NEW YORK – Art from fin de siècle Vienna has been a favorite since my semester study abroad in Austria. The taut pull of multiple styles gives energy to the paintings and prints – even the pillows – produced by Schiele, Kokoschka, et al. With good cause these artists professed to have seceded from the staid traditions of the Austro-Hungarian imperial past.
It was thus with great anticipation that I visited the Neue Galerie, opened a dozen years ago just up 5th Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Neue’s dedicated to showcasing the Vienna Secessionists’ works. “Showcase” is indeed the word, for the art is displayed amid the lustrous appointments of a circa-1914 mansion.
The art did not disappoint. Especially stunning were the golden, otherworldly portraits of the women of Klimt‘s world. Among the most famous is the one at top, of socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer – a painting I had admired years ago at an Austrian national museum.
In 2006 that museum handed the 1907 portrait over to Maria Altmann, the Bloch-Bauer niece who fought for years to reclaim it and other artworks looted from her family when the Nazis overtook Austria. As lawyers well know, a watershed in her struggle came in 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-1 against Austria’s contention that sovereign immunity shielded it from Altmann’s lawsuit. That holding set the stage for the 2006 arbitral award of 5 looted Klimts to Altmann, and for her sale of Adele to the Neue Galerie. (In 2011, Altmann, then 94 years old, died at her Southern California home.)
My visit to Neue thus brought some disappointment. The judicial story was not to be found in the exhibit, nor even in a gift shop children’s book that purported to trace Adele‘s provenance. At least for this lawyer, that absence seemed a missed opportunity to show that even in the world of art, law may serve justice.