Art Keepers
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Art Keepers

Evacuation and Salvation of Cultural Property. Mysterious artist “УКГ”

From time to time there is news about how another untitled painting with the abbreviation “УКГ” on the reverse side (УКГ— abb. Ukrainian State Art Gallery”) is being sold at auctions in Berlin.

Earlier, we looked at the story of treasure rescue during the Spanish Civil War and the Nazi offensive in Poland. These stories ended happily. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky…

During the World War II, hundreds of thousands of art objects were taken out of Ukraine by the Third Reich: paintings, books, sculptures and more. Some of them “settled” in the cities of the West and are still there.

Ukrainian State Art Gallery in Kharkov — one of the best collections in the Soviet Union — suffered a tragic fate and its recovery was almost impossible.

Ukrainian State Art Gallery

On the eve of World War II, the collection of the Ukrainian State Art Gallery numbered about 75,000 exhibits. In terms of the value of the collection. However, the artistic value of the collection doesn’t guarantee careful attitude. The art gallery wasn’t included in the evacuation plan. And mere 9 days before the occupation of Kharkov, only single carriage was provided for the evacuation of probably the best museum in the USSR (the title gallery shared with the Taras Shevchenko Gallery), through which only about 4,700 of the most valuable exhibits were evacuated.

On October 24, 1941, Kharkov was occupied by Nazi troops. All cultural institutions were subdued to the German military commandant’s office, which imposed a “temporary sequestration” on visiting the art gallery: only officers and soldiers of the Wehrmacht had the right to visit cultural institutions.

They freely entered the museum, selected the most valuable exhibits and things they liked, packed them into parcels and sent them to Germany. By the order of permanent military commandant’s office, paintings, furniture, carpets for the equipment of the casino and the apartments of German officers were confiscated.

In December 1941, the directorate of the museum received a charter of immunity from the mayor. Thanks to this, the things taken for the casino were partially returned.

The Ashes

View of the ruined Kharkov

In less than a year of occupation, in August 1942, barely half of the pre-war collection — 33.5 thousand works of art — remained in the gallery. Valuable works dispersed into different directions. Except soldiers and officers of the Wehrmacht, the museum was also visited by German artists, art critics, and museum workers. Under their leadership, a systematic robbery of the museum collection enfolded: they snatched the best works of Western European, Russian and Ukrainian art.

Immediately after the announcement of the evacuation of the Nazis from Kharkov, the selected exhibits were taken out by the Headquarters of the Reichsleiter Rosenberg — Nazi organisation engaged in the confiscation and export of cultural property from the occupied countries of Europe.

After the headquarters finished taking out the valuables, the head of the Gestapo appeared in the gallery, took away the keys from the guard, and within a few days the Gestapo took out the exhibits. Only large format paintings, graphics, sculpture, furniture and a library remained, only to be burned down in a fire in August 1943 on the eve of the liberation of Kharkov.

According to the memoirs of the former head of the archival sector of the museum, Svetlana Voloshkina, on August 13, 1943, to the building on the street. A car drove up to Basseinaya street, from which the SS men got out. They doused the house with gasoline and set it on fire. Of the richest repository of art, only the part that was evacuated has survived. Everything that was left in Kharkov during the occupation was looted and burned by the Nazis.

View of the ruined Kharkov

Partially very heavily burnt bronze sculptures have been preserved. For a long time before recently they were considered invalids of the war. A little more than 800 exhibits were opened and returned by Kharkiv residents.

The Phoenix didn’t rise — the Kharkiv Art Museum (ex Ukrainian State Art Gallery) lost about 70,000 exhibits :(

When I came to the museum many years ago, I was shown pre-war inventory books. Until today, I cannot look at these documents without a lump in my throat. The pages of the books are full of stamps “redeemed”, which means that these things are no longer in the museum.
- Valentina Myzgina, director of The Kharkov Art Museum (ex Ukrainian State Art Gallery)

It is almost impossible to return the works to the museum, although there was still hope for the return of the valuables before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In the last month of existence of the USSR, then Minister of Culture, Nikolai Gubenko, gathered a meeting of the heads of museums most affected by war.

In 1943, the Council of People’s Commissars organised an Extraordinary Commission, which was supposed to select archival documents and museum valuables in the liberated territories to “compensate for the losses incurred by the libraries and archives of the Soviet Union”. The special stores were closed, including from Soviet specialists. The Extraordinary Commission exported valuables from Europe, and Ukrainian exhibits were probably in the vaults.

I raised the issue of searching for Ukrainian artefacts in special stores, I was offered to join the committee that would consider special stores. A month later, the Soviet Union was gone, and Russia declared all the valuables on the territory of the Russian Federation its property.
- Valentina Myzgina, director of The Kharkov Art Museum (ex Ukrainian State Art Gallery)

The only return, which was during the years of independence in the Kharkiv Art Museum, is “Etude with a House” by Vasilkovsky. The Kharkov Art Museum was contacted by German police asking for help in identifying an unknown painting, they say, we think it’s yours. Now The Kharkiv Art Museum knows where a few more paintings are stored, but cannot return them.

Etude with a House

One of the exhibits is in France, but according to the laws, the museum does not have the right to demand its return — their law protects private property. The National Museum in Warsaw has a painting that was painted by the artist Myasoedov in Kharkov. It was once bought by Kharkiv University, and the university collection joined the general collection of the Ukrainian State Art Gallery, and now this work is in Poland. The Polish side doesn’t object and recognises the ownership of the exhibit, however, there is an old claim for the archive in Lviv, which the Lviv residents don’t want to return to the Poles, and this bargaining lasts for years.

Ilya Repin ‘Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV’ (1893)

The history always goes in circles. Nobody knows where the best artworks will end up or who the owner is going to be. But hopefully that won’t stop us from enjoying the art.

Don’t forget to sign the artwork...

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