Close your eyes, breathe in deeply, now exhale slowly… That was easy, wasn’t it? Not for everyone…
Although each element of a painting – from materials to tools – is finite, paintings are infinite things for which we use terms like “canonic,” “High Art” and “spiritual.” But art is, in effect, a commodity. However ornate one considers a sculpture, it is someone’s property. Whatever beautiful brushwork a painting might boast, it is a tangible thing – crafted of wood, canvas and paints made from the earth. Indeed, the temptation to attribute to art transcendent properties – a practice as old as art itself – turns it into essentially the kind of idolatrous decadence about which the Second Commandment warns us.
It should come as no surprise, then, that disputes about ownership of paintings often erupt. The general public can usually expect to be reminded that paintings are property only when someone tries to vandalize the art (as when a student stuck gum to a Frankenthaler painting in Detroit several months ago), when a painting brings a large sum at auction, or when it is stolen; in short, when it makes news. Recently, a group of paintings by Austrian (non-Jewish) painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) has made the news by qualifying for the last two media-grabbing explanations. One of the paintings from a group stolen from Jewish owners by the Nazis recently sold for a record $135 million to the Neue Galerie in New York.
Klimt’s painting, titled “Bloch-Bauer l” (1907), is being hailed as an Austrian “Mona Lisa” of sorts. Ronald Lauder, president and co-founder of the Neue Galerie, called it “a once in a lifetime acquisition, and a defining moment for the Neue Galerie,” even suggesting that the portrait was “one of [Klimt’s] greatest works of art. We are overjoyed to be able to give Adele Bloch-Bauer a permanent home at the Neue Galerie. Her presence will enrich the museum immeasurably.” Renée Price, who directs the gallery, stopped just short of calling the painting as important as “Mona Lisa,” focusing instead on its significance to the museum’s collection. “This painting is as important to the Neue Galerie as the Mona Lisa is to the Louvre.”
“Bloch-Bauer” rose to publicity for similar reasons. Adele Bloch-Bauer, the Jewish wife of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the wealthy Jewish sugar merchant, was the only woman Klimt painted twice in a full-length pose. Like discussions surrounding da Vinci and Mona Lisa, many speculate (these are only rumors) that Klimt and Bloch-Bauer had a secret liaison. The proponents of this theory point to the “numerous open-eye and almond shapes in the painting”, “the great tenderness” with which the painting is rendered, and the manner in which Bloch-Bauer “is ennobled by her regal setting”.
But for our purposes, the real question surrounding Bloch-Bauer’s portrait concerns whether it is a work of art. I see this column as an opportunity to raise readers’ awareness about art that they might not otherwise encounter in their day-to-day lives, and to address those works in a language that is relevant to all Jews and art admirers. I do not see this column as a platform from which to attack other art critics’ columns.
However, a recent column by chief New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman is particularly worthy of discussion. Under the title, “Klimts Go To Market; Museums Hold Their Breath” (9/19/06), Kimmelman asks some very provocative questions about what it means to own a painting and to potentially reclaim it. “How sad – if unsurprising – to hear that the heirs of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer are indeed cashing in, as planned, and selling four Klimts at Christie’s in November,” Kimmelman begins. “A story about justice and redemption after the Holocaust has devolved into yet another tale of the crazy, intoxicating art market.”
I do not know if Kimmelman is a Jew, and frankly it does not matter one stitch. He is one of my favorite art critics to read, and he almost always comments on art in a manner that is creative and insightful, if not downright brilliant. In this column, he wonders, “Wouldn’t it have been remarkable (I’m just dreaming here) if the heirs had decided instead to donate one or more of the paintings to a public institution? Or, failing that, to negotiate a private sale to a museum at a price below the auction house estimates of $15 million to $60 million?”
He concludes the column: “How refreshing this story would have been had the Bloch-Bauers conceived a way to ensure that that birch landscape, say, ended up in public hands. In so doing, they would have earned not just public sympathy for their family’s struggle but also an enduring share of public gratitude. They would have underscored the righteousness of their battle for restitution and in the process made clear that art, even in these money-mad days, isn’t only about money. Heck, they would even have gotten a tax break.”
The pieces, currently on view at the Neue Galerie, should be viewed. Two paintings show Adele Bloch-Bauer, while the other three show a birch forest, an apple tree and houses at Unterach on the Attersee. I am not sure that I agree that the Klimt paintings are more worthy of inspection than the Kokoschka and Schiele paintings in the previous room at the gallery. But I think Jewish art lovers should see the work and be seen at the Neue Galerie.
Kimmelman is right, in a sense, that “art should be art” and that we should try to commodify it as little as possible. The people I spoke with who tell me that they want to get every penny they can back from the Holocaust settlements are right, as are the ones who tell me they want no “blood money” back. The interesting point here, though, is the invasion of politics and law into the museum and, cast in that light, the paintings look eerily different.
In the Neue Galerie, which now houses the most highly priced painting ever sold, Klimt’s use of gold and silver in his portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer lends them a Midas-like touch. Compositions that otherwise may have been seen as triangles and circles are difficult to perceive as anything but curvaceous dollar signs. Perhaps Adele Bloch-Bauer seems firmer in her poses because of the stubbornness of her niece, who fought to win back her family’s legacy. But she also seems apologetic for the whole commotion. However, the story of these paintings is anything but a clear-cut one. They are simultaneously private and public, a source of pride and pain while beautiful and grossly ugly.
Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.
If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.
Comments are closed.
An impressive group of counselors and staff members are providing the boys and girls with a summer of fun and Torah learning and a lifetime of wonderful memories.
Rabbi Sam Intrator recently led a summer program in Williams Island, located in Aventura. The event focused on how to find spiritual joy in Judaism. The rabbi cited biblical and Talmudic teachings, ancient Temple rituals, and the words of prayers to establish the role that love and positive thinking have in Torah values. Rabbi Intrator […]
There are so many toys available for newborn to age 5, but how do you choose?
In 1939, with life getting harder for Jews, she and several friends decided it was time to make aliyah, and applied at the Palestina Amt for permits.
I am not sure how many of you readers have had this experience, but I did and it truly tested the limits of my sanity!
Aside from my own 485-page tome on the subject, Red Army, I think Jamie Glazov did an excellent job at framing things in United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror.
We studied his seforim together, we listened to famous cantorial masters and we spoke of his illustrious yichus, his pedigree, dating back to the famous commentator, Rashi.
Jews who were considered, but not ultimately selected, include Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, David Ben-Gurion, Marc Chagall, Anne Frank, and Barbra Streisand.
The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”
It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.
One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)
Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.
It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.
Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.
The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?
Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.
Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/should-looted-art-from-the-holoucast-be-returned-a-response-to-michael-kimmelman/2006/10/18/
Scan this QR code to visit this page online: