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The Lady in Gold

Every stolen painting has a story. The tale behind this one is epic.

By Carlo Wolff / February 13, 2012

The Lady in Gold By Anne-Marie O’Connor Knopf 400 pp.

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Family strife, Europe in convulsion, the art business, and what might have been an affair between a painter and his model are among the cross currents  of Anne-Marie O’Connor’s probe of "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," Gustav Klimt’s painting of a Viennese socialite in the first decade of the 20th century. Based on conversations with participants in the twisty saga, primarily Maria Altmann, the elderly woman who wrested the iconic Klimt portrait from the Austrian government, The Lady in Gold is dense – at times too dense – cultural history.

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Subtitled “The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” this excavation covers the relationships between Klimt, a volcanic talent of voracious sexual appetite; Mrs. Bloch-Bauer; her families, both nuclear and extended; and the governments of Germany, Austria, and the United States. The painting, on exhibit at Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in Manhattan, looks luminous; apparently, Klimt was influenced by Byzantine mosaics he had seen in Ravenna, lending the work unusual incandescence by framing the pale Adele in a sea of gold. The eye and almond shapes surrounding her deepen the ambiguity of their bond, which O’Connor never quite clarifies.

Overall, O’Connor has effectively contextualized the Bloch-Bauer portrait from its creation in 1907 to 1938, when the Anschluss put Austria under German control. Austrian society changed dramatically after World War I, when failed painter Adolf Hitler, an Austrian like Klimt but of a decidedly different nature, began his climb to power. After the Anschluss, the Nazis exterminated Jews and then seized art works like the Klimt paintings, hiding them in various places including Vienna’s mysterious Belvedere Gallery.

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