Last week saw the return to Berlin of the gouache 'Aschermittwochmorgen’ (Ash Wednesday Morning) by Adolph von Menzel, the most revered and popular German artist in the second half of the 19th century. The work was previously thought lost as a result of the Second World War. Several years ago, its existence in the Lithuanian Museum of Art in Vilnius was brought to the attention of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, its rightful owners. Following a restitution case, the Vilnius district court has now acknowledged the work as the property of the Stiftung of Preussischer Kulturbesitz.
In a statement, Hermann Parzinger, President of the SPK, said: 'It heartens me that we have been successful, again and again, in recovering some of our works lost in the war. The Menzel work is now undergoing conservation treatment before being placed on public view at the Kupferstichkabinett in Berlin once again.’
The watercolour and gouache on brown paper entitled 'Ash Wednesday Morning’ dates from 1885 and was purchased for the Berlin museums directly from the artist himself, in the same year that it was made. Together with thousands of other objects from the collections, it was 'evacuated’ in the Second World War and placed into storage to safeguard it against air raids. In the last year of the war, from March 1944, 'Ash Wednesday Morning’ was kept in the basement of the Reichsbank headquarters in Berlin (Mitte) and was declared lost in 1945/46.
As long ago as the Cold War, vague indications of its possible whereabouts in Lithuania were made to East-German officials. A renewed tip-off to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin led to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz (the administrative organization that oversees it) initiating negotiations for its return, first on a curatorial and directorial level with museum counterparts, then via the German Foreign Office. The Lithuanian museum filed suit to try to prevent the work from leaving the country under a Lithuanian law for the 'protection of movable cultural property’, however the judge did not rule in its favour. It still remains unclear how the work ended up in the Lithuanian Art Museum in the first place.
'Ash Wednesday Morning’ is one of the few city views that Menzel ever made and one of his most important gouaches. The work depicts a scene on Hildebrandstraße near the Tiergarten and is rendered in unusual perspective. Its alternative title is 'Ash Wednesday - the Street after Carnival’. The bold use of perspective and muted palette make it one of the artist’s more striking works from his late period. The gouache is also important from a historical perspective, as it documents the architecture of a street that was utterly devastated in the Second World War. Menzel’s depiction is of Hildebrandstraße, a private street in the borough of Tiergarten, not far from where the Kulturforum stands today. The magnificent buildings dating from the late 19th century were virtually all destroyed in the aerial bombardment, by which time the Carnival festivities also alluded to in the gouache had long become a thing of the past.
The work was originally part of the Menzel Collection, which was systematically built up by the Kupferstichkabinett and Nationalgalerie in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With some 7000 sheets, it is the largest collection of the artist’s works in the world today. In 1993 the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin split the collection up into paintings on canvas (Alte Nationalgalerie), and works on paper, including oil sketches, pastels, watercolours, drawings, and prints (Kupferstichkabinett), so as to better coordinate the works’ conservation.