The victims of the Holocaust are most often recalled at their moments of agony and death. But it is also our duty to recall the richness of their lives before Europe fell under the shadow of Nazi Germany. What Hitler sought to destroy, after all, was not merely 6 million human lives but also the whole vibrant culture that they created and sustained.
That’s one reason why “The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer’ ” by journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor (Knopf: $30) is such an illuminating and rewarding book. O’Connor focuses on a masterpiece painting looted by the Nazis that, many years later, was retrieved from an Austrian state museum by an intrepid lawyer from Los Angeles. O’Connor’s book is the chronicle of a Jewish family and its courageous effort to avenge at least one of the crimes committed against them, all of it reflected in the fate of a single iconic work of art.
Several strands of history are woven into the fabric of O’Connor’s book. She introduces us to Adele Bloch-Bauer, the beguiling young daughter of a Jewish banker whose face and figure are depicted on the Klimt canvas, and reminds us that the young woman moved in privileged circles: “Adele grew up as a member of a generation that viewed immersion in art as its birthright,” O’Connor explains, “and as an essential prism for understanding the world.”
We also meet Klimt, a successful artist who fancied himself an aesthetic revolutionary, a member of a movement of artists known as the Secession who aspired to achieve in tradition-bound Austria the freedom that Picasso and Matisse enjoyed in Western Europe: “As Klimt made drawings of a nude young woman for his painting of Nuda Veritas or Naked Truth — a visual manifesto of the Secession — he idly wrote on one sketch: ‘Truth is fire, and to tell the truth means to glow and burn.’ ”
But Klimt was also a hedonist who routinely seduced the women he encountered, not only the wealthy ones who sometimes served as his models, but even his washerwoman. His paintings were so suffused with his own insistent eroticism that the Austrian Ministry of Culture canceled its plan to send one of his paintings to St. Louis for display at the 1904 World’s Fair. So it was something of a scandal when Adele, young and unhappily married, announced that she would sit for a portrait by Klimt. “It was sometimes not ‘safe’ for society women, and their good name, to have their portrait painted by Klimt,” one critic observed.
Klimt himself did not survive World War I, and Adele died in 1925, but the famous painting later caught the eye of the former Austrian corporal who fancied himself an artist and a connoisseur of fine art. Once Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, he and his cronies took what they wanted from the art collections of their victims, which they seized along with their bank accounts, houses, jewels, silverware and other assets. “Klimt’s mosaic of Jewish patrons and friends would be pried apart, piece by piece, by men incapable of creating beauty but determined to steal it,” O’Connor writes.
Ironically, Klimt was regarded as a “degenerate” artist by the Nazi regime, and when the treasures of the Bloch-Bauer family were seized and looted, they took Adele’s diamond necklace but left behind the Klimt painting. “The Führer wanted paintings that celebrated Jewish values, not portraits of decadent Jewish society women — who were now officially referred to by the ugly term Judensau, or Jewish sow,” O’Connor explains. What treasures the Nazi leadership didn’t want, however, were sold off to further enrich them.
Thus did “Portrait of Adele” end up in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. “The Nazis had smashed Adele’s world like a mirror,” O’Connor writes. “But Vienna still saw itself reflected in its shards.” To disguise the fact that it depicted a Jewish woman, the painting was renamed “Portrait of a Lady With Gold Background.” After putting the famous canvas on display, the director of the Belvedere boasted that its collection had been greatly enhanced “by means of an uncommonly prolific acquisition policy,” a euphemism for acquiring the looted artwork of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Long after the end of World War II, the remnant of the Bloch-Bauer family took up the struggle to retrieve what had been stolen by the Nazis, including “Portrait of Adele.” Here begins the second and equally compelling story that is told in “Lady of Gold.” The heroes are Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann — a beneficiary under the will of the painting’s true owner — and her attorney, Randol Schoenberg — a friend of the family and grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Starting in 1998, these two Angelenos conducted a legal, diplomatic and media crusade to reveal the theft of the Klimt painting and to restore it to the family.
The whole effort was so full of what O’Connor delicately calls “unwelcome novelties” that Altmann began to refer to the ordeal as “the curse of the Klimts.” But “The Lady in Gold” has a happy ending of a kind. Thanks to a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004 and the tireless efforts of Schoenberg, five Klimt paintings from the Bloch-Bauer family’s looted holdings were ultimately recovered from Austria and then, in 2006, loaned by Altmann’s family for a brief display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “Portrait of Adele” ultimately sold for a record-setting price of $135 million to cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for his Neue Gallery in New York. “Klimt, once branded as a pornographer,” O’Connor writes, “was now the creator of the world’s most expensive painting.”
Far more important, however, was the historic meaning that can be extracted from the recovery of the painting. “What is the value of a painting that has come to evoke the theft of six million lives?” O’Connor asks. It’s a fair question, but I think that it answers itself. When Klimt first applied the layers of gold leaf that adorn “Portrait of Adele,” he intended to create an object of erotic opulence. Today, however, this same painting is an icon of moral justice.