Hildegard Bachert, who introduced Klimt, Grandma Moses to American art scene, dies at 98

Washington Post 26 October 2019
By Emily Langer

Hildegard Bachert, a refugee of Nazi Germany who became a vital behind-the-scenes force in the New York City art world, introducing American collectors to German and Austrian Expressionists including Gustav Klimt and the Upstate New York farm wife who became known as Grandma Moses, died Oct. 17 at a hospital in Brattleboro, Vermont. She was 98.

The cause was a ruptured colon, said Jane Kallir, director of the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan, where Bachert worked for more than three quarters of a century. She was hired in 1940 as an assistant to the founder, Otto Kallir, an Austrian Jew who also had fled Nazi Europe, and after his death in 1978 served as co-director with his granddaughter Jane.

Bachert, who dedicated nearly her entire life to cultivating the legacies of artists who might otherwise have gone unnoticed or underappreciated, once remarked that she developed her "consciousness of art" only after arriving in the United States when she was 15. "After all," she said, before that time "there were other concerns."

She was 12 when Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and initiated his campaign of anti-Semitic persecution. Three years later, according to an account of her life that she gave to the Smithsonian Institution's Archives of American Art, she was expelled from her school because she was Jewish.

Jews were banned from the Kunsthalle Mannheim, the art museum in her hometown. Her youth notwithstanding, she said, she understood that modern art, deemed "degenerate" under National Socialism, had become taboo.

Her father, a lawyer, saw the "handwriting on the wall," Bachert said in the 1993 Smithsonian oral history, and sent her and her older sister to the United States, where a relative had agreed to help support them. In New York, Bachert learned English, completed high school and reveled in the cultural offerings of the city's libraries and concert halls. She wore out the old-world clothing she had brought from Europe, she said, to spend what little money she had on student tickets to Carnegie Hall.

Bachert also frequented the city's art galleries and worked for Karl Nierendorf, a German gallery owner who at the time was struggling to sell the works of now-celebrated modern artists including Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, before Otto Kallir hired her.

Kallir had run the Neue Galerie in Vienna, where he showed the works of artists including Vincent van Gogh and Edvard Munch and championed the Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele, among others. In the United States, Kallir encountered an art world where "French art was 'in' and German art was 'out,' " Bachert once told the online art publication NeotericArt.

"It was also because of the war going on in the 1940s," she said. "There was great antagonism to German art."

At Galerie St. Etienne, Kallir, with Bachert's help, mounted the first solo shows in the United States of Schiele (1941) and Klimt (1959). Today, both are recognized as giants of modernism and command accordingly giant sums.

In 2006, Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir and art collector, paid a reported $135 million - the highest price ever fetched by a painting at the time - for a shimmering gold Klimt portrait of the Viennese hostess Adele Bloch-Bauer. The painting had been the subject of one of the most high-profile restitution claims involving artwork looted during the Holocaust, a story dramatized in the 2015 film "Woman in Gold" starring Helen Mirren. The painting is housed in Lauder's Neue Galerie in Manhattan, whose name is an homage to Kallir's Viennese gallery.

Other Austrian and German artists that Bachert helped promote included Oskar Kokoschka, Alfred Kubin, Paula Modersohn-Becker and Käthe Kollwitz.

Grandma Moses - her real name was Anna Mary Robertson Moses - was brought to Kallir's attention by Louis Caldor, an amateur collector who had stumbled on a sampling of her bucolic folk art at a drugstore in Hoosick Falls, New York. Moses had taken up painting well into her older age and pursued her hobby in obscurity until Caldor promised to make her famous.

Kallir loved America "as only a refugee can," according to the gallery, and saw in Moses "an artist capable of capturing the authentic spirit of his new homeland." Galerie St. Etienne gave Moses her first one-person show in 1940, a month before Bachert was hired, when Moses was 80. Thus began a relationship that lasted until Moses died at 101, so famous that she was often compared to Norman Rockwell.

Bachert became the gallery's chief contact for Moses and recalled going strawberry-picking with her, as well as assisting her with her autobiography, "My Life's History," which Kallir edited.

"People often brand her work as nostalgic. It may be so for them. But Grandma Moses was not nostalgic. She was among the most unsentimental persons I ever knew," Bachert once told the Hartford Courant. "She had so much common sense and knowledge of life, and all that came through in her pictures."

Hildegard Gina Bachert was born in Mannheim on April 3, 1921. Her parents survived the Nazi attacks of Kristallnacht before joining their daughters in the United States, where her father, a former lawyer, became blind, and her mother helped support the family as a seamstress.

Even with a scholarship to Oberlin College in Ohio, Bachert did not have enough money to pursue university studies. She took free classes at Hunter College in New York City while working. Her first job was as a housekeeper and nanny for a doctor's family. "I lasted three days," she said in the Smithsonian oral history. "Luckily for art."

Jane Kallir credited Bachert with assisting the gallery in its efforts to help return artwork looted by Nazis to their former Jewish owners or their heirs.

"She was someone who had actually lived through part of the Nazi time in Germany and who knew all of these people who had been robbed by the Nazis," Jane Kallir said in an interview. Speaking of the German and Austrian Expressionist artwork that Bachert had sought to preserve, Kallir observed that "both for Hildegard and for my grandfather, this was an important part of their heritage that the Nazis had tried to destroy."

Bachert never married and had no immediate survivors. She stayed so long with Galerie St. Etienne, she said, because "I felt fulfilled."

"I felt that my potential was tapped," she said in the Smithsonian oral history, "that I was able to give. . . . And that's what I wanted to do."
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