Liberation of the Fugitive Slave. Restoration
of the Sculptural Group by V.A. Beklemishev
On October 14th, 2011, the museum’s restorers presented the restored V.A. Beklemishev sculpture group Fugitive Slave, which was accidentally discovered in the Winter Palace in April of the previous year.
This life size sculptural composition made of bronze tinted plaster, the Fugitive Slave (1891) was discovered on the second floor landing of the Church Staircase while the brick wall of the Eastern Gallery was opened to install a sensor.
The Sculptor, Vladimir Alexandrovich Beklemishev, graduated from the Saint Petersburg Imperial Academy of the Arts, and in 1888-1892 lived in Paris and Rome and was supported by a stipend from the Academy. The artist created his Fugitive Slave sculpture group in Italy. For works completed with the help of his academy stipend, like Christian Woman of First Centuries (1891), How Fair, How Fresh Were the Roses (1892) and Fugitive Slave (1891), which were displayed at an exhibit at the Imperial Academy of the Arts in 1892, Beklemishev was granted the title of Academician. In his artistic work, the sculptor often relied on a literary reference, which was widely recognized and able to produce an emotional response in readers, translating it from the language of literature into the language of sculpture. According to experts, the “Fugitive Slave” also has a literary antecedent; the mulatto George Harris, who escaped to freedom, and his young son Harry in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The Fugitive Slave sculpture represented Russian art with distinction at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago (USA) in 1893, dedicated to the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Columbus, also with paintings by I.I. Levitan, I.E. Repin, V.A. Serov and V.I. Surikov.
After the exhibition, the Fugitive Slave returned to the Academy of Arts. For a long time, the sculpture was the personal property of V.À. Beklemishev, after being presented to him by the Museum of the Academy of Arts in 1918. In 1930, the sculpture group was transferred to the State Revolution Museum, which, at that time, occupied part of the Winter Palace, where it was exhibited for several years. After the war, the Revolution Museum received its own building - the mansion of M.F. Kschessinska, where the Fugitive Slave should also have been transferred; however, due to its poor condition, it was left in the Winter Palace. On February 22nd, 1947, the sculpture was walled up in a space between the walls of the Eastern Gallery and the Church Staircase of the Winter Palace, as is indicated by a note and singed photograph (transferred to the Archive of the State Hermitage Museum). In this way, the Fugitive Slave spent more than half a century in captivity, and was considered lost by specialists.
Unfortunately, it was impossible to display the statue immediately after it was removed from the wall, due to serious damage and contamination. To prepare this work of art for exhibition, a long process of restoration, conducted in the State Hermitage Museum’s Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Sculpture and Coloured Stones (headed by Svetlana Leonidovna Petrova).
The lower half of the sculpture was broken into many fragments: the pedestal and legs of the slave and the youth were also broken and many cracks were visible on the boulder-shaped base. Among these details, fragments with the inscription “Vladimir Beklemishev” and “Rome 189…” immediately attracted attention. Major damage was detected: a fragment of the right shoulder of the figure of the slave and a part of the ankle joint of the left foot of the figure of the boy, unfortunately could not be found; the index finger of the left hand and the big toe on the left foot of the figure of the slave were broken off. The specialists also had the major work of repairing the major damage and cracks in the pedestal, rock and drapery ahead of them.
It was determined that the sculpture must be displayed where it was, since moving the sculpture in such condition did not seem possible. Assembling the sculpture was a more difficult task, since the restoration of the artist’s unique creation depended on this operation; the precision with which the damaged parts were reattached had to guarantee a correct restoration of the damage. For restoration of the major damage, to the right shoulder and index finger of the left hand of the figure of the slave, and the left foot of the figure of the youth, plasticize molds were made from the modelling clay, from which molds were made and plaster was cast, the attaching surfaces of the restoration materials were tooled for accurate integration with the sculpture. The damage to the base, in shape of a boulder, at the edges of the cracks (the so-called “intermediary damage”) were restored with direct plaster modelling. During the restoration of the damaged details and fragments, traditional techniques and methods for the creation of plaster sculpture were used; the ability to distinguish the restored pieces from the original was achieved by using more material of a more generalized texture.
The tinting of the restored fragments and details and restoration of the lost coloured layer concluded the restoration of the sculpture, restoring it to its complete and exhibition-ready form.
This newly discovered work created by a famous Russian sculptor with the support of a stipend from the Imperial Academy of Arts, of which only one casting was made, presents tremendous scientific and artistic interest. Having gained freedom after his long confinement, the Fugitive Slave will occupy a place of honor at a permanent exhibition in the State Hermitage Museum