Rarely seen Klimt painting returns to Austria after 60 years

A major work from the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt has returned to Vienna where it will be shown in its homeland for the first time in nearly 60 years, after museum officials pieced together its tumultuous history.

Rarely seen Klimt painting returns to Austria after 60 years
Belvedere's General Director and Scientific Director Stella Rollig speaks to guests at the opening of the exhibition 'Klimt inspired by Van Gogh, Rodin, Matisse' at The Belvedere Museum in Vienna, Austria on February 2, 2023. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

“Water Serpents II,” which depicts nymphs grappling with a red serpent, was completed in 1907 during Klimt’s so-called golden period, when he embraced the gold-leaf techniques he is known for today.

But unlike many of his other works it has rarely been seen, last exhibited in the Austrian capital in 1964 before falling into obscurity. 

The painting was originally purchased by the Steiners, an Austrian art collecting family, and was looted by the Nazis after Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and Jenny Steiner fled the country.

It was later purchased by the Austrian film director Gustav Ucicky, Klimt’s “illegitimate son”, according to Markus Fellinger, curator of the new exhibition at the Belvedere Museum.

The painting Judith by Austrian artist Gustav Klimt ((1826-1918) is hung at the Van Gogh Museum during the preparation of an exhibition dedicated to his work in Amsterdam, on September 27, 2022. (Photo by Koen van Weel / ANP / AFP)

Ucicky’s widow is said to have exhibited the painting in 1964, and since then it had largely been kept from public view, Fellinger told AFP.

But it re-emerged in 2013 when the widow surprised the art world by agreeing to sell it the Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, president of the AS Monaco football club, for $112 million.

Rybolovlev then sold it two years later to its current owner, the HomeArt collection founded in Hong Kong by Rosaline Wong.

The Belvedere, working with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, was able to borrow “Water Serpents II” as they put together a show on the artists and works that inspired Klimt.

Unable to finance the six-figure sum required to insure the work, the Belvedere offered instead its restoration expertise to include it in the show that opens Friday and runs through May 29.

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Vienna museum tilts paintings to illustrate climate change threat

Gustav Klimt's well-known Attersee lake painting, among other works of art, tilted by Vienna's Leopold Museum to draw attention to how unchecked climate change could affect landscapes.

Vienna museum tilts paintings to illustrate climate change threat

Gustav Klimt’s well-known Attersee lake painting tilted by two degrees, Egon Schiele’s painting of a tree in late autumn rotated by five degrees. As part of the initiative “A Few Degrees More”, Vienna’s Leopold Museum has tilted 15 paintings by the number of degrees unchecked climate change could affect the landscapes depicted.

The initiative, launched on Wednesday, comes after climate activists poured black liquid over a glass screen protecting a Klimt piece at the museum. “We want to contribute to raise awareness of the dramatic consequences of the climate crisis,” museum director Hans-Peter Wipplinger said.

Developed together with the research network Climate Change Center Austria, the action runs until late June.

Wipplinger dismissed the November “attack” — one of a string of similar protests by activists in London, Rome and other cities to highlight the climate emergency — as “absolutely the wrong way” to raise awareness.

READ ALSO: Is Austria doing enough to protect children from the climate crisis?

Following the protest, the museum put more works behind glass screens, increased watches and introduced stricter controls at the entrance, he said. “But in the end, we can’t exclude this” from happening again, Wipplinger said, regretting the increased costs incurred by the measures — and the higher insurance premiums.

Sofie Skoven, an 18-year-old student from Denmark visiting Vienna with her class, said the sight of the tilted paintings “of beautiful places” made her sad.

“It makes you want to do something about it — it reminds you of what’s going to be lost,” she told AFP.

Another visitor, Joachim Burdack, was less impressed. “I think it trivialises climate change,” the 71-year-old German retiree told AFP. 

READ ALSO: What are the biggest threats facing Austria this year?

It was too easy to get used to the tilted works, he added.

The Leopold Museum, with its 6,000 artworks, houses one of the world’s most important collections of Austrian art, focusing on the second half of the nineteenth century and subsequent Modernism.