Museum links Leger's 'Aviator' to a German-Jewish art dealer who fled

The Plain Dealer 21 December 2003
Steven Litt
Plain Dealer Art Critic

On the surface, there's nothing to suggest the presence of an unsolved mystery in Gallery 236 of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I t's a smallish room, filled mainly with paintings from the 1910s and '20s by European artists such as Juan Gris, Andre Derain, Georges Braque and Henri Matisse.

Among them is the superb Fernand Leger painting "The Aviator," painted in 1920 and purchased by the museum in 1981 from New York art dealer Klaus Perls. It depicts a man with cylindrical arms who stands amid arcs and stripes of color that suggest a whirling propeller and an urban landscape made of flat shapes and signs.

A label describes the painting as an example of Cubism, the avant- garde style that swept Europe and America in the first decades of the last century. The label also includes the artist's name, (pronounced LEH-zhay), the year the work was painted and the accession number, which indicates the year in which the museum bought the painting.

But this is far from the whole story. For the Leger has a mysterious past that connects it to the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany, the rise of Nazism and the persecution of Alfred Flechtheim, the important German-Jewish art dealer who once had the painting in his possession.

The mystery is that to this day, the museum can't explain exactly how the Leger got from Flechtheim's wall to its wall.

There's a gap in the museum's provenance, or ownership history, from 1929 to the early years of World War II, when the painting surfaced in Switzerland.

This raises the possibility that the painting could have been confiscated by the Nazis and sold illegally either for private gain or to raise capital for the Third Reich. This happened to thousands of artworks during the Nazi era, as German authorities systematically looted the great art collections of Europe and confiscated the wealth of millions of Jews.

The connection to Flechtheim also links the painting to the art dealer's niece, Thea Klestadt, 91, who escaped from Germany to the United States in 1937 and who now lives in Beachwood.

For her, the Leger is a connection, however tenuous, to the lost world of her childhood in Dusseldorf before World War II, where her once-famous uncle opened his first gallery before expanding his business in Berlin.

Klestadt was too young to attend the glamorous parties Flechtheim and his wife, Betti, threw in their posh Berlin apartment. But he sent her small bronze sculptures as presents, published her poetry in his journal of avant-garde culture and signed postcards with the sentiment, "Kisses, Alfred."

"My uncle was a very clever, original man," Klestadt said. "He never made money. It wasn't his interest. He just loved the art so much."

Klestadt wants to know more about the Leger and its relation to her uncle. So does the museum. It wants to make sure that it has clear title. It also wants to shed light on its collection, and on the vast Nazi campaign to loot, steal and confiscate the art treasures of Europe.

"We have a responsibility to individuals who are still alive today and who are descendants of people who are a part of that tragedy," said museum director Katharine Reid. "We have a responsibility that is of a profound moral nature."

Proof of the link between the Leger and Flechtheim surfaced in Cleveland four years ago, when Klestadt paid a visit to William Robinson, the museum's associate curator of paintings and a specialist in 20th-century art.

Klestadt wanted Robinson to conduct research on her uncle's life. At the time, she said, she had no idea of the link between Flechtheim and the museum's Leger.

But when she showed Robinson a book she had brought along, she said the curator had a jolt.

The book, "Berlin Living Environments of the 1920s," included a black- and-white photograph taken in 1929 in the library of Flechtheim's apartment.

Robinson immediately recognized the painting when he scanned the photograph.

"Oh my God," Klestadt recalls him saying. "That's our Leger!"

The unknown years in painting's history

Since then, the museum has tried to solve the mystery of the painting's lost years by combing archives and contacting galleries in Europe.

Just last Wednesday, the museum traced the painting's ownership to 1941, when it was in the hands of Dr. Max Kofler-Erni, a Swiss collector who lived in Basel.

But there is still a gap. The whereabouts of the painting from the time it was photographed in Flechtheim's apartment to 1941 are still unknown.

Before Klestadt showed up with her book, the museum believed the painting had been owned at some point in the 1920s or '30s by Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, another famous German-Jewish art dealer, who lived in Paris and was a partner of Flechtheim's.

Now Robinson thinks the Leger might have been shipped back and forth by the two dealers. Flechtheim also could have sold the painting in Switzerland or London before his death in 1937.

But no records exist for many of the transactions between Flechtheim and Kahnweiler. And Flechtheim's personal records were destroyed in London during the Blitz.

That gap raises the possibility of Nazi involvement in the painting's past.

The Cleveland museum has never hidden the gap in the Leger's provenance. In fact, three years ago, it posted the work on its Web site as one of 373 European paintings whose histories are unknown between 1933 and 1945.

Other museums are making similar efforts, not only to illuminate the past but to adjudicate claims by Holocaust survivors who are reclaiming ownership of works stolen by the Nazis.

Reid isn't worried about the museum's title to most of the items listed on its Web site.

But if proof of foul play emerges and a Flechtheim descendant rightfully claims the Leger, the museum won't keep it.

"If it belongs to somebody else, it's theirs, and we will give it back," she said.

Klestadt, for her part, doesn't want the painting. For one thing, she has no proof that her uncle owned it or that it was taken by the

Even if she had proof, she said, "I am the last one who would take it off the wall of the museum." Instead, she wants something far more precious to her.

"I want my uncle to be remembered."

It's a poignant wish, because it was a goal of the Third Reich to erase the memory of people such as Flechtheim.

But the photograph taken in his apartment means that no matter what happens in future research on the Leger, the painting can be viewed as a window into the life of a cultural impresario despised by the Nazis because he had championed the works of artists Hitler hated, and because he was a Jew.

Flechtheim's Semitic features - the long nose, the full lips, the heavy-lidded eyes - were caricatured in a Nazi poster advertising the 1938 exhibition called "Entartetekunst," or "Degenerate Art," organized by the Nazis to show that modern art was a foreign virus.

"Flechtheim was for the Nazi government, you can say, in art, public enemy No. 1," said Ottfried Dascher of Dortmund, a retired professor of history from the University of Bochum.

Today, Flechtheim is a hot topic in Germany, a nation trying to come to terms with its past. The art museum in Dusseldorf celebrated his life in an exhibition in 1987. His hometown of Munster renamed a street for him. And just last month, art dealers and historians, including Dascher, dedicated a plaque on the Berlin building where Flechtheim once lived.

"There is no week in which I don't get letters and e-mails from all over the world on this subject," Dascher said in a telephone interview.

One reason for the interest is that Flechtheim was part of a group of pioneering art dealers of German-Jewish heritage who were the first to champion the work of Picasso and other modern artists. Flechtheim was also part of the cultural renaissance of Weimar Germany, which brought forth the films of Fritz Lang, the music of Kurt Weill and the drama of Bertolt Brecht.

Klestadt remembers encounters with her uncle as magical. When he returned to Dusseldorf after a buying trip to Paris, he'd store paintings by Picasso or Vincent Van Gogh by hanging them in the basement of his parents' house. His mother, who hated modern art, promptly turned the pictures to the wall.

"I loved them," Klestadt said of the pictures. "My taste for modern art started very young."

Klestadt, whose face brightens when she speaks of her uncle, is short and slim and wears her gray hair in a stylish bob. Her strong-boned face shows a clear resemblance to her uncle, the older brother of her mother, Erna.

Klestadt's apartment is filled with mementos of pre-war Germany, including a collection of small bronze sculptures of an acrobat and animals by the sculptor Rene Sintenis, all sent as childhood gifts from her renowned uncle in Berlin.

"He was unbelievably interesting, al ways making jokes," Klestadt said, "the opposite of what my family was like."

Art captivates a merchant's son

Flechtheim was born in Munster on April 1, 1878, into a family of wealthy Rhineland grain merchants. His father wanted him to join the business. But in Paris during the 1910s, Flechtheim fell in with the circle of critics, dealers and artists around Picasso. Soon, he was buying dozens of artworks and bringing them home to Dusseldorf to show and sell.

When he married Betti Goldschmidt in 1910, he scandalized his bride's family by spending her entire dowry on art. Within a few years, he quit the grain business and became a full-fledged art dealer.

Like many proudly assimilated Jews, Flechtheim enlisted to fight for the Fatherland in World War I. He fought with distinction on the Western Front as a Uhlan, or cavalry lancer.

During a furlough in 1916, he was photographed on the lawn of his house in Dusseldorf with Thea, then 4, sitting on his lap, wearing a white dress with a white bow in her hair. Flechtheim looks tan and relaxed. His boots are gleaming, his uniform is neatly pressed, and he's holding one of his ever-present cigars in his right hand.

Flechtheim resumed his business in Dusseldorf after the war. But after France took over the city in 1921, he was forced to leave because he had served in the German army. Kahnweiler persuaded him to open a gallery in Berlin.

It was a hit with critics and collectors. Flechtheim soon opened branches in Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna, Austria. He also began publishing a journal, Der Querschnitt (or "Cross-section"), filled with critical theory and fiction. It was the first German publication to print a short story by Ernest Hemingway in translation.

These were Flechtheim's glory years. He wore exquisite suits, threw lavish parties, poured the finest wines. His friends included Max Schmeling, the great German boxer. Guests at his flat included Josef von Sternberg, the filmmaker who directed "The Blue Angel," starring Marlene Dietrich. The French painter Jules Pascin painted a portrait of Flechtheim as a Spanish bullfighter.

Art critic Christian Zervos described Flechtheim in an article as "nervous, agitated, lively, shrewd, joyful, despairing, sensual, unfair, enthusiastic, chatty, theatrical . . . that was the word, theatrical, in everything and with everyone."

To artist George Grosz, a close friend, Flechtheim "was the man-about- town who knew everybody and was at home everywhere."

But Flechtheim's world was a fragile one. The financial crash of 1929 dampened the art market, further weakened the Weimar Republic and set the stage for Nazism.

Within weeks after taking power in 1933, the Nazis passed a law forbidding Jews from being art dealers. After a scary brush with the SS, the elite Nazi paramilitary unit, Flechtheim fled to Paris and London.

Betti stayed behind in Berlin with her sister and spent eight fruitless years trying to liquidate her real estate holdings to pay the punishing exit tax the Nazis levied against wealthy Jews. In 1936, Flechtheim divorced Betti to separate his name from hers and thereby improve her dealings with the authorities. Dascher believes they intended to remarry. Flechtheim, meanwhile, mounted the first show in England on the art of Paul Klee and organized a massive survey of 19th-century French art. But he died in 1937 after stepping on a rusty nail and developing blood poisoning and gangrene. Doctors amputated both his legs, to no avail.

Betti survived another four years in Berlin. Dascher believes she was never harassed by her non-Jewish neighbors. But when she was told in late 1941 that she would soon be deported "to the East," she committed suicide by overdosing on sleeping pills.

Klestadt escaped from Germany in 1937 with her husband, Fred. After a sojourn in New York, the couple settled in Cleveland and made a life. Fred Klestadt died in 1995.

Today, Thea Klestadt is thrilled to hear any new information about her uncle, including the Cleveland museum's research on its Leger. Every scrap adds to her attempt to reconstruct the life she lost decades ago.

The magnificence of that life is suggested by a small black-and-white photograph of the three-story Mansard-style mansion in which she grew up, with a high stone wall and a big wrought-iron gate out front. The house is gone today, having been bombed in an Allied air raid on Dusseldorf. Klestadt returned after the war to have a look. She found a rubble-strewn yard in which a squatter had built a shelter.

Klestadt rummaged in the soil and found a small chunk of polished white marble, which she recognized as part of the grand staircase that once led into her house. She keeps it to this day. Like the Leger that hangs at the Cleveland Museum of Art, it is a fragment of a lost world.

Assistant professor Mark Cassell of Kent State University provided translation for this report.
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