When Klimt Was a Hard Sell in America

When Klimt Was a Hard Sell in America

It took years for Otto Kallir, founder of Vienna’s Neue Gallery, to arrange a one-person exhibition of works by Gustav Klimt. Today, many of his paintings in US museums passed through Kallir’s hands.
It took years for Otto Kallir, founder of Vienna’s Neue Gallery, to arrange a one-person exhibition of works by Gustav Klimt. Today, many of his paintings in US museums passed through Kallir’s hands.

I n 1940, the dealer Otto Kallir exhibited three paintings by Gustav Klimt at his newly established Galerie St. Etienne on 57th Street in New York. The show was called “Saved from Europe.” Besides the works of art on view, Kallir, with his wife and two children, were themselves also saved from the Nazis, who seized power in Austria in 1938 and drove him out of business. With the threat of far worse, they fled. 

In the press release for the show, Kallir, who was still learning English, called the pictures “European masterwork … which have … recently been brought to this country [and] have thus escaped destruction by air raids, fire or water, or, at best, the honor of wandering into some Nazi collection.”

The Klimt pictures were The Park, from 1910 or earlier, which filled the frame with green foliage; Pear Tree, 1903, a profusion of blossoms in green and yellow; and Island in the Attersee, 1901, the grand graceful play of sunlight on a mountain lake.

None of those Klimt pictures sold.

A year later, Galerie St. Etienne presented the first American one-person show of works by Egon Schiele. Drawing prices started at $20, and watercolors cost $60; again, none sold.

Klimt and Schiele were not taking the United States by storm. Neither artist at the time had a market or a reputation outside of Austria, and after America entered World War II in 1941, anything “Germanic” was tainted.

Over decades, Otto Kallir contributed to a fundamental transformation in American tastes. Many of the works by Klimt and Schiele in this country’s museums passed through his hands. More broadly, both artists benefitted from the exposure that Kallir’s gallery gave to Austrian modernism.

Left: Poster for the 1960 Egon Schiele Exhibition at the Institute of Conteporary Art, Boston. Right: OTTO KALLIR, 1972.

Kallir (1894–1978) was born Otto Nirenstein. The name, imposed derisively on his Jewish family in the late 18th century, sounds like Nierenstein, the German word for kidney-stone. Son of a Viennese lawyer, he began his career as an art publisher. Among his first publications was a 1922 a portfolio containing 10 reproductions of Klimt drawings, with an introduction by the then-director of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Gustav Glück.

In 1923, Kallir expanded beyond books and opened the Neue Galerie. The gallery’s first exhibition was devoted to Schiele, whom Kallir would show and promote in Austria and in the US for the rest of his life. Kallir published the first catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s paintings in 1930, the same year that he earned his doctorate in art history.

Gustav Klimt, Insel im Attersee (Island in the Attersee) (circa 1901–02). Oil on canvas. Estimate upon request

Showing Klimt was a greater challenge. It was hard for Kallir to get his hands on enough Klimt paintings to fill an exhibition. With great effort, the Neue Galerie managed to present a Klimt memorial show in 1926, thanks to loans from the sizable collection of Serena Lederer. Many of the Lederer family’s Klimts would later be seized by the Nazis and destroyed by fire. The need to save paintings from Europe was very real.

In 1933, the dealer officially changed his name from Nirenstein to Kallir, an earlier Hebraic family name. Kallir was already watching Germany with concern. After a 1937 trip to Munich, where he saw Nazi exhibition of “degenerate art,” he resolved never to return there.

Nazi troops marched into Austria in 1938 and seizures of property from Jews began. The dealer transferred the Neue Galerie to an “Aryan” employee. The Nazis took his car and the family’s passports, but Kallir was able to get the passports back, since no arrest warrant had been issued in his name. Not yet. 

Left: Gustav Klimt, The Park (1910 or earlier). Oil on canvas. Museum of Modern Art, New York (10.1957). Right: Gustav Klimt, Pear Tree (1903). Oil and casein on canvas. Harvard Art Museum (BR66.4).

With funds from the sale of an aeronautical collection (Kallir was fascinated with flight), the dealer relocated to Paris, which seemed like a good place to open an art gallery, until France denied residence visas to his wife and children. The family left by ship for New York. By November 1939, Galerie St. Etienne was operating on 57th Street, exhibiting but not selling much of the art that Kallir had “saved.”

In order to survive financially, Kallir broadened the gallery’s business. Impressed by the American landscape but disappointed by the images on souvenir postcards, he sent a friend with a camera to national parks and other sites and created a postcard company to sell those images. Kallir himself put his family in a car and traveled to the American Southwest, where he bought Indigenous art and santos, New Mexican folk sculptures of Christian saints, that he showed and sold at the gallery.

The Austrian dealer was uninspired by mainstream American contemporary art. Yet work by all sorts of self-taught artists moved him. In 1940, an odd Hungarian collector showed Kallir some paintings by an elderly woman, and said he had more in the trunk of a car that was parked in the Bronx. Suspecting the Hungarian might be a Nazi agent, Kallir brought his teenaged son, John, along to the Bronx for security.

Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, Out for Christmas Trees (1946). Smithsonian American Art Museum, gift of Jane Kallir

That elderly artist was Anna Marie Robertson Moses, an 80-year-old self-taught landscape painter from upstate New York. Kallir showed her work, wrote her biography and licensed images of her work to greeting card companies. Within a decade, thanks to astute merchandising and the new medium of television, the Austrian immigrant helped make “Grandma” Moses one of the best-known artists in the United States. At a time when few American museums cared to exhibit Klimt or Schiele, they lined up to show Moses. A bona-fide celebrity, “Grandma” Moses kept the gallery afloat in the immediate postwar period.

Klimt and Schiele remained a hard sell in the US until the late 1950s. Kallir primed the pump by giving one of his three foundational Klimt landscapes, Pear Tree, to Harvard in 1956. A year later, he sold another, The Park, to the Museum of Modern Art for $4,000.

Finally, in 1959, Kallir succeeded in bringing together 14 oil paintings at Galerie St. Etienne for Klimt’s first American one-person show. Most of the pictures from that exhibition are now in museums in the US.

In 1960, Kallir collaborated with Thomas M. Messer, then director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, on the first US museum retrospective devoted to Egon Schiele. Messer subsequently became director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, and at Kallir’s instigation, he mounted a major exhibition of works by Klimt and Schiele in 1965.

Gustav Klimt, Baby (1917–18). Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

A crowning moment came in 1978, just a few months before Kallir’s death: he agreed to donate Klimt’s Baby (which he had bought from the family of the Austrian-born stage-designer Josef Urban), to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, for display in its recently opened East Wing. A Klimt painting was now in galleries that seemed conceived as a portal to a new era, just steps away from the Capitol.

The deal, part donation and part purchase, affirmed Kallir’s gratitude toward his adopted country, not only for saving him and his family but for giving sanctuary to the art he loved. Writing to an Austrian journalist in 1957, he mused that, despite his initially poor command of English, America was far more welcoming than Austria. “[I] had to begin from scratch,” he wrote, “but everywhere one found benevolent interest and a willingness to help. And so, from 1939 on, I was able to build up something here that would never have been possible in Vienna, my home city.”

Impressionist & Modern Art

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