Showing posts with label Adele Bloch-Bauer. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Adele Bloch-Bauer. Show all posts

July 19, 2013

When is restitution a bad thing? The case of Melanesian wood carvings

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
 by Gustav Klimt. (1907).
 Neue Galerie, New York.
Source: Verity Algar

by Verity Algar, co-posting with Plundered Art

The Holocaust Art Restitution Project and other organisations aiming to restitute Holocaust-looted art to its rightful owners justifiably propose restitution to be a positive thing in this context. However, my research has shown that not all cultural groups want to re-possess their cultural heritage.

I recently spoke at the Association of Research into Crimes Against Art’s 5th Annual Conference, where I compared these two objects: the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt. (1907) and Malanggan from Northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea (collected in 1890).

Malanggan, from Northern New Ireland,
Papua New Guinea. Collected in 1890.
 Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology,

Source: Verity Algar
Why would I compare a twentieth-century European painting with a nineteenth-century wood carving from Melanesia, I hear you say?! Well, by comparing these different objects, I wanted to point out that their original owners take vastly different approaches to the restitution of these objects. Let me explain.

In Jewish communities, generally, the original owners of the cultural objects and/or their heirs, feel the need to re-claim their objects in order to gain a sense of closure on a traumatic past. As the following excerpts demonstrate, the language of restitution claims suggest that the Holocaust is not truly over until looted art objects have been restituted:

“The return of stolen art may be one of the last acts of the Shoah”
(Dellheim 2000 cited in Glass 2004: 117)

“museums … are dealing with the unfinished business of the Holocaust”
(editorial, Seattle Times 16 June 1999)

“Austria will move closer to closing the book on a somber chapter in 20th-century history”
(Czernin 1998 cited in Glass 2004: 118)

The people of New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, do not wish for the malanggan which they themselves created, to be returned to them, despite malanggan being essential to their culture. This may initially seem puzzling because they can often take more than three months to carve (Küchler 2002: 1). Yet they are not made to be displayed, treasured and revered as much of the art confiscated by the Nazis was. Malanggan are displayed for a few hours during mortuary ceremonies, before being left to the elements to decompose (Küchler and Melion 1991: 29). As money became increasingly important in New Ireland, the sale of malanggan to Western collectors became an attractive alternative (Küchler and Melion 1991: 29). More than five thousand malanggan have been collected by Western museums (Küchler and Melion 1991: 27).  As other indigenous groups began to claim the objects that constituted their cultural memory from Western museums, the museums considered restituting the malanggan too.

This illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the significance of malanggan to Melanesian culture.  During the carving process, the sculpture is imbued with life force, which is “symbolically killed” when ownership of the malanggan is transferred from the deceased’s family to related kin in exchange for money (Küchler and Melion 1991: 32). The image of the malanggan, however, is preserved as cultural memory and is reproduced in future sculptures (Küchler and Melion 1991: 32). Susanne Küchler and Walter Melion refer to the conflicting status of memory surrounding malanggan practice as “strategic remembering and deliberate forgetting” (1991: 30). To restitute these objects to the people of New Ireland would be to rekindle a specific aspect of their cultural memory, thus interfering with the process of “deliberate forgetting”.

Whilst it is fundamentally important that organisations such as ARCA and HARP continue to support research into Holocaust-era looted art, it is equally important that we understand why restitution can be incredibly problematic for some groups of people. Far from interrupting or countering my pro-restitution tendency, the argument against the restitution of malanggan can run alongside this tendency. As a concept, restitution is neither good nor bad. Rather, decisions about whether or not to restitute cultural objects need to be made on a culture-specific basis.

Verity Algar is a second year BA in History of Art student at University College London, where she minors in Anthropology. She recently spoke on ‘Cultural memory and the restitution of cultural property: Comparing Nazi-looted art and Melanesian malanggan’ at the Association of Research into Crimes Against Art’s 5th Annual Conference. She is hoping to complete the ARCA Postgraduate Certificate before working in a field relating to cultural heritage protection.

June 19, 2012

Book Review (Part III): Anne-Marie O'Connor's "Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Baur

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

In June, 1908, Klimt unveiled his gold portrait of the 26-year-old Adele, making her an ‘instant celebrity’ (O’Connor):

‘Klimt embedded Adele in a luminous field of real gold leaf, giving her the appearance of a religious icon, which art historians would compare to the mosaic portrait of Empress Theodora in Ravenna.’

Three years later, a syphilis-ridden Klimt visits the Bloch-Bauer castle in Czechloslovakia to work on a second portrait of Adele that he shows in 1912:

 ‘It was a very different work.  Her expression was mature, direct, and anything but seductive.  This was an older Adele, with world-weary eyes and cigarette-stained teeth, a painting some would call evidence of the end of the affair.’ (O’Connor)

Adele and her husband would also own four Klimt landscapes, including the 1912 “Apple Tree”.

In 1913, Hitler left Vienna.  The following year, an anarchist shot the Archduke Franz Ferdinand outside of his residence at the Belvedere Palace, a random act that would lead to The Great War, and the death of millions of young men.

Klimt dies of Spanish influenza in 1918 at the age of fifty-five, a few months before Armistice Day which reduces the Habsburg’s empire from 60 million to a tenth of that population and squeezed into a debt-ridden new state.

Until Adele’s death of meningitis in her early 40s, she lives a prominent cultural life filled with intellectuals, Viennese composers and artists.  In 1923, Adele wrote in a short will: “I ask my husband after his death, to leave my two portraits and the four landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna.” (O’Connor) In another strange parallel, it is the same year Hitler writes “Mein Kampf (My Struggle)”, ‘the bestseller he wrote from prison after his failed uprising in 1923’ (O’Connor).

Within 15 years, when Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer flees Austria to his summer home in Czechloslovakia prior to the unification of Germany and Austria, the Vienna Adele knew is unrecognizable.  Members of the extended family are arrested, jailed and tortured until valuable assets are signed over to the Nazi government.  Relatives pay a “flight tax” to escape to Canada ahead of deportation to concentration camps.  Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer is accused of financial crimes, his assets are ‘illegally taxed in Vienna and his entire estate was confiscated’ as he will write in his will in 1942.  Ferdinand dies in November of 1945 in Zurich.  He was unable to recovery any of his property.  His estate is left to three of his nieces and nephews, including 25% to Maria Altmann who will lead the family’s fight for the legal return of the stolen Klimt paintings.

After the war, as some say, many Nazis exchanged their uniforms for suits and went to work to rebuilding Austria.  New legislation discouraged Jews from returning to reclaim stolen property.  Export licenses for ‘masterpieces’ were withheld, Jewish owners had to pay to get what was left of their businesses.  O’Connor describes how Nazis in plainclothes entered Maria Altmann’s home, took her valuables, and imprisoned her husband at the infamous concentration camp, Dachau, until the family completed the paperwork required to Aryanize their property and businesses.

Maria, her husband Fritz, and other family members escape the Nazis and rebuild their lives, frustrated that the Bloch-Bauer Klimt paintings hang at Belvedere Palace with no mention of their Jewish patronage.  Then the District Attorney of New York City impounds a painting borrowed for an exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from an Austrian Art Institution (see review of the film “Portrait of Wally”).  Maria Altmann, now a widow in her 80s and living in Los Angeles, contacts “Randy” the lawyer son of a family friend.  Randal Schoenberg spends years beating the odds with legal arguments, working his way into arbitration with the Austrian government who eventually agrees to return to the paintings to the family.  O’Connor explains why Schoenberg was successful, how Maria Altmann helped the case, and why the family ended up selling the paintings.  It’s a story that will hopefully encourage more Jewish families to pursue their own claims for looted art.

June 18, 2012

Book Review (Part II): Anne-Marie O'Connor's "Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

In 1898, 17-year-old Adele, the daughter of Viennese banker Moritz Bauer, meets her future husband Ferdinand Bloch when her older sister Therese marries Ferdinand’s younger brother.  A few months later, an anarchist murders the free-spirited Empress Elisabeth, much admired by most of the Hapsburgs’ Austro-Hungarian Empire for her love of horses and her reluctance to participate in royal court politics.  An era of stability is ending.  A middle-aged Gustav Klimt, who is about to alienate his government sponsors, opens a ‘palace dedicated to Art Nouveau on the Ringstrasse’ for a group dubbed the Secessionists who wrote above the entrance “to every age its art; to art its freedom”.

A year later, Adele marries Ferdinand, a man twice her age but not the ladies’ man Klimt is reputed to be, at the same time Sigmund Freud publishes “The Interpretation of Dreams”, ‘his anatomy of the unconscious impulses driving individuals and society’ (O’Connor).

The next year Klimt, a favored court painter, shows the first of three ceiling murals for the University of Vienna, failing to please the authorities in the next few years with his decade portrayals on the themes of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence.  ‘Jewish families were assimilating in Vienna through art and culture’, as characterized by writer Karl Kraus.  It was these Jewish patrons who financially support Klimt when the Ministry of Culture rejects Klimt for a professorship at the Academy of Fine Arts.

Although Klimt is not commissioned to paint Adele’s portrait until 1903, his 1901 portrait of Judith ‘bears an almost photographic resemblance to Adele’ (O’Connor), leading to support that Klimt may have known Adele earlier and may have had an intimate relationship with her.  Klimt’s Judith is one of the masterpieces highlighted at Austria’s national art collection at the Belvedere Palace.  ‘A Klimt commission at the time cost 4,000 crowns, a quarter of the price of a well-appointed country villa’ (O’Connor):

‘Klimt portrayed women as individuals, without the presence of a husband, father, or children to suggest their domestic role…. They soon gained the reputation of having an affair with the master who was so infamous with his amours.”

A few months after agreeing to the Bloch-Bauer portrait, Klimt traveled to Ravenna to study the sixth-century mosaics ‘the greatest legacies of the Byzantine art outside Constantinople’ (O’Connor), which include portraits of the childless and powerful Empress Theodora, courtesan and wife of Justinian.  The mosaics include the use of gold tiles, the material Klimt grew up studying at the workshop of his father, an engraver who worked on the city’s monuments.  Upon Klimt’s return to his studio in Vienna, he began sketching another childless woman, the restless, ambitious and intelligent Adele Bloch-Bauer.  Klimt’s reputation for seducing many women and Adele’s unromantic marriage had led to rumors of a sexual relationship between artist and subject, according to O’Connor’s interviews half a century later with Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann:

“So when Adele went to Klimt’s studio that winter, she faced the possibility of failure as a woman.  No one ever believed Adele was in love with Ferdinand.  But she was expected to feel lucky, or at least content.  Instead, she struggled with sobering disappointment.’ ‘Klimt made endless sketches of Adele.’ ‘He would make more than a hundred studies of Adele.’

Klimt painted Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I from 1904 to 1907.  He also painted Danae and The Kiss (both now at the Belvedere) in 1907, the same year struggling artist Adolf Hitler moves to Vienna and lives in a ‘hostel financed with large donations from Baron Nathaniel Rothschild and the Gutmanns’ (O’Connor).  While only a Jewish owner of a frame and window store, Samuel Morgenstern, purchased Hitler’s drawings and watercolors, the artist became ‘fascinated’ by ‘the anti-Semitic rhetoric of Karl Lueger [Vienna’s elected mayor] … who was able to focus popular discontent on the liberal Jewish intelligentsia’ (O’Connor).

Part Three continues tomorrow.

June 17, 2012

Book Review (Part I): Anne-Marie O'Connor's "Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

By Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

In 1907 prosperous Vienna, the great cultural center of Europe, two events happened which would not collide for another three decades.  Gustav Klimt would fulfill a commission to paint the portrait of 24-year-old Adele Bloch-Bauer, who lived across the square from Vienna’s Fine Art Academy, the art school which would in that same year reject Adolf Hitler’s for admission because he failed the drawing exam.

In Lady in Gold, the Extraordinary Tale of the Klimt paintings, journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor tells the extraordinary story of The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I which would sell for $135 million to an American in 2007.  O’Connor first describes the relationship between Klimt, his Jewish art patrons, and the cultural environment in pre-Nazi Austria. From the point of view of the Bloch-Bauer family is told of the collaboration between Austria and the German Nazis to loot Jewish art collections.  The book concludes with the legal struggles of American attorney Randy Schoenberg to navigate the U. S. legal system to help Maria Altmann and the other surviving members of the Bloch-Bauer family to recover four stolen Klimt paintings.  It’s a story of how a legitimate government corrupted legislation to steal from and murder its own citizens.

Within a decade, the Nazis succeeded in destroying the Jewish community Austrian-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef (ruled from 1848-1916) created in Vienna by providing citizenship rights to European Jews in the 19th century – offering them a sanctuary from discrimination and persecution that stretched to the hinterlands of Russia.  The Jewish population in Vienna rapidly increased from 6,000 to more than 200,000 in less than 40 years, creating dissention in the anti-Semitic mostly Roman Catholic population.  Vienna, against the wishes of Franz Joseph, elected an anti-Semitic mayor for two decades who served in effect as a political mentor for Hitler.  After the Second World War, less Jews lived in Austria than had a century ago and they had no intention of returning to a country that treated them less favorably than its population of horses.

Against the backdrop of the murder of 6 million Jews, restitution of stolen art may seem unimportant, especially as newspapers today sport headlines of Jewish families recovering then selling artworks for millions of dollars.  Why is it so important that these paintings are returned to the families now? Weren’t these issues of restitution settled decades ago when Allied forces discovered stolen art in the salt mines of Germany after the war? And why does the American legal system have to get involved in these cases almost seven decades after armistice? Isn’t this a matter for the government of Austria to decide? Lady in Gold answers these questions.

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was hedonistic.  In 1889, the Crown Prince shot his teenage mistress then himself in 1889.  The Emperor’s mistress was a stage actress.  In 1897, American writer Mark Twain publicly lectured about the virulent anti-Semitism palpable in the Vienna, the city rebuilding itself after successfully defeating Ottoman invaders a half century earlier.  The old fortress walls came down and the Ringstrasse, a series of boulevards encircling the center of Vienna arose, providing an opportunity for Vienna’s nuveau riche, many of them Jewish, to celebrate their financial and industrial wealth with monumental mansions and beautiful decorative arts.  Even statues fronting public buildings glisten with gold.

Part Two continues tomorrow.

March 8, 2012

Lecture: Former LA Times Reporter Anne-Marie O'Connor Discussed Maria Altmann's Tale of Recovering Five Klimt Paintings from Austria at the Skirball Center in Los Angeles

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog editor

Los Angeles - Tuesday night, across from the 405 Freeway where Bill Cosby's son Ennis was murdered while changing a tire in 1997, dozens of people were refused admittance to the lecture hall at the Skirball Center where Washington Post Correspondent Anne-Marie O'Connor was set to discuss her book, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece (Knopf, 2012).

The Skirball Cultural Center, located just north of the Getty Center in Brentwood, is a difficult to reach institution so when people who had stood in line with reservations were refused admittance, you could hear stringent complaints to Zócalo Public Square that overbooked the free event.  Some people bought the hardcover copy of the book from the representative from Book Soup, who was redacting words on recycled paper to write poetry, and others left for dinner.  It's not easy to drive in evening traffic through either San Fernando Valley or Los Angeles on $5/gallon gas to be turned away from a must-see event.

I am telling you all of this so that you can understand the overwhelming interest in this fascinating book that Ms. O'Connor diligently worked on for years and quickly direct you to more efficient coverage of the material.  This is the story of life in Vienna before and during World War II; the beautiful Adele Bloch-Bauer, the subject of the painting; and the artist, Gustav Klimt, who grew up in poverty because his father couldn't make enough money engraving in gold.  O'Connor writes of the theft of the painting from the Jewish family that owned it, how the anti-Semetic government hid the identity of the portrait sitter, and Randy Schoenberg's stubborn fight for Adele's niece, Maria Altmann, to regain ownership of her family's paintings more than 50 years after the Nazis had stolen them.

Zócalo Public Square has posted a review of the lecture, photos and a video of the event here
KPCC's recent interview with the author is here; and you can read a book review in the Christian Science Monitor about this "epic" story.