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The Human History of a Famous Portrait



Rob Hardy


The famous painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer has been a stylized expression of feminine beauty, a symbol of wealth and status, a portrait of a Jewish woman anathema to Nazis but still valuable as artistic loot, a national treasure to Austria, and a post-Holocaust ownership restoration cause célèbre. It's a fine portrait, but it must have more history, family ties, and legal wrangling attached to it than any comparable painting. Its diverse roles and stories are told in The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (Knopf) by Anne-Marie O'Connor. O'Connor is a journalist with an art background who has written articles on the painting and the family's efforts to recover it, but this book takes a longer historical view, and takes in huge sweeps of twentieth century artistic, social, and historical movements. It is divided into three parts: about the creation of the portrait, the way the Nazis got hold of it, and how the subject's descendants were able to claim it again. Each of the three stories if full of detail and of memorable characters. 




There is a picture of Adele Bloch-Bauer from 1907 on the back of the book and, surprise, she looks very like her stylized portrait painted the same year. She had been born in 1881, the daughter of a prosperous Jewish banker, and she had married a Czech-born sugar baron much older than she. Adele was a successful socialite in the hothouse of fin-de-siecle Vienna; Sigmund Freud, Alma Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler, Mark Twain and others enter the pages here. (Adolf Hitler is here, too, rejected as an art student by the same academy that had taken on Klimt.) She was an outspoken atheist and socialist, but her husband Ferdinand Bloch loved her deeply. It was he who commissioned the portrait, a long-term project of over three years. Adele the model and Gustav Klimt would have spent long hours alone together. Maybe they became lovers; there were rumors at the time, and there's no way of telling now, but Klimt was a notoriously persuasive sybarite of voracious sexual appetite. He was the son of a gold engraver who had gotten a scholarship in art training in Vienna and was doing municipal projects. Some were controversial, but he was a fashionable painter for Vienna's wealthy. Like his most famous work, The Kiss, his portrait of Adele has a startling sea of gold leaf, probably as a result of his seeing Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna. He was to paint another portrait of Adele, and she wrote a memo to her husband that she wanted their Klimt paintings, including her portraits, to be left to the Austrian National Museum. In 1925, two years after writing the note that might have dictated the destiny of the painting, she died of meningitis. 




She could not have foreseen the tumult of the Anschluss in 1938, wherein the Nazis began confiscating or taking for ransom the businesses, homes, and art collections of Viennese Jews. Although her husband Ferdinand was to get to Switzerland, where he would die in 1945, their house on the Ringstrasse was commandeered to be the headquarters of the Austrian national railroad. Ferdinand's family estate in Czechoslovakia was taken as a house by "The Butcher of Prague," Reinhard Heydrich. When Ferdinand died, he left what little remained to him to his nieces, who had also fled and were living in America and Canada. The portrait would have meant little within the aesthetics inspired by Hitler, and it was originally ignored. In an underhanded deal, an illegitimate son of Klimt, a strict Nazi, appropriated the painting, and got it into the Austrian National Museum (The Belvedere) after the painting had its name changed to Lady in Gold; after all, it would not do to display a portrait of a beautiful and exotic woman if she had been a Jew. The portrait remained as part of Austria's national heritage and a reminder of a lush time in Viennese artistic history. 




It was long after the war that journalists began uncovering how Austria had kept secret a cover-up of how its museums had profited from acquiring art stolen by the Nazis. It was a disgraceful story, including how museum curators with Nazi ties continued to keep quiet about the acquisitions long after the Nazis were defeated and how the government colluded in the conspiracy of silence. When Maria Altmann in California, an octogenarian niece of Adele who had fled the Holocaust, began to read stories that showed how the portrait was appropriated to The Belvedere but had not been given to it, she and her determined Los Angeles attorney Randol Schoenberg started a long battle to regain the portrait. For eight years organizations in Austria waged an unseemly fight to keep the painting (and other spoils of the Nazis). You can understand that while Adele, who had promoted Viennese museums and social causes, in 1923 would have wanted her husband to give the paintings so that the citizens could enjoy them, she would have changed her mind if she had been around for their forfeiture.  




Schoenberg (grandson of the composer, who himself had fled the Nazi onslaught against Vienna's Jews) took the case on a contingency basis; it was his one obsession and he had nothing to fall back on. He argued that Maria Altmann and other members of the family could use U.S. courts to sue Austria for return of stolen property. The Supreme Court ruled in the family's favor in 2006, and that year the make-up industry billionaire Ronald Lauder bought the painting for a record $135 million. It has been on display in New York's Neue Galerie since then. It is a just outcome, but it is an outcome that wrongly emphasizes the painting as an object of monetary value. O'Connor's book would have little meaning if the story were merely how valuable the painting turned out to be. The bigger and fascinating story of lust, beauty, greed, loss, prejudice, atrocity, and justice is told here with a wealth of glittering detail. 




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