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Golden Opportunity Beckons LACMA

In spite of this morning's downpour, there was one place in Los Angeles where a festive mood prevailed. There was no sunshine there, but people were smiling nevertheless. A soft golden glow was reflected on their entranced faces thanks to five jewel-like paintings by Gustav Klimt.

The just-unveiled exhibition at LACMA came as a big surprise to everyone. To Maria Altmann, whose family, after a lengthy legal dispute with the Austrian government, reclaimed ownership of these paintings, once belonging to her aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer. To LACMA's curators, who found themselves rushing through the impossibly complicated logistics of negotiating and organizing the exhibition in a record few weeks, instead of the customary years it normally would have taken. And it came as a big surprise to us, lucky Angelenos, who never imagined seeing these five gorgeous paintings here.

These five masterpieces -- two shimmering portraits of an exotic-looking young woman and three beguiling landscapes -- have never been shown in the United States. Prepare to be bewitched and, if not bothered, then definitely bewildered by Klimt's canvases versus whatever you thought you knew about them through reproductions.

The most famous of the five is a 1907 portrait of Maria Altmann's aunt Adele, whose thoughtful pale face, under a crown of dark hair, stands in dramatic contrast to the waves of golden mosaics sweeping across the canvas. Looking at it, I found myself thinking of elaborate Byzantine icons with their Madonnas against golden backgrounds. The second portrait of Adele, painted five year later in 1912, is a very different story. Picasso and Matisse had already wrought havoc on the artistic traditions of the era, and this full-scale portrait shows Klimt opting for brighter, bolder colors and freer flowing brushwork.

During the press conference, Maria Altmann confessed that these paintings, elegantly and sparsely installed on the ground floor of LACMA's Ahmanson building, looked much bigger than she remembered them in Vienna. Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin, whose research enabled the restitution of the paintings, had an interesting response to my question: Why did the Austrian government decline to purchase these paintings, which are recognized as a part of their cultural patrimony? He said that the Austrians, actually two-thirds of them, would rather let these paintings go, than pay a Jewish family $300 million, the estimated value of these works.

It's gratifying to see that, for once, justice has prevailed and artworks looted by Nazis have been returned to their lawful owners. But if we are talking not about legal, but poetic justice, then we should hope and pray that these magnificent canvases will stay on the walls of a public museum, rather than purchased and hidden in someone's private living room.Nothing could propel the reputation of LACMA's collection more than keeping these paintings in perpetuity. For that, the museum's patron saint, Eli Broad, should be persuaded to extend his philanthropy to yet another level and acquire these paintings for our City of Angels. Such generosity would propel him from the rank of mere super-rich philanthropist to the rare status of visionary.

"Gustav Klimt"
April 4 - June 30
LACMA
5905 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90036
323-857-6000

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