The Lady in Gold
Every stolen painting has a story. The tale behind this one is epic.
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Although O’Connor first focuses on Viennese society of the turn of the 20th century, when wealthy Jews supported avant-garde artists like Klimt and Oskar Kokoscha, the book accelerates dramatically when she looks into the relationship between the Nazis – who stole the Adele portrait and other Klimt works – and the Austrian government. While “The Lady in Gold” is a celebration of art and persistence – its heroes are Adele’s relative, Maria Altmann, and Maria’s dogged Los Angeles attorney, Randol Schoenberg, a descendant of composer Arnold Schoenberg – it also is an inquiry into survival and assimilation (O’Connor’s look at intermarriage in early 20th century Vienna is provocative) and an indictment of Austria, which fought tooth and nail to keep works like the Klimt it inherited from the Nazis who had stolen them. Klimt, after all, was a native son. But in such an anti-Semitic society, Bloch-Bauer, a Jew, wasn’t quite a native daughter.Skip to next paragraph
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I wish O’Connor had published a family tree showing the relationships between members of the Bloch-Bauer clan. The book is overly heavy with interview and anecdote, making it hard to keep track of everybody. Too often, “The Lady in Gold” feels overwrought; O’Connor’s journalism outstrips her organization. Still, it is a largely successful demonstration of the way artistic provenance can tell a much larger story.
“Who could have guessed the history of Vienna would be told by its paintings?” O’Connor writes after Schoenberg won restitution of the Adele portrait following eight years of litigation.
“Adele was no longer a beautiful enigma. Vienna, too, was being stripped of mystery, as Adele and Klimt’s other stolen women changed the city’s relationship with its past. Each stolen painting had a story, and each story raised pressing moral questions. Regardless of whether one believed the Bloch-Bauer Klimts should be returned, it was impossible to look at the paintings the same way again. It had been possible to avoid history. But not the talismanic images of these blameless, insulted daughters of Vienna.”
O'Connor's book brings Klimt's exceptional portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer home, broadening the meaning of homeland at the same time.
Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer in Cleveland.