In 1907, Austrian painter Gustav Klimt completed three years of work on his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the daughter of a prosperous Jewish banker and the wife of a Czech-born industrialist. Ninety-nine years later, Ronald Lauder of New York bought the painting, by then the subject of an art-world furor and knotty legal battles in America and Austria. He paid $135 million - a record for any painting. Five other Klimt paintings, including another portrait of Adele, also netted extraordinary sums. These paintings disappeared into their purchasers’ hands, but Adele’s glittering portrait is now displayed in New York’s Neue Galerie.
To disguise its subject’s Jewish origin, the Nazis retitled it “The Lady in Gold” - a name taken by Anne-Marie O'Connor for her book, which traces its turbulent history. She begins in 1898 with 16-year-old Adele reciting at her sister’s wedding. By this time, Klimt, born in 1865 to a struggling immigrant engraver, was the renowned leader of the secessionist movement. His style was influenced by the Egyptian artifacts in Vienna’s museums and later by Ravenna’s Byzantine relics, which he saw in 1903 and described as “mosaics of unbelievable splendor.” His portrait of Adele reflects this. It is covered in gold leaf; she has the austere stare of a Byzantine icon, and her draperies and background create a mosaic of geometric shapes and hieroglyphic eyes.
Adele died childless in 1925. She wanted the Klimts to go to the Austrian Gallery “to make a work by his hands accessible to the public.” But when her husband died in Switzerland in 1945, the Nazis had deported all of Austria’s Jews to concentration camps and seized their property. He was bereft of his porcelain collection and his pictures and much of his wealth. He left what remained to his nieces. They, too, had fled Austria and were living in America and Canada.
In 1999, his younger niece, Maria Altmann, sued the Austrian government for the return of his pictures, which had resurfaced in Vienna’s museums. The Austrian government fought any suggestion of restitution, claiming the Klimts as national patrimony. She eventually won - and immediately sold the paintings. Her attorney was E. Randol Schoenberg, grandson of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who also fled the Nazi onslaught on Vienna’s Jews.
Ms. O'Connor recounts this history in a series of compelling pictures of eras and people, first evoking fin de siecle Vienna and the lives of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt; then focusing on the Nazi period with its dire consequences for Europe and its Jews; finally detailing the legal struggle to recover the paintings.
Although Ms. O'Connor’s tale has chronological breadth, it often lacks depth. She mentions Austrian anti-Semitism without exploring its roots or explaining how families like Adele’s ascended the higher reaches of Viennese society. She refers often to Adolf Hitler’s early and futile attempt to gain admittance to Vienna’s art school, implying that this personal blow underpinned his confiscation of the city’s artworks. With the possible exception of Klimt, she portrays people simply: They are either lovely or intelligent with laudable aesthetic sensibilities or they are rapacious villains.
All this trivializes her topic because it raises questions that point to serious omissions. For example, she gives little account of the period between World War I in 1914, which had cataclysmic effects for Austria, and the 1930s, when violent anti-Semitism was rampant. She fails to mention two Austrian paintings seized legally on behalf of their original Jewish owners when they were lent to an American museum in 1998 - a case of great relevance to Maria Altmann.
Although Ms. O'Connor’s scorn of Austria’s contention that its greatest painter’s works are patrimony is defensible, she does not address the ethical claim that such paintings should be held by institutions that keep them on display, nor does she discuss the extravagant prices that often prevent museums from buying major works. On the other hand, she consumes many pages with numerous tangential topics such as Mark Twain’s impressions of Vienna and whether Klimt and Adele were lovers.
A thoughtful editor should have identified these problems. An editor’s pencil often is much-needed. Ms. O'Connor can be vague about details. We’re told that the Hapsburgs had ruled “for hundreds of years.” How many hundreds? She describes as fact situations that can be only imagined. For example, we read that “Klimt cast a bemused glance at everyone there, and resumed painting,” and that when Adele arrives at his studio, she “looked eagerly onto the Schwarzenbergplatz. … Her warm white breath hung in the cold air.”
Such flights - and they are common - undermine a book that draws strength from considerable research and numerous interviews with Altmann, Randal Schoenberg and others with firsthand knowledge of the painting and its history.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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