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Major artists, few masterpieces

Works from Vienna find a temporary home in Prague's National Gallery

Posted: November 10, 2010

By Mimi Fronczak Rogers - For the Post | Comments (0) | Post comment

Major artists, few masterpieces

Courtesy Photo

Malevich's painting has a prominent place in the show.

The National Gallery has its fair share of outstanding pieces in its permanent collection, especially works by major French artists and Cubists bought in the early 20th century by the visionary Vincenc Kramář, then head of the institution. The National Gallery's Collection of Modern and Contemporary Art at Veletržní palác has many gaping holes, however. To get a fuller picture of 20th-century Western art, art lovers typically have to leave the country for Vienna or Berlin.

The loan exhibition "Monet-Warhol: Masterpieces From the Albertina and the Batliner Collection," on view in Prague through early January, fills some of these gaps. Curated by Tomáš Vlček, director of the National Gallery's modern and contemporary collection, and Olga Uhrová, a curator specializing in international modern painting, the selection was tailored to complement the National Gallery's own works.

Unfortunately, it does not quite live up to the promise of the word "masterpieces" in its title. While the 80 pieces are predominantly by major artists - in addition to Monet and Warhol, the show offers works by Bonnard, Matisse, Kandinsky, Giacometti and Bacon, to name just a few - most of the works are later pieces, lower-quality examples of the artists' characteristic styles, or atypical works.

Rita and Herbert Batliner, who live in the tiny Alpine principality of Liechtenstein, built up their collection over five decades, and in 2007 they made a permanent loan of their entire collection to the Albertina in Vienna. It was an unusual choice of institution, since the Albertina concentrates primarily on drawings and prints, but the couple wished to keep their collection, containing around 500 works, as an integral whole.

Monet-Warhol: Masterpieces From the Albertina and the Batliner Collection
at Veletržní palác Ends Jan. 7, 2011. Dukelských hrdinů 47, Prague 7-Holešovice. Open Tues.-Sun. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

In Vienna, the Batliner Collection now constitutes the heart of the Albertina's permanent exposition, which is titled "From Monet to Picasso." A major part of the collection is 40 pieces by Picasso, including 10 paintings; none of these was picked up for the Veletržní show, however, since Picasso is richly represented in the National Gallery's own collection.

The Batliners' collecting activities centered on big names across a wide spectrum of international movements, ranging from Impressionism and the Russian avant-garde through American Pop and German Neo-Expressionism. The show skips through Fauvism, the Der Blaue Reiter group, Surrealism, American Colorfield and lyrical abstraction, usually through lesser-known examples.

Most of the pieces in the show from the first half of the 20th century are from the Batliner Collection, while a number of works from the latter part of the century were selected from the Albertina's own holdings, including pieces by German artists Arnulf Rainer and Alselm Kiefer, and Americans Sol LeWitt and Robert Longo.

An unexpected delight is the work of an artist who has remained on the margins of the European 20th-century art canon: Russian Pavel Filonov (1882-1941), whose impressive paintings pack entire worlds into the space of a single canvas. His Untitled (City) from around 1925 is a rush of art genres, from portraiture and urban landscape to still life, and art themes, including the self-portrait and a few Cubist standbys such as a café vignette and playing cards. He convincingly evokes the sensation of fast-paced modern life and the rapid flow of history more effectively than the Futurists ever did.

The last time the National Gallery was able to present a high-caliber collection of international modern art was more than 20 years ago, when a selection from the Guggenheim collection visited Prague. The National Gallery can be credited with finding a low-cost way to offer viewers a higher-level experience than it has been able to do for many years. It snagged this exceptional exhibition as an in-kind loan for allowing some of its major art assets to travel to Vienna. As National Gallery Director Milan Knížák boasts in his introduction to the exhibition, the National Gallery essentially got this show for free, thanks to its intelligent barter policy.

But everything comes at a price. The art collector Herbert Batliner became notorious more than a decade ago when he was implicated in the slush-fund scandal involving former German chancellor Helmut Kohl and his Christian Democratic Union party. As the London Observer reported in 2002, the lawyer and one-time president of Liechtenstein's Constitutional Court was suspected by the German intelligence agency, the BND, of having stashed away millions in undeclared donations for Kohl's CDU and also for having laundered money for Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, the drug lord Pablo Escobar and Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire. He was cleared in an inquiry in Liechtenstein.

Additionally, one of the pieces in the Batliner collection, Kazimir Malevich's Man in a Suprematist Landscape, caused a stir after it arrived in Vienna when it was alleged that the painting had been smuggled out of Russia to the West in the early 1990s without the proper export license. Nevertheless, it was accepted by the Albertina into its permanent display, and it holds a prominent place in the current exhibition at Veletržní. Receiving such a generous art loan could carry the unintentional cost of calling the judgment of these art institutions into question.

Judging by the high attendance at the usually semi-deserted Veletržní palác, the National Gallery likely feels that its policy is paying off.

Mimi Fronczak Rogers can be reached at

Tags: national gallery, exhibitions, veletrzni palac, prague galleries, galleries, art in prague, monet warhol, batliner collection, paintings, contemporary art, modern art, 20th century, czech republic, czech.

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