April 7, 2006    E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed
A Dab of Luck on LACMA's Palette
If bought, the luminous Klimts temporarily on display could make the museum the only one in the U.S. with a major program in Modern art.
By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer

Luck, according to the Roman dramatist Seneca, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If so, Los Angeles is the luckiest city in the world for Modern art right now.

Preparation just met opportunity, and the stunning result is "Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings From the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer," which opened this week to a jostling media throng at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Only one question hangs over the show: How long will the luck hold out?

  The exhibition continues through June. But all five paintings are quietly for sale, preferably to a museum. One is a towering monument of Modern art.

This is a powerful test for LACMA. The museum has embarked on a $145-million expansion plan and hired a new director — Michael Govan, who began work just this week — expressly to become the only encyclopedic museum in the nation with a major program in Modern and contemporary art. Almost preternaturally, the Klimts arrived as if made to order for achieving the goal. We are about to discover the depth of LACMA's sincerity and ambition.

Acquiring the works will not be inexpensive. And you can bet that billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder — whose private Manhattan museum of German and Austrian art, the Neue Galerie, would go from cult favorite to international sensation if it owned the Klimts — is waiting in the wings. Surely there are others.

There are five paintings. Two are full-length portraits of Klimt's great patron, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and three are landscapes. They span 1903 to 1916. (Klimt died at 55 in 1918.) As a group their power radiates outward, like ripples from a stone dropped into the pond of Modern art.

At the center is the singular 1907 tour de force, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," among the greatest early Modern paintings now in the U.S. For LACMA it ranks as a destination work — the kind one travels just to see — comparable to Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" at New York's Museum of Modern Art or Marcel Duchamp's "The Large Glass" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As a pair, "Adele I" and "II" create a captivating dialogue of Klimt's artistic trajectory at an unparalleled moment — a conversation centered on the Jewish patron critical to it. Together they begin to tell the heady story of Vienna as a profound social, intellectual and artistic engine driving modern culture before World War I.

Finally, as an ensemble the five paintings articulate almost the full arc of Klimt's 20th century career. (His architectural murals, of course, are absent.) Yet they also extend the story even further: An Austrian tribunal in January resolved a long-simmering lawsuit — nearly 68 years after the Nazi regime plundered these paintings — and returned them to their rightful owners, the family of L.A. resident Maria Altmann.

The narrative now encompasses the entire century — the radiant flowering of European Modernism, its collapse into fascist anarchy, the rescue of art and artists and the long, slow process of cultural redress.

How often in an art museum does one encounter a veritable anthology like that? The prospect for a permanent LACMA gallery for this astounding group of works is extraordinary to contemplate.

Why is the 1907 portrait so significant artistically? Think of it as a hinge — a pivot between a moribund, impossibly constricted world about to vanish forever and a new one whose contours could only be imagined.

With an exquisitely rendered image of a pretty, contemplative and artful young woman — his likely lover — the artist transformed an illustrious classical myth into a metaphor of creative ecstasy. Adele is Klimt's Danae.

In the ancient myth, the beautiful princess Danae was locked away in a bronze tower by her father, who had been warned by an oracle that one day her son would kill him. The randy Zeus — a god who loved a challenge almost as much as sex — devised a way to get to the imprisoned virgin. He transformed himself into a shower of gold dust, seeping through cracks in the ceiling and enveloping, irradiating and impregnating her.

Painters from Titian to Edward Burne-Jones painted the Greek myth, at times casting the characters in their Roman guises. In a monumental 1603 version of the story painted by the great Dutch Mannerist Hendrik Goltzius — a masterpiece already in LACMA's collection — the shocking theme is mercenary love. Danae, a sumptuous nude asleep on a pillow of platinum-colored satin amid a flurry of impish cherubs, is attended by a grizzled crone acting as procurer for the impatient Jupiter; leering Mercury, Roman god of commerce, looks on with glee. Greed and power are about to soil purity.

Klimt also painted the myth, in an explicitly sexual work still in a private Austrian collection. But Adele, his metaphoric Danae, is a thoroughly modern Jewish woman of taste, style, brains and means. The artist showers her in a torrent of gold, the light enveloping her body and ready to re-conceive the world.

"Adele I" was painted in 1907 — the same year a painter of wholly different temperament arrived in Vienna in search of his future. The young Adolf Hitler tried but failed to gain acceptance into the local art academy, so he went on to attempt to remake the world in another, more unfathomable and brutal way than Klimt.

It was also the year that an as-yet-unknown Picasso, 19 years Klimt's junior and working in Paris, painted "Les Demoiselles." The revolutionary Cubist picture is now universally regarded as the opening salvo of 20th century art.

The Picasso and the Klimt, although stylistically different, are startlingly similar in formal and conceptual terms, even though neither knew of the other's existence. A Western European perspective informs Picasso's wild invention, while a Central and Eastern European one drives Klimt's carnal decoration.

Both large canvases are roughly square. The shape, unlike the more common rectangular canvas, creates a physical field of abstract equilibrium. Erased is the association with landscape, which is horizontal, or with figures, which are vertical. Conventions of European painting are dismissed at the fundamental level of canvas and stretcher bars. The artists mean to start over, in league with a new century.

Both are images of female eroticism, but both are frankly outrageous in their deviation from the norm. They're stripped of artistic trappings used since the Renaissance. In their place, archaic styles are revived and forms are borrowed from foreign cultures.

For Picasso that meant African motifs, ancient Iberian sculpture and Egyptian art. For Klimt it meant much the same — especially Egyptian. A pattern of "god's eyes" and pseudo-hieroglyphs adorns Adele's garment. Whorls, zigzags, spirals and other decorative geometric patterns derive from Minoan and Mycenaean art of the Bronze Age.

Byzantine mosaics and medieval Sienese paintings of the Madonna are other pre-Renaissance models, their gold grounds meant to shimmer in candlelight to enhance the mysticism. Klimt's gold is soft, gentle and atmospheric, not hard or glittery. It reveals an intimate affinity with mottled screen-paintings of Edo-period Japan. LACMA's Shinen'kan Collection — the most important repository of Edo screen-paintings outside Asia — includes dozens of remarkable gold-ground examples.

Adele, seated in an overstuffed armchair with head and torso framed by a hallucinatory halo of golden patterns, is like the spirit of a sensuous river flowing through a field, implied by a luscious patch of apple green at the lower left. She's not only pagan Danae, she's a modern Eve — and Klimt is her Adam, art their god.

The chaste backdrop to "Adele II," by contrast, is a colorful Oriental screen depicting warriors. The 1912 standing portrait was painted after the long affair had ended. Rapture has been replaced by respect.

Adele's golden aureole has gone black, transformed into the wide-brimmed hat of a handsome Viennese society matron. Her body, framed in a stole, remains an undulating river, but now it courses through fields of floral carpet.

In the Post-Impressionist wooded landscape from 1903, nature meshes with a grid pattern to conflate organic and mathematical structures. This formal balance between body and mind anticipates paintings like Agnes Martin's 1981 abstraction in LACMA's contemporary galleries. "Apple Tree I" from 1911-12 inserts another secular reference to Eden, where experiencing art equals partaking of the tree of knowledge.

Finally the 1916 landscape, perhaps unfinished, divides the leafy, rolling hillside view of summer houses into nearly exact quadrants, as if you're looking through a window pane. The rigor of Cézanne at Mont Ste.-Victoire melds with the ravishing power of organic decoration.

The show is exceptional for the breadth and quality of the ensemble. The paintings, virtually unaccompanied by didactic labels, occupy one room, where their intrinsic power is enhanced by their contextual relationship to each other. An anteroom includes all the supporting information one might need.

Curator Stephanie Barron, who has made LACMA the go-to museum for probing exhibitions of early 20th century European art made outside the hub of Paris, and her team capped a 25-year record of achievement with this unexpected coup. (Information is at http://www.lacma.org .) But what are the chances for such a presentation to continue at LACMA in perpetuity?

Published estimates placing the paintings' value at up to $300 million are surely inflated. Still, when a mediocre Picasso holds the record auction price of $104 million, we are up at nose-bleed altitudes. It won't be easy.

But certainly it is within reach. An acquisition would most likely require a consortium of donors, probably extending payments (and tax benefits) over time. Perhaps the Getty Trust could also figure out a way to help.

Looking at "Adele I," I couldn't avoid remembering the rare 14th century Duccio Madonna that the Getty reportedly declined in 2004 as "too expensive" and that New York's Metropolitan Museum promptly snapped up. It came from the great collection of Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949), whose famous 1905 house in Brussels was designed by Viennese architect Josef Hoffmann; he also commissioned a brilliant group of dining room murals from Klimt. Stoclet, like the Bloch-Bauers, was among the artist's great patrons. He didn't buy the Duccio until 1923, but it was the finest in his collection of medieval gold-ground panels that helped inspire "Adele I."

When the Getty demurred, the Met swooped in — and now there are no more Duccio panels left in private hands. Opportunities missed are lost forever. The magnitude of the opportunity presented by the Klimt ensemble, for LACMA and Los Angeles, cannot be overstated.

Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic.

April 7, 2006    E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed
A Klimt purchase could help restore Getty image
By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer

The J. Paul Getty Museum might seem a logical buyer for the rare and expensive ensemble of great Klimt paintings currently at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art — but actually it's not. The museum's collection of European paintings predates the 20th century.

However, that restriction does not prohibit the Getty Trust — the museum's parent organization — from acquiring art. The trust has commissioned a number of sculptures and paintings by living artists for its Brentwood campus, assembled a collection of contemporary drawings for its offices and last year accepted a gift of Modern sculptures.

The trust could now establish, say, a Getty Center for Klimt Studies at LACMA, and acquire the paintings jointly with the county museum.

The scholarly libraries at the Getty Research Institute, rich in Modern art material, and LACMA's Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies are natural adjuncts.

The Getty Trust has been through a lot during the last 18 months, much of it degrading and debilitating — and some of it, ironically, concerning the contentious issue of looted art. An unexpected opportunity for a bit of redemption has just fallen in its lap.

  • Personals
April 9, 2006    E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed
Austria bows out of Klimts' future
By Christopher Reynolds, Times Staff Writer
Reader reviews: Have you seen the exhibit?

In the last moments before the Los Angeles County Museum of Art unveiled its exhibition of five Gustav Klimt paintings last Tuesday, museum leaders, 90-year-old heiress Maria Altmann and attorney E. Randol Schoenberg gathered several dozen journalists in a plastic tent under pounding rain to review the paintings' history.

It was a tangled tale, ending with Altmann prevailing over the Austrian government, but at least one audience member already knew it well: Los Angeles-based Austrian Consul General Martin Weiss, who sat among the press to listen and smile diplomatically and, should anyone ask, offer Austrian spin.

 "Of course we thought we were right," Weiss said of the seven-year legal battle for the Klimts that ended in January. Austria had argued that Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer, had requested that the paintings go to Austria's national gallery, which they did. But three months ago, an Austrian panel ruled that after Bloch-Bauer's death in 1925, the destination of the paintings was up to her husband — who fled the country and lost most of his possessions with the advance of the Nazis and the targeting of Jews for persecution in 1938.

The good thing about the return of the paintings, Weiss said, "is that it was decided by an Austrian arbitration panel…. Nobody [in Austria] can question that."

Altmann, who has lived in Los Angeles for decades, agreed to the temporary exhibition that will be on view through June 30 — the paintings' first appearance together in the U.S. She hasn't decided whether she'll keep, sell or donate the works, Schoenberg said.

One buyer who won't be stepping up: the Austrian government. Though the works have been treasured for more than 50 years as a part of Austrian cultural history, Weiss said, Austria's leaders made "a political decision" not to attempt to buy the works, whose value has been estimated at $150 million to $300 million. He noted that his government's museum spending amounts to about $70 million yearly.

"The decision was it would be too much," said Weiss. "I think it's the end of the story, and I hope the people of Los Angeles enjoy the paintings."

April 7, 2006    E-mail story   Print   Most E-Mailed
Austria may return more Nazi-looted artwork
From the Associated Press

VIENNA — An advisory panel handling claims for paintings, sculptures and other items looted by the Nazis during World War II has recommended that 6,292 artworks be returned to their original owners, Austria's culture minister said.

Only a few of the requests received through March 31 have been rejected, said the minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, adding that the government usually follows the panel's recommendations.

Austria has been returning hundreds of works to their owners or heirs — most of whom were Jewish — under a 1998 culture property restitution law.

Details on most of the artwork and their claimants were not released, but Gehrer said Wednesday that investigations have been launched to clear up murky circumstances surrounding two of the rejected requests.

Those cases involve a pair of figurines by Belgian symbolist sculptor George Minne and "Summer Evening at the Beach," a painting by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch.

The return of the Minne figurines was requested by heirs to Maria Altmann, the Los Angeles woman who recently regained custody of five Gustav Klimt paintings. Marina Mahler, a granddaughter of the late composer Gustav Mahler, is seeking custody of the Munch.

The Minne figurines and the Munch painting are in the possession of Vienna's Austrian Gallery Belvedere, the same museum that was forced by a court order to return the Klimts to Altmann, who had waged a seven-year legal battle.

Gehrer said a website would be set up by the end of the year to help owners track down works.

Austria was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, one year before the war began in Europe.

Many of the works being returned made their way into state-run museums or art collections under questionable circumstances before, during or after the war.

Austria's first postwar government also effectively confiscated hundreds of paintings from Jewish owners and their heirs, using a 1923 law preventing export of artwork.

Cinq toiles de Klimt retrouvent leur famille ą Los Angeles
LE MONDE | 07.04.06 | 16h26  •  Mis ą jour le 07.04.06 | 17h44
LOS ANGELES (correspondante)

Ici, ą Los Angeles, les tableaux ont l'air plus grand ! Je suis si heureuse, enfin...", s'exclame Maria Altmann, Américaine d'origine autrichienne Čgée de 90 ans, manifestement ravie de redécouvrir les cinq tableaux de Gustav Klimt restitués ą sa famille par la République autrichienne, ą l'issue d'une longue bataille juridique. "Il y a soixante-huit ans, ces tableaux ont été volés dans la maison de mon oncle, ą Vienne", poursuit-elle, assise devant le portrait doré d'AdŹle Bloch-Bauer (1907), sa tante, qu'elle a connue enfant, et qui a disparu en 1925, ą l'Čge de 43 ans.

"AdŹle avait des idées d'avant-garde", assure la grande dame trŹs digne. Autour d'elle, dans la galerie du Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Lacma), qui expose les cinq Klimt de la collection de Ferdinand et AdŹle Bloch-Bauer jusqu'au 30 juin, un second portrait d'AdŹle, réalisé en 1912, dans une gamme chromatique de bleus et de verts, ainsi que trois paysages : Forźt de bouleaux (1903), Pommier 1 (1911), Maisons ą Unterach sur le lac Atter (1916). Les Ōuvres n'avaient jamais été présentées ensemble aux Etats-Unis.

Ces tableaux avaient été commandités ou achetés par son oncle, l'industriel juif Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Il avait été forcé de les abandonner avec tous ses biens quand, fuyant les nazis, en 1938, il s'est installé en Suisse. AprŹs la guerre, le gouvernement autrichien a affirmé sa propriété sur les cinq tableaux, qui comptaient parmi les joyaux de la collection du musée du chČteau du BelvédŹre, ą Vienne, en se fondant sur un testament d'AdŹle, morte en 1925. Celle-ci avait décidé de les laisser au musée viennois. Mais la validité du testament a été remise en cause, et son mari hérita des oeuvres, qu'il légua ą son tour ą ses trois neveux, dont Maria Altmann est la seule survivante.

Aussi, en 1998, sur la foi des recherches menées par le journaliste autrichien Hubertus Czernin dans les archives nationales, Maria Altmann a demandé ą E. Randoll Schoenberg, le petit-fils du compositeur Arnold Schoenberg – lui-mźme un juif autrichien émigré ą Los Angeles –, d'intenter une action en justice pour récupérer l'héritage de sa famille, l'Autriche refusant toute transaction financiŹre.

Le jeune avocat a remporté une premiŹre victoire en juin 2004, quand la Cour suprźme des Etats-Unis a décidé que les tribunaux américains étaient compétents pour trancher l'affaire opposant Maria Altmann ą la République autrichienne. Finalement, les deux parties ont accepté l'arbitrage d'une commission qui, en janvier, a décidé la restitution des tableaux aux héritiers.

Le gouvernement autrichien, qui avait la possibilité de faire une offre d'achat portant sur ces Ōuvres, a déclaré ne pas źtre en mesure de lever les fonds. "Je ne comprends pas cette décision, ces tableaux sont de si bons ambassadeurs du passé de l'Autriche, indique avec amertume Hubertus Czernin. Il semble que notre gouvernement ait suivi un sondage d'opinion indiquant que la majorité du pays n'était pas favorable ą un rachat des tableaux." Pourtant, un groupe de citoyens soucieux de sauvegarder un patrimoine national aussi précieux a entamé une collecte de fonds privés.


Mais la réticence des Autrichiens est une aubaine pour le Musée de Los Angeles, qui engage actuellement sa rénovation, conduite par l'un des architectes du Centre Pompidou, Renzo Piano, et qui a monté cette exposition en un temps record. Et c'est un début magistral pour son tout nouveau directeur, Michael Govan, qui va présider ą l'ambitieuse transformation de l'institution californienne.

Que vont devenir les tableaux ? Maria Altmann a confirmé au Monde, dans un franćais impeccable, son intention de vendre les peintures ą un musée, plutôt qu'ą un collectionneur privé, "afin qu'elles restent accessibles au public, comme le souhaitaient [son] oncle et [sa] tante". Elle préférerait les voir rester ą Los Angeles : "Ma nouvelle patrie, la ville qui m'a accueillie quand j'ai fui les nazis." D'autant que de nombreux artistes européens ont trouvé refuge dans la ville californienne – Thomas Mann, Billy Wilder, Otto Preminger... Le Lacma avait d'ailleurs organisé, en 1997, une exposition "Exilés et émigrés : les artistes européens qui ont fui Hitler". Si Stéphanie Barron, conservatrice en chef de l'art moderne au Lacma, et Michael Govan, son directeur, rient nerveusement quand on leur demande s'ils ont l'intention d'acquérir ces cinq tableaux de Klimt, c'est sěrement ą cause de leur prix, estimé ą environ 300 millions de dollars. "Je peux confirmer que nous faisons des efforts pour les garder !", reconnaĒt M. Govan.

Une rumeur parle d'une vente aux enchŹres par la société Christie's, oĚ la mise ą prix du seul portrait AdŹle "dorée" pourrait dépasser les 100 millions de dollars. Les mésaventures des cinq tableaux, volés, confisqués, disputés puis récupérés, ne sont pas pour rien dans cette flambée.
Claudine Mulard
Article paru dans l'édition du 08.04.06