The Lady in Gold

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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