Review: Vivien Horler
The Lady in Gold – the extraordinary tale of Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, by Anne-Marie O’Connor (Vintage Books)
My reading year has started with a glorious, muscular book that, while it has the story of the Gustav Klimt portrait as its centrepiece, is so much more than that.
It is a tale of fin-de-siècle Vienna, a city of opulence and elegance and high society, of anti-Semitism, of great art, of the Holocaust and Nazi war crimes, of a post-war Austria that tried to forget its enthusiastic collaboration in Hitler’s war, of the desolation of refugees and a glimpse into the multi-million dollar contemporary art world.
Adele Bloch-Bauer grew up in pre-World War I Vienna, when that city was at the centre of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She came from a vastly wealthy assimilated Jewish family, and married Ferdinand Bloch, a sugar-beet baron who was twice her age. She was an atheist and a free thinker, and despite her wealth, liked to describe herself as a socialist.
Also living in the city at the time was the artist Gustav Klimt, a man who had thrown off the straitjacket of conventional Austrian art, and painted works that were rejected by Viennese society for their eroticism, symbolism and boldness. He was embraced by the city’s wealthy Jewish elite, and received many commissions, including one to paint a portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Klimt loved women and at a time when “respectable” women were not considered to be sexual beings, he seduced them and celebrated their sexuality both in his life and in his work. It is not certain that he and Bloch-Bauer were lovers, but it is thought they probably were.
Klimt painted her twice, the gold portrait being finished in 1907. She died, childless, of meningitis in 1925, aged just 43. Before her death, she left a note saying she wanted her husband to leave the two Klimt portraits as well as four Klimt landscapes to Vienna’s Austrian Gallery, which was housed in the Belvedere Palace.
A devastated Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer turned Adele’s bedroom into a shrine, with the six Klimt paintings hanging on its walls.
In 1933 the Austrian-born Adolph Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany – followed in March 1938. As a young man Hitler had desperately wanted to be accepted as an artist, and in 1907 applied to study at the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts, and was crushed when he failed the drawing exam.
Later, as German chancellor, he saw art as a form of political propaganda, describing German art in 1933 as “the noblest weapon in defence of the German people”. So it was no surprise that Nazi officials had carte blanche to collect – steal – artworks across Europe from people who were being sent to their deaths in concentration camps.
The Bloch-Bauers’ Klimts were taken and stored in a variety of places. The Lady in Gold was hung in the Belvedere Palace, where it came to be regarded as Austria’s equivalent of the Mona Lisa.
So it followed that many post-war Austrians were outraged when Maria Altmann, Adele’s 80-something niece living in Los Angeles, began a legal campaign to retrieve her family’s property. She was aided by a young American lawyer, himself the grandson of Jewish Austrians who had fled the country in the 1930s.
Much was made in various legal hearings as to whether Adele would still have wanted the portraits and other works to be left to Austria, had she known how that country would turn against its Jews.
The Lady in Gold is a great read, meticulously researched and beautifully written by O’Connor, once an art student in San Francisco and a former Reuters and Los Angeles Times journalist.
It was first published in 2012.