The Brilliant Jewish Art Scholar Who Survived WWII and Killed Himself Once His Career Took Off

Robert Klein was a Jewish immigrant in France who survived World War II, studied medicine, philosophy and art, and put an end to his life in mysterious circumstances. The discovery of a trove of his unpublished works is causing a stir among art historians

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Robert Klein. From the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.
Robert Klein. From the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.Credit: INHA
Sefy Hendler
Sefy Hendler
Sefy Hendler
Sefy Hendler

PARIS - A palpable shudder ran through the audience when the archivist in Paris took out the yellowing suicide note. Few of them had known its author, Robert Klein, but in the past year his very significant, albeit forgotten, contribution to Renaissance art history has been on the lips of everyone in the field. The note was a reminder of a complex life and a legacy that hasn’t yet been fully investigated.

This year is the centenary of Klein’s birth and marks 51 years since his suicide in the hills near Florence. He typed the suicide note, which was addressed to his friend, Renzo Federici, and then made corrections by hand. “Postmortem letters are something very much hated… I know that,” he wrote, and quickly added a qualification that reads like a promise. “This is a business letter, written with fondness (for you). I am sorry to be causing you this embarrassment.”

The two pages Klein wrote do in fact read like a list of businesslike instructions: whom to update, what to say, in what language and when. But amid all the seeming technicalities there is one appalling sentence, the only one that hints at the motives for a suicide that remains largely an unsolved riddle to this day. “I have many convincing reasons for getting off the train,” he wrote. For Klein, getting off the train was the last stop of human existence. That is a harsh and highly consequential statement by a Jewish survivor of the labor camps in Romania during the darkness of World War II.

Earlier this month, scholars met at a weeklong conference to discuss Robert Klein and his legacy. The event was triggered by the donation, some five years ago, of the Klein archive to the library of the French National Institute of Art History (INHA) – and the resulting interest in Klein’s work. The conference took place at the National Institute of Art History in Paris (which holds the archive), the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies at the Villa I Tatti in Florence, and the Kunsthistorisches Institut (Max Planck), also in Florence. It was a birthday both happy and gloomy. Although after the war Klein’s doctoral advisor, André Chastel, published a book-length collection of articles he had written, the scope and depth of Klein’s studies were to a great extent unknown to the broader scholarly community.

Robert Klein. From the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.
Robert Klein. From the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.Credit: INHA

The first step in the renewed interest in Klein was the publication in book form of his first doctoral thesis, which was never submitted for refereeing. The next step is intended to be a collection of articles about him, and probably also publication of his extensive correspondence with the most important art scholars of the 20th century, notably Erwin Panofsky, another Jewish immigrant who rewrote the history of art.

Primo Levi of art history

Who was Robert Klein, the forgotten genius? He was born in September 1918 in Timişoara, Romania. The breadth of his thought was apparent in the diversity of his studies before the war: medical studies at Cluj, philosophy at the German University in Prague and science disciplines in Bucharest. When the war broke out, he was drafted into the Romanian army, then held in forced labor camps and afterward fought on the Allied side in Czechoslovakia; upon his liberation he completed an undergraduate degree in Bucharest. He was awarded a French government scholarship to study in Paris, but when he declared himself a political exile, the Romanian authorities stripped him of his citizenship, whereupon he also lost the scholarship. To his last day he traveled from place to place only on the strength of laissez-passers, and despite a letter sent by his advisor to Gen. Charles de Gaulle, Klein remained stateless for the rest of his life.

Despite his complicated legal and economic situation, Klein succeeded in integrating himself into French intellectual circles and, with great effort, in forging an academic career. The hub of his work was the study of the theory and art of the Italian Renaissance. He obtained his master’s, became a research assistant at the College de France and then embarked on writing his thesis at the Sorbonne, supervised by André Chastel, one of the most influential scholars of art history in France in the second half of the 20th century. His economic distress, with which Klein coped in a variety of ways – from washing dishes to writing reviews – undoubtedly delayed the writing of his theses.

The first two were never completed. His classmate Henri Zerner – afterward a professor of art history at Harvard – told the conference about the friendship that developed between his mother, a Jewish refugee from Austria, and Klein, who would borrow money from her to get through the month. Klein’s tangled emotional life did not make things easier for him. Zerner attested to the complex relationship Klein had with a Romanian immigrant widow with children, who committed suicide in the United States not long before Klein took his own life.

From the distance of half a century, and with testimonies becoming increasingly hazy with time, it’s difficult to understand the reasons that led to Klein’s suicide. He committed the act at a time when his material situation seemed to be improving. He was awarded a prestigious research scholarship at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard center in Florence, and moved there in the autumn of 1966. The following April he overdosed on sleeping pills.

Robert Klein from the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.
Robert Klein from the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.Credit: INHA

Henri Zerner wonders whether “the inability to live got the better of Robert Klein just at the moment when his qualifications were recognized and his material existence was guaranteed.” He added, “After many years of poverty, perhaps the obligation of being (at last) happy was intolerable for him.” Even if Zerner didn’t mention the name Primo Levi, many of those at the conference could not help calling to mind the Jewish-Italian writer and thinker who survived Auschwitz and committed suicide in April 1987, exactly 20 years after Klein.

It was Zerner who, with André Chastel, went to Florence to take possession of the many documents Klein left behind. Five years ago, he decided to donate them to the National Institute of Art History. There they came to the attention of Dr. Jérémie Koering, a scholar of Renaissance art at the André Chastel Center at the Sorbonne. “I plunged into the archive and discovered a series of unpublished writings,” Koering said. “I thought immediately that there are extremely important works that should be published.”

With painstaking work that necessitated cross-matching printed pages with handwritten index cards pinned to them, Koering edited Klein’s first thesis for publication, titled “The Aesthetics of Technè” – which, in the word’s Aristotelian sense, refers to the process of artistic creation. Klein proposes a new model for thinking about Italian Renaissance art, which in the period when Klein was writing was perceived by scholars, led by Panofsky, as having been dominated by Neoplatonic thought with a premium placed on the idea of form and its realization in matter.

Which art was nobler?

The validity of Klein’s thought was put to the test at the conference, when scholars from around the world gathered to consider the place of his ideas today, more than 50 years after they were locked into a sort of time capsule. The angle from which I was invited by the organizers to examine the thesis – the question of the rivalry between painting and sculpture in the Renaissance – was one of the places where the strength of Klein’s work stood out most convincingly. That rivalry, which is known as “paragone” (comparative), is one of the key issues that occupied artists and philosophers in the Italian Renaissance: which art was nobler and imitated nature more closely – painting or sculpture?

Until now, the theoretical underpinning for this confrontation lay in Neoplatonic thought, which sanctifies the supremacy of idea over matter. Klein, in his insistence on examining the question through the prism of Aristotelian thought, was able to impart importance to the question of the technè: the way the artist creates, encompassing his technical – not only conceptual – skills. That perspective allows a far more precise grasp of one of the central questions in the philosophy of Western art. Jérémie Koering believes that this is only the first step. In his view, publication of Klein’s research “will accelerate the transformation in the study of Renaissance art, placing the emphasis on the process of creation, and will spur new studies about the intellectual profile of an individual about whom much remains unknown.”

Robert Klein. From the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.
Robert Klein. From the library of the National Institute of Art History, (INHA) collection Jacques-Doucet, Fonds Chastel.Credit: INHA

A participant in the conference who knew Robert Klein personally was Carlo Ginzburg, one of the most important historians of the 20th century and a founder of the field of micro-history (and also the author of the book “The Cheese and the Worms”). Ginzburg, 79, is the son of Leone Ginzburg, a leading Jewish intellectual of the interwar years in Italy, who was tortured to death by the Nazis in Rome, and of the writer Natalia Ginzburg. He was clearly moved to be addressing an event that dredged up from the recesses of oblivion the young co-recipient – along with him – of a scholarship from the Harvard center in Florence.

Ginzburg evoked their last meeting, which took place in the institute’s renowned Berenson Library. “We’re both standing and conversing. We talked about everything, even about Alain Resnais’ film ‘Last Year in Marienbad.’ I remember that he offered a phenomenological interpretation for it. There was something very intimate about the conversation, and then he said to me, ‘Can we dine together on Thursday?’ ‘I can’t make it on Thursday,’ I replied, ‘can we do it Sunday?’ – ‘Sunday is impossible,’ he said. On Sunday he committed suicide.”

Ginzburg set forth this dolorous memory for the audience and admitted, “After 50 years, that moment doesn’t leave me. His tragic end pains me very much. That end did not erase my feelings for him, but did succeed in erasing the content of the conversations between us. I remember the tone, but the substance is gone. And now, through the thesis that has now been published, I am trying to renew the dialogue between us.”

Many others, who did not have the privilege of knowing Klein, will try to hold a similar dialogue.

Robert Klein’s book, “L’esthétique de la technè,” edited by Jérémie Koering, is published by France’s National Institute of Art History. Sefy Hendler, who was one of the speakers at the conference, is chair of the art history department at Tel Aviv University.