Galerie St Etienne honours Otto Kallir, it's founder and the saviour of “degenerate art”

"Saved From Europe" commemorates the man who brought art condemned by the Nazis to the US and worked for the restitution of looted art


Galerie St Etienne has from the beginning been at the heart of émigré art world and “Saved from Europe” is the gallery’s sixtieth anniversary commemorative show. The title was originally coined by the gallery’s founder, Otto Kallir, for an exhibition of Austrian and German modern art at his fledgling gallery in 1940. Mr Kallir’s abandoned Neue Galerie had stood in the shadow of Vienna’s famous Cathedral of St Stephen and, after fleeing Nazi Austria, he named his New York gallery in its honour.

As recounted in the current show’s reverential catalogue by Mr Kallir’s granddaughter, Jane (who is co-director of the gallery with Otto Kallir’s longtime partner, Hildegard Bachert), the works of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka that he had managed to save from Europe had no market in the American art world of the 1940s, so Mr Kallir steadily set in motion an education programme.

He mounted the first American one-man shows of each of these artists, and over the course of his career sold or donated some of their best work to prominent collections and museums. Notable among those on loan to the current show is Oskar Kokoschka’s “London, large Thames view I” which was, Jane Kallir points out, “the first major painting that my grandfather ever sold in this country; the only painting sold from Kokoschka’s first American exhibition and, I believe, one of the first Kokoschkas to enter an American museum (the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 1941)”.

Egon Schiele’s “Portrait of an old man (Johann Harms)” was “the very first Schiele that my grandfather ever acquired, back in Vienna, which he gave to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in gratitude for all that Tom Messer (then director) had done to help introduce Schiele to the broader American public.”

Gustav Klimt’s “Baby” is on loan from the National Gallery in Washington, which, I believe, is the first time that the National Gallery has ever loaned to a commercial gallery.” Mr Kallir had acquired the painting in the early 1960s from the designer and fellow refugee Joseph Urban, and held onto it until donating it “just months before he died. It was certainly one of the most meaningful donations he ever made because it was the National Gallery, the nation’s museum.”

In addition to showing “degenerate art” rescued from war-torn Europe, Mr Kallir helped people flee Nazi persecution and, in the long term, strived to secure some sort of viable post-war future for his benighted former homeland. As Jane Kallir commented recently, “Art was the thing that he believed in, and it also came to represent for him

that part of the Austrian soul

and spirit that couldn’t be destroyed.” After the war, he tried to help people in the recovery of art that had been confiscated by the Nazi regime.

Otto Kallir’s first job in Vienna had been at the Galerie Würthle, where he published limited edition art prints, the best-known being first editions of Schiele’s etchings and lithographs. The owner of the Galerie Würthle, Lea Bondi-Jaray, was forced to sell it to the Nazi dealer Friedrich Welz for a token sum and give him, outright, her Schiele painting, “Portrait of Wally” (see pp. 23-24). After the war, instead of formally claiming restitution of the painting, she asked Rudolf Leopold, who was establishing a major Schiele collection, to recover the painting for her from the Osterreichische Gallery (Austrian National Gallery), where it had ended up.

Years later, Lea Bondi discovered the painting exhibited as part of the Mr Leopold’s collection in an Austrian museum and, assisted by Otto Kallir, continued for the rest of her life to attempt to reclaim it. Jane Kallir has helped to negotiate on behalf of her estate with the Austrian authorities. “The file of documentation that my grandfather assembled in trying to get Lea Bondi’s picture back for her became an important piece of evidence in the MoMA Schiele case.”

Looking back on the legacy of Otto Kallir, his granddaughter concedes that, “The internationalisation of the American art world was facilitated by Hitler’s cultural purges, which sent both people and objects all over the world, specifically to New York. There were so many horrible things that resulted from that war, but this cultural diaspora was in some ways a positive thing. My grandfather certainly suffered very much from it, but he said, in his later years that he would never, never have been able to achieve what he did had he remained in Vienna.”

She identifies various categories of art that made their way to these shores. First of all, there was art brought to the US by refugees: “This wasn’t a black-and-white situation and I think a lot of people who are coming in now with the best of intentions to help with restitution tend to see this in black-and-white. In fact there are a lot of grey areas. A lot of the art wasn’t worth much. It had been declared degenerate by Hitler so there was absolutely no market for it in the most natural market, which would have been Austria and Germany, and people needed to survive. It was a way to live for my grandfather and for many other people. So you had refugees who came here with art and that helped to seed the art market and to get things moving again.”

Second, “There is the work that was confiscated from German museums and was being sold, first of all at the Fischer auction in Lucerne, and then later in Paris and other European centres. Of course, that stuff is stolen art and clearly tainted. Technically, however, it is not looted art because it was taken from German museums by a German regime”.

Otto Kallir, who attended the Fischer auction, refused to purchase any of the work, “Not just because he considered it to be stolen, but, I think, even more because he didn’t want to finance the German war machine.” Other dealers, “such as Curt Valentin of the Buchholz Gallery”, says Ms Kallir, “saw the purging of German museums as a business opportunity.”

Thirdly, there were works of art confiscated from Jewish individuals and galleries which are still, sixty years later, being reclaimed. About this, Jane Kallir says, her grandfather felt so strongly that, as the story goes, when a refugee came into the gallery and said, “That painting belonged to my family,” Kallir responded, “Here, then take it.” However, Jane Kallir reminds us, “One of the points of that story is also that, at the time, it was not a big deal financially to give this stuff back. All of this is much magnified today because the values have risen.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The saviour of “degenerate art”'