Speech by Minister of State for Europe Michael Roth at the opening of the Gotha exhibition of French masterpieces from Russia
-- Translation of advance text --
When preparing for this event, my mind was drawn to two questions in particular: Are art exhibitions like this one here in Gotha really a continuation of politics by other means? And can we learn anything for today from the art of bygone times?
Our relationship with Russia is currently experiencing some turbulence. Trust in Russia has been eroded by the illegal annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, the measures taken to suppress criticism and the barbaric attacks on homosexuals in Chechnya. But it’s also clear that we are ready to reach out to each other again as soon as there is a basis on which to do so. We need each other. Especially now. The world yearns for greater peace, stability and security. But that we can only deliver if we work together.
In the midst of these political difficulties, this wonderful art exhibition gives us the chance to focus on a long‑standing trust‑based German-Russian partnership – the collaboration between the Friedenstein Castle Foundation in Gotha and the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. This collaboration has not only made it possible for some of the French masterpieces on display here to be shown for the first time outside of Russia, but last year it also resulted in a Cranach exhibition in Moscow, which brought together works from Gotha’s Cranach collection with pieces that had been removed at the end of the Second World War. It was the first such exhibition ever to be held in Moscow or elsewhere and it met with overwhelming interest.
For Germany and Russia alike, the loss of cultural property has been a painful wound in our cultural identity. At the opening of the Moscow exhibition you, Professor Shvydkoy, expressed your hope that such joint projects would prepare the ground for talking about more difficult issues. I can only endorse this hope!
Yesterday, Cranach in Moscow – and today French masterpieces in Gotha. Both exhibitions are part of our endeavour to keep the dialogue between us alive in these politically strained times. Let us counteract this growing alienation first and foremost by strengthening and revitalising civil society exchange. Art and culture create human relationships. They help us understand each other better. They aren’t the cherry on the cake but the yeast in the dough.
For this reason, too, “inspiring people” is the slogan of our cultural relations and education policy. We want to inspire people across borders – for example through our numerous fellowship and residency programmes and our youth exchange programmes. Our cultural relations and education policy does not avert its eyes from critical social issues. Far from it. It takes sides. It takes the side of humanity, respect, diversity and artistic freedom. We want to be diverse without fear. Everywhere.
Only by meeting and exchanging ideas with other people can we create an environment that provides the scope for intellectual flexibility and development, fosters understanding and empathy, and breaks down prejudices. It is the job of cultural relations to create space for intellectual exchange and for the forming of emotional bonds. That’s what this project in Gotha is about as well.
It is the lifeblood of our societies. Culture has always been and will remain a “motor” of social processes. It is with this in mind that we also support projects to expand civil society exchange with Russia and eastern European countries.
We should also take the contemplation of art as an opportunity to see things from another perspective. That can certainly be of particular advantage in politics. As Paul Klee said in 1920, art does not reproduce what we see; rather it makes us see. Art is thus also a mirror of its time. Portraits have assumed a central place both in the Cranach exhibition in Moscow and in this show of French masterpieces in Gotha. In the 15th century, the genre of portraiture was becoming fashionable in the Italian city states, but it was still revolutionary. It put the individual in the focus of art and politics.
But portraits also remained a depiction of power, dominion, and political or economic importance, as was brought home to us by Cranach in particular with his many portraits of Luther.
Martin Luther and his wife Katharina von Bora were the first commoners in Germany to be painted in this style. To hang pictures of them on your own four walls was a courageous sign of support for the Reformation. Portraits from the Cranach workshop thus played a similarly central role in the success of the Reformation as Gutenberg’s printing press had done 50 years earlier. This development has been shown to great effect in the two major exhibitions in the United States which the Federal Foreign Office has helped fund. Interest was huge.
The German Cultural Forum for Eastern Europe is currently responsible for a total of seven touring exhibitions which show just what far‑reaching political, religious and social effects the Reformation had in eastern Europe and even in Russia.
The French masters on show here – like Cranach many years before them – produced works commissioned by aristocrats at their courts, and so continued the tradition of portrait painting. However, their paintings also reveal how, following the Reformation and the rise of Absolutism in European capitals from Paris to Moscow in the 16th to 18th centuries, even more emphasis was laid on symbols of power.
What we see here today is thus in a sense the passion for art and collecting of a powerful pan‑European aristocratic elite. They defined themselves primarily through their noble lineage and their claims of dominion, and far less through their language or culture or that of their subjects.
For example, the exhibition includes portraits by François‑Lois Drouais and Jean‑Marc Nattier of Princess Ekaterina Golitsyna and Prince Dimitri Golitsyn. Their close relative, Princess Natalya Golitsyna, had a great fondness for card games and was the inspiration for Pushkin’s eponymous figure “The Queen of Spades” in the short story published in 1834, when she was still alive.
In the story, Hermann’s avarice leads to his betrayal of his beloved and the death of the Queen of Spades, but he is intoxicated by his belief in the magic power he has thereby gained which will guarantee that he triumphs in any card game. But then he makes a mistake at the crucial moment – and loses everything.
What a warning this is to the rulers and chancers of the modern world with their inflated egos! Especially since the Prince Golitsyn pictured in the portrait played a key role in the negotiations on the first partition of Poland. He embodies the aristocratic imperial ambitions of his time.
The artworks however also presage the fundamental shift which saw the decline of the noble houses of Europe in the second half of the 19th century and ushered in the age of nation states based on liberal or conservative values.
The aforementioned Prince Golitsyn is also remembered for founding Golitsyn Hospital in Moscow with his own money, and for leaving a large part of his inheritance to the institution.
Later on, members of the Golitsyn family and, from 1828 to 1853, the German doctor Friedrich Haas, known as the “holy doctor of Moscow”, worked in this very hospital. They worked together to humanise Russia’s penal system. The Golitsyn portrait thus also depicts one of the first protagonists of fledgling civil society engagement and an enabler of German-Russian cooperation. It is thus of unexpected relevance to us today! What a role model! And what a contrast to Golitsyn’s role in the partition of Poland.
In the early 20th century, irresponsible aristocratic elites and aggressive nationalism drew Europe into the cataclysm of the First World War. The deaths and deprivations this entailed swept the German and Russian royal families from the political stage, paving the way for the Russian Revolution of February-March and October-November 1917, and the November Revolution of 1918 and the creation of the Weimar Republic.
Konstantin Stanislavski, who co‑founded the Moscow Art Theatre company in 1898, once said: “Love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art!” In an era when digitally filtered selfies are “advancing” portrait art in a highly ambivalent manner, questions about the place humans assume in society, in a world shaped by advancing globalisation and digitalisation, are still very topical. Portraiture remains a mirror of its time. Today, as it was in Cranach’s time.
A big thank you to the organisers of today’s exhibition! I wish all those active in the Russian-German dialogue on art and culture all the best – may you have lots of good ideas and pursue meaningful projects. Dialogue not speechlessness, exchange not isolation, inspiration not desolation, freedom not oppression, courage not resignation – that’s what I wish for us all. And so – to get back to my two initial questions – this art exhibition is political in nature. And we can indeed learn something from it if we open our minds to it.