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  • Portrait of a cultural battle
    06.04.2006 By Christopher Knight, Times Staff Writer

  • The display of looted Klimt paintings at LACMA raises questions about national ownership and the fate of great works of art.

    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.

    This local history is reflected in the permanent collection at LACMA, where the Klimt exhibition is on view through June. The museum's Rifkind Center for German Expressionist Studies, with 5,000 works on paper by German and Austrian artists and a library of more than 4,000 related volumes, is a collection unparalleled in the United States. Through exhibitions, LACMA has also carved out a unique place among major American art museums by telling an alternative history of early 20th century art — one not centered in Paris, as most histories of the period are, but in Central Europe and Russia. Among a half-dozen such shows are 1991's "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" and 1997's "Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler."

    This kind of patrimony claim, whether Vienna or L.A. for Klimt or Italy for antiquities, is tribal or nationalistic. "National and local self-esteem are sacred writ in international protocols," observed David Lowenthal, professor emeritus at London's University College, in a recent essay titled "Heritage Wars" for the online magazine Spiked. Art is tied to a specific milieu by an idea known as essentialism, which holds that art embodies fixed traits representing a group of people.

    From there, it's a short step to presuming the art belongs with them. Lowenthal, dismissing such claims as "possessive jealousies," asserts instead that "Essentialism is a persistent delusion ... politically correct but practically wrong — wrong because we are all multiply mixed, wrong because ancestral pasts cannot be possessed anyway."

    Using art as an ancestral symbol attempts to create a history, not record it, he believes.

    The primary opposing notion is the cosmopolitan view — the claim that art represents the aspirations of humanity, so any artwork finally belongs to the world. Historical art's specific location is thus of little concern, as long as works of major consequence are publicly accessible.

    Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, a champion of cosmopolitanism, wrote recently in the New York Review of Books that tribal and national claims can even fly in the face of the greatest art, which is often flamboyantly international. "If the argument for cultural patrimony is that the art belongs with the culture that gives it its significance," he noted, "most art doesn't belong to a national culture at all."

    That is certainly the case with the Euphronios Krater, a painted Greek vase found in an Etruscan tomb in what became, thousands of years later, a country called Italy. Is the cultural worth of the vase Greek, Etruscan or Italian? Italy emerged as a nation 150 years ago from a collection of kingdoms and city-states; like Austria, the new country also struggled to forge a national identity. Historic cultural artifacts served that purpose.

    "This is a political statement [by Italy]," said Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello of the krater's return, accepting the legal judgment while dismissing the cultural patrimony claim at a panel discussion last month.

    In the emerging showdown between essentialism and cosmopolitanism, one trump card may be something less abstruse and more blunt than philosophy. Altmann has said Klimt's great golden portrait of Adele must be sold, because her family does not have the means to donate the work to LACMA or another museum, which is where she would like it to be. Valuation is an inexact science, but published estimates of the portrait's market value are in excess of $100 million. For capitalist cultures, art objects belong to the highest bidder. In those terms, economic might makes cultural right.