Minsk’s fabulous National Art Museum, or the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus to give it its full title, holds the largest single collection of Belarusian and international art in the country and is a must-see sight for anyone visiting the city. Holding individual collections of Belarusian Art from the 12th to the 20th Century, Russian Art from the 18th to the 20th Century, Western European Art from the 16th to the 20th Century and Oriental Art from the 15th to the 20th Century, the museum’s origins date back to before the war and a Resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic, passed on January 24, 1939, its official founding date. Starting life in the humble surroundings of Minsk’s Upper Communist Agricultural School, by 1941 the museum’s collection numbered 2,711 works of art, most of them donated by galleries in cities in Russia and Belarus. The coming of the Great Patriotic War however saw the collection looted by the occupying Nazis and spread far and wide, with not one item remaining and almost nothing recovered at the end of hostilities.
Starting from new, like the city in which is was housed, the collection was rebuilt from scratch with the notable work of the museum’s Director, Elena Aladova (1907-1986) who ran operations for 33 years from 1944 until her retirement. After the war the museum moved from home to home as the collection slowly grew. Greatly extended in 2006 and possessing over 30,000 paintings, sculptures, drawings, porcelain and other works of art in total in its contemporary collection, the museum’s current home dates from 1957 and was designed by the Belarusian architect Mikhail Baklanov (1914-1990). The museum manages to exhibit only a small fraction of its entire collection, none of it the work of a household name in the West (the absence of Marc Chagall continues to cause mild embarrassment for a few, but the museum really isn’t any worse off without him), although much of it truly outstanding all the same. Notable among the many great works on display are several landscapes by the French painter Huber Robert (1733-1808), some truly exquisite Chinese woodcarvings and Japanese ceramics, one or two outstanding pieces by the Jewish-Belarusian artist and Chagall’s teacher Yehuda (Yuri) Pen (1854-1937) and a particular favourite, Mikhail Savitski’s (1922-2010) extraordinary painting, Partisan Madonna, dating from 1967. Even the least cultured visitor with only a passing interest in art should give the museum at least an hour. More serious connoisseurs might like to give up half a day or so to the work on display. A floor plan of the 19 halls that make up the entire exhibition can be purchased inside the museum.