BATLINER COLLECTION, ALBERTINA MUSEUM

Vienna, 11 September 2019

I should have written this post a long time ago, when I first went to see the Batliner collection at the Albertina Museum here in Vienna. But somehow it got left behind. I have been jogged along by the death in June of Mr. Batliner, although even then I am several months late. But hey, better late than never!

A little bit of background is in order. Herbert Batliner was a hideously rich Liechensteiner banker (he was actually half Liechensteiner, half Austrian; his mother was Austrian). It will probably come as no surprise to readers to know that his Liechensteiner father was a banker and that he himself followed his father into banking. He made millions helping seriously rich people stash their wealth away from pesky tax collectors (and others) in “family foundations”. Some of these people had iffy reputations – the son of an African dictator, the partner of an Ecuadorian drug baron, a pardoned fugitive US financier, that sort of thing. Some of his replies when he was asked about these rather grey financial dealings were quite instructive: “I’m not a Father Confessor who has to ask his clients if they have obeyed the laws of their homelands”,  and “We don’t take unannounced clients, or those that show up with suitcases full of cash”. At one point, the German tax authorities started investigating him for possible involvement in illegal financial transactions by one of the country’s political parties, but he saw the danger off with the payment of a rather hefty fine. All this assistance to the filthy rich made him rich too. In 2006, his assets were estimated at about 200 million Swiss Francs.

On the plus side, Mr. Batliner, together with his wife Rita, used his millions to build up a remarkable collection of modern and contemporary art. In 2007, he transferred his collection (in the form of a foundation, of course) to the Albertina Museum as a permanent loan. The Museum was, of course, exceedingly grateful. The Director Klaus Albrecht Schröder called the donation a “key event in the history of the Albertina”. We see here Herbert and Rita, together with a beaming Schröder, in front of one of the paintings in their collection, a Monet painting of the water lilies in the pond of his garden at Giverny.

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This same painting make up the background to the Albertina’s poster which publicizes the permanent exhibition.

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The Albertina then cannily transferred this poster to the long flight of steps leading up to the entrance to the museum.

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It has become quite a hit with the public, being a popular spot for photos and selfies.

The poster, and other material related to the exhibition, highlight the presence of paintings by Monet and Picasso, but in truth these were not the paintings that struck me the most when I visited the exhibition. I show here, in the order in which I came across them, the works that caught my attention.

Peace (1915) by Augusto Giacometti.

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This Giacometti was related to the more well-known Alberto Giacometti, being a cousin of Alberto’s father. This is the only time I’ve ever come across any of his work. Wikpedia informs me that “he was prominent as a painter in the Art Nouveau and Symbolism movements, for his work in stained glass, as a proponent of murals and a designer of popular posters.”

Forest (1909) by Emil Nolde.

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Nolde was German-Danish, being born in Schleswig. He was one of the first Expressionists, a member of the Die Brücke movement.

Moonlit Night (1914), again by Emil Nolde.

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Unfortunately, Nolde is a prime example of the fact that being a great painter doesn’t mean that you are a nice person. Already in the early 1920s Nolde was a supporter of the Nazi party, expressing anti-semitic opinions about Jewish artists and considering Expressionism to be a distinctively Germanic style. But he was hoist on his own petard. Hitler rejected all forms of modern art as “degenerate”, and the Nazi regime officially condemned Nolde’s work.  Over a thousand of his works were removed from museums, more than those of any other artist, and some were included in the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition.  He was not allowed to paint – even in private – after 1941.

Irises in the Evening Shadows (1925) by Max Pechstein.

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Like Nolde, Pechstein was German and a member of the Die Brücke movement. He fell out with his fellow members, though, in 1912 and went it alone. He too fell foul of the Nazis and had a number of his works exhibited in the Degenerate Art exhibition.

Approach to Löbau Train Station (1911) by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.

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Also German, also an Expressionist painter, also a member of the Die Brücke movement, also branded as “degenerate” and had a number of his paintings exhibited in the Degenerate Art Exhibition. He committed suicide in 1938.

Yachting on Lake Tegern (1910) by August Macke.

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Macke was another German Expressionist painter, but he was a founder member of another movement, the Blaue Reiter, which was based in the outskirts of Munich. He died in the first weeks of the First World War, in Champagne.

The Blue Cow (c. 1911) by Natalia Goncharova.

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A Russian, Goncharova was, according to her Wikipedia entry, “a founding member of both the Jack of Diamonds (1909–1911), Moscow’s first radical independent exhibiting group, the more radical Donkey’s Tail (1912–1913), and with her lifelong partner, Mikhail Larionov, invented Rayonism (1912–1914). She was also a member of the German based art movement known as Der Blaue Reiter.”

Young Girl with a Flowered Hat (1910) by Alexej Jawlensky.

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Another Russian, Jawlensky moved to Germany, joined the Expressionist trend, and was another founder member of the Blaue Reiter movement. I recently saw a wonderful painting of his in Munich.

Another gorgeous painting by Jawlensky, Cornfield near Carantec, from a bit earlier: 1905.

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Very different from the “typical” Jawlensky painting, of which the Young Girl with a Flowered Hat is an example.

A third Jawlensky, Abstract Head, from 1928/29.

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I suppose he felt the need to move with the times. But the colouring is still lovely.

Jawlensky is another example of a great painter but not a very nice man. Early on in his career, he shacked up with a rich woman, Marianne von Werefkin, who gave up her painting to look after him and ensure he could paint without having to work, then at some point he dumped her and married another woman, by whom he had already had a child. Marianne died alone, in poverty and obscurity in 1938.

Hungarian Fields (1919) by László Moholy-Nagy.

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Moholy-Nagy is not normally an artist that I warm to, but this painting stopped me dead in my tracks. I had noticed this same pattern of small strips of fields in Austria around Lake Neusidl, on the border with Hungary.

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On the Hungarian side of the lake, the fields were much larger. I’m sure they were just as small as the fields in Austria until World War II, but collective farming during the Communist period wiped them out.

The exhibition had a number of examples of Austrian painters who adhered to the New Objectivity movement which sprang up after World War I, as a reaction to Expressionism. One strand of New Objectivity was a return to classicism. After the horrors of the war, throughout Europe there was a “return to order” in the arts, which resulted in a turn away from abstraction by many artists towards neoclassicism. I include here one example from the exhibition, The Big Port of 1928 by Herbert von Reyel-Hanisch.

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I started with Augusto Giacometti, I finish with his more famous cousin once-removed, Alberto Giacometti.

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One photo doesn’t do justice to this remarkable statuette, Slender Bust on Plinth (Amenophis) from 1954. I suspect that when Giacometti refers to Amenophis he has in mind the pharaoh Akhenaten. Akhenaten started reigning as Amenhotep IV, a name which the Greeks translated as Amenophis. As this photo attests, he did have a long thin face with pronounced features like Giacometti’s statuette.

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I was certainly much struck by the statues of Akhenaten which we saw during a recent visit to Egypt. I could well imagine that Giacometti would have found his face fascinating.

Well, those were my take-aways from this exhibition. If any of my readers come to Vienna, they should really make time for this exhibition and see what they think. The rest of the Albertina Museum is also worth visiting, they normally have excellent temporary exhibitions.