Book Jacket Synopsis: “The spellbinding story, part fairy tale, part suspense, of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer; one of the most emblematic portraits of its time; of the beautiful, seductive Viennese Jewish salon hostess who sat for it; the notorious artist who painted it; the now vanished turn-of-the-century Vienna that shaped it; and the strange twisted fate that befell it. The Lady in Gold, considered an unforgettable masterpiece, one of the twentieth century’s most recognizable paintings, made headlines all over the world when Ronald Lauder bought it for $135 million a century after Klimt, the most famous Austrian painter of his time, completed the society portrait. Anne-Marie O’Connor, writer for The Washington Post, formerly of the Los Angeles Times, tells the galvanizing story of the Lady in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer; a dazzling Jewish society figure; daughter of the head of one of the largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire, head of the Oriental Railway, whose Orient Express went from Berlin to Constantinople; wife of Ferdinand Bauer, sugar-beet baron. The Bloch-Bauers were art patrons, and Adele herself was considered a rebel of fin de siecle Vienna (she wanted to be educated, a notion considered “degenerate” in a society that believed women being out in the world went against their feminine “nature”). The author describes how Adele inspired the portrait and how Klimt made more than a hundred sketches of her – simple pencil drawings on thin manila paper. And O’Connor writes of Klimt himself, son of a failed gold engraver, shunned by arts bureaucrats, called and artistic heretic in his time, a genius in ours. She writes of the Nazis confiscating the portrait of Adele from the Bloch-Bauers’ grand palais; of the Austrian government putting the painting on display, stripping Adele’s Jewish surname from it so that no clues to her identity (nor any hint of her Jewish origins) would be revealed. Nazi officials called the painting The Lady in Gold and proudly exhibited it in Vienna’s Baroque Belvedere Palace, consecrated in the 1930s as a Nazi institution. The author writes of the painting, inspired by the Byzantine mosaics Klimt had studied in Italy, with their exotic symbols and swirls, the subject an idol in a golden shrine. We see how, sixty years after it was stolen by the Nazis, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became the subject of a decade-long litigation between the Austrian government and the Bloch-Bauer heirs, how and why the U.S. Supreme Court became involved in the case, and how the Court’s decision had profound ramifications in the art world. A riveting social history; an illuminating and haunting look at turn-of-the-century Vienna; a brilliant portrait of the evolution of a painter; a masterfully told tale of suspense. And at the heart of it, the Lady in Gold – the shimmering painting and its equally irresistible subject, the fate of each intertwined forever.”
Review: Aside from my usual nonfiction of choice (typically books about the environment in general, the ocean more specifically), I have an odd interest in, and drawing to, books about art history. Having seen the movie version of The Lady in Gold, I was eager to get my hands on a less theatrical, more detailed look at the impressive history of Klimt’s most famous painting: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Given the subtitle of this book (“The extraordinary tale of Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, Portrait of Adele-Bloch Bauer), I was certain that The Lady in Gold would deliver. And it did deliver, but not necessarily in the ways I anticipated. A vast majority of the book (at least two-thirds) focused on what happened to many of the people in the Bloch-Bauer world before, during, and after the Nazi regime.
“On this level playing field, comedians cheered up depressed prisoners, and a kindly grocer with a fourth-grade education became the de facto camp therapist for those who were suicidal.”
Adele and Klimt’s moments in the spotlight were relatively short-lived, which is likely just a byproduct of history; both died before the Nazi movement really gained momentum. While the first section of the book did discuss the paintings’ commission, and the final section did discuss the litigation surrounding it, the bulk of the book involved heavily detailing the lives of many different Austrian Jews and Nazi members. It was often hard to keep everyone’ story lines straight and relate those story lines back to the portrait itself. In this way, I think the book is marketed a little duplicitiously (which often leads to poor reviews from me). In this particular case, however, I think The Lady in Gold is still an excellent book in spite of its deviations from what is expected. This book gave me the most detailed window into Nazi-occupied Austria that I have ever seen. The horrors and manipulations that millions of Jews were forced to contend with left me breathless. In The Lady in Gold, O’Connor does a good job of merging many different vignettes into a compelling read. All in all, I am glad that I read The Lady in Gold and think that this book, and the story of the Bloch-Bauer family and their friends, deserves a constant spot in bookstores and reading lists.
“The Nazis had smashed Adele’s world like a mirror. But Vienna still saw itself reflected in the shards.”