Austria's stain on Klimt beauty

I returned from my visit to Vienna a few years ago laden with memorabilia of the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt - postcards, plus a colorful china cup. I'd been familiar with Klimt's early 20th century work, and my daughter once had a reproduction of his romantic painting "The Kiss" up on her teenage wall. But it wasn't until I went to Vienna that I fell under the esthetic spell of the Austrian artist, whose work is billed as one of the highlights of its modern art collection.

I mingled with other excited visitors in the magnificent rooms of the Belvedere Palace admiring the opulent paintings, including the sensuous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of several Klimt canvases given a place of national honor in its halls. The cup I bought bears her arrestingly elegant likeness. She was the wife of the industrialist and art collector Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. Her 1907 portrait was among six paintings the family commissioned from the artist. Drinking from my cup back home brought back the pleasure of the gorgeous paintings.

Then I read with a jolt last week's US Supreme Court decision in Republic of Austria v. Altmann. I learned that I and other captivated tourists were, in effect, hoodwinked into enchantment with Klimt's depictions. His world of golden beauty and light masked a somber and brutal secret: The very paintings featured as the jewel of Austrian national art last belonged to Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a Jew unceremoniously booted from the country in 1938 by Austria's Nazi regime. With utter sangfroid the country confiscated all his property, including the Klimts. He died in exile in 1945, willing his property to his nieces and nephews. But all that he'd accumulated during a lifetime in Austria was gone.

For the past 55 years, these Klimts have hung in Austrian national museums. The case of Republic of Austria v. Altmann represents the attempt of 88-year-old Maria Altmann, the last remaining niece, to recover them.

Ms. Altmann, who has been living in the US for 62 years since escaping Nazi Austria, turned to American courts as a last resort. She and her family began petitioning Austria, trying to recover the paintings, immediately after the end of World War II. The latest effort, started in 1999, was stymied by a formidable procedural hurdle: Before being allowed to appear before an Austrian judge, Altmann would have had to make a security deposit of $1.6 million, a percentage of the value of the property in issue. The Austrian court reduced this amount to $350,000, but when the government appealed, Altmann dropped the proceedings in Austria, and sued in US federal court in her home state of California. Austria countered that it was immune from being sued. In a procedural judgment last week, the Supreme Court rejected this defense, holding that US courts have jurisdiction to hear the claim. The merits of Altmann's argument that the paintings were illegally expropriated will now be argued in a lower court.

The facts of the case are complicated, and it is uncertain whether Altmann will ultimately prevail. One issue is whether Adele Bloch-Bauer, in fact, bequeathed the art to her country. She died in 1925, and her will gave the paintings to her husband, requesting they be donated to the state after his death.

But had she witnessed the next decade, in which her kin were hounded out of the country or killed, would Adele Bloch-Bauer have patriotically donated her Gustav Klimt collection to the nation that elevated persecution to policy?

I felt ashes in my mouth at the gall of Austria to display the paintings with such arrogant impunity. Had Adele Bloch-Bauer lived a little longer, her portrait might have hung in the national gallery while she was sent off to be exterminated. A national treasure? Why not note at a minimum the murky historical background?

Now I feel a stronger empathy with the frustration of a Greek who must travel to the British Museum in order to view the cornice of the Parthenon. Or the chagrin of an Egyptian who sees the tomb decorations from Luxor displayed in all their glory at the Louvre.

Whatever the outcome of Republic of Austria v. Altmann will be, I hope it, at the least, makes many thousands aware that there is a dark past to the lilting beauty so proudly displayed in the halls of Austrian museums. Today, when Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer looks out at me from my museum cup, I read irony in her intense enigmatic gaze.

Art cannot be divorced from history. All the enthusiastic tourist brochures in the world can't wash away the ugly stain that disfigures the Klimt canvases.

Helen Schary Motro, an American lawyer and writer teaching at the University of Tel Aviv law school, is author of the forthcoming 'Maneuvering Between the Headlines: An American Lives Through the Intifada.'

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