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Scenic artist hit a masterwork mother lode with 'Woman in Gold'

When scenic artist Steve Mitchell took on 'Woman in Gold' he hit the mother lode of masterpiece re-creation

What do you do after you painstakingly re-create one of the most famous paintings on Earth? Hide it from sight, of course.

This likely will be the fate of a reproduction of Gustav Klimt's 1907 masterpiece, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," painted by a scenic artist for the film opening Wednesday called "Woman in Gold." When a painting has been created to fool millions on celluloid, its makers can't have a forgery floating around, possibly fooling someone on the black market too.

"To an expert it would be immediately obvious," production designer Jim Clay said. "But to the untrained eye, it would not be apparent at all."

"Woman in Gold" is about the court battle between Bloch-Bauer's niece, Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, and the Austrian government for five Klimt paintings confiscated by Nazi troops from Altmann's family home at the dawn of World War II. The lawyer E. Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of the Austrian composers Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl and a member of a prominent Los Angeles family, took Altmann's case on a contingent-fee basis. E. Randol Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, worked with her for nearly seven years to recover the paintings, including "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," which was considered the "Mona Lisa" of Austria.

Given the worldwide headlines at the time, it's not much of a spoiler to say that the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and ultimately was settled in Altmann's favor by a panel of arbitration judges in Austria in 2006. Later that year, Altmann's family sold "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I" to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for $135 million. It was the highest price ever paid for a painting at the time, eclipsed since then by only five masterworks by the likes of Paul Cezanne and Paul Gaugin.

That the Klimt went to New York — it has been on display in the Neue Galerie, which Lauder established in 2001 — was a disappointment to Los Angeles. After its recovery, the portrait had hung, to much public delight, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which tried to keep it there. Altmann herself lived in Los Angeles until her death in 2011 at age 94.

Because the plot of "Woman in Gold" pivots its recovery, the painting serves as one of the film's lead characters. Klimt made the painting during his "golden phase," and it is covered with elaborate gold leafing. The texture of this leafing — rich, delicate and tonally varied — can't be reproduced in a print, which is how famous art often is replicated for film.

"If we didn't have a stellar reproduction, we'd be dead in the water," said the film's director, Simon Curtis. "It was a big mountain to climb, and on top of that we had to cast an Adele [German actress Antje Traue] that looked like her in the painting."

The film, which screened at the Berlin International Film Festival to mediocre to negative reviews in February (Curtis has since made changes), does indeed carry the burdens that come with a history-based tale. For Curtis and his team, the challenge was as immense as bringing Marilyn Monroe to life, believably, in the director's 2011 drama, "My Week With Marilyn."

"This is probably one of the most complicated paintings for its size that you could ever be asked to do," said the scenic artist behind "Woman in Gold," Steve Mitchell, who has worked on hundreds of films including "Children of Men," the "Harry Potter" franchise (for which he painted wizard portraits) and Woody Allen's "Match Point."

Klimt took three years to complete his magnum opus. Mitchell had to finish his in five weeks. He also made a half-completed version for a shot that is supposed to take place in Klimt's studio (he was the hand model) as well as a 2-foot-square center section that was used for extreme close-ups.

To do this Mitchell pored over all the research he could find about Klimt and his process — in books, on the Internet, in documentaries — only to find that Klimt was quite secretive. Adding another level of difficulty was the amorphous nature of gold leafing, which can cause the look of a painting to vary depending on the light with which it is photographed.

"I had something like 50 reproductions to work from, and I don't think there were two that were the same," Mitchell said of the Byzantine-esque painting. "I was trying to take a mean average from all those reproductions. But at the end of the day, the film is another photographic medium, so you're not seeing the true colors then either."

Lighting the painting on set was indeed a challenge, said Clay, adding that cinematographer Ross Emery often used a dim cross light and relighted according to camera position. When the camera tracks across the painting, the texture, which is as much as a quarter-inch thick in some places, pops out at the viewer.

That mottled gold in the background of the painting was the most time consuming to re-create, said Mitchell, who used five types of gold leafing to emulate it.

He had 24-karat gold. He also used 23- and 22-karat golds, which may not sound that different from 24 karat but are a touch more pale. There was also lemon gold, red gold and pure silver leaf. Mitchell said Klimt likely dropped gold flecks randomly into varnish or glaze on the painting's panels. But nothing can be random about a reproduction, so Mitchell had to spot every piece of gold by hand with a brush. All told he spent about $350 on gold and silver leaf to re-create the $135-million canvas.

Mitchell said Klimt changed his mind a lot.

"He altered lots and lots of stuff," he said. "You can see the texture underneath, and you know that he put something on top at a different angle. There are huge sections that have been overworked and overworked and overworked."

Mitchell did his best to put all that intent in his reproductions. It reveals itself with glimmering winks and nods under the light.

Mitchell, 61, studied fine art at Leicester College in England and went on to train as a scenic artist at the BBC. He lives in the Cotswolds and paints for pleasure, but being given the task of re-creating Klimt's masterpiece was "quite worrying," Mitchell said.

"I've done Picassos and Matisses before," Mitchell said, adding that the former was for Neil Jordan's "The Good Thief" and the latter was — the title has slipped his mind, there have been so many. "But the fact that this entire film was about this painting — well, that was the difference, and it had to be on the money. At the back of my mind was the fact that at one point it was the most expensive painting in the world. It's quite unnerving."

Amid all this gold, one silver lining: When it was announced that the paintings would leave Austria for their new home in America, photographer Manfred Thumberger was given exclusive access to take beautifully detailed, high-resolution laser photographs. From these photographs he is then able to make high-quality prints. The filmmakers paid a few thousand dollars for the rights to use the images and a few hundred dollars for two prints of "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I."

Mitchell was able to work off of one of those prints, at least at first. Once he covered it with gold leaf, the print was completely obscured and he was back to scrutinizing reproductions.

Did the filmmakers bring in an art expert to evaluate his work at the end?

"No, thank god," Mitchell said, adding that director Curtis delivered a personal thank-you after the painting reached the set. "He seemed really in awe of it."

Twitter: @jessicagelt

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