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Leisure: A Sleeping Beauty Awakes

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

She lies nude and asleep upon draperies of red and white, one arm coiled around her head. A small cluster of buildings is in the distance, but she has chosen to nap here, in the open, under a cloudy blue sky. She appears divine, as she should; she is Venus, the goddess of love. Her vaunted status lends her the confidence to sleep outdoors undisturbed, and indeed, the hilly, tree-dotted landscape that stretches behind her is free of interlopers.

 

Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus has dreamed for almost five centuries, most of which she has spent in Dresden, Germany, in the heart of the Saxony region on the banks of the River Elbe. The goddess slept through the city’s 18th-century golden age, when Augustus II, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, and the son who succeeded him, Augustus III, collected the artworks and objects that would forge Dresden’s reputation and earn it the nickname “Florence on the Elbe.” Venus lay still as Goethe gazed upon her, and countless artists sketched her contours. She escaped the fires that engulfed Dresden at the end of World War II, and then endured abduction to the Soviet Union and a return, 10 years later, to what had become East Germany. She dozed through the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. And she survived the floods that threatened Dresden in August 2002.

While Venus sleeps eternally, the city is at last stirring, finally recovering from the wartime devastation after decades of communist rule. Now Dresden is readying to remind the world of its charms and reclaim its position as a cultural rival to Florence. In the United States, this message is being conveyed through a major exhibit of artworks and objects, The Glory of Baroque Dresden, which will run from March 1 to September 6 at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion in Jackson, Miss. Although Venus will remain in Dresden, more than 400 artworks, decorative objects, and unique items drawn from eight of the city’s 12 state museums will be featured. The Old Masters Picture Gallery is sending Samson Proposing the Riddle at the Wedding Feast by Rembrandt, Diana’s Return from the Hunt by Rubens, and The Procuress by Vermeer. The Green Vault museum is sending Balthasar Permoser’s Moor sculpture, the 41-carat Dresden Green diamond, and other jewels. Porcelain, sculptures, arms and armor, prints, drawings, coins, costumes, and furnishings will also be on display.

 

For the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange to land this exclusive coup was not as difficult as one might expect, says Executive Director Jack Kyle. In April 2001, he visited Dresden, Prague, and other former communist cities that were, Kyle says, “rich in cultural legacy,” scouting for candidates upon which to base a new exhibit. His preference quickly became clear. “The American public has not had a taste of Dresden in 25 years,” says Kyle, noting that the last major exhibit of Dresden art was in 1978 (The Splendor of Dresden at the National Gallery of Art). “Also, Dresden is not much larger than Jackson, Miss., yet the quality of its collections ranks in the big leagues of the cultural institutions of the world.”

The reason the comprehensive exhibit will be shown solely in one venue is the same reason that the show probably will not be repeated: Too many of the items are delicate and therefore difficult to move. “Dresden officials do not want it to travel anywhere else, and they do not want to risk loaning these artworks out again,” Kyle says.

 

The nine-year-old Mississippi Commission has mounted other shows based on national European collections (including Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style in 1996, Splendors of Versailles in 1998, and The Majesty of Spain: Royal Collections from the Museo del Prado & Patrimonio Nacional in 2001), but Dresden museum officials were skeptical when Kyle approached them with this idea. Reviewing catalogs from past Jackson shows, touring the exhibition pavilion, and meeting the people who would organize and support the Dresden show helped win them over. There were other selling points as well, says Ulrich Pietsch, head curator of the porcelain collection. “In New York, we would be one of a handful of good exhibitions, but in Jackson, we are unique,” he says. “This is what convinced me to do it.”

Still, Kyle labored to convince the Dresdeners to agree to include two of the most precious items: the Dresden Green and the Vermeer. “Initially, both were off the table,” says Kyle, “but as a rapport developed, the eight [Dresden] directors [agreed] that the quality across the board should be uniform.” It also helped that the Mississippi organization agreed to underwrite the restoration of the Vermeer painting.

 

Martin Roth, director-general of Dresden’s state art collections, is certain he and his colleagues have made a wise decision to bring the items to the United States. “It’s important [that people see] how beautiful the Dresden collections are,” he says. “This is a very personal argument, but with the problems between Germany and the U.S. in the last year, it’s worth showing that we’re from the same origins. Dresden’s collections have objects created in Spain, Italy, Poland, France, England, and North Africa. It represents our common society, all of us. This is our heritage.”

Dresden’s heritage as a center of culture and learning began with a father and son who shared an insatiable drive to collect beautiful items. Augustus II, also known as Augustus the Strong, kept his talented court jeweler, Johann Melchior Dinglinger, busy making gilded and bejeweled bowls, jars, pitchers, and other glittering objects.

Augustus II’s court sculptor, Balthasar Permoser, never wanted for work, either. Among the many items he created was a wooden sculpture of a man originally referred to as a Moor but now believed to be a member of a tribe from America. Crowned and covered with gold jewelry fashioned by Dinglinger, the figure holds a platter upon which sits a chunk of rock, studded with emeralds.

 

But Augustus II is best remembered for his porcelain collection. So intense was his desire for these objects that he likened it to a disease. He imported thousands of pieces from China and Japan, filling a palace with them, and he ordered that a porcelain factory be built in the nearby town of Meissen in 1710. Today, that factory still produces highly prized figurines, vases, and tableware.

Augustus III was not as enthralled with porcelain, although he did commission a larger-than-life-size statue from Meissen that depicted himself trampling the figure of Envy under the hoofs of his horse. (Craftsmen had just begun work on the statue when the Seven Years’ War broke out, ending this era of grand acquisitions.) Augustus III had an eye for paintings, and while his father deserves the credit for acquiring Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, the son surrounded it with works by Poussin, Murillo, Velázquez, El Greco, Reni, Correggio, Titian, Veronese, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck. Two Vermeers were also acquired under his rule, but Augustus III’s greatest contribution to the city’s art holdings was the acquisition of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. Legend has it that upon its arrival in the mid-1750s, Augustus III, wanting to display the painting in the best available light, pushed his own throne aside, saying, “Make way for the Raphael!” He also inherited a family fondness for impressive gems, as evidenced by his purchase in 1742 of the Dresden Green, the world’s largest natural green diamond.

Instead of hoarding Dresden’s state treasures for the pleasure and amusement of his heirs, Augustus II made them available for viewing by generations of intellectually hungry scholars, poets, and artists. Augustus II classified his holdings into logical categories, placed the items in galleries, and opened some of these galleries to the public, thus creating some of Europe’s earliest museums. Countless knowledge-seekers were edified by the Dresden collections, most notably Goethe, who later wrote about the revelatory effect of a visit he made during his student days in 1768: “Even before the end of my academic career a new outlook, one that should become decisive for my entire future life, was to be opened before me: I found the opportunity to see Dresden. With what a delight, even a daze, did I roam through the shrine of the gallery! How many dim feelings came into clear view! How many gaps in my historic knowledge were filled here, and how greatly my perception widened as I took in the splendid, multi-layered edifice of the arts.”

 

Dresden was well established as a cultural center by the time of World War II. During the conflict, the museums’ contents were concealed in nearby castles, manor houses, and fortresses. But as events turned against Germany, and it appeared as though the Russians—whose country’s artworks had previously been looted by the German invaders—would reach Dresden before the comparatively merciful Americans, a frantic effort was made to move the collections to new hiding places. Amid the chaos, a truck loaded with 200 paintings destined for Meissen was parked overnight on a road next to the Elbe. That night was February 13, 1945, and the truck and its irreplaceable cargo were destroyed in the inferno unleashed by Allied forces. Among the lost paintings was The Stonebreakers, an 1850 masterpiece by Gustave Courbet.

Strongholds were not necessarily safer. Much of the Swan service, an elaborate set of porcelain tableware that took Meissen’s greatest artists five years to complete, was hidden behind a false wall in the castle owned by the family of the Saxon count who commissioned the service during Augustus II’s reign. According to Pietsch, Ukrainian troops reached the castle two days after the first wave of bombs set Dresden aflame. While hunting for something to eat or loot, the soldiers tossed a grenade at the wall and obliterated 80 percent of the 2,200-piece service.

 

The curators were right to fear the Russians, who arrived with organized squads intent on stripping Germany of its cultural holdings. An April 1995 Time article, “The Spoils of War,” estimated that as many as 2.5 million artworks and 10 million books and manuscripts were removed to Russia during and after the war. However, 10 years after Dresden was emptied, the Soviets triumphantly sent most of its greatest treasures, including the Sistine Madonna, back to the city, which was now in communist-controlled East Germany.

The gesture did not settle the matter of wartime looting. Evidence emerged during the late 1980s and early 1990s that items taken from Germany were still sitting in storage in Russian museum basements. While Russia’s leaders have made efforts to return artworks that were stolen from Nazi victims and religious and charitable organizations, it has hesitated to relinquish those that originally belonged to German state museums. In 1997, Russia’s parliament voted to view such artworks as recompense for the wounds of World War II.

Nearly 60 years after the war’s end, hundreds of Dresden items remain missing, but the city has reclaimed its finest treasures, and it has begun to move forward. The Zwinger Palace and the Semper Opera House have long since been rebuilt from native sandstone quarried at the same site that supplied the raw material for most of the city’s iconic buildings. An odd quirk of nature imparts them with a misleading appearance; the stone contains iron, which oxidizes and changes its color from creamy beige to smoky black, deceiving visitors into thinking that the scorched-looking exteriors testify to the ferocity of the 1945 firebombing.

The skyline once again resembles the view depicted in Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe, below the Augustus Bridge, a famous cityscape painting by Bernardo Bellotto (a nephew of Canaletto who sometimes used his name and who painted 17 Dresden scenes). In this work from 1748, scaffolding encircles the tower of the Catholic Hofkirche (Court Church). Today, however there is scaffolding around the stone dome of the Protestant Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady). This is a telling sight. Initially, the Frauenkirche was to be left in ruins as a memorial to those horrific winter nights when Allied bombs set the city ablaze, killing at least 35,000 residents. However, this plan was reconsidered following the reunification of Germany, and a $175 million restoration effort, funded in part by donations from Americans and Britons, began in 1994. Since then, the cathedral where Bach once played and where Wagner debuted Love Feast of the Apostles has risen from the rubble. Organizers hope to complete the Frauenkirche in time for the 800th anniversary of Dresden in 2006.

Also being rebuilt is the Residenz Schloss, or Dresden Palace, the ancestral home of Saxony’s electors, where Augustus II created a museum for the jewelry, decorative objects, and precious curiosities of his treasure chamber, the Green Vault. Officials led a hard-hat tour of the unfinished palace in September 2003. As he walked along a first-floor plywood catwalk, Green Vault Director Dirk Syndram explained that the Green Vault would return to its first home in a more spectacular form. The original ground-floor rooms will be restored to their 1733 appearance, and a new Green Vault will be installed on the second floor. It is scheduled to open to the public in September 2004. The entire three-story complex should be finished by 2010.

City reconstruction efforts suffered a setback in August 2002, when the Elbe overflowed its banks and flooded Dresden, forcing hundreds of thousands of residents to evacuate. Once again, curators scrambled to save the artworks as the floodwaters rose. Volunteers helped them move more than 4,000 paintings from the lower floors of the Zwinger Palace’s Old Masters Picture Gallery to safety during the span of a few hours. A handful of large Italian paintings that could not be moved in time were instead bound to the ceiling. Water infiltrated the Zwinger basement, but the paintings survived.

With many of Dresden’s cultural buildings restored and reconstruction on the others well under way, the prospect of any future traveling exhibitions of the size and scale of the Glory of Baroque Dresden Jackson show is unlikely. “When we’re finished with the work in Dresden, we’ll do more exhibits here,” Pietsch said in September. “We will have done enough publicity abroad, and we hope that [by then] people will know what Dresden means.” 

The Glory of Baroque Dresden
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