The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

Knopf  2012


Many admire the works of Klimt and other artists of the Vienna Secession, unaware of the cultural context that produced them. O’Connor uses one of the most iconic works of the period, Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, to tell the story of Vienna’s Jewish community, from the early nineteenth century through the Anschluss and the post-War period. Klimt himself was not Jewish, although like many Viennese of the day, he mingled and worked with the Jewish community, which supported his revolutionary art by commissioning and purchasing his work. When Austria embraced Hitler, Jewish-owned art, homes, and other belongings were ‘aryanized’; Jews themselves were murdered or forced to flee or hide. Hitler’s antipathy to modernist art (traced, here, to his own artistic failures in Vienna) meant most Secession art was deemed too ‘degenerate’ to be exhibited publicly; valuable pieces were routinely confiscated for personal collections or hidden in Nazi bunkers. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was so compelling, however, that although Adele was unmistakably Semitic, her portrait was renamed The Lady in Gold and proudly displayed by the Nazis in the Belvedere Palace in Vienna. After the War, Austrian officials covered up their complicity, refusing to return valuable property to its rightful Jewish owners. The struggle of Bloch-Bauer’s descendants to reclaim her portrait was ultimately successful, although the battle it entailed underscores the enormity of Austrian denial. O’Connor’s narrative is spirited and gripping; one only misses the color plates of the actual art works, which if the Austrians had acted honorably, might have been available here. Bibliography, notes, photographs.

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