Wednesday, June 10, 2015

All that Glitters: Why Woman in Gold Embodies the Inevitable Moral Victory of Art Restitution

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, by Gustav Klimt 
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Woman in Gold addresses an ongoing debate about the importance of art restitution.  In particular, it chastises those who refuse to return valuable artwork bequeathed to them as a direct result of the Nazi party's innumerable, blatant thefts.  Unfortunately, even when a painting's illegal seizure can be proven, its current caretaker is often unwilling to part with his or her ill-gotten artwork.  This was indeed the case for Maria Altmann, whose uncle commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife--Maria's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer-- which later became known as Woman in Gold (left).

After unsuccessfully pursuing several legal avenues to reclaim her aunt's portrait, Maria Altmann finally found a court that agreed to hear her case.  Among the justifications stated against the restitution of Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a.k.a. Woman in Gold, was fear of the "Pandora's Box" it would open up for other families wronged by the Nazi party.  In Maria Altmann's case, Austria feared losing the famous painting it considered to be Vienna's crowning jewel, and anticipated that its loss would have a devastating effect on the community.  What Austria failed to articulate is why its fear of fair consequences (concerning art restitution) deserved precedence over the opportunity to offset a small measure of the previous injustices committed against its citizens.  Surely, the households torn apart by rampant Nazi looting were paralyzed by fear, as their cherished possessions were stolen without remorse.  Furthermore, there are no words or actions that could speak loudly enough to ease the pain, loss and haunting memories of Halocaust victims and survivors.  Therefore, when so few options exist to aid the emotional healing of the Third Reich's decimated Jewish population, why would anyone argue against one of the only practical methods available:  art restitution?

By capitalizing on the popular ideology that art "belongs" to "the people," many privileged fine art collectors attempt to dodge social justice through the illusion of benevolence.  For example, by displaying Woman in Gold in a prominent Vienna art gallery, Austria hoped to establish the general consensus that it would be a greater crime to withdraw and deny public access, than to refuse restitution.  While this precedent may adequately complicate any attempted restitution to the victims of large-scale architectural works of art--such as the Egyptian pyramids or Great Wall of China--it should not apply to acutely transportable fine art.  Architectural accomplishments involved large-scale victimization of countless, nameless individuals; determining who deserves compensation would be next to impossible, and then restitution would potentially require dis-assembly.  On the other hand, small-scale art, such as paintings, often have clearly established victims and beneficiaries.  The only complication becomes the necessary inconvenience to the established beneficiary.

Fortunately, the public is becoming increasingly aware of and  vocal about humanity's crimes against itself.  Thanks to the persistence of Maria Altmann,and many like her, we are beginning to take responsibility for the atrocities of the previous generations.  By shifting our focus from avoiding blame to encouraging healing, we are finally able to work together to reunite valuable artwork with the families from whom they were stolen.  A cursory review of art restitution might make it appear to punish the beneficiaries for accepting stolen gifts; however, this is an oversimplification of the debate on whether or not "two wrongs make a right."  Restitution, at its core, simply seeks to treat the festering wounds of social injustice.

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