By: Judy Levin
I was undecided which book I should write about for my next posting. But as I sat down to write on Nov. 9, I noted that it was the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous “Night of Broken Glass” of 1938 that set the Nazi’s war against the Jews into full action. So, I could not resist writing about The Lady In Gold. In fact, I had watched the Weinstein & Co. film, The Woman in Gold that night, getting an extra visitation of history on this auspicious date.
I was not sure why the title was changed between the book and the film since the painting in reference is the same – the world renowned portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a Viennese Jew of great beauty, intellect and culture, painted in 1907 by Gustav Klimt. Now I see that the book, by Anne Marie O’Connor, fleshes out what the film can only introduce with glances into the life of Viennese Jews at the turn of the last century, and into the early 20th c. leading up to WWII and the Holocaust.
Vienna was a center of culture – art, architecture, jewelry, literature, food and music. Into this mix was the insertion of science, medicine, advancements and enhancements outmatched possibly only by culture in Paris. Many of the Jews then living in Vienna had come from more eastern European cities with little besides their ambitions, work ethic and desire to fit in and partake of Viennese society while contributing and participating fully in what had become a more open and welcoming society for Jews. And it was just these advancements and attainments that led to their being blamed for overtaking the economy and preventing the Christian culture from business opportunities and the accretion of wealth.
Much has been learned about how the Nazi's collected (read: stole) artwork, jewelry, household goods, religious artifacts and furniture from Jewish homes as they sent the inhabitants into ghettos and concentration camps. Hitler’s goals were multiple: purging what was called “degenerate art” that represented themes and styles of progressive and modern thought; using confiscated goods to help finance his war effort; selfishly enjoying the beauty and wealth for himself and other high-ranking officers; and planning to later display in a museum the belongings of an annihilated people.
Huge underground caverns in the Altaussee salt mines became the depository for trainloads of stolen goods. Towards the end of the war and after, the trainloads and caverns were discovered and goods rescued. The recent film The Monuments Men celebrated the difficult physical and moral efforts of the American rescue and recovery task force. The Lady In Gold regales the story of one woman, Maria Altmann, niece of the woman portrayed in the famous Klimt painting. Into the picture comes one young and idealistic lawyer who grows to have a personal stake in the search for justice and return of the famous painting from the Vienna Art Museum to private family ownership.
It is a true David vs. Goliath story, pitting individuals with neither clout nor money against the Austrian Government itself. Even though we know that the famous portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer now hangs in The Neue Galeriein New York, (purchased by Ronald Lauder and kept on permanent display as required by the sales arrangement), the book and film built tension and drama into the case as it dragged on for several years through appeals, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and finally arbitration by a panel in Austria. The fact that the arbitration committee decided the Klimt painting be returned to the family of Adele Bloch-Bauer represents a tremendous triumph of justice. The government of Austria and Austrian citizens in general have been slow and few in following the painful but necessary path of recognizing war crimes and making amends.
After reading this book and watching the film, I hope to travel to New York soon to view this magnificent and important piece of art. The Lady in Gold delivers a full understanding of the painting’s significance as a piece of history, as a portrait of a complex woman, and of its significance as a piece of art by a singular and important artist working during this dynamic era in Vienna.
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JUDY LEVIN - Book Reviews
Judy Levin has been facilitating discussions with book lovers for nearly 35 years. With a teaching degree and an English major put to excellent use, Judy currently facilitates and moderates discussions for 30 groups including libraries, organizations and private groups. A life-long Chicago land girl, Judy is a daughter, wife, mother, and grandmother. Follow Judy on Twitter andFacebook and see what’s trending and newsworthy.