlin suburbs, housing more than 1,600 paintings and sculptures from several of The Berlin State Museums, caught fire: not once, but twice, of which one is believed to be arson.

In the bunker were objects of art that had been transported from what is now known as the Bode Museum in Berlin, to avoid any possibility of damage during the war. All the paintings burnt to ashes. However, sculptures and decorative arts, though damaged beyond recognition, were retrieved from under the debris, covered in soot and grime.

Spiritello, after restoration

Spiritello, after restoration   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Six months later, several fragments were sent to the Soviet Union by two trains, marking the start of an effort of mammoth proportions to restore these invaluable works. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts received them, and by 2010, more than 750 museum objects had been restored.

Thirty of these objects and their journeys have been documented in a photo exhibition, fittingly called Twice Rescued, curated to honour the 75th anniversary of the Allied victory. Though available for viewing online, Chennai will physically experience this exhibition in September, thanks to the Pushkin State Museum’s collaboration with the Russian Centre of Science and Culture.

International effort

Borodin Igor Viktorovich, head of the the Pushkin State Museum’s department of conservation, explains over email, “Up to 35 specialists from different institutions in Moscow participated in studying and conserving the pieces. Now, researchers and 15 technical specialists and conservators of metal, ceramics and stone are involved in this project.” He adds that the National Research Center, Kurchatov Institute is helping with research.

In an introductory webinar held last week, Daria Babich, conservator at the museum, also mentioned that restoration project is still underway. She says, “The results were first demonstrated at two exhibitions: Archaeology of War. Return from Nonexistence (2005) and The Art of Ancient Cyprus (2014).” In 2015, together with Bode Museum, they also launched the project Donatello and other Renaissance Master: Research and Conservation.

St John the Baptist, after restoration

St John the Baptist, after restoration   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Twice Rescued comprehensively documents pieces from all the three exhibitions.

Each piece has a unique story to tell. Take, for instance, the bust of The Princess of Naples: Today, it is divided in two parts, with the head in Berlin and the rest in Moscow. “At the end of the 19th Century, when German art historian Wilhelm von Bode bought it from the heirs of the ancient Strozzi family in Florence, the bust became famous. The German academic saw in it the legendary work of Desiderio da Settignano. Then he changed his mind, and the bust was attributed to a talented master from Dalmatia, Francesco Laurana, who instantly found posthumous fame, becoming the most popular Renaissance sculptor on the market,” narrates Viktorovich. However, in the 1990s, the bust was declared fake, though even if this was true, he believes that it would not change its illustrious history.

A statue of Zeus from Dodona is another rare artefact that is part of the collection “The author of the original statue is unknown, it is clear only that they worked in the middle of the 4th Century BC, were from the Peloponnese and in terms of skill level were equal to the great Lysippos,” explains Viktorovich. The statuette is also remarkable for the fact that it was found in Dodona, one of the famous oracle sanctuaries in northern Greece.

130 fragments

When it came to restoration, the greatest challenge came in the form of the red-figure Amphora depicting Theban hero, Actaeon’s death, which was brought in 130 fragments.

“The treatments took more than 10 years (the work lasted from 2004 till 2015). The first stage was to identify all the fragments. Then, the fragments had to be consolidated and cleaned both from the traces of the 19th Century restoration and the war-time grime. After that, conservators who worked on the object essentially had to put it together like a puzzle. The losses had to be filled, and a special supporting structure made, considering the vase’s size,” Viktorovich says. He adds that contemporary conservation principles do not allow any structural interference. So, to be able to fill in the missing parts, it was decided to reconstruct it digitally. It took a team of conservators, art historians, artists and IT-specialists a few months to do this.

Amphora, before restoration

Amphora, before restoration   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Donatello’s St John the Baptist was one of the most damaged statues: missing both feet, and an arm, as well as part of the cape. This priceless piece spent several decades in storage. “Our conservators were able to recreate the rest thanks to a plaster copy of the statue which was made before the war and is now exhibited at the museum along with the original work. All this work, including the research, took 1.5 years.”

The website that was created specifically for display is maintained in four languages and provides meticulous documentation. In them are answers to larger questions concerning the cultural, political and historical significance of the war. “The lessons of history teach us a lot,” says Viktorovich. “One of the main lessons of the Second World War is that we have to do everything in our power to prevent recurrence of similar events. Working on the art objects which survived the horrors of one of the most destructive wars of the last century, one cannot help but reevaluate the scale of the tragedy.”

Visit www.museum conservation.ru/data/specprojects/twice-rescued/about-eng.html to know more.

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