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Egon Schiele: The Making of a Collection

Curated by Kerstin Jesse

Orangery, Lower Belvedere, Vienna

19 October 2018 to 17 February 2019

Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1917

Egon Schiele, Four Trees, 1917
© Belvedere, Vienna
Oil on canvas, 110 × 140 cm

I caught the tail end of this exhibition, just a few days back.

It featured all of Egon Schiele’s works held by the Belvedere: about twenty or so, I think. Most are portraits, though there are self-portraits (naturally), landscapes, cityscapes, symbolist tableau, etc. The bulk of Schiele’s work is to be found across the city someways, ensconced in the Leopold Museum in the MuseumsQuartier.

Together with the artworks, there was some background information (not entirely complete) about how the works were acquired. When the Nazis entered Austria in 1938, many Jews had to give up their possessions, including art works they had collected, or sell them at a pittance, in order to leave the country and escape with their lives. That’s one common, recurring scenario. But even when a family had managed to keep hold of a precious artwork, or in the unlikely event that it had been returned to them after 1945, they were not able to take it out of the country (an export ban saw to that). So they were often reduced to selling it for below market value, either to a collector (the ubiquitous Leopold), or a museum, or the Austrian state.

What one should say is that Austria is probably the most up-front, proactive country in the world when it comes to being open and transparent about the provenance of the art held in its museums, and that is due in no small part to the efforts of the brilliant Sophie Lillie, author of Was einmal war. Most other countries: the USA, Russia, Italy, and (yes) the UK are way behind. They are reactive and often fight claims for restitution, tooth and nail.

As a first step, all museums should know the provenance of all artworks in their collections acquired between 1933 and 1945 (or even slightly later). Where there is doubt or uncertainty, there should be a presumption of foul play.  You might well ask: why aren’t they doing this now?

Further details of Egon Schiele: The Making of a Collection can be found here.