The Monuments Men

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Victor Nikitich Lazarev ( 1897-1976 )

Victor Nikitich Lazarev was the foremost historian of Byzantine art and Russian medieval art. Born in Moscow on September 2, 1897, he inherited a deep appreciation for art from his father, an architect, and his mother, an accomplished musician. His prominent family also included legendary abstract artist Wassily Kandinsky. Lazarev’s formal education began at Moscow State University in 1916. His studies were interrupted by his service in the Russian Army during both World War I and the Russian Civil War. He returned to the university in 1919, studying under such notable Russian artists and art historians as Alexandre Benois and N. P. Kondakov. Lazarev then undertook extensive travels in Europe, expanding his already impressive knowledge of European art and becoming a lifelong devotee of Italian food.

In the years before the start of World War II, Lazarev established himself as one of Russia’s leading art experts. He married fellow art historian Vera Nikolaievna Volskaya, who once held ties to the Imperial Russian Court and had known Rasputin, the mystical advisor to Tsar Nicholas II. Lazarev worked at the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow from 1924 to 1936, receiving a succession of appointments which included Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Research. In addition to his curatorial duties, he gave lectures at Moscow State University and the Institute of Fine Arts in Moscow.

During World War II, the Soviet Union suffered enormous loss of life and destruction of property at the hands of the Nazis. Entire cities were leveled, their inhabitants forced to work in German labor camps, tortured, or left to starve. The Russians were also stripped of their cultural patrimony. The Nazis determinedly looted museums and private collections, removing thousands of works of art to Germany and reducing cultural monuments to piles of rubble. In the aftermath, Soviet officials sought retribution for their years of heartbreak, instructing a special group of Soviet art experts to compile lists of “equivalent” works of art to be seized as compensation by so-called “trophy brigades.” Thousands of objects, including the friezes of the Pergamon Altar and the “Trojan Gold,” were seized without hesitation.

Lazarev arrived in Berlin in mid-May 1945 as a representative of the Commission of the All-Union Art Committee, travelling around the area inspecting repositories and personally selecting large numbers of Western European paintings and sculptures for transport to Moscow. During the course of his plans, Lazarev paid special attention to the safe transport of works of art and advocated that respect be shown to surviving cultural monuments in Germany. He prohibited the removal of museum records, at one point insisting that the confiscated ledgers of the German Sculpture Collection be returned. He later traveled to Munich in early 1946, where he worked in cooperation with the MFAA to identify art looted from the Soviet Union, found by the Monuments Men, and stored at the Munich Central Collecting Point.

Following his return to Russia, Lazarev resumed his career as a respected professor, author, and tireless researcher of Byzantine, medieval, and Renaissance art. He was a staple of Russia’s greatest schools for art history, giving lectures at the Institute of Fine Arts in Moscow until 1949 and serving as a department head at the Institute of Art History in Moscow from 1945 to 1960. In 1960 Lazarev was appointed Chairman of the Western Art History Department at his alma mater, Moscow State University. He published more than two hundred written works, including thirty books and monographs. His most notable publications were History of Byzantine Painting (1947), The Origins of the Italian Renaissance (three volumes, 1956-1959), Early Russian Icons (1958), as well as in-depth studies of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (1960), the frescoes of the Church of St. George at Staraya Ladoga (1960), and the mosaics in the Church of St. Michael at Kiev (1966). Lazarev also frequently contributed writings to The Burlington Magazine, Art Bulletin, Gazette des Beaux-Arts, and Münchner Jahrbuch.

In addition to years of service as Associate Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences, Lazarev was a member of many cultural academies and institutions across the globe, including The Byzantine Institute. One of the greatest joys of his life was his impressive personal collection of books on Byzantine and Renaissance art, which he meticulously accumulated throughout a lifetime of diligent research and joyful devotion to his craft.

Victor Lazarev died on January 31, 1976. He was buried at Vagankovo Cemetery in Moscow.