上個月，不來梅藝術館的執行長Christoph Grunenberg告訴我，他仍然希望Starry Night以及其他遺失的畫作“最終將返回不來梅 – 或者至少可以展示”。
1992年我在聖彼得堡看到了《星夜》素描，當時我是第一個對梵谷產生興趣的人，然後才是“觀察家報”的記者。我追蹤在戰爭期間被掠奪的那些藝術品，而這個問題當時剛剛開始引起國際關注。其中最大的損失是1,700張的素描，以及數千張屬於不萊梅藝術館的版畫，這些作品當時被撤離到一個偏遠的城堡 – 然後就消失了。
到1992年，有一些未經證實的謠言說，一些重要的不來梅作品被保管在國家冬宮博物館的保險庫中。我前往聖彼得堡會見了剛接任館長的Piotrovsky。我想知道那些作品是否被完好保存，並認為最好的策略是要求只看一件 – 所以我選擇了星夜。
巴爾丁把364張素描 – 包括星夜 – 裝進了他的小手提箱裡。幾天後，他的組織被納粹俘虜並以“叛徒”的罪名強迫他們行軍。這些不幸的人被迫走了一千多公里回到蘇聯。憔悴疲憊的男人步履蹣跚，帶著他們微薄的財產而不知道他們最終的命運。巴爾丁跟在拖拉機後面，連睡著的時候也將珍貴行李箱緊緊地抱在他身邊。
巴爾丁將這些素描留在家中三年，然後將它們交給俄羅斯建築博物館，他也開始在那裡擔任策展人。他認為脆弱的藝術品應該由博物館照顧。到1963年，當巴爾丁晉升為博物館館長時，他認為素描應該歸還不來梅 – 但這在冷戰期間是不可能的。
之後共產主義開始動搖，在1991年的不確定時期，克格勃安全機構下令將素描秘密地從建築博物館搬到冬宮。當我在1992年遇見Mikhail Piotrovsky時，他告訴我計劃展出這批巴爾丁搶救的素描，並在當年末在莫斯科展出。 Piotrovsky當他接任執行長時，對於被藏在博物館?的德國藝術品感到非常生氣，他認為藝術應該與世界分享。因此才將它們公開展示。
在我1992年訪問莫斯科期間，我問文化大臣Tatyana Nikitina應該對不來梅的作品做些什麼。她回應說：「我們必須把它們還給他們。」不來梅藝術館試圖確保這些作品的歸還，並進行了漫長的談判，但俄羅斯政府最終阻止了一切。 2005年，一位新的文化部長反對返還。之後Piotrovsky被命令將素描作品交給文化部。
Starry Night is held by Russian government / Martin Bailey
Van Gogh drawing had been folded in half in 1945 to fit inside a suitcase
As the first outsider to see Van Gogh’s looted drawing of Starry Night I was initially horrified to find a crease down the middle. When I discovered the reason I was relieved: the large drawing had been neatly folded in half to fit inside a suitcase—almost certainly saving it from destruction.
Vincent had made the drawing in 1889 in the asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole to send to Theo in Paris, to give his brother an idea of his painting of Starry Night, which he had just completed. The painting of the swirling night sky is now among the greatest treasures ofNew York’s Museum of Modern
The drawing done for Theo had been donated to the Kunsthalle Bremen in 1918, but it was lost during the chaos of the Second World War. It was seized at a German castle by Victor Baldin, a Red Army officer who took it back to the Soviet Union on a tractor. For decades it remained hidden away and was recorded in the Van Gogh catalogue raisonné as “lost”. I can report that it is now almost certainly in a secret Russian government storage facility in Moscow.
Last month the director of the Kunsthalle, Christoph Grunenberg, told me that he still hopes that Starry Night and the rest of the gallery’s missing drawings “will eventually return to Bremen—or at least be available for display”.
Tracking down the loot
I saw the Starry Night drawing in St Petersburg in 1992, when I was first developing an interest in Van Gogh. Then a reporter for The Observer, I was on the trail of artworks looted during the war, an issue which was just beginning to gain international attention. Among the largest losses were 1,700 drawings and several thousand prints belonging the Kunsthalle Bremen which had been evacuated to a remote castle—and then disappeared.
By 1992 there were unconfirmed rumours that some of the most important Bremen works were secreted away in the vaults of the State Hermitage Museum. I travelled to St Petersburg to meet Mikhail Piotrovsky, who had just taken over as the director. I wanted to discover whether they had been saved and thought the best tactic would be to ask to see just one—so I chose Starry Night.
From his tapestry-lined office Piotrovsky escorted me to the Hall of Twelve Columns, then closed to visitors. We ascended to its mezzanine, where after much clanging of keys a portfolio was brought out. Van Gogh’s Starry Night was then extracted and placed on a stand.
I shall never forget that moment—coming up close to a “lost” Van Gogh (and one that had never been reproduced in colour). Many of Van Gogh’s ink drawings are now badly faded, but this one had survived relatively well, since it had not been exposed to light for decades. But what disturbed me was the vertical fold down the centre of the drawing, which had left a 2-centimetre tear at the bottom.
Meeting the rescuer
On the same trip I travelled to Moscow to meet Baldin, then aged 72 (he died in 1997). In his modest apartment, he recounted his story. Although Baldin might first appear to have been a looter, it became apparent that his motive in taking and caring for the Bremen drawings ended up being altruistic.
On 5 July 1945 Baldin had been stationed at Schloss Karnzow (80 kilometres outside Berlin) when his fellow Red Army troops moved a wardrobe and discovered behind it a bricked-up doorway. After this was opened up, stairs led below to a cellar. Baldin joined the throng who rushed downstairs, where he found his comrades tearing open boxes of drawings, their contents spilling onto the stone floor. These were the thousands of Bremen drawings which had been evacuated to save them from Allied bombing. He hastily grabbed what he could, in a desperate effort to rescue them. Most of the rest of the collection seems to have disappeared, although a few works later turned up and had been returned to Bremen.
Baldin packed 364 drawings—including Starry Night—into his modest suitcase. A few days later he was put in charge of organising a forced march of Red Army “traitors” who had been captured by the Nazis and coerced into fighting for Germany. These unfortunate men were made to walk more than a thousand kilometres back to the Soviet Union. The emaciated and exhausted men plodded on foot, carrying their meagre possessions and unaware their ultimate fate. Baldin followed behind on a tractor, his precious suitcase hugged close to him as he slept.
When Baldin eventually reached his home in Zagorsk he unlocked the suitcase for the first time. “I just couldn’t believe what I had,” he told me. Along with the Van Gogh were works by Dürer, Veronese, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec.
Baldin kept the drawings at home for three years and then handed them over to the Museum of Russian Architecture, where he worked as a young curator. He felt that the fragile artworks should be looked after by a museum. By 1963, when Baldin was promoted to be the museum’s director, he thought the drawings ought be returned to Bremen—but this would have been impossible during the Cold War.
Languishing in store
Communism began to falter and in the uncertain days of 1991 the KGB security agency ordered that the drawings should be secretly moved from the architectural museum to the Hermitage. When I met Piotrovsky in 1992 he told me of plans to exhibit the Baldin drawings and there was a display later that year and then in Moscow. Piotrovsky had been furious to learn when he took over as director that artworks from Germany were being held in the museum’s secret store, feeling that art should be shared with the world. The short displays were his response.
During my 1992 visit to Moscow, I asked Tatyana Nikitina, the culture minister, what should happen to the Bremen drawings. She responded: “We have to give them back.” The Bremen Kunsthalle tried to secure the return of the drawings and there were lengthy negotiations, but any move was eventually blocked by the Russian government. In 2005 a new culture minister opposed restitution. Piotrovsky was then ordered to hand over the drawings to the Ministry of Culture.
To this day the Russian government still holds the collection at a secret location, believed to be a storage facility somewhere in Moscow. Van Gogh’s drawing of Starry Night continues to languish unseen—yet one more victim of the Second World War.丨