Theft And Lies In Vienna

Having stolen a Klimt masterpiece, the Nazis could only show it if they hid the Jewish identity of its subject

Nick Cohen

I don’t think I have hated a city so quickly and so thoroughly as I hated Vienna when I arrived in the mid-1990s. To me it was a chocolate-covered corpse. I had never had any trouble about visiting Germany. I admired the Germans for coming to terms with the legacies of Communism and Nazism and building a democratic republic. But Austria was something else.

It had not come to terms with its past. So great was its pretence that it had been Hitler’s victim rather than his collaborator, that as late as 1992 its president was Kurt Waldheim,  a Nazi officer who at the very least had witnessed war crimes in the Balkans then hid his complicity as his postwar career blossomed. Austria refused to pay compensation to the Nazis’ victims, and from 1970 onwards refused to investigate a remarkably large number of Austrians who were energetic Nazis. When my parents toured the Austrian Alps as a young couple in 1960, an approving woman told my stunned mother, “What a strong, tall husband, you have. He would have been in the SS in the war.”

My wife could not understand my almost physical revulsion. “There is so much to see,” she said. She was right. In the Belvedere and other galleries, Austria had a collection of Gustav Klimt’s paintings, which were among the most beautiful and erotic art modern Europe had produced. I saw two portraits of the Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer: one from 1912 in fashionable dress against a backdrop of flower-covered wallpaper; and one of her surrounded by gold leaf, which is so famous I barely need describe it.

The fate of the portraits and of three Klimt landscapes is the subject of two films. Woman in Gold has just transferred to DVD. In it, Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, who was about to start life with her husband in Vienna when the Nazis took power. As an old woman, living in Los Angeles, she discovers papers about her family’s failed attempt to persuade the Austrian government to return the five Klimts the Nazis looted from their apartment. She hires a young lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg (grandson of Arnold). Their case appears hopeless but Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, wins the right to contest Austrian ownership at the US Supreme Court. They fly to Vienna. A left-wing journalist finds the documents, which show that the Austrian state had no right to hold on to the pictures, and an arbitration panel agrees to return them.

The success of the film has led to film festivals reviving its inspiration, the 2007 documentary Stealing Klimt. It opens with words which sum up mid-20th-century Europe: “The Holocaust was not only one of the greatest murders in history, it was also one of the greatest thefts.” The real Schoenberg describes how the Austrian authorities did everything possible to prevent families reclaiming their property, and his own almost physical revulsion when he toured Viennese antique shops and wondered where all their stock had come from.  The appeal of the story is obvious. Against the odds, a woman running a dress shop in Los Angeles revisits the horror of her youth, and belatedly finds justice.

Yet neither film asks a question that goes to the root of our experience of art: why should we care? The fate of the Klimts makes my point. After her family’s paintings were restored, Maria Altmann sold Woman in Gold for $135 million to Ronald Lauder’s Neue Gallery in New York. It is on public display, as it was in Vienna, and no harm has been done. But anonymous private buyers bought the three Klimt landscapes and the flower portrait. Admittedly, the owner of the second portrait of Adele has loaned it to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, but he or she could take it away. The landscapes I admired in Vienna have vanished.

A painting hidden from public view is like a banned book: it might as well not exist. Justice for the rightful owners of a great work is all very well, but the rest of us might worry more about keeping it on public display.

The conflict is close to the difficulties raised by forged or falsely attributed paintings. Fake or Fortune, the BBC series, investigates whether a picture the owners assumed was genuine was truly the work of a master. For all their scholarship, the presenters never ask why provenance matters. If a fine view of the Seine turns out not to be the Renoir its owner believes it to be, so what? The picture remains as good. The reply that it would be worth ten times as much if it were a Renoir merely rephrases the question: why would it be worth so much?

The answer lies in our yearning for authenticity. We want to feel the connection to Renoir, and it would change the way we saw a painting if we knew it were the work of a minor artist or forger. Equally, most people want to know that murderers did not steal the picture in front of them. The Nazis understood this. As with the gas chambers, they knew they could not admit to their crimes.

The Klimt paintings they stole from the Bloch-Bauers passed through the hands of Dr Erich Fuehrer, a Nazi lawyer appointed by the Gestapo to liquidate the property. The Nazi authorities gave the two portraits of Adele to the Belvedere. Woman in Gold is a Nazi name bestowed when it first went on public display in 1943. The gallery could not call it Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer because it would reveal that Adele was Jewish and strongly imply that they had looted her picture.

When I visited the Belvedere in the 1990s, all its Klimts were on public view, compared with just two today. Their display was not the blessing it seemed because the gallery could not tell the truth — be authentic, if you like — without changing the way most visitors would have looked at them. Honesty would have required them to say: “This picture was taken at gunpoint. We have never compensated its rightful owners or secured their consent to hand it here. So keen were our predecessors to cover up the crime that they obliterated the sitter’s name and with it her Jewishness.”

If I — and I hope you — had read that, we would not have seen a work of luscious beauty in front of us but a crime scene, and demanded that the courts intervene.

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