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Nazi loot row erupts over Vienna Bruegel

A report in the Financial Times suggests that a famous painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder was stolen by Nazis from its home in Poland.

Nazi loot row erupts over Vienna Bruegel
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559). Photo: Wikipedia

Krakow's National Museum has unearthed documents which claim that the painting, worth an estimated €70 million ($77 million), was seized by Charlotte von Wächter, the Austrian wife of Krakow's then Nazi governor Otto von Wächter.

The painting, which is currently displayed in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, is now subject to a row over its ownership and provenance.

“It is impossible to overstate the importance of this painting,” Meredith Hale, a fellow in Netherlandish art at Cambridge University, told the press. “If it was taken unlawfully from Krakow to Vienna, it would be a huge story for the art world, as big as it gets.”

Otto von Wächter (right) with other members of the Nazi command in occupied Poland. Photo: via Opera Mundi

Diana Blonska, director of the National Museum in Krakow, has presented a research paper in which she claims that documents in the museum's archive state that Charlotte von Wächter visited the museum in 1939 and took the painting alongside others, some of which “ended up in the antique markets of Vienna.”

Blonska even cites a letter written by Feliks Kopera, then-director of the museum, in March 1946 and sent to Krakow's authorities:

“The Museum suffered major, irretrievable losses at the hands of the wife of the governor of the Kraków Distrikt, Frau Wächter, a Viennese woman aged about 35. […] Items that went missing included paintings such as: Breughel's The Fight Between Lent and Carnival.”

The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, meanwhile, claims that it has owned the painting since the 17th century, and that the artwork seized by von Wächter in 1939 was a different painting.

The Times reports that there is a campaign by Polish authorities to recover art lost to the Nazis during World War II.  The government is likely to formally request Austrian authorities to undertake an investigation into the painting's provenance.

“There is evidence to suggest wrongdoing on a serious scale, and a pressing need to fully investigate the provenance of the Bruegel painting […] including whether it was taken from the National Museum in Krakow,” Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London, told the FT.

Sands has written at length about the Wächter family and wrote the script of My Nazi Legacy (2015), a recently launched film about Wächter's son Horst, which in turn inspired Polish journalists to investigate the provenance of the Bruegel painting.

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London Tube gets covered-up versions of Schiele nudes after it deems the originals too racy

As the art world plans to celebrate the centenary of Austrian expressionist painter Egon Schiele's death, some of his nudes have been dubbed too racy to show in their full glory, not least in the London underground.

London Tube gets covered-up versions of Schiele nudes after it deems the originals too racy
Photo: Christian Lendl/Vienna Tourist Board/AFP
Austrian museums will next year host a series of exhibitions and events to mark the centenary of his passing but time has apparently not dimmed some of the prudish attitudes prevalent in his lifetime regarding his rawest works, Vienna Tourist Board director Norbert Kettner told AFP.
   
Two of his works — “Seated Male Nude (Self-Portrait),” from 1910, and his 1914 work “Girl With Orange Stockings,” appear with their genitals covered over after Transport for London found the uncensored originals beyond the pale.
 
Advertising hoardings in Germany have similarly covered the offending parts, even though the works were deliberately selected as “we wanted to raise a discussion and the theme of nudity seemed pertinent,” Kettner told AFP.
 
“The campaign was ready but when we came up with the first visuals we had several reactions of 'that won't do; regulations won't allow us to show genitalia,'” he explained after the London Tube and a German airport both complained.
 
“We had the green light for a very large format and, the day before they went up, agreement was withdrawn as an ethics committee felt (full nude versions) wouldn't be acceptable for an airport public” or patrons of London's underground trains.
 
The Viennese tourist office quickly revamped the pictures, covering up the offending organs and adding on the blotted out section the slogan, “SORRY, 100 years old but still too daring today.”
 
They have also added the hashtag #ToArtItsFreedom in London – a play on the “To every age its art. To every art its freedom” inscribed on the entrance of the Vienna Secession building housing the union of Austrian artists movement.
 
Kettner revealed that a Viennese display did not share the artistic-sexual qualms of the British or the Germans and had approved a “non-censored” version.
 
The prolific Schiele, born in 1890 and who died of Spanish flu aged 28, was not always popular in his homeland where some, notably in conservative circles, took a dim view of his vision of tortured eroticism.
 
Nonetheless, a retrospective of his work will see a number of exhibitions highlight his talents as well as those of his first mentor and Secession co-founder Gustav Klimt.