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Fixing - or not fixing - the works in Berlin's sculpture collections damaged in 1945

Should they be left as a reminder of a dark past or restored to reflect the artists’ intentions?

In Berlin, traces of the Second World War are omnipresent: in the open spaces where buildings once stood, in pock-marked façades, in the burned surfaces and missing pieces of stone sculptures at the Bode Museum. While many works in the Bode Museum will always remain in a fragmentary state, the fortuitous survival of 19th-century plaster casts allows the restoration of a few others in a way that more fully evokes their original appearance. It wasn’t until the fall of the Wall that this type of treatment became possible, as the damaged works were in East Berlin while the casts were in the West. Because of the fragility of the original fragments, such treatments are often a technical tour de force and will be published at length elsewhere. What concerns me here is primarily an ethical question: as a museum professional, how does one do justice to the past without being its prisoner?

Unlike art treasures in Paris or London, which were evacuated to remote locations at the outbreak of the war, the holdings of the State Museums in Berlin remained in that city until the end of the conflict. Even before Germany declared war on Poland in September 1939, the collections were de-installed and brought to various sites, such as the basement of the Pergamon Museum. As air raids intensified, most of the art was moved to two anti-aircraft bunkers, one at the Zoo and the other in the Friedrichshain district.

It wasn’t until March 1945, as the Red Army was approaching Berlin, that Hitler ordered the collections evacuated—against the will of museum directors. Between 11 March and 7 April, ten convoys carried works of art to mines in Thuringia, where they would be recovered, as is well known, by the American Army, taken to Wiesbaden, and, eventually, returned to West Berlin in the 1950s. The objects that remained in Berlin were seized by the Red Army and taken to Russia. Before their removal, however, two fires raged in the Friedrichshain bunker in May 1945; some 400 paintings were destroyed, including masterpieces by Botticelli, Caravaggio, and Rubens, while the sculpture collection lost major works by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, Donatello, Riemenschneider, and many others. In response to the restitution of one half of the collection to West Berlin and despite strong opposition at home, the Soviet Union returned first, in 1956, the paintings from the Dresden Gemäldegalerie to the German Democratic Republic and, two years later in 1958, about a million objects to East Berlin.

Quick treatment, fast returns

Moscow’s decision to send back the works led to speedy conservation treatments in the Soviet Union to allow for their shipment. The works that had been stored in the Zoo bunker had not been in a fire and were in good condition. The ones from the Friedrichshain bunker, however, were often in a terrible state. Paintings on canvas and panel had burned entirely, as had wood sculptures. Many terracotta and stone sculptures had exploded and survived only as charred fragments, as was the case of the Pietà from Baden near Vienna, a Bohemian masterpiece of around 1400, of which only the figures’ heads remain. Other sculptures had broken down into fragments but could be reassembled—even though their original polychromy or surface treatment was lost, as happened to Donatello’s Madonna with Four Cherubim. Many metal objects were molten or severely deformed. Temperatures had been reached that were high enough to alter the crystalline structure of marble, rendering it crumbly, porous, and fragile, and in some cases further degrading it to lime or gypsum. Some of our sculptures are so disfigured that looking at them is painful; this is true of Tullio Lombardo’s shield bearers from the Vendramin Tomb, which have not been on view since 1939. A cabinet at the Bode Museum presents what is known of the events surrounding the fires at the Friedrichshain bunker as well as three works that we find too damaged to exhibit in a normal gallery. Most often, however, we integrate what remains of the works in the general narrative of European sculpture that is the Bode Museum, because, even in their fragmentary state, they convey a sense of their original quality—as can be seen with the two heads from the Bohemian Pietà. With few exceptions, the overall original composition is irretrievably lost.

Occasionally, we have the option to reconstruct the missing parts of a damaged work and thus recreate the effect intended by the artist. In an irony of history, the Gipsformerei (plaster cast studio) of the Berlin Museums, which has taken moulds of three-dimensional works in all collections since 1819, survived the war unscathed at its Charlottenburg location. If there is a cast at the Gipsformerei of a sculpture caught in the Friedrichshain fire in 1945, that sculpture can, in theory, be reconstructed. This option did not exist until 1989, since the works that needed treatment were in the East and the necessary casts in the West. Whether such reconstructions should be undertaken at all only recently became a matter for debate.

Because the trauma of the Third Reich, the Second World War and the Holocaust is so great, it was felt strongly, in East and West Germany alike, that traces of the war should remain visible, both as a reminder of the past and as an exhortation for the future. This attitude has informed the debate on the conservation of buildings and works of art in Germany in the decades since 1945. Clearly, decisions on whether to reconstruct a work should be made on a case-by-case basis. The outdoor sculptures made for public monuments in Berlin now gathered at the Citadel in Spandau have been conserved so that they can be exhibited, but not reconstructed. Here the scars of war are considered integral to the story the works tell, an approach justified in my opinion by the original function of many of them as glorifications of Prussia as a military power.

At the Bode Museum, the situation is different. Although the fate of our collection is intimately tied to Berlin’s tragic history, the sculptures are first and foremost great works of art, made to inspire, transport, and delight. Leaving them as ruins, when we might recover a sense of the artist’s intention, would be to hold them hostage to a moment in history that has nothing to do with the conditions in which they were created. When a suffragette attacked the Rokeby Venus with a meat cleaver in 1914, London’s National Gallery decided that the work mattered more as a Velázquez than as a document of that political movement, and restored it. Likewise, I would argue that a sculpture is more important as, say, a Donatello, than as a reminder that a fire took place in a Berlin bunker in the last days of the Second World War.

Discoloured fragments

What can be gained by restoring such works is best illustrated with a relief of the Virgin and Child, which Wilhelm von Bode considered a masterpiece by Antonio Rossellino. It was returned by the Soviet Union in 1958 as a series of discoloured fragments mounted on a marble slab. The two main figures still existed, but much of the background, including the Virgin’s veil and the haloes, was lost, as was a large portion of the cushion along the lower edge. Of the two cherubim, only one half of each face survived. Part of the Child’s mouth was missing, giving him a cleft lip. Using the Gipsformerei’s master cast of the relief, the conservator Gerhard Kunze, working under the supervision of head conservator Bodo Buczynski, took moulds of the missing elements, cast those in a material coloured to match the original parts as best as possible, and pieced them together. The patina of the Rossellino will never be the same as before 1945. Heat has turned large areas of the marble into lime, and the surface has lost its translucency. Despite cleaning attempts and meticulous retouching, strong discolourations remain in the relief. But for the first time in 70 years, we can argue about the coherence of the composition and the tenderness of expression. Our label and audio guide discuss the conservation treatment and point out that it is reversible, should a future generation decide to return the work to its fragmentary state.

The practical and ethical issues involved in the conservation of war-damaged sculpture will be presented in an exhibition titled “The Lost Museum”, which will be held at the Bode Museum from March to September 2015. The show will examine the legacy of the Friedrichshain fires for the Berlin sculpture and painting collections, seventy years after the end of the Second World War. It will draw attention to works of art that have disappeared from our consciousness since 1945. The Gipsformerei will provide casts of some fifteen major sculptures that recent art history knows only from black-and-white photographs. A selection of lost paintings from the Gemäldegalerie will be reproduced in actual size. The exhibition is bound to elicit controversy on how we, as art historians, curators, conservators, or members of the public, choose to deal with the past and the traces it has left, favouring one narrative above another. Such public debate is vital.

• Julien Chapuis is deputy director of the Sculpture Collection at the Bode Museum, Berlin

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fixing the sculptures the war broke'