The Curtain Goes Up On Lost Treasures

Last week an unlikely international mob of museum directors, curators, critics and a few wistful heirs to vanished art collections descended on the old capital of czarist Russia, St. Petersburg. They hurried from their elegant hotels to the drafty Hermitage Museum for a no frills preview of the long-awaited and much-debated exhibition "Hidden Treasures Revealed."

The 74 impressionist and postimpressionist paintings on view were, um, relocated from Germany in the wake of World War II and kept under wraps until now. For the opening, the wet gray sky suddenly turned as clear and fresh looking as the paint on the Renoirs, Gauguins and van Goghs in the show. (Paintings, unlike people, can preserve their looks by spending 50 years in an unlighted, secret room.)

In February, the Pushkin Museum in Moscow opened a potpourri of masterpieces looted from Germany called "Twice Saved," and the Hermitage will follow "Hidden Treasures" with more shows of appropriated art, including an exhibition of gold artifacts from ancient Troy taken from a Berlin museum. But because "Hidden Treasures" comprises a fairly coherent body of work from a popular period of art -and because several pictures are revelations indeed-this show (on view through Oct. 29) is the real standard-bearer.

Edgar Degas's "Place de la Concorde" (1875), for instance, constitutes not only the joyful return of a masterpiece once thought destroyed, but a foray into the psychological subtleties of informal composition that anticipated the first snapshot photography by about a dozen years. Degas's friend and subject, the Viscount Lepic-dog breeder, engraver and boulevardier-is clearly enjoying his self absorbed stroll with his precocious little girls. Then there's van Gogh's jewel-like "Landscape With House and Ploughman" (1889), painted almost as an aerial view. Like many 19th-century avantgarde painters. van Gogh was infatuated with the way Japanese prints portrayed deep space with flat shapes, but like only a few (including Degas), he was able to fuse it poetically with modernism. Matisse absorbed the lesson and added to it a new language of color. Notice how, in "Ballerina!' (1927), four simple horizontal hands-green, blue, black and red-turn a flat, sketchy figure into a convincing and stylish seated dancer. That's the show's latest painting; one of the earliest is a wonderly atypical Delacroix still life of zinnias-the great Romantics tended not to be flower painters-called simply "Flowers" (after 1833). The son and daughter of the painting's German owner, Friedrich Siemens, came to the opening in St. Petersburg last week to see what was once in the family collection. Siemens had stashed his art in the basement of Berlin's Pergamon Museum, where Soviet soldiers found it in 1945.

Many Russians, including the Pushkin's director, Irina Antonova, 72, feel that the art from Germany that's still in Russia-an estimated I million works --- should stay put as compensation for the unimaginable destruction and misery inflicted by the Nazis. Others, including Hermitage director Mikhail Piotrovskv, 50, take a somewhat more conciliatory view. "it is the object of a museum to store and care for objects," he said to about 500 international press people crammed into the Hermitage's ornate auditorium before the opening. "Politicians will make resolutions about what will happen to them." Visibly weary of answering the inevitable questions about ownership, he explained that the paintings are, for the time being, the property of the Russian government-not the Hermitage-and that a Russian law prohibits "objects of historical value" from leaving the country.

Meanwhile, "Hidden Treasures" is pumping much-needed cash into the Hermitage. The huge complex of five palaces including the Winter Palace, home of the czars-could use a little sprucing up. The galleries are cold-elderly guards wear layers of sweaters under their green blazers -and labels on Rembrandts are curling off the walls like clearance tags. The floors were newly polished in the galleries for "Hidden Treasures," but the jerry-built walls and light fixtures seemed right out of a 1950s boat show

Raising cash: In 1931 Joseph Stalin raised cash by selling An drew Mellon 21 old masters for less than $7 million. (Mellon later donated them to our National Gallery.) This time, money is coming from an admission price of $8 for foreigners (Russians pay 20 cents), and from the deal with the New York publisher Abrams for the handsome, scbolarly-and surprisingly readable-catalog. The first printing is 85,000 hardcover copies in English (at $49.50) and 15,000 Russian paperbacks ($20.62), with editions in German, French, Italian, Japanese and possibly other languages forthcoming. Although Abrams won't reveal the Hermitage's percentage, the book could earn the museum at least $500,000.

In the long run. "Hidden Treasures" should put St. Petersburg on the art-tourist loop of London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. The critics and TV reporters who came to see what the "Hidden Treasures" clamor was all about also rediscovered the astounding Picassos and Matisses that have been in the Hermitage all along. If the museum can create as much excitement about its longtime collection as it has about the art tucked away for half a century, this won't be the last pilgrimage art lovers make to Russia.