April 4, 2006    E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed
Portrait of a cultural battle
The display of looted Klimt paintings at LACMA raises questions about
national ownership and the fate of great works of art.
By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer

As a celebrated Modern painting goes on temporary view at the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art today, the masterpiece becomes the latest work looted
by the Nazis during World War II to have been returned to its rightful
owner. Ninety-year-old Cheviot Hills resident Maria Altmann successfully
sued the Austrian government for return of the treasure, seized from her
uncle's home after he fled Vienna in 1938.

News of the restitution sent shock waves through the international art world
after an arbitration court issued its January ruling. The famed 1907
"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" by Gustav Klimt — an image of Altmann's
aunt, which will be shown at the museum with four other Klimt paintings also
returned to the family in the landmark settlement — ranks as a supreme icon
of early 20th century art.

  The three-month loan to LACMA of a textbook painting is partly a gesture
of gratitude to the city where Altmann emigrated. But it's also a holding
action. With the seven-year legal battle over title to the art now settled,
the heirs face a daunting question: What obligations — if any — does the
family have in determining the ultimate fate of a painting of monumental
cultural significance?

The perplexing, often prickly subject of cultural patrimony is taking center

Until now, the spotlight has focused on legal issues around art's ownership.
Since the end of the Cold War, when the political map of Europe began to be
redrawn, long-sealed Soviet and other archives have been shedding dramatic
new light on the whereabouts of paintings and sculptures stolen by the Third

More recently, legal disputes over war booty have been joined by an intense
international wrangle over looted antiquities. A series of articles in The
Times last year led to February's return of the most prized ancient Greek
vase in the United States — the Euphronios Krater, acquired 34 years ago by
New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art — to the Republic of Italy, its legal
owner. In a related, closely watched case, an American antiquities dealer
and a former J. Paul Getty Museum curator are on trial in Rome for trading
in stolen ancient art.

But now those questions of legality are being linked to another, in some
ways even thornier dispute. Judicial arguments over property go on every day
in courtrooms large and small. But in matters of art, who finally owns
culture? Is there a moral dimension to consider, separate from property

Since 1945 the Klimt portrait has been a centerpiece at the Austrian
National Museum's Belvedere Gallery, where it hung next to the artist's most
widely reproduced work, "The Kiss," painted immediately after. Altmann's
lawsuit demonstrated conclusively that the museum had no just legal claim to
the work. (Case documents can be read at www.adele.at.)

Still, when the Austrian government announced in February that no federal
funds would be made available to buy any of the five Klimts, a group of
Viennese citizens launched an as-yet unsuccessful campaign to raise
sufficient private money to do so. Their goal: to "save" Austria's cultural

The patrimony claim rests on a belief that Klimt's work embodies the
artistic, intellectual and social life of turn-of-the-century Vienna, so
removing the portrait from Austria is inappropriate.

Cultural artifacts are often used as tools to establish identity. The
sprawling Hapsburg Empire was the world that Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer and
her industrialist art-collector husband, Ferdinand, all knew; but the empire
was dissolved after World War I. As a much smaller Austria emerged, the
struggle to forge a new national identity focused on honoring historical
Viennese culture.

"Theirs was the land of Mozart, the Strausses and Klimt," noted Jonathan
Petropoulos, a Claremont McKenna College history professor who specializes
in Nazi art theft, writing in a chronicle of the Bloch-Bauer collection
compiled for the Altmann case. Klimt's art signified Austrian character.

Given these paintings' particular story, Los Angeles could also make a
persuasive patrimonial claim — one related to Southern California's
midcentury prominence as a refuge for Central and Eastern European Jews
fleeing Hitler. Altmann herself arrived in L.A. from Vienna by way of
Liverpool, England, in 1942.

Many European painters who were Jews fled to New York, then the center of
the American art world; but writers and performing artists tended to come
West, where employment in the movie industry was promising. The L.A. émigré
community included composer Igor Stravinsky, conductor Otto Klemperer,
writers Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, theater director Max Reinhardt,
movie director and screenwriter Billy Wilder, actress Marlene Dietrich and

The Altmann family's attorney in the Klimt case, E. Randol Schoenberg, is
the grandson of Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, who also sought refuge
in L.A.

This local history is reflected in the permanent collection at LACMA, where
the Klimt exhibition is on view through June. The museum's Rifkind Center
for German Expressionist Studies, with 5,000 works on paper by German and
Austrian artists and a library of more than 4,000 related volumes, is a
collection unparalleled in the United States. Through exhibitions, LACMA has
also carved out a unique place among major American art museums by telling
an alternative history of early 20th century art — one not centered in
Paris, as most histories of the period are, but in Central Europe and
Russia. Among a half-dozen such shows are 1991's "Degenerate Art: The Fate
of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" and 1997's "Exiles and Emigres: The
Flight of European Artists From Hitler."

This kind of patrimony claim, whether Vienna or L.A. for Klimt or Italy for
antiquities, is tribal or nationalistic. "National and local self-esteem are
sacred writ in international protocols," observed David Lowenthal, professor
emeritus at London's University College, in a recent essay titled "Heritage
Wars" for the online magazine Spiked. Art is tied to a specific milieu by an
idea known as essentialism, which holds that art embodies fixed traits
representing a group of people.

From there, it's a short step to presuming the art belongs with them.
Lowenthal, dismissing such claims as "possessive jealousies," asserts
instead that "Essentialism is a persistent delusion ... politically correct
but practically wrong — wrong because we are all multiply mixed, wrong
because ancestral pasts cannot be possessed anyway."

Using art as an ancestral symbol attempts to create a history, not record
it, he believes.

The primary opposing notion is the cosmopolitan view — the claim that art
represents the aspirations of humanity, so any artwork finally belongs to
the world. Historical art's specific location is thus of little concern, as
long as works of major consequence are publicly accessible.

Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, a champion of
cosmopolitanism, wrote recently in the New York Review of Books that tribal
and national claims can even fly in the face of the greatest art, which is
often flamboyantly international. "If the argument for cultural patrimony is
that the art belongs with the culture that gives it its significance," he
noted, "most art doesn't belong to a national culture at all."

That is certainly the case with the Euphronios Krater, a painted Greek vase
found in an Etruscan tomb in what became, thousands of years later, a
country called Italy. Is the cultural worth of the vase Greek, Etruscan or
Italian? Italy emerged as a nation 150 years ago from a collection of
kingdoms and city-states; like Austria, the new country also struggled to
forge a national identity. Historic cultural artifacts served that purpose.

"This is a political statement [by Italy]," said Metropolitan Museum
director Philippe de Montebello of the krater's return, accepting the legal
judgment while dismissing the cultural patrimony claim at a panel discussion
last month.

In the emerging showdown between essentialism and cosmopolitanism, one trump
card may be something less abstruse and more blunt than philosophy. Altmann
has said Klimt's great golden portrait of Adele must be sold, because her
family does not have the means to donate the work to LACMA or another
museum, which is where she would like it to be. Valuation is an inexact
science, but published estimates of the portrait's market value are in
excess of $100 million. For capitalist cultures, art objects belong to the
highest bidder. In those terms, economic might makes cultural right.