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The mystery of Klimt painting “Malcesine am Gardasee”

Klimt, one of the most beloved painters of our time, who continues to fascinate us with his works, came to Lake Garda in the summer of 1913. 1913 was still a relatively quiet year, even though the Balkans were in turmoil and the black clouds were beginning to hover over Europe.

In that period, Klimt’s production changed, perhaps it could be said that it was a little darker. It is impossible not to consider the production of each artist in his own time and experiences: at the very beginning of the 1900s he was refused allegorical paintings for the University of Vienna and this event marked him very much. He had not given the canonical interpretation that was expected.

In 1913 Klimt is no longer in the golden period of the friezes of the Viennese Sécession palace, although they remain very much alive within us and represent an absolute must-visit. The time of the motto engraved on the facade “To each age its art, to art its freedom” is now over. Now far from the creation of the secessionist movement born in 1897 with other artists, Klimt from that moment will devote himself more to painting portraits of Viennese high-class ladies, especially belonging to wealthy Jewish families. At the same time, he devoted himself to views of landscapes and gardens, leaving the art nouveau.

Starting from the early 1900s, Klimt and his family used to go to the Attersee to spend long summer stays there, where he dedicated himself to painting views and landscapes. Contrary to his habits, in 1913 he decided to come to Lake Garda with his mother and sisters to stay there from July to September. Initially, it was thought that he had stayed in Tremosine at the Morandi Hotel, where a commemorative plaque is still preserved, but in reality, based on the publication by Paolo Boccafoglio* in recent years, it was discovered that he stayed in Malcesine in a country house. The discovery is linked to a letter written by a sister of Klimt to her son Hermann and other testimonies. It was the only vacation that the painter spent abroad and he chose Lake Garda.

The production that characterizes him during his stay in Italy is linked to the landscape, which is never realistic even if it corresponds to the truth: it is a landscape of the soul. Klimt generally loved to perform these works in the open air, often with the help of binoculars, and then finished them in his studio. They were square in size, refined and static and represented a moment of observation of nature, detached from any ideology.

During his stay at Lake Garda he painted:

  • Malcesine am Gardasee, the mysterious painting
  • Kirche in Cassone, now in a private collection in Graz
  • Italienische Gartenlandschaft, now exhibited in the Kunsthaus in Zug (Switzerland)

A dense mystery is linked to the first painting, the most admired and known, of which some photographs remain. According to historiography, Malcesine am Gardasee and Kirche in Cassone were bought by a friend of Klimt, Victor, a member of the Zuckerkandl family. Victor was a successful entrepreneur, he managed one of the most important industrial complexes and belonged to a rich Viennese Jewish family that for years had dominated and animated the cultural scene of the city. He had a great interest in art and also the willingness to afford a splendid collection. Victor kept Klimt’s paintings until his death in 1927.

Then, after various events, the painting entered the Lederer collection, considered the largest collection of Klimt’s paintings. The owner, a great industrialist, had married a Jewess and Klimt was a regular visitor to the house. The painting went through different owners until the traces of the painting disappear shortly after the Anschluss to the Nazi Reich. Unfortunately, we all know what happened to the Jews at that time besides the fact that all their possessions were confiscated and their homes plundered.

Until the publication of the book, it was always claimed that the first painting was destroyed in the infamous fire of 8 May 1945 in the castle of Immendorf, where the SS had decided to sleep for the last night, then set it on fire to destroy all the works of the Lederer collection, where many of the Zuckerkandl Klimts had also ended up.

Now, the author of the aforementioned book puts forward the hypothesis that the painting has been stolen and that it is probably still in circulation. In fact, the painting from Malcesine does not appear in the list of paintings, but it had aroused great interest from the Nazi governor of Vienna von Schirach. The author wonders if by chance the painting has not been stolen and is still hidden so as not to have to be returned to the heirs of the legitimate owners.

Much has been written on the painting in Malcesine. Beyond the strange story about its history and existence, what strikes me in the painting is the absolute immobility, the deliberate elimination of perspective, the fact that the sky has been almost eliminated and the lake has been reduced, precisely in a place where the water and the sky dominate and the landscape of the painting truly becomes a description of the soul.

It is also curious that the first two paintings were discovered to have been painted thanks to the help of a telescope that he had placed near Villa Gruber, now Hotel Bellevue San Lorenzo in the delightful peninsula of Val di Sogno in Malcesine, from which you can enjoy this magnificent view. Klimt obtains the third picture with a shot through the viewfinder of the western shore, always from the same position. It was possible to reach this conclusion on the basis of very few clues, such as the lake that can be seen above on the left and the steep sides of the mountain.

The telescope makes it possible to almost eliminate the perspective by crushing and flattening, at the same time there is also a detachment from the subject it wanted to represent, a technique that in any case was not the only one to use at the time.

We are left with the testimony of an artist and his parable as a man in a difficult and tormented era (Klimt will die in 1918), which unfortunately will later lead to that immense carnage of the World War II and the insane enterprise against humanity.

Cristina De Rossi
Italy4golf Italian Ambassador

* Gustav Klimt and Malcesine. The Zuckerkandl family and the mystery of a missing painting (Italian) by Paolo Boccafoglio – 31 August 2013 – Il Sommolago

Art on Lake Garda, Baldur von Schirach, Cristina De Rossi, Garda Lake, Gustav Klimt, Lederer collection, Malcesine, Paolo Boccafoglio, Val di Sogno, Villa Gruber, Zuckerkandl

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