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Hildegard Bachert, 98, dies; Championed Klimt, Schiele and Grandma Moses
Hildegard Bachert at Galerie St. Etienne in New York on Oct. 25, 2015. Behind her are two works by Kšthe Kollwitz, “The Mothers” and “Working Woman in Profile, Facing Left.” Bachert fled the Nazis as a teenager and joined a New York art gallery where, over a 78-year career, she helped introduce and popularize the works of German and Austrian Expressionists and the folk art of Grandma Moses, died on Oct. 17, 2019, in Brattleboro, Vt. She was 98. Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Hildegard Bachert, who fled the Nazis as a teenager and joined a New York art gallery where, over a 78-year career, she helped introduce and popularize the works of German and Austrian expressionists and the folk art of Grandma Moses, died Oct. 17 in Brattleboro, Vermont. She was 98.

Her death was confirmed by Jane Kallir, director of the Galerie St. Etienne in Manhattan, which Kallir’s grandfather, Otto Kallir, founded in 1940.

Bachert first worked at the gallery as a secretary. She became co-director with Jane Kallir after Otto Kallir’s death in 1978 and remained in that position until last year, when she moved (she avoided saying “retired”) full time to her second home, in Vermont.

“I could have retired 20 years ago, but I can’t unglue myself,” she told The New York Times in 2015. “I’m too connected. It’s my baby.”

Bachert (pronounced BACK-ert) figured prominently in the art world for decades as a lonely nonconformist among the early- and mid-20th-century Francophile arbiters of modernism.

Working with Otto Kallir, she championed the careers of virtually unknown expressionists, both men and women, among them Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Erich Heckel, Oskar Kokoschka, Kšthe Kollwitz, Alfred Kubin and Max Liebermann.

“We don’t do pretty pictures — our art is tough,” she told The Times. “If we have people who come in saying, ‘I’m looking for a picture that works over my fireplace,’ I say, ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.’”

The gallery organized the first American shows by Klimt and Schiele. “We really put them on the map,” Bachert said.

Even in the late 1950s, drawings by Schiele priced as low as $10 went unsold. But the market’s resistance to German and Austrian art eventually dissipated.

An early-20th-century Schiele drawing recently sold at auction for about $2.2 million. In 2006, cosmetics heir and collector Ronald Lauder paid $135 million for Klimt’s painting “Women in Gold,” which he hung in his Neue Galerie in Manhattan, named for Otto Kallir’s original gallery in Vienna.

In 1940, the Galerie St. Etienne held the first one-woman exhibition by Anna Mary Robertson Moses, the indomitable artist, born in 1860, whose primitive paintings had been discovered hanging in an upstate drugstore by Louis Caldor, an engineer with the New York City Department of Water Supply. They were rejected by other dealers, but Otto Kallir immediately recognized them as artistically meritorious and dispatched Bachert to visit and cultivate her.

The exhibition was followed by a display of Moses’ paintings at the Gimbels department store in Manhattan, a greeting card deal with Hallmark and a contract with the gallery, which secured the rights to her works and reproductions. Income from those sales and royalties helped the gallery pay for other art that was in lesser demand at the time.

“We often said, ‘Grandma supports Schiele,’” Bachert recalled in a 1993 interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Otto Kallir dedicated his biography, “Grandma Moses, American Primitive” (1947), to Bachert, who was his editor and the gallery’s liaison to Moses. She also assisted the artist while she dictated her memoir, “My Life’s History” (1951). Grandma Moses died in 1961.

“People often brand her work as nostalgic,” Bachert told The Hartford Courant in 1998. “It may be so for them. But Grandma Moses was not nostalgic. She was among the most unsentimental persons I ever knew. She had so much common sense and knowledge of life, and all that came through in her pictures.”

In an interview with the Rutland Daily Herald in 2001, Bachert said, “Grandma taught me many things about life and about the intrinsic value of art,” adding, “She really was like a grandmother to me.”

Hildegard Gina Bachert was born April 3, 1921, in Mannheim, Germany, to Gustav and Frieda (Reis) Bachert. Her father, a World War I veteran, was a lawyer.

As a child she was exposed to painting largely through picture postcards and what she called the “very mediocre, bourgeois” landscapes that hung in her family home. She was barred from visiting the Kunsthalle Mannheim museum in the 1930s because she was Jewish.

After the Nazis seized power and Hildegard was expelled from public school — also because she was Jewish — her parents insisted that she and her older sister, Edith, leave Germany. They were able to obtain visas through an uncle in Chicago, and in 1936 they settled in New York, where Hildegard graduated from George Washington High School. After their home was ransacked during Kristallnacht, her parents managed to join their daughters in 1939.

Hildegard was admitted to Oberlin College in Ohio, but, even with a scholarship, lacked enough money to attend. She enrolled instead in free night classes at Hunter College in Manhattan. Needing to find work, she lasted three days as a frazzled housekeeper and, through a printer friend, was hired as a secretary at the Karl Nierendorf gallery. It was there that she met Otto Kallir, who hired her after she promised to teach him English.

He had opened a gallery on West 57th Street, which describes itself as the oldest in the United States specializing in Austrian and German expressionism. He also assisted in the restitution of art looted during the Holocaust.

“My grandfather respected and appreciated her and gave her a very large role,” Jane Kallir said. “She had this enduring sense of a mission beyond herself and was really dedicated in service to the art.”

Bachert lived in an apartment on West End Avenue in Manhattan decorated with furniture and other artifacts that her family had salvaged when they fled Germany. She never married and left no immediate survivors.

Seventy-eight years is a long time to work in one place. But, Bachert explained, she had never been a careerist. She preferred to feel that her talent was being tapped to its full potential, leaving her fulfilled in the knowledge that she had made a contribution that was appreciated.

“A 9-to-5 job never appealed to me,” she said in 1993. “I put in enormous amounts of hours — here, now, even more, because I have the responsibility of the gallery. I never worked harder than when I was older.

“Kallir felt that we should have more free time,” she added, “and he was the boss; he could say, ‘Take off.’ But now I’m the boss, and I never take off.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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