Apr 3, 2015 | artists, films, portraits, art, paintings

The story of Gustav Klimt’s Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer is made into a new film


Klimt Adele Block Bauer


Between Monuments Men, Mr Turner, and Effie Gray, films about art and artists have been coming thick and fast lately and have been a mixed bunch in terms of quality. Another offering called (rather unoriginally) Woman In Gold – about the attempts by an Austrian Jewish woman named Maria Altmann to reclaim a painting of her aunt by Gustav Klimt – has just debuted at the Berlin Film Festival where it met with disappointing reviews. It has a starry cast including Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, and Downton Abbey’s Elizabeth McGovern. Never mind about the poor reviews, it’s an interesting story to tell regardless of whether one bothers to see the film.

Gustav Klimt’s Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (there was indeed a Portrait Of Adele Bloch-Baeur II painted in 1912) is perhaps his most famous painting, after The Kiss. Adele was an unconventional and very modern woman, suited to Klimt’s very modern style – she wore unconventional clothes, smoked, and disliked children and small talk. Her niece Maria said of her ‘Adele was a modern woman living in the world of yesterday’.  She was part of the assimilated, cultured Jewish upper-middle class in Vienna, known for their progressive artistic tastes. Klimt was commissioned to paint her in 1903 and he produced a sumptuous, patterned, gold portrait which was widely disliked by critics of the day. It was speculated at the time that Bloch-Bauer and Klimt had had an affair, though this has never been proven. Klimt liked to paint Jewish women as subjects of his art, finding their frequent dark colouring exotic.

Adele had died of meningitis in 1925 long before Hitler had even come to power, but her niece Maria Altmann returned from her honeymoon in 1938 to find that the Nazis had annexed Austria. Only days later the Nazis payed the Bloch-Bauer family a visit and confiscated all of their valuables including jewellery, a Stradavari cello, and the family’s paintings including Klimt’s portrait of Adele. Maria and her husband made a narrow escape by pretending to have a dental emergency, and fled to England and then on to Los Angeles. She never saw her parents again. The family’s sugar business was seized, whilst Adele’s stolen necklace ended up as the possession of Herman Goering’s wife. Adele’s portrait along with four other Klimt paintings including the later Adele Bloch-Baeur II became the property of a Nazi lawyer who eventually gave it to the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna where it remained for the next 60 years.

It was 1998 before Maria Altmann had an opportunity to claim her rightful property after an new law passed in Austria gave the right for people to reclaim any state-owned property taken from them by the Nazis. The problem was that the Austrian state was claiming that the Bloch-Bauer family had donated the painting – along with the four other  Klimt paintings – to the Belvedere gallery. Adele it seems had actually wished for the work to be given to the gallery but her wishes were overridden by her husband after her death who then left the works to his nieces. In her eightees by this time, Altmann sued the Austrian government demanding the return of her painting. It took nearly a decade for the courts to find in her favour – the painting was too famous, too much of a tourist draw, for them to simply give it up. And what of all the other looted art work filling Vienna’s galleries that might now become the subject of any number of claims?

In the end Altmann won the right to have their case heard in a US court and to sue the Austrian state from there, at which point the government agreed to negotiate a settlement. Nearly a hundred years after the completion of the portrait, the painting was returned to Altman in 2006. As Altmann pointed out, she didn’t have any need to feel bad for Austria in having lost it’s poster-girl as no attempt had ever been made to compensate the family for it’s loss, whilst the painting raked in billions for the state in visitors to it’s galleries over the decades, not to mention all the scarves, magnets and mugs that Adele’s picture adorns. After being returned to the US Altmann sold the painting for $135 million (and for a while was the world’s most expensive painting and it still makes number 6 on the list) on the proviso that it remain on public display in accordance with Adele’s original wishes and it now lives in the Ronald Lauder Neue Galerie in New York. She came in for considerable criticism for selling the work from the New York art press which seemed to me entirely unjustified – having been forced to flee from the Nazis leaving her whole life behind she surely had the right to do what she wished with any property finally returned to her. She ensured that the public could continue to view the painting, only they had to do so in New York instead of Vienna. It’s hard to see why anyone expected her to owe Austria anything.

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