The Museum’s History

The National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus (the State Art Gallery from 1939 till 1957, the State Art Museum from 1957 till 1993) – the largest collection of the Belarusian and foreign art within the country – is located in the centre of Minsk, at Lenin Street, 20. More than twenty seven thousand works of art – creating twenty miscellaneous collections and comprising two main representative ones:  the one of national art and the other of monuments of art of the countries and nations of the world – can be found on exposition, at the branches of the Museum and its depositories.

The Museum’s official history begins on January, 24 in 1939 when under the Resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars of the BSSR the State Art Gallery has been created in Minsk. It was located in the fifteen halls of the Highest Communist Agricultural School’s edifice.

In accordance with a special Resolution, apart from the departments of painting, sculpture and graphics, the Department of Art Industry was set up at the Gallery.

The pre-war period of the Gallery’s operation under the direction of Nikolay Mikholap (1886–1979) – a well-known Belarusian painter-ceramist – was the time of an intensive creation of art collections.

It is surprising how during such a short time so much was done for the accumulation of the museum pieces: the most valuable works of cult art from the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches were removed and registered at the Museum; large funds of painting, graphics as well as decorative and applied arts were collected by the Museum personnel.

The works of art, taken from the departments of fine arts of the historical museums of Minsk, Vitebsk, Mogilev and Gomel, became the foundation of the Gallery’s pictorial collection. A range of art works from their own funds and stocks were presented by the State Tretyakov Gallery and the Russian Museum as well as by the Museum of Fine Arts named after Alexander Pushkin and the State Hermitage Museum. The art works of well-known Russian painters and artists of the Soviet epoch were included into the collection of the new gallery as well.

After the reunification of the West Belarusian lands with the BSSR in September 1939 the works of art from the nationalized homesteads and castles of the Western Belarus, including part of the collection of the Radziwill princes’ Palace in Nesvizh, were brought to the Art Gallery. Thus the Museum came into possession of a rich collection of Slutsk sashes, the 18th century French tapestry and the portrait painting of the 16th – 19th centuries.

At the beginning of 1941 the BSSR State Art Gallery’s funds and stocks had already numbered nearly 2711 art works out of which four hundred were on exhibition. A long-term work on the description and study of each monument as well as on the creation of the museum collection’s catalogue was to be done.

However, such a rich and large collection of the Art Gallery in Minsk was not destined to have a long life. The fate of the whole collection was tragically unfavorable during the first days of the war. In a short time it would disappear without even leaving a trace. The collection was being prepared for the evacuation but the personnel did not manage to rescue it: it was not removed from the Museum. The art collection in Minsk appeared before the conquerors in all its glory: in its full composition as well as safety.

It is known that on the eve of the large-scale hostilities in Europe the Nazi Government has developed a special programme of cultural and art values expropriation in the occupied countries. In accordance with the programme different societies and organizations are being established and on their behalf high ranking specialists travel to different countries as tourists and researchers in order to compile the lists of the most valuable collections and art objects subjecting to expropriation. The registration of values in the Eastern Territories was a task of the General Intervention Organization “Orient”, it also carried out the orders concerning forfeitures.

The events, that took place in Minsk at the State Art Gallery in 1941, show that the Germans have been interested in the collection and it has been ranked as a large and valuable one by them.

The first German units, being the robbers, only slightly bossed the Gallery. Then two very important persons arrived in Minsk – Hans Posse and Cajetan Müllmann. Hans Posse was the Director of the Dresden Gallery and a special representative on the creation of Hitler’s Personal Museum at his native land – in Linz. Cajetan Müllmann was a special representative on the registration of the cultural and art values in the Eastern Territories. In the city there were also representatives of the “Heritage” society, with Himmler at its head. The people – who wanted to seize the collections of Minsk – abounded there, and there was too a strong rivalry among them. According to the documents, the best items of the applied art and pictures were impounded by Hans Posse; valuable collections were sent to the Reich and Königsberg. By September 1941, the collection of the Art Gallery had been almost fully scattered. In the meantime the Gauleiter of Weiss Russland (“Weissrutenia” – at those times Belarus was called like that) Wilhelm Kube complains to Alfred Rosenberg that Minsk has lost millions of art values: “valuable canvases, the furniture of the 18th – 19th centuries, vases, marbles, watches and etc. were given to the Wehrmacht by the “SS” to be plundered”. Many works were taken out of the country in an unknown direction; something remained at the German organizations in Minsk.

The collection of the Art Gallery ceased to exist, and its loss can be called irretrievable. The fate of the pre-war collection of the State Art Gallery has hitherto been unknown. Its search is being complicated by the absence of the inventory – a catalogue of the museum pieces of the pre-war period. In 1944 “The Museum Values Inventory”, taken away by the Hitlerites to Germany and to the countries-accomplices and destructed as a result of their bandit actions” was made by the Museum’s personnel from memory. On the inventory of the Museum there are 223 art works of Russian painting, 32 ones of West-European, the furniture from the “Blue Bedroom” of Alexander II at the Winter Palace, 60 icons of the 16th – 18th centuries, 89 sculptures, 48 Slutsk sashes, 480 articles of Russian porcelain, 800 ones of West-European porcelain, 30 articles of antique Urechye glass, 200 handmade woolen bedspreads (“postilki”) made by Belarusian weavers, hundreds of art works of the Belarusian artists of the late 19th – early 20th centuries.

After the War merely a small part of the works of art was returned, mainly those which before the War had been at the exhibitions in Russia (for instance, Bust of Prince Pyotr Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky made by Fedot Shubin) or which at the end of the War had been found by the Soviet soldiers in the cities of the Eastern Prussia (the collection of the portraits from Nesvizh) as well as in ravaged Minsk (“A Miner with a Light Bulb” by Nikolay Kasatkin, “Autumn” by Isaak Levitan, “Spring’s Morning” by Vladimir Kudrevich, which turned out to have been left by the Fascists in an unfinished building of the CC of the CPB).

The museum staff had to begin anew. The second stage of the Museum’s history is connected with the period of 33 years of a selfless work of Elena Aladova (1907–1986) – an Honoured Art Worker of the BSSR, the Director of the Gallery from 1944 – who before the War had been in charge of the Department of Russian and Belarusian Art. After the liberation of Minsk the Gallery was given four rooms in the House of Trade Unions at the Liberty Square. Thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of not numerous first employees, who worked devotedly and often overtime, the Museum literally “rose from the ashes”. In spite of the postwar devastation, when Minsk lay in ruins, the government of the Republic allocated considerable sums of money for purchasing works of art for the Gallery. It was already in August of 1945 when the canvases by Boris Kustodiev, Vasily Polenov, Karl Briullov and Isaak Levitan were obtained. The Russian museums came to aid again: the State Museum named after Alexander Pushkin transferred several pictures by the West-European masters to the possession of the Gallery, the State Russian Museum – the three landscapes by Arkhip Kuindzhi, a landscape by Aleksey Bogolyubov and a gala portrait of the Empress Catherine II. In the former Hierarchal residence in Minsk – where before the War the Belarusian State Museum had been located – miraculously survived icons were found, including the masterpieces of Belarusian icon painting “Nativity of the Virgin” by Pyotr Evseyevich from Golynets of 1649, “St. Parasceva” and “Ascension” of the 16th century.

In 1946 the funds had already numbered 317 works of art. In November of the following year the permanent exhibition – which occupied five halls on the first floor of the House of Trade Unions – was opened. Although being given extra space, the Gallery was badly in need of extension. The city being still in ruins, Elena Aladova obtained the permission for the construction of a special building for the Gallery. The projecting and designing of the new building was entrusted to a young architect, a veteran of the War – Mikhail Baklanov (1914–1990).

It is possible to judge about the original idea of the architect by the watercolor sketch of 1949. Baklanov realized the project in the traditions of the Russian Empire style – a typical trend of the “triumphal” architecture of the late 1940s – early 1950s. It was expected that the two-storey mansion with a row of semicircular windows and a portico with light pawns would be situated upland at the corner of Lenin and Kirov Streets with its facade towards Ulyanov Street. The broad stairway was to have led to it through the stepped terraces of green lawns. According to the idea of the architect the future Museum should have had a festive holiday-like appearance.

However, the Museum site was transferred to a small area at Lenin Str. with an already formed building. It was decided to renounce the idea of “Palace – Temple of Art” in favour of a stricter and more monumental decision with a massive facade, enriched with the sculptural reliefs and the allegories of “Painting” (by Pyotr Belousov) and “Sculpture” (by Sergey Adashkevich). The pediment is crowned with the sculpture “Glory” by Andrey Bembel. A stately colonnade of the main entrance hall is opened up behind a strict and dignified facade.

The Museum had to wait for the whole eight years to move into the new building. The construction of the Art Gallery with the ten spacious halls, occupying two floors and a large gallery, was finished in 1957. Baklanov’s building became one of the first Museum’s constructions in the history of the Soviet architecture.

The inauguration of the State Art Museum of the BSSR (that was the name of the former Art Gallery since July 10, 1957) was held on the 5th of November in 1957 and it was accompanied by the presentation of a new display and the All-Belarusian Exhibition. In those years the Museum’s collection had already reached the pre-war level and included about three thousand works of Russian, Soviet and Belarusian art.

Elena Aladova was “the moving spirit” of the Museum. She interpreted the revival of the collection as her life work and knocked herself out only to rehabilitate the stolen one.

The majority of the Russian painting funds come from private collections. Following the advice of Igor Grabar, Aleksey Fyodorov-Davydov, the well-known artists – Aleksey and Pavel Korin, Vladimir Favorsky and Pyotr Konchalovsky, Elena Aladova managed to obtain Russian art works of high-class from the private collections of the singer Lidia Ruslanova, the ballet dancer Yekaterina Geltzer, the actor Ivan Moskvin and other well-known collectors from Moscow and Leningrad. The collection of Russian art (more than 5 thousand exhibits) can rival many Russian museums in its completeness and unity.

The period of the 1970s and the early 1980s was a peak of the Museum’s exhibition activity. The collection of the Belarusian modern painting and graphic arts taken from the Museum’s funds travels around the countries of the Socialist Commonwealth. Residents of Minsk, in their turn, get acquainted with the world’s masterpieces at the exhibitions of the West-European art from the collection of Armand Hammer (1973), from the museums of Poland (1974),  with the treasures of the Dresden Gallery, with the art works by Nikolay (Nicholas) Roerich (1975), with the American painting from the museums of the USA (1976) and from the Metropolitan Museum (1978), with a Polish portrait of the 16th – 18th centuries from Polish collections, with the exhibition of a self-portrait in Russian and Soviet art, with the West-European painting from the National Gallery of Prague (1979), and with the lyonese fabrics from the museums of France (1981).

In 1977 the graphic artist Yury Karachun became the Head of the Museum. As the Chairman of the Belarusian Division of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) he made a lot of efforts in preserving of ancient Belarusian monuments as well as in the systematic and complex restoration of the Mir Castle and in its acquiring the status of the Museum’s Branch.

In the future period of twenty years the Museum are developing into a large Museum Complex. Several branches of the Museum are being opened: the District Art Gallery in Guriny near Mozyr (1978), the Museum of Folk Art in Raubichi (1979), the Museum of Vitold Byalynitsky-Birulya in Mogilev (1982), the Architectural Complex of the 16th – 18th centuries in Golshany (1989), and the Palace and Park Complex of the 15th – 20th centuries in Mir (1992).

In the 1980s all the collections are being actively filled up with the museum pieces and are rapidly growing – an old Baklanov’s building cannot anymore provide enough room for them. By sacrificing of the display of modern Belarusian art, the exhibition halls of the first floor have to be adapted for the storages. For lack of the exhibition areas, the Museum is obliged to show just a small part of its collection.

The designing of a new building of the Museum – an outbuilding to the main edifice (the architect V. Belyankin) – had been held since 1985; its construction began in 1993. In 1989 a building at Kirov Street, 25 – where the lecture room, the departments and other services of the Museum were placed all together – was transferred to the Museum.

As a result of the Declaration of Independence of Belarus and right after the collapse of the Soviet Union (the USSR), the Museum’s status and its cultural policy were thoroughly changed: since 1993 the Museum has been called the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus.

In the 1990s the Museum has been a large scientific, cultural and educational centre of Belarus. Since 1994 the Museum has kept its own archive; since 1989 it also houses the restoration workshops with a numerous staff of the restorers – professional specialists in different spheres. The rich library funds of the Museum are being constantly enriched with the latest special-purpose literature.

In 1999 the problems concerning the exhibition areas of the Museum were partly solved: in accordance with the Decree of the President of the Republic the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus came into possession of a neighbouring five-storeyed building at Lenin Str., 22.

In 2000 another one Museum’s branch was opened in Minsk for the audience – “The Vankoviches’ House. Culture and Art of the first half of the 19th century”.

A museum is not only pictures and canvases, but it is also represented by people. It is due to their efforts that new masterpieces are being created, exhibitions are being organized, books and catalogues are being published, and works of art are being preserved, restored and advertised to the public. Nowadays the Museum has a staff of more than two hundred people.

Like any living creature, the Museum is continuously growing by enlarging its funds. The collection of the prerevolutionary Russian and Belarusian, of West-European, of Oriental, and of the Soviet Belarusian art nowadays includes more than 30 thousand works of art.

The Museum has entered the 21st century having excellent prospects of its further development and conversion into the largest exhibition complex in the Republic with a considerable research potential and restoration resources.