National Gallery of Canada: Long term loan offers a mini-survey of Gustav Klimt’s career

Detail from Gustav Klimt's Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee (1916) now on view at the National Gallery of Canada. Photo: Juan Trujillo

A new loan makes visiting the National Gallery a dream come true for admirers of Gustav Klimt, even with a backstory of mysterious provenance and escape from a living nightmare.

The gallery is already the only public collection in Canada to include a painting by Klimt, the influential Austrian master who led the Vienna Secession movement in art. Hope 1 is a portrayal of an equable pregnant woman in profile over an allegorical background of death and despair. Now that 1903 painting, purchased by the gallery in 1970, is joined by two other Klimt paintings, each very different in genre and temperament.

Gustav Klimt painted this Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer from 1914 to 16. Photo courtesy of the National Gallery of Canada.

The paintings, on long-term loan from an unidentified owner, include Portrait of Elisabeth Lederer (1914-16), and Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee (1916). Both subjects held great personal meaning to Klimt and were painted late in his career. He died in 1918.

“It’s like we have a survey of Klimt’s work,” says curatorial assistant Kirsten Appleyard. “We have a portrait, we have an allegory and we have a landscape spread over two decades of his career, so you get a sense of how he engaged with each genre.

“It’s rare to have this many Klimts on view anywhere in the world,” Appleyard says, “and it’s certainly never happened in Canada.” (The gallery had a Klimt retrospective in 2001, a temporary exhibition, while the current loan is for three years and “perhaps longer.”)

Hope 1 is a highlight of the gallery’s collection, with its female subject untroubled by the ghastly skeletal forms and black beast that lurk in the background. With her inner strength and the regenerative promise of the child in her burgeoning belly, she is the personification of hope in dark times. 

The portrait of Elisabeth Lederer has much in common with Hope 1, but is different in important ways. Elisabeth, the 20-year-old daughter of wealthy patrons of Klimt in Vienna, also holds a facial expression of serene confidence, though at the time of posing the First World War was under way. She is also cast, as Klimt’s female subjects so characteristically were, in a diaphanous light, as if the artist saw softness as the very essence of femininity. But there is no allegory in the portrait, as it was cast to show the confident prosperity of the Lederers, with Elisabeth’s gorgeous imperial cloak, the richly upholstered salon, and their deep fondness for Asian motifs in art and design. Yet, there is so much that is not seen on the canvas, literally or by allusion.

It all began pleasantly enough.

Elisabeth “would recount how her uncle Klimt would come over and sketch her for days and weeks, and he would throw down his pencil in frustration,” Appleyard says. Klimt was notoriously unwilling to declare his works finished, and the story goes that eventually Elisabeth’s mother “basically took the painting and put it in her car and drove away.” Appleyard notes the story may be apocryphal, as the large canvas would have required a sizeable car indeed. Yet “there are similar stories” of patrons “literally having to take the work from Klimt because he didn’t want to let them go.”

Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee (1916) by Gustav Klimt. Photo Juan Trujillo

Years later the tale takes a deadly turn. Klimt wasn’t an uncle by blood but was an avuncular Christian friend of the Jewish family. During the rise of Nazi Germany, Elisabeth tried to claim him as her father, to protect herself from extermination. It didn’t work, but Elisabeth was saved by her ex-husband, whose brother was “a high-ranking Nazi,” and offered her protection.

She was safe, but the portrait was not. Later, her ex-husband tried to sell the portrait at auction, but Elisabeth’s brother, Erich, intervened, and eventually took possession of it.

The third Klimt now on display could hardly be more different than the other two paintings and may strike viewers as the most unexpected. Klimt is most often known for his allegories and portraits, such as The Kiss or his paintings of Adele Bloch-Bauer (one of which reportedly sold in a private sale in 2016 for $150 million US).

Yet, some 50 of Klimt’s 200-plus paintings are landscapes, including Forest Slope in Unterach on the Attersee. It’s a placid scene free of anything dark or disturbing, a contented little village on a lake and surrounded by forested hills. Like the Lederer portrait its perspective is flat, and whereas in the portrait it creates the effect of Elisabeth almost floating in an interior space, here the effect brings forward the earth-toned rooftops, the golden fields, and the forest of green tones that climb the hills in the background.

The scene is of a summer retreat that was open to Klimt through another family of wealthy patrons, and to look at the canvas is to almost hear the artist sigh with contentment.

So, which wealthy patron has loaned the paintings to the National Gallery? For now, the answer remains elusive. Lenders often require the gallery to stay mum, and curators’ lips are locked tighter than budget for new arts funding during the Stephen Harper years. Appleyard wouldn’t budge when peppered with questions (“Can you even tell me if the lender is Canadian?” “I can’t answer that.”).

All that’s known for sure is that the provenance of the paintings ends with them in the hands of Erich Lederer in the 1940s.

Gustav Klimt’s Hope 1 is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.