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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.

April 04, 2006|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 stage.

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 Reich.

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 rights?

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 patrimony.

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. emigre 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 more.

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.

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