A painting with a contested past in the Nazi era makes its way to NYC

Boston Globe 27 July 2007
David Minthorn

NEW YORK -- A garish painting of Berlin streetwalkers on the prowl, the subject of a bitter restitution case from the Nazi era, went on display at the museum that bought it for $38.1 million in frenzied bidding.

Dozens of visitors were at the Neue Galerie museum Wednesday for the midday opening of "Berlin Street Scene."

The 4-foot-by-3-foot oil on canvas by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner shows two prostitutes in feathered hats and matching coats of red and blue attempting to make eye contact with men on a busy thoroughfare on the eve of World War I.

Until recently, this modernist masterpiece had hung in Berlin's Bruecke Museum, acquired in the early 1980s from private German owners.

But last summer, the Berlin government returned it to the London heir of Jewish art collector Alfred Hess, whose widow had sold off the works during the 1930s after the family shoe business was expropriated by the Nazis.

Berlin city officials said restitution was an act of historical justice in line with other hand-overs of art lost by Jewish owners to confiscation, theft, or forced sale during the Nazi period and World War II.

But German critics contended that the Hess family's decision to sell the painting in the 1930s resulted from their financial troubles during the Depression -- not actions by the Nazis. They said ownership of other works held by German museums could now be threatened under the expanded interpretation of what constitutes Nazi-confiscated art.

The Kirchner painting was returned based on the premise that Hess' widow, Thekla, sold the piece out of necessity due to persecution by the Nazis. The Berlin Senate wasn't able to prove that she received payment, and decided to return it to Hess' granddaughter, a British citizen.

The expressionist work from 1913-14 is a mesmerizing social commentary on tensions surrounding sexual encounters in Berlin, where brothels were outlawed but streetwalkers tolerated, says a wall text at the Neue Galerie.

A photograph of the artist (1880-1938) shows that the painting is unabashedly biographical. Kirchner placed himself in the scene next to the prostitutes, his cubist face and fancy attire mirroring their portraits. He wears a navy blue overcoat, white gloves and scarf and homburg. A cigarette juts from crimson lips and his eyes are black slits. The scene is charged with an aura of illicit lifestyles.

"Berliner Strassenszene," its German title, went on the auction block last Nov. 9 at Christie's in New York. In spirited bidding, it was sold to Estee Lauder cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for $38.1 million, well above its $25 million pre-sale high estimate, and a record for any Kirchner painting.

"Kirchner is a key artist for the Neue Galerie and this is one of his greatest paintings," Lauder said in a statement. "We are proud to give it a home in New York."

The painting is the second major work acquired through the restitution process by Lauder's Neue Galerie of early 20th-century German and Austrian art. Last summer Lauder unveiled a sensuous, 1907 portrait of a gold-gowned Viennese lady by Gustav Klimt.

Lauder reportedly paid $135 million for "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," a portrait that hung in a Vienna museum for decades until it was surrendered to the American heirs of the Austrian Jewish family whose art collection was stolen by the Nazis in 1938.

The heirs sold the portrait to Lauder in a private arrangement. Known as "Golden Adele" for the glowing decorative motifs, the portrait now hangs a floor below "Berlin Street Scene."
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