The Lady in Gold
The Extraordinary Tale of
Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer"
Alfred A. Knopf: 368 pp., $30
One dazzling painting. So many meanings.
For Austrian modernist Gustav Klimt, his "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" was a passionate expression of feminine beauty and desire, painted in mosaic-like patterns of flickering light.
For the subject, a Viennese belle married to a Czech sugar baron, the shimmering portrait was an emblem of social status and intimate friendship with the artist, a dashing leader of the Austrian avant-garde.
For Nazi looters, Klimt's 1907 painting was a trophy that depicted a Jewish woman but that could pass as an Aryan masterwork if retitled "Lady in Gold."
For postwar Austrians, the fine example of Klimt's highly stylized "gold" paintings was a national treasure -- their "Mona Lisa" -- proudly displayed as a donation at the palatial Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.
But for Bloch-Bauer's niece Maria Altmann, who fled the Nazis and settled in Los Angeles, the portrait was a family heirloom stolen by Hitler's henchmen that had to be returned.
The story of the international legal battle over the painting, its restitution and subsequent sale to Revlon heir and art collector Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million played out in the press for eight years. In Los Angeles, a display of the spectacular artwork and four lesser Klimts at the County Museum of Art in spring 2006 sparked a short-lived campaign to add "Portrait of Adele" to the museum's permanent collection.
Anne-Marie O'Connor, a former Times staff writer, dived into the story while reporting for The Times and forged a friendship with Altmann that helped her develop an ambitiously researched book. The result, however, is uneven.
Rich in historical context, it's gripping in details and drama of Jewish families destroyed and art collections ransacked during Hitler's reign. The author's account of legal proceedings and dissension over the painting's rightful home -- among family members as well as Austrians -- also goes well beyond newspaper reports. But she tends to wax sentimental and gushy in matters of art and love, in the style of a tell-all raconteur with too much information. Do we need to know that the young Maria Altmann had "an unfashionably ample bust" or that her sexual awakening was inspired by Goethe's poem "The Wedding Night"?
Still, following the trail of a single painting -- with many side trips -- provides a fresh focus for the tragically familiar Holocaust story.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was 25 when Klimt painted her famous likeness, and they apparently had a close association for several years, although speculation about a love affair is unsubstantiated. She died in 1925, seven years after the artist's demise. Her will, drafted in 1923, asked her husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, to leave her Klimt paintings to the Austrian national art museum, home of the present-day Belvedere Gallery. Ferdinand died in Switzerland in 1945, after the Nazis had confiscated his property, including the art.
Maria's husband, Fritz Altmann, was sent to a concentration camp in Dachau but released in exchange for family assets. The young couple escaped Vienna by taking a plane to Cologne, a train to Aachen and a taxi to Kolschied, a small German town on the Dutch border which they crossed on foot under cover of darkness, and eventually to the U.S.
"Portrait of Adele" was stored in a former monastery before being taken to the Belvedere, which greatly enhanced its collection during the war with the help of "an uncommonly prolific acquisition policy," as a Nazi official said. That might have been the end to the story were it not for the work of Hubertus Czernin, a Viennese investigative journalist with a passion for exposing Austria's complicity in the Holocaust. Before reporting in 1999 on the Nazi activities of Austrian presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary-general, Czernin had started digging into files documenting the theft of Jewish art collections.
Maria Altmann began her quest in 1998, after she heard about an article by Czernin indicating that "Portrait of Adele" had not been donated to the museum, as claimed. Los Angeles attorney E. Randol Schoenberg, a grandson of composer Arnold Schoenberg, ultimately took the case on a contingency basis, successfully arguing that Altmann and other family members could sue Austria in U.S. courts for the return of stolen property. On New Year's Day 2006, he learned that the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor.
O'Connor does not gloss over complexities of the Klimt affair or the spoils of victory. Yet she concludes that the artist, a Catholic, "changed the world" by painting portraits of Jewish women that "opened hearts and minds." It's an absurd statement. The return of "Portrait of Adele" furthered the cause of the restitution of Nazi loot. But prejudice, human atrocity and greed live on.