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

Anne-Marie O’Connor
  • Review
By – April 23, 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.

Bet­ti­na Berch, author of the recent biog­ra­phy, From Hes­ter Street to Hol­ly­wood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezier­s­ka, teach­es part-time at the Bor­ough of Man­hat­tan Com­mu­ni­ty College.

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