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Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung finances restoration of significant, war-damaged artworks for the Bode Museum

11.04.2018
Bode-Museum

The Staatliche Museen’s Skulpturensammlung and the Museum für Byzantinische Kunst are currently restoring 59 works of art, including numerous Renaissance sculptures and reliefs. These artworks are among the objects that were transferred during World War II from the Museum Island to the Friedrichshain flak tower (an anti-aircraft blockhouse), where they were severely damaged. Now, the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung – within the framework of the KUNST AUF LAGER funding programme – is making a major contribution to enabling the restoration of these works and the implementation of several research projects.

In May 1945, two devastating fires in the Friedrichshain flak tower destroyed sizable parts of the Berlin museum collections that had been stored there for safekeeping. Over 430 paintings from the Gemäldegalerie fell victim to the flames, along with numerous classical and post-classical sculptures, ceramics, ivory carvings, tapestries, and works in gold. A large number of the surviving works – most of them damaged or preserved only in parts – were moved to the former Soviet Union by Russian trophy brigades. Between 1958 and 1959, as part of a major restitution campaign involving roughly 1.5 million works of art, some of these holdings were returned to (East) Berlin. Only then were the Berlin museums able to undertake emergency treatments to safeguard the works, using, often experimentally, the cleaning and conservation methods and materials of the 1950s – with the result that to this day, 73 years after the end of the war, they are still not fit for exhibition.

Thanks to the generous support of the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, a comprehensive restoration project was launched in 2017 to restore the holdings of the Bode Museum that are marked by traces of the fires and the dramatic events that unfolded both during and immediately after the war. Appropriate treatments are being developed and implemented within the framework of the KUNST AUF LAGER initiative, including conservation of original material and restorations/reconstructions of damages or losses.

Selected works from the restoration project

Fifty-nine artworks that were damaged during and/or after the war – including fragments of Carolingian ivory, fragile Coptic gold glasses, and an icon, as well as textiles and leather goods – are currently being conserved and restored in the storerooms and restoration studios.

Donatello’s Virgin and Child with Four Cherubs

Among the mostly Italian Renaissance sculptures and reliefs are masterworks such as Donatello’s originally polychromed terracotta Virgin and Child with Four Cherubs. The original mount and frame, however, were lost in the fire and the iron dowels, which were subsequently added in a makeshift attempt to secure the relief, are at risk of causing fissures as a result of corrosion.

Tullio Lombardo’s Shield-Bearers

Tullio Lombardo’s Shield-Bearers, which originally adorned the tomb of Doge Andrea Vendramin in the Venetian church of Santa Maria dei Servi, have been part of the Berlin collection since 1841. The fires of 1945 left the figures in such a precarious condition that they can no longer bear their own weight; to this day, they must be stored on their sides. The plan is to stabilize the marble through appropriate conservation treatments and, with the help of retaining and support structures, make it possible to display the fragments upright again.

The terracotta Trinity

Up until World War II, a terracotta Trinity was known as a masterpiece of the 15th-century School of Ferrara. While being transported after the war, the work was gravely damaged; it has not left the storeroom since 1958. As a result, many scholars erroneously assume that it was destroyed in 1945. The goal of the restoration is to reassemble the individual parts and fragments into a whole. 

KUNST AUF LAGER

Funding for these elaborate restorations is taking place within the framework of the ‘Kunst auf Lager’ initiative, which kicked off in February 2014 as an alliance for the indexing and safeguarding of artworks in storage. The focus is on museum collections, from the challenges presented by their preservation to the opportunities they open up. The initiative has enabled the implementation of urgently needed restoration and conservation treatments, improvements in storage conditions, and the investigation of rediscovered works. Exhibitions, catalogues, and online presentations have been successful in generating new interest.

Fourteen private and public institutions are taking part in the initiative: the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung, the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, the Kulturstiftung der Länder, the Freundeskreis der Kulturstiftung der Länder, the Niedersächsische Sparkassenstiftung, the Richard Borek Stiftung, the Rudolf August Oetker Stiftung, the Stiftung Niedersachsen, the VGH-Stiftung, the VolkswagenStiftung, the Wüstenrot Stiftung, the ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF).

More information at www.kunst-auf-lager.de.