June 17, 2012

Book Review (Part I): Anne-Marie O'Connor's "Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer

By Catherine Schofield Sezgin, ARCA Blog Editor-in-Chief

In 1907 prosperous Vienna, the great cultural center of Europe, two events happened which would not collide for another three decades.  Gustav Klimt would fulfill a commission to paint the portrait of 24-year-old Adele Bloch-Bauer, who lived across the square from Vienna’s Fine Art Academy, the art school which would in that same year reject Adolf Hitler’s for admission because he failed the drawing exam.

In Lady in Gold, the Extraordinary Tale of the Klimt paintings, journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor tells the extraordinary story of The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I which would sell for $135 million to an American in 2007.  O’Connor first describes the relationship between Klimt, his Jewish art patrons, and the cultural environment in pre-Nazi Austria. From the point of view of the Bloch-Bauer family is told of the collaboration between Austria and the German Nazis to loot Jewish art collections.  The book concludes with the legal struggles of American attorney Randy Schoenberg to navigate the U. S. legal system to help Maria Altmann and the other surviving members of the Bloch-Bauer family to recover four stolen Klimt paintings.  It’s a story of how a legitimate government corrupted legislation to steal from and murder its own citizens.

Within a decade, the Nazis succeeded in destroying the Jewish community Austrian-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef (ruled from 1848-1916) created in Vienna by providing citizenship rights to European Jews in the 19th century – offering them a sanctuary from discrimination and persecution that stretched to the hinterlands of Russia.  The Jewish population in Vienna rapidly increased from 6,000 to more than 200,000 in less than 40 years, creating dissention in the anti-Semitic mostly Roman Catholic population.  Vienna, against the wishes of Franz Joseph, elected an anti-Semitic mayor for two decades who served in effect as a political mentor for Hitler.  After the Second World War, less Jews lived in Austria than had a century ago and they had no intention of returning to a country that treated them less favorably than its population of horses.

Against the backdrop of the murder of 6 million Jews, restitution of stolen art may seem unimportant, especially as newspapers today sport headlines of Jewish families recovering then selling artworks for millions of dollars.  Why is it so important that these paintings are returned to the families now? Weren’t these issues of restitution settled decades ago when Allied forces discovered stolen art in the salt mines of Germany after the war? And why does the American legal system have to get involved in these cases almost seven decades after armistice? Isn’t this a matter for the government of Austria to decide? Lady in Gold answers these questions.

Vienna at the turn of the 20th century was hedonistic.  In 1889, the Crown Prince shot his teenage mistress then himself in 1889.  The Emperor’s mistress was a stage actress.  In 1897, American writer Mark Twain publicly lectured about the virulent anti-Semitism palpable in the Vienna, the city rebuilding itself after successfully defeating Ottoman invaders a half century earlier.  The old fortress walls came down and the Ringstrasse, a series of boulevards encircling the center of Vienna arose, providing an opportunity for Vienna’s nuveau riche, many of them Jewish, to celebrate their financial and industrial wealth with monumental mansions and beautiful decorative arts.  Even statues fronting public buildings glisten with gold.

Part Two continues tomorrow.


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