Otto Kallir and Egon Schiele

By Jane Kallir [published by Neue Galerie New York, 2005]

It is today widely recognized that Austria at the turn of the last century generated groundbreaking achievements in an array of disciplines ranging from music and philosophy to literature, architecture, design and psychology. In the fine arts, Egon Schiele is acknowledged among a pantheon of greats that includes Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Richard Gerstl. One of the most concrete manifestations of Schiele’s flourishing reputation can be found in his voluminous bibliography. My 1990 Schiele catalogue raisonné cited 200 significant publications and 225 major exhibitions, and the parade of books and shows has since markedly quickened its pace. A recent search for Schiele publications on yielded over 800 items. Moreover, at a time when aesthetic and market values have become inextricably intertwined, Schiele prices have now equaled or surpassed those of many French artists who once dominated America’s view of modernism.


Indeed, Egon Schiele is so broadly accepted that it is hard to remember that such was not always the case. In 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne in New York introduced Schiele to the United States in a group exhibition titled “Saved from Europe.” As its name suggests, this show featured a variety of paintings by such masters as Max Beckmann, André Derain, Gustav Klimt, Pablo Picasso, Paul Signac, Maurice Utrillo and Maurice Vlaminck, all of which had been “saved” by the gallery’s founder, Otto Kallir (fig. 1), * a recent emigré from Nazi-occupied Austria. “A good many of these canvases by reputable Europeans are definitely worth saving from the threat of disaster in Europe, whence they recently have come to this country,” noted a reviewer in the New York Herald Tribune. “We are not so sure, however, that the reception here to the paintings of Schiele and Klimt will be all that may be expected for them. It is difficult to awaken enthusiasm at this time for artists so little known and appreciated here and for many years passed from the contemporary scene in Europe.”


Subsumed within the German Reich from 1938 to 1945, Austria had little international profile in its own right, and all aspects of Germanic culture were tarnished by association with the Nazi regime. Consequently, the indifference to Klimt and Schiele expressed by the Herald Tribune was to prevail in the United States for at least another fifteen to twenty years. Otto Kallir nevertheless remained undaunted, and in 1941 he mounted Schiele’s first American one-man show. Kallir knew that in order to foster a market for the artist, he would have to begin with exceedingly low prices. Consequently, he asked around $20 each for drawings, and $60 for watercolors (roughly $225 and $700 respectively in present-day dollars). Still, only one work sold: a small oil painting for $250 (today about $2,800) to a refugee collector who paid off the balance over a year and a half in monthly installments of $13. A big sale was the bulk purchase, in 1944, of twelve Schiele works on paper for a total of $270 (now approximately $3,000) by a German refugee dealer. “Only French drawings are salable,” Kallir noted in a letter to a colleague who had emigrated to London. “If one has low prices, . . . one can sell the Impressionists and, above all, Picasso.”


Unfamiliarity with Austrian art and anti-Germanic prejudice on the part of the American press and public were not the only problems confronting Kallir. Weak sales were also due in part to the lingering effects of the Great Depression and the hovering threat of war. And Kallir suffered all the other problems common to Jewish refugees from Hitler: unnerving memories of Nazi persecution and anti-Semitism, worries about friends and relatives who had remained behind, a paucity of personal and professional contacts in America and a deeply flawed command of English. Kallir was lucky to have sufficient savings to launch the Galerie St. Etienne, but he could not afford to bankroll a money-losing venture for any length of time.


Under these circumstances, it may seem surprising that Kallir did not give up on Schiele after his rather lackluster showing in the 1940 and ’41 exhibitions. However, Kallir was fervently committed to this artist, who had long been an integral part of his professional life. The future art dealer had been introduced to Schiele’s work by the critic Max Roden when all three men were serving in the Austrian army during World War I. At Roden’s suggestion, Kallir wrote to the artist and inquired about commissioning a portrait. Schiele replied that for 100 kronen, he would produce three drawings, of which one would be colored, and the sitter could take his pick from the group. However, the commission came to naught, for Kallir did not have the money to pay, and his father, a conservative Viennese attorney, refused to lend it to him.


It may be said that Kallir spent the rest of his life compensating for this lost opportunity. His first professional venture into the arts was as a publisher of deluxe illustrated books and limited edition prints, and his best remembered achievement in that line was a portfolio of Egon Schiele’s etchings and lithographs, issued in 1922. The following year, Kallir opened his first gallery in Vienna, the original Neue Galerie, with a major Schiele retrospective. In 1928, on the tenth anniversary of Schiele’s death, he organized an even larger retrospective in conjunction with the non-profit Hagenbund. Two years later, in 1930, he authored the first catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s oil paintings. By documenting Schiele’s oeuvre at a time when most of the works were still owned by the Schiele family or by collectors who had acquired them directly from the artist, Kallir performed a service that could never have been duplicated later, after the paintings were more widely dispersed. Kallir's 1930 catalogue raisonné has also become a key source for documenting the prewar ownership of collections that were plundered during the Holocaust.


Hitler’s Anschluss, which forced Kallir to abandon both the Neue Galerie and his homeland, did not in any way undermine his commitment to Schiele. On the contrary: Schiele for him became emblematic of the “good” Austria, the untrammeled core that Kallir hoped would ultimately transcend and survive Nazi rule. Establishing Schiele in America meant not just securing the reputation of an artist whose work he adored, but salvaging a seemingly lost piece of Austria’s cultural heritage. And so Kallir persevered.


In 1948, on the thirtieth anniversary of the artist’s death, the Galerie St. Etienne presented another Schiele exhibition. Now that the war was over, trade with Europe had resumed, and Kallir managed to retrieve from Paris a group of works that had been stored there since 1939. He also combed the American refugee community for Schieles, at one point placing a solicitation in the German-language newspaper Aufbau. Though the ad produced no responses, Kallir was successful in locating a number of collectors who either had emigrated with their Schieles or recovered them after 1945. Heinrich Schwarz, an art historian who would in 1961 draft a preliminary catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s prints, had brought ten works out of Austria. Hannah Spitzer, daughter of Schiele’s lawyer Alfred Spitzer, owned at least nine watercolors and drawings, plus several early oils. Robert Rieger, the son of Heinrich Rieger (who was murdered by the Nazis and much of whose vast Schiele collection disappeared), had been able to take at least fourteen drawings to New York. Friederike Beer-Monti, the only woman to be painted by both Schiele and Klimt, managed to bring both paintings to the U.S., along with several drawings and many Wiener Werkstätte objects. The illustrator/art critic B.F. Dolbin had at least eight works on paper and three oils.


All these Schieles, brought to the United States by Jewish emigrés, were free of Nazi taint, but Kallir was acutely aware that many, many other artworks had been stolen during the Hitler years. With his knowledge of prewar collections, his ties to the refugee community and his professional contacts in Vienna, he found himself in a unique position to help people who had lost art during the Holocaust. Battling against attitudes and policies that often made it difficult for victims to retrieve their property, Kallir helped a number of people pursue their claims in Austria, with mixed success. In his own art dealings, he did everything possible to avoid handling works that might have been stolen, although of course he was not omniscient (and often complete provenance information was unavailable). When, in 1948, Kallir acquired a group of eleven Schieles from the dealer J.B. Neumann, he asked him to warrant that “they come from perfectly reliable sources and were in the possession of the previous owners since before the war.”


The Galerie St. Etienne’s 1948 Schiele show drew upon a greater number of sources than its predecessor seven years earlier and was therefore considerably more substantial. Kallir himself described this as the artist’s first “comprehensive” American exhibition, and at least one journalist mistook it for his very first. Though Kallir’s command of English was still a bit rocky, he had learned that the secret of promoting an unknown entity in the U.S. lay in securing endorsements from respected authorities. The gallery’s press materials stressed Schiele’s proven stature both within the realm of Austrian modern art and among European museums and galleries. To add the imprimatur of celebrity, Kallir asked noted film director Joseph von Sternberg to contribute a brief introduction to the slender, staple-bound catalogue. The press response was favorable, but hardly overwhelming. While the New York Times hailed Schiele as a “pioneer modernist,” much of the coverage was confined to the German-language press. (In the U.S., articles appeared in the refugee publications Aufbau and the Austro-American Tribune, while Kallir’s old army friend, Max Roden, wrote a glowing review for the Wiener Zeitung.) In conclusion, Kallir was able to report that, whereas the show was “quite well received, only very few of the cheaper drawings were sold.”


Nevertheless, the tide was slowly beginning to turn. America had finally emerged from the gloom of the Depression and war years. The art market as a whole was gathering steam, and Kallir, no longer the newly arrived immigrant, had made some significant professional connections. Naturally, he sought out fellow refugees who were sympathetic to modern art, such as Harald Joachim at the Art Institute of Chicago, Peter Selz at the University of California in Berkeley and Ulfert Wilke at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. Kallir also cultivated contacts in the broader American museum world, including Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art, John J. Coolidge at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, Richard Davis at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gertrude Herdle Moore at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, Duncan Phillips at the Phillips Collection in Washington and Gordon Washburn at the Albright [-Knox] Art Gallery in Buffalo. Like any dealer, Kallir needed sales to survive, but his larger goal was to secure Schiele’s place in history, and for this he needed museum support, even if it entailed a financial sacrifice.


Among the Schiele paintings that Kallir had shipped over from Paris for the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1948 exhibition was the monumental Portrait of Paris von Gütersloh (Kallir P. 322). It and Portrait of an Old Man (Kallir P. 300), which he had brought to the U.S. in 1939, were arguably Kallir’s most significant Schiele oils and the two most important works by the artist in this country. Both portraits were featured prominently in the 1948 show, and as a result a dialogue about the Gütersloh ensued between Kallir and Richard Davis at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In 1951, Kallir sold the painting to the McMillan Land Company, one of the museum’s benefactors, with the understanding that it would eventually be donated. To facilitate the acquisition, Kallir reduced the price to $1,500—a discount that was not even tax deductible (as a partial gift directly to the museum would have been). Three years later, in 1954, the McMillan Land Company consummated the donation, and Portrait of Paris von Gütersloh became the first Schiele to enter an American museum. The acquisition was considered so significant that it received national coverage in the weekly newsmagazine Time.


Thus was the groundwork laid for the Galerie St. Etienne’s first truly successful Schiele exhibition, which took place in 1957. Clearly the big prize for Kallir was the Museum of Modern Art, whose approbation could theoretically secure the reputation of any modern artist. MoMA’s secretary had bought a Schiele watercolor for her personal collection from the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1948 exhibition, and the museum made its first purchase from St. Etienne (an Oskar Kokoschka watercolor) in 1954. But a threshold was crossed in 1957, when MoMA’s legendary founding director, Alfred Barr, visited the gallery’s Schiele show and spent an hour and a half discussing the artist with Kallir. Kallir tried to convince Barr to mount a Schiele exhibition at his museum. He also offered MoMA the Old Man—or any oil of Barr’s choice—as a gift. Barr demurred, saying that he believed Schiele’s primary strength lay in his draughtsmanship. The museum ended up buying two watercolors (Kallir D. 1045 and D. 1061), and Kallir added, as his gifts, a drawing (Kallir D. 1926), plus the color lithograph poster for Schiele’s 1918 exhibition at the Vienna Secession (Kallir G. 15). Donations had become, and were to remain, an integral part of Kallir’s approach. In addition to countless works on paper, Kallir eventually gave three top oils to American museums. The Old Man went to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1969. Kallir’s principal Klimt donations—of the Pear Tree (Novotny/Dobai 134) to the Fogg Art Museum in 1956 and the Baby (Novotny/Dobai 221) to the National Gallery of Art in 1978—probably also benefited Schiele, in that they helped raise the American profile of fin-de-siècle Austrian art.


Winning over Alfred Barr was not the only milestone achieved by the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1957 Schiele exhibition. The show received numerous favorable reviews, and this time much of the praise came from the English-language American press. The New York Times called Schiele “one of the most gifted draughtsmen of his time.” James Thrall Soby, writing in the Saturday Review, predicted, “We will see his art more and more often, and he will almost certainly take his rightful place as a peer of Kokoschka and as one of the most gifted artists produced by Central European Expressionism.” It is interesting to note that at this time Oskar Kokoschka, the only major early twentieth-century Austrian artist still living, was far better established internationally than Schiele. Gustav Klimt, whose works on paper lack the impact of Schiele’s and whose principal oils remain in Austria, was the least well known of the three. The public’s ability to understand Austrian modernism was still hampered by America's protracted immersion in the French tradition. Struggling for points of comparison, critics likened Schiele to Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and even Matisse. It would take some years more for Americans to acquire the art-historical background necessary to comprehend Schiele and his compatriots on their own terms.


Last but not least, the 1957 exhibition was the Galerie St. Etienne’s first financially successful Schiele show. Schiele prices had risen nearly tenfold since the early 1940s, and more than doubled since the early ‘50s. The 1957 values ranged from $280 to $600 for watercolors, and $100 to $400 for uncolored drawings. For the first time, a significant number of American-born collectors numbered among the gallery’s Schiele clients. However, a good percentage of the buyers had Austrian or German backgrounds: they were refugees who had finally made good in their adopted land, or they had family or professional ties to Central Europe. Over half a dozen of the gallery’s core 1957 clients went on to establish substantial Schiele collections, some numbering in excess of ten works.


There are probably several reasons for this tendency to collect Schiele en masse, which dates back to the artist’s earliest patrons and continues to the present day. Although Schiele’s mature productive period spanned less than nine years, it is divided into so many distinct developmental phases and includes such a variety of subjects that one needs a representative cross-section to truly cover the artist’s oeuvre. And while Schiele is not to everyone’s taste, those who appreciate him tend to become passionately engaged. The somewhat addictive nature of Schiele collecting may be one reason why his market, once established, expanded relatively rapidly.


From the start, the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1957 Schiele exhibition was intended as the prelude to a multi-city American museum tour. Reviewers made mention of planned showings in Boston, Minneapolis, Santa Barbara and Canada. Kallir’s principal collaborator on this project was Thomas M. Messer, a young emigré from Czechoslovakia who at the time was Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Although the museum tour was apparently scheduled to start in the autumn of 1957, plans bogged down when Messer and Kallir failed to get loans from Austria. Kallir was particularly embittered by Austria’s lack of cooperation, noting that the German government had recently provided major museum loans and funding for an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. He poured out his heart in an unusually candid letter to a sympathetic reporter at the Austrian newspaper Die Presse:


"I have never been lacking in idealism, concepts and ideas, and from 1920 on I always tried to inject these qualities into my activities in Vienna. I never received help--and I am not talking about financial help--of any kind. Just the opposite. In Vienna, one always had to fight “against someone,” and this quiet battle constrained and neutralized every impulse. Throughout my years in Vienna, I always sensed this, without at the time being in a position to determine what it actually was that made work so difficult. It only became clear to me after I had emigrated here and begun to work in New York. At the time I spoke hardly any English and had to begin from scratch, 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."


With or without assistance from Austria, Kallir was not about to abandon his plans to bring Schiele to America’s museums. After a period of regrouping, the museum show opened at the Boston Institute of Contemporary Art in October 1960 and proceeded to travel to the Galerie St. Etienne, the J.B. Speed Museum in Louisville, the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Kallir was able to obtain a representative sampling of works from American collections, including his own. And although the Austrian museums did not lend, the Haags Gemeentemuseum in the Netherlands and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem both sent their paintings (Kallir P. 290 and P. 291, respectively). The list of insurance values indicates just how much prices had spiked since 1957: oils were insured for $4,000 to $25,000, watercolors for $1,200 to $3,000 and drawings for $300 to $800.


There is no question that the traveling show put Schiele on the map across the United States. It was, in the words of the Boston Herald, “obviously an event of major significance.” The critic Alfred Werner predicted that, “There will be many more Schiele exhibitions, and our museums will make greater efforts than ever before to acquire his poetic and mystery-laden work.” However, broader public exposure also brought to the fore an issue that has always lurked behind critical assessments of Schiele’s achievement: the erotic content of his work. Keeping in mind that Boston at this time was known for its prudery, Messer noted in the catalogue that, “we avoided subjects that might be considered extreme” in order to minimize “discussion which would be artistically irrelevant.” Still, in the view of the locally based Christian Science Monitor, the show could have been more thoroughly censored. In a slightly ambivalent review, Time magazine acknowledged that Schiele created “some of the boldest and most original pictures of his time,” but concluded that he was “obsessed by disease and poverty, by the melancholy of old age and the tyranny of lust.” The tastes of the period are reflected not just in the reviews, but also in the relative pricing of Schiele’s work. Portraits, landscapes and images of children were valued over nudes, and later works were preferred to the more overtly Expressionistic pieces from 1910 and 1911.


In February 1961, Thomas Messer, Kallir’s partner on the traveling show, was named Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. Phoning early in the morning on the day the appointment was announced in the New York Times, Kallir was the first to congratulate him. After getting past the niceties, Kallir came quickly to the point. “You are Director of the Guggenheim Museum,” he said, “and you like Schiele . . .” Four years later, Kallir’s long-nurtured dream came true: a comprehensive show of works by Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt opened at the Guggenheim, one of America’s top museums. And this time, there were loans from Austria, as well as from the numerous American collections into which Kallir had introduced Schiele’s work.


The Guggenheim’s 1965 Klimt/Schiele exhibition marked a turning point not just for the two artists, but for fin-de-siècle Austrian art in general. Klimt, amazingly enough, had only just had his first American one-man show (at the Galerie St. Etienne) in 1959. But now there was an emerging awareness that artists like Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka were not isolated geniuses, but participants in a broad-based cultural phenomenon. Many reviewers of the 1965 show placed the artists within the context of such Austrian luminaries as Sigmund Freud, Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Anton von Webern and Franz Kafka. It was also noted that both Klimt and Schiele were benefiting from a revival of interest in Art Nouveau, which was to prove extremely compatible with the “psychedelic” poster design of the later 1960s. It was during this period that reproductions of Klimt’s iconic painting The Kiss first became dorm-room favorites.


In addition to nurturing the artist’s reputation through museum donations, sales and exhibitions, Kallir also helped foster the growth of Schiele scholarship. James Demetrion and Alessandra Comini, who each contributed essays to the Guggenheim catalogue, pursued their early Schiele research at the Galerie St. Etienne. In 1971, as Director of the Des Moines Art Center, Demetrion would organize the exhibition “Egon Schiele and the Human Form.” Comini went on to Vienna, where she interviewed all the surviving people who had known the artist. Published under the title Egon Schiele’s Portraits in 1974, her doctoral dissertation was the first comprehensive Schiele biography in English or any other language. Both Demetrion and Comini were considerably less squeamish than prior generations of Schiele aficionados, and they encouraged a forthright appreciation of the artist’s nudes and of his earlier, more volatile work. Kallir himself also continued to be an active scholar. In 1966, he published a revision of his 1930 catalogue raisonné of Schiele’s oil paintings, and in 1970, he followed up with a catalogue raisonné of the artist’s prints.


The fact that Schiele had finally “arrived” was further confirmed by the number of dealers who began to handle the artist’s work in the 1960s and ‘70s. Pieces by Schiele could be purchased not only at the Galerie St. Etienne, but from Felix Landau in Los Angeles, Serge Sabarsky and Helen Serger (La Boetie) in New York, Harry and Wolfgang Fischer (Marlborough Galleries and later Fischer Fine Art) in London, and Galleria Galatea in Turin. This generation of dealers still for the most part had personal ties to Austria, but Schiele was beginning to penetrate the broader international art market and to develop a significant presence in the auction salesrooms.


It is perhaps inevitable that dealers are judged first and foremost by their impact on the market, and in this respect Kallir was undeniably successful. By 1970, when he organized his last Schiele show at the Galerie St. Etienne, watercolors were topping out at $18,000—an amazing 300-fold increase in price since the early 1940s. However, money is only one part of a complex story. If Kallir’s primary motivation had been financial, he would never have persevered through all those long, unprofitable years. What he wanted, first and foremost, was to introduce Schiele to as many people as possible. He wanted to place the work in museums so that it would be seen by the American public, and if museums could not afford to pay the full price, he was happy to subsidize their purchases or to make outright gifts. Kallir was delighted by every new “convert” to the Schiele cause, be it a young collector or a scholar. And he was committed to sharing both his passion and his knowledge, in one-to-one discussions as well as through his books and exhibitions.


After the Galerie St. Etienne’s 1970 Schiele show (which celebrated the publication of the print catalogue raisonné), Kallir was frequently ill and unable to organize elaborate exhibitions. He passed away in 1978, at the age of 84. Since that time, the Galerie St. Etienne has been run by his long-time partner, Hildegard Bachert, and myself. We have been fortunate in being able to continue Kallir’s activities by mounting important Schiele exhibitions at the gallery and at major museums, and by producing a steady stream of scholarly publications. And it is also fortunate that our endeavors have continued to be complemented by the efforts of so many other curators, scholars and collectors. In particular, we are grateful that Ronald Lauder chose to name his museum of Austrian and German art after Otto Kallir’s original Neue Galerie. Surely this is a telling tribute to the decisive contribution Kallir made to the furtherance of the Austrian artists he so dearly loved, Egon Schiele foremost among them.