If you’ve seen any of my previous blog posts, you’ll know that I’m an art history afficianado. You may not know, however, that my primary area of interest is a bit peculiar. I am interested in art crimes and cultural heritage protection. In fact, I will be pursuing a post-graduate degree in the field this upcoming summer – but more on that another time. My first real training in the field was last year when I participated in the Provenance Research Training Program in Magdeburg, Germany, which is a course dedicated to the theories and methodologies involved in studying art that was destroyed, stolen, looted, or otherwise obtained by the Nazi regime during World War II.
I could go on and on about the topic, and I’m sure you’ll hear more about it in future blog posts, but today, I want to focus on two paintings that I came across in Gallery Direct’s growing collection of modern masters. Namely, Gustav Klimt‘s Garden Path with Chickens and Hygieia (a detail from his painting Medicine). Along with thousands of other works of art, these two paintings were destroyed by Axis forces during the war.
By all accounts, Hygieia is an exemplar of Klimt’s so-called Golden Phase, which prominently featured stunning figures, usually women, rendered in bold colors (the most well known example being The Kiss). Hygieia, a figure from Ancient Greek mythology, is the focal point of his painting Medicine, one of three paintings Klimt made for the University of Vienna. The goddess of health, well-being, and hygiene, she was the daughter of the god of medicine, Asclepius. Klimt depicts her holding in one hand the cup of Lethe, symbolizing one of the rivers of the underworld, and in the other, the Asclepian snake, which symbolized healing and the renewal of health. By juxtaposing a symbol of death and a symbol of life, Klimt represents life and death not as too diametric opposites, but rather as two parts of a single, unified cycle. Klimt’s use of mythological allegories in his paintings is one of the aspects of his work as a symbolist that are so unique. Along with the other two paintings commissioned to Klimt for the University of Vienna, Medicine was rejected as pornographic, and went on instead to be featured in the Tenth Exhibition of the Vienna Secession in 1901.
After the exhibition, it was purchased by Klimt’s friend and fellow Vienna Secession artist, Koloman Moser, and it eventually passed into the collection of a Jewish family. Sadly, the collection was seized in 1938 bythe Third Reich, as Jewish property was deemed to be the property of the German state. This was the case with thousands of families and millions of objects, many of which are still missing to this day.
Garden Path with Chickens is not what one would consider a “typical” Klimt painting. Created in 1917, the colorful garden scene demonstrates that in addition to his groundbreaking subject matter and style, Klimt was also a precise and masterful technician of his craft. The detail of each individual flower and the considered blending of colors demonstrate how dedicated Klimt was to perfecting even the most minute and intricate aspects of his compositions. Garden Path was incorporated into the collection of Erich Lederer, which, along with many other works, including Medicine, was relocated to the Schloss Immendorf in Austria at the beginning of World War II, ostensibly for safekeeping.
Throughout the war, countless objects, monuments, and landmarks were stolen, destroyed, or defaced, but even after the fall of the Third Reich, the damage continued. After the Nazi regime fell and SS troops were instructed to return to Germany, they left a path of destruction in their wake. One victim was the Schloss Immendorf, which was destroyed by a fire set by Nazi troops on their way out of Austria.
All of the paintings within were completely lost, so all that remains of them today are the artist’s preliminary sketches and photographs. That is, perhaps, what makes it so remarkable that we are able to have these two paintings at Gallery Direct, as we ensure that while the originals may be lost, and can surely never be replaced, the memory of the paintings and the horrific way in which they were lost endures.