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Woman in Gold and an Old Toyota

Remembering Maria Altmann, the uncompromising Klimt owner behind Helen Mirren’s portrayal in ‘Woman in Gold’

Frances Brent
May 18, 2015
Detail of 'Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,' 1907, by Gustav Klimt.(© 2015 Neue Galerie New York Photograph by Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York)
Detail of ‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I,’ 1907, by Gustav Klimt.(© 2015 Neue Galerie New York Photograph by Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York)

Eggs at the Neue Galerie’s Café Sabarsky: What better way to talk about Vienna’s prewar Jewish community and the Helen Mirren vehicle Woman in Gold? My breakfast partner last February was Stephanie Barron, senior curator of modern art at LACMA. She was responsible for organizing the journey of the five restituted Bloch-Bauer paintings by Gustav Klimt—two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1881-1925) and three landscapes—from the Belvedere Galerie in Vienna to Los Angeles where they were returned to Maria Altmann, the heir of Adele Bloch-Bauer, in 2006 before they were sold and split up. Adele I, probably the finest painting from Klimt’s gold period, is the enigmatic and majestic centerpiece of the Neue Galerie collection and the subject of their current special exhibition. Adele II, with its voluptuous, fauve-like palette, is now on view as a special long-term loan at the Museum of Modern Art.

“You can imagine how uncomfortable it was at the Belvedere,” Barron said. “We sent our head painting conservator and the registrars to oversee the packing and accompany the shipment. It really was a tense handover, for them to watch the removal from their galleries and then … out the door.”

I can imagine. The history and fate of Jewish material culture in Vienna has been, and continues to be, deeply troubling. At the turn of the century wealthy Jewish families were benefactors to the Vienna Secession and patrons of the Wiener Werkstätte. Maybe 80 percent of Gustav Klimt’s iconic portraits were commissioned by Jewish patrons, assimilated Jews, intermarried Jews, baptized Jews, ennobled Jews, or converted Jews with names like Heymann, Wittgenstein, Pulitzer, Lederer, Langer, Loew, Eisler, Markhof, and Friedmann. You could say that by rendering fashionable and beautiful Jewish women in the iconoclastic format of the modern Viennese aesthetic, Klimt was providing the fusion necessary for his subjects finally to belong to Austrian culture. We know that was a tragic failure.

Upstairs from us, a vitrine held the remnants of that experiment, including a swatch of Wiener Werkstätte fabric printed with stalks of trumpet flowers matching a gown Adele Bloch-Bauer wore circa 1915. On the wall, there was a photograph or her gazing far away with the same tired or lazy eyes Klimt faithfully rendered in the portraits.

I led Barron to the connection between Adele Bloch-Bauer and Klimt, a free spirit who apparently fathered 14 illegitimate children. “Well, I think the difference between Adele I and Adele II is really palpable,” Barron said. “You sense a different relationship between the painter and the sitter. There’s something very stylized about Adele I, there’s format, presentation, the coding of the As and Bs in her clothing. If you look really close the little squares have letters in them—that’s Adele Bloch-Bauer. It’s done so exquisitely. Adele II is very beautiful. The colors are ravishing.” And when pressed on the big, suggestive question: “I think one assumes that they had a special relationship during the time that he did Adele I and not when he did Adele II.”

Like art historians, who have never come to a consensus on the nature of Klimt’s relationship to his most famous subject, Barron and I went back and forth. It has been said that Klimt was a kind of “pasha” in his studio, but there certainly were distinctions between the way he treated his models and his behavior toward the rich women who sat for portraits. Adele Bloch-Bauer was 22 years old—as Stefan Zweig would have put it, she was “in her first bloom”—when Adele I was commissioned. It was intended as an anniversary present for her parents. During the four years between 1903 and 1907, when she sat for more than a hundred preparatory drawings, there were many sadnesses in her family life. In October 1904, she gave birth to a baby who lived only a day or two before he was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery. We know she had several miscarriages and never gave birth to a child who survived. Both her father and her brother Leopold died in 1905.

Sometimes in Klimt’s sketches (12 are part of the exhibit, others are in collections around the world), he concentrates on the poof of Adele’s skirt, the way the fabric bunches and falls across the chair. He has her wearing a loose-fitting Reformkeid dress that could have been designed by his partner Emilie Floge, and he tends to crop her head, just sketching in the rictus of her mouth. In several drawings she rests a hand at her belly in a manner suggesting pregnancy. Was she in love with Klimt? Her husband was a significant patron; at one point he owned seven Klimt paintings. And Klimt was an astute businessman; a single portrait of his could go for the price of a villa. Did he put her off? What did Adele mean when she wrote to her nephew: “If fate has given me friends who are intellectually and ethically exceptional, I attribute these friendships to but one of my qualities: ‘ruthless self-criticism’ ”? Was she referring to Klimt? And what’s the meaning of “ruthless self-criticism”? Who was she?


Adele Bloch-Bauer was the youngest in a large and prosperous Jewish family. Her father Moritz Bauer was the director of the Wiener Bankverein and president of the Orientbahn. During her Viennese Victorian childhood, her family was part of the network of acculturated, wealthy Austrian Jews, emancipated from what they considered the strictures of the past. They thought of their religion as tradition, which could be combined with the cultural life of a rejuvenating city. The family celebrated Christmas and Easter as well as a Dickensian Yom Kippur when the women fasted and sat in the balcony of the Stadttempel Synagogue and the men, wearing top hats and cutaways, took their place next to the Rothschild brothers downstairs.

Adele was married in that synagogue when she was 18 years old. Her husband, Ferdinand Bloch, was 17 years her senior, an industrialist whose family owned a sugar-trading and manufacturing company that eventually included a conglomerate of factories and corporations. As was common among rich Jewish families, two daughters married two sons; her older sister was married to Ferdinand’s older brother. In Vienna, they lived first in an apartment at Schwindgasse 10 and then in a palais off of the Ringstrasse. In the summers they lived in Schloss Jungfern, outside of Prague. Their homes were filled with antique furniture and art that Ferdinand had begun collecting before his marriage. At these great addresses, under crystal chandeliers and at tables with fresh flowers arranged on pedestals, the Bloch-Bauers (they combined their names after the last of Adele’s brothers died) hosted famous guests including Klimt and Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

When Adele Bloch-Bauer died of encephalitis in 1925 her husband was her only heir. She left three bequests to charity in a handwritten will. The first was to the Society of Children’s Friends, and the second was to an organization that promoted social change for laborers. She gave her private library to the Viennese Public and Worker’s Library. Because she chose to be cremated, her remains were not buried in the Jewish cemetery. She also included a request, “I ask my husband to give my two portraits and the four landscapes by Gustav Klimt to the Austrian Gallery upon his death.” In 1926, when her will was filed in a Viennese court, it included a notation indicating that Ferdinand was the owner of the art and no inheritance tax was paid. This was an essential component of her niece Maria Altmann’s legal case against the Austrian government because it indicated that Adele Bloch-Bauer’s wish was not legally binding.

As is often the case with restituted art, the Bloch-Bauer Klimts stand for a lost world—in this instance, a world of almost unimaginable abundance. The Bloch-Bauer art collection included Old Master paintings as well as works by many Biedermeir artists, a panel attributed to Hans Holbein the Younger, a Gobelin tapestry, Rodin’s sculpture of Allegory of Liberty, engravings and sculpture by modern Viennese artists, and more than 450 pieces of priceless porcelain from the Imperial Viennese Manufactory. Right after the Anschluss, as early as 1938, some of it was designated for Hitler’s personal collection. Later, high-ranking Nazi officials, government agencies, and museums divvied up important pieces before the bulk was liquidated, auctioned, sold, and traded off. After the war, the family managed to trace some of what had been taken from them, but the Austrian government made it difficult to get export licenses and put up procedural barriers, forcing “donations” and trades. Like other refugees who survived the war, Altmann thought of herself as lucky, and she was. Three relatives, including Ferdinand’s 90-year-old blind sister, died in the Holocaust, but most of the family survived. In interviews, Altmann expressed resignation about the loss of personal property: “What’s gone is gone. We were very fortunate they were just material losses and not losses of— So many people suffered other things.” But portraits have the notable quality of being about identity. In the case of the confiscated portraits, the likenesses seem to be witnesses to the violation of their materiality, saying as Altmann put it, “You stole everything from us, you took our art.”


And the movie? The scope of the edited version (the film released in the United States is somewhat different than the one shown in Berlin in February) holds fairly tightly to the arc of the restitution case, beginning with Maria Altmann’s complaint against Austria in 1999, then to the Ninth Circuit in Los Angeles, the U.S. Supreme Court, and finally an Austrian arbitration panel that honored the Block-Bauer heir. Among other things, the case hinged on the technical question of whether Altmann could bring a lawsuit against the Austrian government in a U.S. court. But the story in the simplest terms is about the problem of getting justice, and in real life it took certain fairytale turns. Maria Altmann’s lawyer, E. Randol Schoenberg, is the grandson of two Jewish Austrian composers, Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Zeisl, who had very much been part of the great artistic Viennese achievements of the past century. The families had known one another in Vienna and became close in Los Angeles after the war. Documents for the case were uncovered by Hubertus Czernin, scion of an aristocratic Austrian family. Czernin, a journalist who was trained as an art historian, had been instrumental in the 1980s in revealing the Nazi background of Kurt Waldheim. Later he was relentless in tracing materials that revealed how Austrian art institutions extorted donations from Jewish survivors, hid legal documents, and compounded the difficulties of making claims and getting export permits. In the case of the Bloch-Bauers he found a private letter in the museum files from 1948 that explicitly said there was “no document of a donation of paintings.”

The film is well-paced and well-choreographed, it has a lovely beginning that shows the application of gold-leaf as Klimt might have used it, and it does a good job bringing a worldwide audience up to speed on the subject of Holocaust-era art theft. As has been noted, though, it also takes some license, simplifying details (cutting out a number of Maria Altmann’s siblings, for instance) or reconstructing events for the sake of drama. An art property lawyer told me the Supreme Court scene was “ridiculous” and Altmann didn’t receive the decision from the binding arbitration panel in Austria; it took several months after the one-day hearing. Schoenberg, played by Ryan Reynolds, is presented as green and unsophisticated, a foil to Mirren’s Altmann, who’s played with old-world intensity and strength of character. (It’s a pleasure to watch Mirren’s artistry—her compassionate interpretation of what it might have meant and felt like for Altmann to return to Vienna as an old woman and to fight for the legacy of, as she put it, her “double aunt.”) The script doesn’t give Czernin, portrayed by Daniel Bruhl, adequate credit for the personal research that provided the bedrock for the case.

Barron got to know Maria Altmann, who died in 2011 at age 94, while the paintings were on view at LACMA and became close to her after that: “She was an incredibly elegant woman—kind of large—there was a steeliness to her—without being fancy,” Barron recalled. “She and her husband had established a sweater business—people knew her as an émigré with class who turned into a very successful businesswoman. She wasn’t like a Russian princess in Paris who bemoaned the good old days. She didn’t. She lived very modestly in a simple house; her kids would check up on her; she had an old cream-colored Toyota. She was very charming, slightly flirtatious as older woman can be.”


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Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.