The Return. On the Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the Tretyakov Gallery’s Re-opening after World War II

Yelena Terkel

Magazine issue: 
#2 2015 (47)


The museum's staff had been looking forward to this event throughout the war. Everyone believed that the artwork, sent away for safekeeping to the country’s heartland that was untouched directly by the war, would return home together with its custodians. The researcher Natalya Zograf wrote in 1942: "I’m pining for Moscow, first of all - for the Gallery. I’m dreaming about how we will be assembling a new display, working from dawn to dusk... moving and removing individual pieces 30 times in a row. I cannot imagine my life in Moscow without the work at the Gallery."2

Finally, on May 18 1944, the committee for the Arts under the aegis of the council of People’s commissars of the USSR issued a directive: "Every shipment of art museums’ holdings from evacuation must be carried out only with approval from the committee for the Arts under the aegis of the council of People’s commissars of the USSR, and only when a suitable space is made ready to accommodate these holdings"3 By that time the Gallery’s building, damaged by shelling in 1941, was mostly restored.

The letters exchanged between the Gallery’s staff are full of hope: "Well, it appears that soon we’ll meet again in our shared home - the Gallery. On Monday, that is within three days, our bosses are required to submit to the committee a detailed plan for accommodating the arriving delivery in the Gallery. The staff keep groaning and scratching their heads trying to figure out how to handle all this capably. Most of the staff members believe that this return is premature, and the building is not ready for accommodating the shipment. But these concerns are voiced mostly by rank-and-file employees, and will not be heard by the committee. Alexander Ivanovich Zamoshkin is anxious to return - this means that he'll prevail."4 And indeed, the Gallery's director was confident that the issue would be resolved soon. He was responsible for preparing a draft of the new display at the Gallery, to be submitted to the Committee for Arts for approval by October 1. In September the head of the department of 18501917 art, Sophia Goldshtein, wrote to her colleague Olga Lyaskovskaya in Novosibirsk, where the bulk of the museum's collection was temporarily held: "...perhaps when we come the layout of the display will be ready. It would be good if we take the items out of their 'prison cells' immediately upon arrival and show them 'for all the world to wonder at'. And we do have some wonders to show off, don't we?"5

Despite enormous difficulties, Zamoshkin did all he could to prepare competently and thoroughly for the return of the holdings. On September 5 he sent a telegram to Novosibirsk: "Immediately get ready for shipment all evacuated items stop awaiting decision"6. Finally, on October 4 1944, the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR issued Decree No. 1335: the collections of art museums of Moscow and its environs were to be brought back from evacuation. After that, on October 9, the Committee for Arts issued a similar order to have the holdings sent back to Moscow by November 1.

With its collections being returned to where they belonged, the Gallery was now entering a new stage in its life-cycle. On November 1 1944, the museum's administration issued an order: "Because of the arrival in Moscow of the art treasures and the necessity to unload them, the working day on November 2 will start at eight in the morning"7 On that day the Gallery received items returning from Molotov (now Perm). On November 3 a train with the museum's holdings arrived at the Moscow-Tovarnaya (Goods) station from Novosibirsk. According to the waybills, the unloading of three wagons was finished only by November 188, and lorries carrying the bulk of the collection packed in boxes drove into Lavrushinsky Lane. The museum's chief custodian Yelena Silversvan recalled: "Throughout the summer the Gallery was preparing to receive the returned artwork, the entire building was being renovated from top to toe, panes repaired and fitted with glass, etc. And now on a chilly, gloomy rainy day, which seemed to us as one of the most joyful and brightest, the camion with the holdings drove past the Gallery's wide open gate. How happy we were to see again our dearest colleagues and the gallery's artwork. we immediately started unpacking, and work got going in the gallery. There was indeed a lot of very difficult work to do, but the staff’s enthusiasm was equally great."9 Most importantly, all items arrived back home safe and sound. Both the paintings themselves and the dry words of the reports were evidence of this: "The opening of several randomly selected boxes, performed after the arrival of the shipment in the presence of Academician Igor Grabar, demonstrated that the items brought back from evacuation were in good condition. The safety of the items was further confirmed when the boxes were opened systematically and the items unwrapped..."10

Even before the return of the museum's holdings the staff had started developing a plan for the Gallery's new display. The researchers in Moscow and Novosibirsk had drafted their versions, sometimes engaging in debate and arguing over the arrangement of pictures in the rooms. Upon her return home, Zinaida Zonova wrote to Sophia Goldshtein, who remained in Novosibirsk: "My work is not on the right track yet, and in silence I sometimes sketch our future display, carefully guarding the boundaries of the territory assigned to me earlier. Of course, I'm being closely watched by Atsarkina and Arkhangelskaya, who are anxious that I'll submit all this stuff without consulting them. Atsarki- na openly told today that she will persuade Al[exander] Iv[anovich] [Zamoshkin] to authorize her to draft the layout for the Romantics. I know that these efforts are premature and the space is going to be re-allocated in the future, and yet I cannot contain myself. Just recently I recalled how you and I fought over the 11th room."11 The new layout for the display was to be ready by October 1. The report shows that by that date the staff had only begun to "define borders within the display between different eras and develop general principles for the new display"12. It should be noted that during the war the Gallery had received 1,015 new pieces (167 paintings, 55 sculptures, 792 drawings, one icon)13, and some of these acquisitions were to be included in the display rooms.

Most of the work on the new display took place after the return of the museum's collection and researchers from evacuation. The Gallery's director Zamoshkin and his deputy for research German Zhidkov remarked: "The layout and the model we prepared are designed to accommodate a display showcasing Russian art as it developed. Walking from one room to another, the visitor to the Gallery will see how one era in the historical evolution of our artistic culture was replaced by another. Viewers will have an opportunity to see artistic images capturing many centuries' worth of the people's life, which brought into being particular public symbols and ideas driving this or that stage of the development of the arts."14

By the end of 1944 the plan of the display was ready. It was decided to assign the second floor to the period from old Russian art to Vasily Surikov and Ilya Repin; the first floor was to accommodate the rest of the collection, "from drawings created since 1850 and Mark Antokolsky's works, to modern Soviet art"15. The new display significantly differed from all previous ones in terms of the arrangement of pictures on the wall - they would now be sparsely hung. This method was first tested in the Tretyakov Gallery during wartime at a Repin exhibition in the summer of 1944. Considered bold and unusual, this arrangement caused surprise. The researcher Zinaida Zonova wrote at the time: "The arrangement was praised by some, scorned by others. We were praised because the arrangement had an international look - some partition walls featured one piece, big walls - three pieces. We were scorned because some pieces had a strong looking-glass effect - even a steep incline did not help the matter... The general impression from the exhibition is a positive one, it was praised for cultural refinement and severity."16

The success of the Repin exhibition and the generally positive opinions about the arrangement of the pictures enabled the Gallery's management to apply a similar solution to the museum's display in its entirety. One can judge the result achieved from the reaction of Pavel Tretyakov's granddaughter Marina Nikolaievna Gritsenko, who noted after the ceremony of the Gallery's opening: "And the arrangement of pictures - mostly positive - a sparse one, highlighting (in contrast to the previous one) every painting, helps to create a festive mood at the display! The paints are quite good as well, with the exception of the green in the icons rooms, which is too intense and in some cases kills the originals. But how superbly beautiful - that is not the word for it - Rublev is! The paintings look and feel unfamiliar. After an absence of four years - and most importantly, after all that has been experienced and left a mark on the soul during all these years - things appear different, you re-evaluate things even though you're not aware of it yet. And the arrangement of pictures encourages that. See how Serov looks now - never before have 'Verushka' and 'Girl in the Sunlight' been showed off so wonderfully17. In the small rooms, with lateral illumination they are in a 'private viewing' environment, which focuses attention on every piece. The Serov is now 'concentrated' and does not become blurred the way it had previously in the big rooms. How magnificent are Vrubel's colours! The very intensity of this larger-than-life colour scheme!. Vereshchagin looks brilliant - he has never looked that way. But when you proceed to Surikov after him, you become disappointed since he looks lacklustre, somewhat faded. Only now do I understand Vereshchagin's popularity in the last century and Pavel [Tretyakov's] interest in him!"18 Not all arrangements were equally felicitous, but one must admit that it was a step forward rather than a repetition of the past.

Another distinctive feature of the new display was an expanded section of sculpture and drawings. Fyodor Shubin's statues were placed in the room where the walls were adorned with 18th-century drawings; a separate room was allocated for Mark Antokolsky's works. Igor Grabar noted, "In previous displays there were not so many rooms dedicated exclusively to one artist, and [the large number of such rooms in the new layout] should be acknowledged as one of its great virtues."19

Initially it was planned to open the Gallery by February 2320 but the museum was unable to have everything finished by that date.21 A huge number of paintings had to be unpacked and put into frames, while some works were in renovation. Mounting such large pieces as Alexander Ivanov's "The Appearance of Christ before the People", Vasily's Surikov "Boyarynya Morozova" and Mark Antokolsky's "Ivan the Terrible" also required a great deal of effort. Everyone worked with great enthusiasm, and the researcher Yelena Kamenskaya later reminisced: "Moscow led a life full of excitement and joy. The Gallery was grappling with the problems posed by the new display, and examined and stabilized the artwork returned from Novosibirsk. There was a real enthusiasm for work and academic exploration, the awakening of creativity."22 By mid-May everything was ready for the Gallery's opening.

On May 17 1945, the treasury of Russian art opened its doors wide open, with rooms adorned with flowers, foliage and carpets. Invitations had been sent out to prominent academicians, artists, writers, as well as diplomats and war heroes. At one o'clock in the afternoon in the Surikov room the opening ceremony began. Many of those attending spoke warmly about the Tretyakov Gallery, while Zamoshkin was able to speak on behalf of the entire staff: "The years of the Great Patriotic War made us take a fresh look at many things in our past, to do much reconsidering, to gain a deeper understanding than before. This applies to many aspects of our life, including, of course, art... Creating the layout and models of the new display we took into account the place occupied by the Gallery in our country's cultural life. The Russians' great artistic legacy, represented by the Gallery's masterpieces, which are now becoming newly available for study, should play an exclusive role in the development of our Soviet art, which now faces extraordinarily important challenges resulting from the events that have taken place in the recent heroic years."23

Everyone was elated. Marina Gritsenko wrote in her diaries: "The real, the first definitive confirmation experienced sharply, the material evidence of the demarcation line between war and peace - the Gallery's opening!!! How especially festive-looking, how beautiful it is now!. On the first day when the Gallery opened - that day was sunny and fair - everything in the Gallery was shining. It was solemnly beautiful! On the staircase, instead of Merkurov's [statue of] Stalin, destroyed by the shelling24, stands on the landing, amidst greenery and flowers, the bust of Pavel Mikhailovich [Tretyakov]. I thought he must have been feeling gratified - of course, not by the fact that his portrait was put up for viewing with so much pomp, but by the love the members of the Gallery's staff (and they alone!) poured on his brainchild and his life's work."25

The Gallery employees were happy indeed. Their selfless commitment to their work had preserved the unique collection of Russian art in wartime, and they took a special joy in the celebration. Vera Rumyantseva reminisced: "And that day came. On May 17 1945, eight days after peace was announced, the Gallery again opened its door to the people... On the opening day we, employees who were on duty in the rooms and welcomed our first visitors, were approached by unfamiliar people who embraced and congratulated us on our shared festival."26

The love and self-sacrifice of the museum's employees had literally saved the art treasures during the difficult war years, preserving them so that everyone could admire this beautiful Russian art. The first page of the Gallery's comments book carries remarks from representatives of the American diplomatic corps: Louise Hopkins (the wife of Harry Hopkins, who met with Stalin to prepare the peace conference) and Kathleen Harriman (daughter of W. Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union), who talked in superlative terms about the Russian art collection27. Responses to the much-awaited event came from all over the world. Nicholas Roerich wrote from far-away America: "To mark the opening of the Tretyakov Gallery, I send my cordial greetings to my artist friends and all who heroically guarded the people's great treasury. May Russian art flourish!"28

On the day after the opening the Gallery was flooded with visitors. First it closed at five in the evening, and then, from July onwards, at seven. People were queuing, and the stream of visitors never stopped. The first post-war comments book is filled with words of heartfelt gratitude to all those who had preserved the unique collection of Russian art: "Looking at the pictures, you feel as if you are meeting with good old friends from the blissful pre-war period, and at the same time you realize that since the Gallery is open we have left the awful times behind, and won. I wish to express on behalf of our group gratitude to the Tretyakov Gallery's staff for keeping safe the cultural treasures and resuming their work."29

  1. About the Tretyakov Gallery's activities during the WWII, see the following: "The Tretyakov Gallery and Its Staff during the War (1941-1945). Photocopy edition. Moscow: 1975; Druzhinin, S. "In the Days of War and Victory (from S. Druzhinin's'Memoirs')" //"Iskusst- vo" (Art) magazine. 1980. No. 5. Pp. 43-46; Konchin, Ye. 'The Ordeal. The Tretyakov Gallery during the War' // "Sovetsky muzei" (Soviet Museum) magazine. 1984. No. 5. Pp. 30-37; Polishchuk, Ye. 'The Tretyakov Gallery during the Great Patriotic War' // "Iskusstvo" (Art) magazine. 1985. No. 5. Pp. 38-41; Kaftanova, T.'The Way It Was. The Tretyakov Gallery during the Great Patriotic War' //"Tretyakov Gallery Magazine". 2005. No. 2. Pp. 60-73; Buyanova, N., Valova, M., Zhukova, L. 'The Evacuees. From the Collection of the Tretyakov Gallery's Department of Manuscripts' //"The Museum Front of the Great Patriotic War". Moscow: 2014. Pp. 310-318.
  2. Natalia Zograf's letter to Olga Lyaskovskaya, May 16 1942. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 183. Item 42. Sheet 4.
  3. Directive No. 34 of the Committee for the Arts under the aegis of the Council of People's Commissars of the USSR. A copy. May 18 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8. II. Item 264. Sheet 1.
  4. Zinaida Zonova's letter to Sophia Goldshtein, August 11 [1944]. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 161. Item 104. Sheet 1.
  5. Sophia Goldshtein's letter to Olga Lyaskovskaya, September 10 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 183. Item 35. Sheet 39-39 reverse.
  6. Correspondence with the Tretyakov Gallery's affiliate in Novosibirsk: 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.I (1944). Item 6. Sheet 61.
  7. The Tretyakov management's orders issued in 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.I (1944). Item 1. Sheet 168.
  8. Waybills for the Tretyakov Gallery's shipment when the collection was brought back to Moscow from evacuation. November 3-18 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.IV. Item 208. Sheet 1-6.
  9. Silversvan, Ye. "Memoirs about how the Tretyakov Gallery Worked during the Great Patriotic War". (1965). Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 72. Sheet 4.
  10. Tretyakov Gallery Annual Report: 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 21. Sheet 1.
  11. Zinaida Zonova's letter to Sophia Goldshtein, August 22 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 161. Item 105. Sheet 1 reverse.
  12. Tretyakov Gallery Annual Report: 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 21. Sheet 4.
  13. Silversvan, Ye. "Art acquired during the war: a reference sheet". April 21 1945. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 21. Sheet 51.
  14. Zamoshkin, A., Zhizhkov, G."A brief article about the new display at the Tretyakov Gallery". (1945). Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II (1945). Item 25. Sheet 3.
  15. Tretyakov Gallery Annual Report: 1944. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 21. Sheet 4.
  16. Zinaida Zonova's letter to Sophia Goldshtein, August 11 [1944]. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 161. Item 104. Sheet 2-2 reverse.
  17. The pictures in question are Valentin Serov's "Girl with Peaches" (1887) and "Girl in the Sunlight" (1888).
  18. Gritsenko, M. "Wartime Diaries". Notebook 10. March 10-July 5 1945. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 125. Item 99. Sheet 132-133.
  19. Grabar, Igor.'The Celebration of Russian Art'. In:"Trud" (Labour) newspaper. May 18.
  20. See: S. Pronin's letter to the director of the 4th State Photofactory, January 5 1945. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 9. Sheet 6.
  21. See: Verbatim record of the meeting of the Tretyakov Gallery Academic Council. December 15 [1944]. Russian State Archive of Literature and Arts. Fund 2322.
  22. Kamenskaya, Ye. "Memoirs". Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 221. Item 1. Sheet 67.
  23. Zamoshkin, A., Zhidkov, G."Notes about the new display at the Tretyakov Gallery" (1945). Fund 8.II. Item 25. Sheets 1, 12.
  24. In August 1941 bombs destroyed the main entrance to the Gallery and the main staircase, which was adorned with the gypsum statue of Stalin by Sergei Merkurov. This was the only piece from the Gallery's collection to have been destroyed during the war.
  25. Gritsenko, M. "Wartime Diaries". Notebook 10. March 10-July 5 1945. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 125. Item 99. Sheets 132,133-133 reverse.
  26. Rumyantseva, V. May 17 1945 (1965). Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 71. Sheet 1.
  27. Tretyakov Gallery Comments Book. 1945-1949. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 12. Sheet 1.
  28. Nicholas Roerich's letter to Igor Grabar, May 8 1945. In: Roerich, Nicholas."Literary Works". Moscow: 1974. P. 409.
  29. Tretyakov Gallery Comments Book. 1945-1949. Department of Manuscripts, Tretyakov Gallery. Fund 8.II. Item 12. Sheet 2 reverse.





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