Klimt’s Last Retrospective


By Monica Strauss

Published November 07, 2007, issue of November 09, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Museum officials are calling the exhibition now on display at New York’s Neue Galerie America’s first-ever Gustav Klimt retrospective. But can the eight paintings and 120 drawings on view be considered a true “retrospective”? The exhibition is not drawn from a variety of sources; it is, rather, made up of a single — albeit impressive — collection. At its heart, the show is just as much a tribute to the efforts of the two men who have amassed it — the late art dealer Serge Sabarsky and the cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder — as it is a tribute to the artist himself. Then again, despite Klimt’s ever-growing popularity, no country, not even his native Austria, could mount an exhibition that does full justice to the artist’s career.

The last show to do Klimt “justice” was held in Vienna in 1943 under the auspices of Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler-appointed Gauleiter, or overseer, of the city. Though nominally a celebration of what would have been the artist’s 80th year, the exhibition was more accurately a display of looted art. Although not specifically deemed “degenerate,” Klimt was certainly an artist whom the leaders in Berlin considered decadent. Nonetheless, von Schirach, with the confidence of a Nazi favorite — he had headed the Hitler Youth movement, and his wife was the daughter of Hitler’s official photographer — was not averse to stepping out of line when it came to culture.

And so, on February 7, 1943, he unveiled an exhibition featuring 66 Klimt paintings and 34 Klimt drawings at the Exhibition Hall Friedrichstrasse. During the month that the show was open, 24,000 Viennese flocked to see it. Included in the exhibition were the trailblazing works expropriated from a leading Jewish family.

Serena and August Lederer had been far more than devoted patrons of the artist. Their holdings included the intellectual capstone of Klimt’s career, the monumental images of the faculties of “Philosophy,” “Medicine” and “Jurisprudence” intended for the auditorium of the University of Vienna. Far from being embraced as masterpieces, the paintings, when unveiled in 1905, were deemed “pornographic.” To help the artist weather the storm, August financed the placement of the paintings in his collection and in others. A decade later, Klimt’s 1902 Beethoven Frieze, the nearly 35-meter-long homage to the power of the composer’s art, also came into Lederer’s hands, along with the preparatory drawings. And in 1928, 10 years after the artist’s death, the Lederers acquired the much acclaimed early paintings “Music” and “Schubert at the Piano.” A critic had deemed the latter “the finest painting ever made by an Austrian.”

When the Nazis took over Austria in 1938, August had been dead two years. A year later, Serena, after trying in vain to save the collection, fled to Budapest, where she died in 1943. The Klimts were taken over by the state with the usual rationale that they constituted partial payments for debts owed by the Lederer industries. Several Vienna museums competed for the magnificent quarry, but up to the time of the 1943 exhibition, no decision had been reached as to the collection’s destination.

Von Schirach’s Klimt retrospective ended up being the last hurrah of his ambitious Austrian cultural program. The war’s turning point had come just a few days before the exhibition opened with the surrender of the Germans at Stalingrad. By March 1943, the entire Third Reich had been mobilized for “total war,” and, as the threat posed by air raids became increasingly real, it was determined that the Klimts would be better off in storage. Soon after the exhibition closed, more than 10 paintings from the Lederer collection, including the three faculty pictures — along with a number of other Klimt canvases — were hidden in a castle in Immendorf, a hamlet in lower Austria not far from the Czech border. (The Beethoven Frieze was stored elsewhere.) In May 1945, as the Russians came over that border, the German unit that had been garrisoned in the castle retreated, but not before laying explosives. Between May 8 and May 11, the building and its contents burned to the ground.

Among the paintings on view in the 1943 retrospective were three Lederer family portraits: Klimt had painted not only Serena herself, but also her mother and her daughter. Since these were pictures of Jewish women (and hence not given names in the exhibition catalog), they were not considered important enough to be hidden. The portrait of Serena’s mother never surfaced after the war, but the other two re-emerged at auctions and were returned to the Lederers’ son, Eric, who died in Geneva in 1985. The two remaining portraits are now in New York: The image of Serena is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; the painting of her daughter, though not in the current exhibition, belongs to Ronald Lauder.

Monica Strauss, an art historian and journalist, is currently writing a book about Klimt’s Jewish patrons.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.