Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Who Owns History?

I am not a direct descendant of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768). No one is (and no, I don't dress like him either). But sharing a surname, as well as a few passions, he's always been a hero of mine. He is often referred to as the "father of archeology"---a disputed title, to say the least---but not in dispute is the fact that his groundbreaking tome, Geschichte der Kunst des Alterhums (1764, History of the Art of Antiquity) ignited the neoclassical movement in European art and set the standard for rigorousness in art history (he was the first art historian to catalog the works he encountered along with a discussion of their political and historical context, and organized them according to a model of organic growth and decay). He was ambitious, as well, becoming a friend of the powerful Cardinal Albani and even enjoying an audience with Maria-Theresa. Before he realized his ultimate dream of traveling to Greece, however, he was murdered in Trieste by Francesco Arcangeli, a young Italian some insist was a casual acquaintance, but others insist was a bit of "rough trade." But that's neither here nor there.

I mention Winckelmann, because to my mind he demonstrates the passion that Germans have had for antiquities and art scholarship for centuries. I mention this because of the article in The New York Times today about the exhibition of looted artworks the Russians opened to coincide with the 60th anniversary of their defeat of the Nazis:

A week ago, on the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and President Vladimir V. Putin appeared together in Red Square in a symbolic nod to the historical reconciliation between Germany and Russia. But a few blocks away, a museum exhibition showed how the war's dark legacies continue to divide the two countries.

Shortly before Victory Day, as it is known here, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts put on display 552 ancient works of art, including Greek bronzes, vases and amphorae, Etruscan figures, fragments of Roman wall paintings and Coptic amulets carved from bone, all meticulously restored.

None have been seen in public in more than 60 years. All are spoils of war, seized by Soviet troops from the ruins of Berlin in 1945 and carted back to Moscow. The exhibition - especially because of its timing - could easily be viewed as either a memorial to the ravages of war or as the taunt of a boastful victor.

When the Russians found the treasure trove in Berlin, most of it was badly damaged, and even the Germans admit the Russians have done a fantastic job restoring many of them. But the Russian arts officials are very clear about the fact that they see these ancient works as their rightfully seized "compensation":
Anatoly I. Vilkov, deputy chief of the federal agency that preserves cultural heritage, said in a newspaper interview in February that Russia has 249,000 works of art, as well as 260,000 archive files and more than a million books, that were taken from Germany as war compensation.
The Germans, with little moral ground to stomp their feet here, have been making good faith efforts to at least share in the glory that the collection they amassed is now receiving, but still they can't hide their annoyance:
[Christina Weiss, Germany's culture minister], who visited St. Petersburg last month to return a replica of a Greek statue that belonged to Czar Nicholas I and his wife, said that Russia's recalcitrance "strains our relations, endangers pieces of art and adds to the annoyance of German museum directors."
I can empathize with the German museum directors. The sixty years since the war are but a drop in the bucket of time compared to the age of the articles they must feel they have more rights to than the Russians (we won't mention the Greeks or Italians, OK). Still, to the victors go the spoils, so I would suggest they dig up a few other artworks they had pillaged from the Russians over the years and continue making gifts of them to Russia.


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