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Saved From Europe
In Commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Galerie St. Etienne

November 06, 1999 to January 08, 2000

On November 13, 1939, having been forced by the Nazi Anschluss to abandon his original Neue Galerie in Vienna, Otto Kallir opened the Galerie St. Etienne in New York. The French name--an homage to Vienna’s famed Cathedral of St. Stephen--had been adopted by Kallir in Paris, where he briefly operated a gallery after fleeing Austria in 1938. Very much a product of the cultural Diaspora precipitated by Hitler, the Galerie St. Etienne was to play a formative role in introducing Austrian Expressionism to the United States. World War II, of course, shaped modern history in innumerable ways, and this is why, as the twentieth century draws to a close, Americans have been re-examining the war years with new vigor. The story of the Galerie St. Etienne constitutes one small chapter in the sweeping saga of the Hitler period, and it thus seems especially appropriate to take a look back at the gallery's origins on the occasion of its 60th anniversary.

The title of the present exhibition, Saved From Europe, derives from a show mounted by Kallir at the Galerie St. Etienne in the summer of 1940. Yet this title can serve as well to describe everything Kallir did during his first decade in America, for not only did almost all his initial exhibitions revolve around art rescued from war-torn Europe, but Kallir was also deeply involved with helping people flee Nazi persecution, and even with trying to secure some sort of viable postwar future for his benighted former homeland. After World War II, he endeavored to aid people in the recovery of art they had lost to Hitler. Deliberate study and the particular circumstances of his life had made Kallir supremely aware of the force of history, and this awareness proved the salvation, not just of himself, his family and the many refugees whom he helped emigrate, but also of the art he loved.

Kallir’s beginnings had hardly been auspicious: the son of a well-to-do Jewish attorney who lost almost everything following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1918, he was forced to build his business from scratch. Although the Austrian economy was exceedingly rocky in the 1920s and downright desperate in the ‘30s, the Neue Galerie (founded in 1923) prospered modestly. That said, Kallir’s passion for modernists such as Richard Gerstl, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin and Egon Schiele was chiefly a personal indulgence; the bills were largely paid by sales of more conservative nineteenth-century art. Kallir may now be best remembered for such achievements as discovering Gerstl and compiling the first Schiele catalogue raisonné (published in 1930), but he always combined prescience with practicality, undergirding his more visionary pursuits with a healthy respect for grim realities.

After Hitler came to power in 1933, Kallir paid close attention to developments in neighboring Germany. He feared that it might be only a matter of time before National Socialism came to Austria. As early as 1935, he sold a part of his collection in Switzerland and banked the proceeds abroad, in case his family should one day have to flee. That day came in June 1938, three months after the Anschluss. Kallir had made arrangements to leave as quickly as possible, transferring the Neue Galerie to his "Aryan" secretary, Vita Maria Künstler (who would run the gallery through the war years and then return it to him more or less intact), and arranging for the export of much of his art and household goods. Kallir, who had tried to rally opposition against Hitler in the months before the Anschluss, knew he was in imminent danger. In the end, he and his family managed to escape Austria just hours ahead of the Gestapo.

Nevertheless, arranging to immigrate permanently proved tricky. Because the family had sufficient cash assets, Switzerland granted them entrance visas, but the Swiss would not permit Kallir to work. The French would give Kallir a work permit, but for some reason refused visas to his wife and two children. The Kallirs therefore spent over a year split up between Lucerne and Paris, until they were finally able to obtain American visas. The family set sail for New York in late August 1939, landing a few days before war broke out in Europe.

Since most of the artists whom Kallir favored had been branded “degenerate” by the Nazi regime, he was not prevented from exporting their work, and he arrived in New York with an inventory of masterpieces by Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele. Of these artists, however, only Kokoschka at the time had any international standing. Kallir therefore placed his initial business hopes in thirteen Kokoschka oils he’d purchased shortly before leaving Vienna, as well as in a consignment of French paintings that included major works by Van Gogh and Cézanne. Not only had it proved more difficult to get export permits for the nineteenth-century art which had been the Neue Galerie’s principal source of revenue, but Kallir quickly learned that Americans had absolutely no interest in such material. Starting from scratch for the second time in his life, he now found it most prudent to go with the modern art he had always loved best.

This is not to suggest that investing in modern Austrian art was a popular business strategy in the years just before World War II. German Expressionism, featured in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 1931, had a much higher profile than its Austrian counterpart. Results of the Galerie St. Etienne’s first shows of Kokoschka, Schiele and Kubin were dismal. Schiele drawings at the time sold for $20, watercolors for $60. Even when these prices are adjusted for inflation, the figures--$225 and $700 respectively--are hardly more impressive. And no one was buying: Schiele was known only to refugees, who had no money. Kallir scarcely fared better with his stock of French paintings. Possessing scant knowledge of English and almost no professional connections or stature in America, Kallir initially found it virtually impossible to make any headway.

Nevertheless, Kallir did not want for energy or ideas. He tried his hand at everything from publishing postcards to patenting a thermometer design. And even as his gallery stumbled along, he found time to look after less fortunate compatriots stranded back in Nazi Austria. As chairman of the Austrian-American League from 1940 through 1941, Kallir personally gave affidavits pledging financial support to facilitate the immigration of nearly eighty Austrians to the United States. Unwilling to accept that their country had willingly succumbed to Nazism, and hoping as well to protect their status both as residents of the United States and as former (and possibly future) citizens of Austria, the refugee community struggled to convince the American government that Austria was a victim (rather than an ally) of Hitler. Achieving this end meant Austrians did not have to register as enemy aliens during World War II, but it also had unforeseen results after the war. Kallir would live to regret the fact that Austria, as an "overrun" nation, was not forced to undergo the same rigorous process of de-Nazification and reparation payments which the Allies imposed on Germany.

During the early 1940s, the Galerie St. Etienne managed to stay in the black with an eclectic mix of relatively low-budget efforts (including the first one-woman exhibition of Grandma Moses), but it was only after World War II that Kallir began to achieve any substantial success for the Austrian Expressionists. The American economy emerged from the war far stronger than it had been going in, and for the first time since 1929 people could afford to think seriously about buying art. Although relatively few of the many dealers and art historians who had been expelled from Europe during the Hitler years were specifically interested in Austrian and German modernism, those who were introduced a new awareness of the genre to America's museums, universities and collectors. In addition to people, Hitler's predations had deposited a large trove of objects on America's shores. Many refugees had, like Kallir, been able to export their "degenerate" collections, and those less fortunate in this regard now endeavored to reclaim the works that had been lost or stolen during the war. Wherever possible, Kallir--who had renewed his professional contacts in Austria--tried to help people negotiate the legal thicket surrounding their misappropriated treasures.

Kallir used a three-pronged approach--consisting of exhibitions, museum exposure and scholarship--to establish "his" artists in the United States. Repeated showings of Oskar Kokoschka (initially seen at St. Etienne in 1940), Egon Schiele (introduced to the U.S. by Kallir in 1941), Alfred Kubin (first shown that same year) and Gustav Klimt (who amazingly did not have an American one-man show until his 1959 St. Etienne debut) gradually achieved a cumulative effect. Through sale or (when that was impossible) donation, Kallir strategically placed major paintings by Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele in such institutions as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo (checklist no. __), the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Museum of Modern Art (checklist no. __), the Guggenheim Museum (no. __), the Allen Memorial Art Gallery at Oberlin College (no. __), the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh and the National Gallery of Art (no. __). Kallir also collaborated with Thomas M. Messer on the first American museum shows of Schiele's work (which traveled to five institutions in 1960-61) and of Schiele and Klimt (held at the Guggenheim in 1965). Toward the end of his life, Kallir capped his career with catalogues raisonnés of Gerstl (1974), Grandma Moses (1973) and Schiele (1966 and 1970).

When Kallir died in 1978, fin-de-siècle Vienna was finally enjoying a vogue in America. Interdisciplinary historical studies as well as books specific to the visual arts launched a mild frenzy, which ultimately affected even interior design and culminated in a string of highly popular exhibitions, both here and abroad. For several decades, the Galerie St. Etienne had been virtually the only place outside Austria to consistently and repeatedly exhibit that nation's modern art, but by the 1970s, Kallir's diligence had finally won a host of converts. Hildegard Bachert and Jane Kallir (Otto's granddaughter), who became co-directors of the Galerie St. Etienne after 1978, thus perceived a clear mandate to consolidate and expand upon Kallir's accomplishments.

Otto Kallir's successes did not mean that Austrian and German art had achieved parity with French modernism, which still dominates accounts of early twentieth-century art history. The Galerie St. Etienne has therefore maintained its commitment to scholarship and museum exhibitions. Over the past two decades, Jane Kallir has written nearly a dozen book-length publications, most notably the first comprehensive Schiele catalogue raisonné (published in 1990 and revised in 1998). The gallery's exhibition policies are if anything more ambitious than they were in Otto Kallir's time, not only in terms of major loan shows (including the present one) mounted on its own premises, but especially with regard to exhibitions curated for outside institutions. In the latter category, pride of place goes to the Schiele retrospective that opened at the National Gallery of Art in 1994 and then traveled to the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the San Diego Museum of Art.

Programming at the Galerie St. Etienne since 1978 has also entailed a logical extension of the policies and preferences introduced by the gallery's founder. The major Austrian modernists--Klimt, Kokoschka, Kubin and Schiele--have continued to be perennial favorites, and all have been featured here in museum loan shows. In some cases, Otto Kallir's successors were able to achieve things he could not: for example, in 1992 the gallery managed, for the first time, to borrow from Europe enough Gerstl paintings to properly introduce the artist to the United States. In other cases, as with Käthe Kollwitz (the subject, since 1943, of over twenty St. Etienne exhibitions) and Paula Modersohn-Becker (first shown in the U.S. at St. Etienne in 1958), the gallery simply perpetuated long-standing interests. Just as Otto Kallir had worked with Lovis Corinth's widow in the 1940s to show her husband's paintings (which she salvaged from Nazi Germany), the gallery's current directors have collaborated with the artist's children. So it is that art work "saved from Europe" continues to circulate through the Galerie St. Etienne, while the gallery's files have become an important source in assisting with the ongoing restitution of Nazi-looted art.

It is one of the great ironies of Nazi policy that Hitler's campaign against "degenerate" art ended up seeding the globe with modern Austrian and German pictures. Had Otto Kallir remained in Vienna, and had he and other emigrés like him been prevented from bringing along their "degenerate" collections, it is unlikely that Austrian modernism would have achieved the international renown it now enjoys. For Kallir, the loss of his homeland to the Nazi scourge was somehow redeemed by art's transcendent nature. And at the Galerie St. Etienne, his vision of Austria lived on, through the difficult war years and to the present day.

Lenders are the key to any exhibition project, and grateful thanks are herewith expressed to all who made Saved from Europe possible: The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York; Annetta and Robert Chester; the Albert Grokoest Collection; Lucy C. Mitchell; Mr. and Mrs. K. Fred Netter; the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Allen Memorial Art Gallery in Oberlin, Ohio; the Museum of Art at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence; the Esther Leah Ritz Collection; the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (and in particular, Andrew Robison and Earl A. Powell III); the Kunsthaus Zug, Switzerland (with much appreciated help from Peter and Christine Kamm); and numerous anonymous lenders. We would also like to warmly thank the Austrian Cultural Institute for their generous support of this project.