When Maria Altmann was a child, she contemplated the portrait of her aunt Adele, placed in one of the rooms of the immense Vienna house of her uncles, among porcelain, tapestries and antiques. In the painting, the figure of Adele Bloch-Bauer shines between oil and gold, dressed in her best jewels that would later end up, like her portrait, in the hands of the Nazis.
Little María could not imagine then that, years later, she and her husband would flee from house arrest, in that same house, imposed by the Nazis, nor that they would miraculously escape from a tragic destiny, traveling throughout Europe, embarking for the United States to settle, in 1942, in California.
Adele Bauer was born in 1881. Her father, Moritz Bauer, was a bank manager and the little Adele grew up among cotton wool in decadent Vienna at the end of the 19th century. He was not able to go to university, as he would have liked, but he achieved a good self-taught education at home, where he reads books in German, English and French, languages that he will speak fluently.
At the age of 17, at her sister Teresa’s wedding to Gustav Bloch, she met his brother, Ferdinand. A year after that marriage, in 1899, the sister of the bride and the brother of the groom were married in Vienna. Ferdinand, a sugar industrialist, was 17 years older than his wife, with whom he was always very much in love.
So much so that she did not want her to abandon her maiden name and become Adele Bloch. Therefore, the two adopted both, becoming Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. They settled in a large house on Elisabethstrasse, very close to the Vienna State Opera.
And there, in Vienna at the beginning of the 20th century, the young Adele, 18 years old, it opens its halls to the intellectuals and artists who gave the Austrian capital the nickname of the “city of geniuses”, those who revolutionized Western culture from all possible fields.
Among them, the writer Stefan Zweig, the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, the musicians Alma and Gustav Mahler, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the physicist Erwin Schrödinger (who would later win the Nobel Prize), the architects Adolf Loos and Otto Wagner. and, of course, the painters Gustav Klimt, Egon Shiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
The latter find their patrons in the members of the industrial upper bourgeoisie, willing to finance the members of the Viennese Secession, a group of artists who broke with the traditional way of painting and who were too revolutionary for the aristocracy of the time.
For years, Adele will meet and greet them at her home, also supporting causes such as women’s suffrage. “She was very different from my mother, the social butterfly. Adele wanted to surround herself with brains, artists and intellectuals. I don’t think she was very happy at home,” she told The Washington Post his niece Maria Altmann, who was born in 1916.
Adele and Ferdinand tried but could not have children. She suffered abortions and the compassion of an era towards women who could not be mothers. Gustav Bloch and Teresa Bauer frequently visit their brothers with their three children.
the first retro
In 1903, Ferdinand commissions the painter Gustav Klimt to paint a portrait of his wife. Adele is 22 years old. The artist, who was inspired by the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna (an Italian city he had visited), took more than three years to finish the work, entitled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907).
That, and Klimt’s libertine reputation, sparked rumors that a more than friendly relationship arose between the painter and model. The painter scandalized the society of his time by living with his sister-in-law (as soon as her husband and Klimt’s brother died) and other occasional models, whom he portrayed in clearly erotic poses.
Whatever happened between Klimt and Adele, the truth is that she was the only woman that Klimt painted twice because, in 1912, he finished a second painting, entitled Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II. It is true that he did use some models as inspiration for different paintings, but Adele was the only one who was not dedicated to posing for painters, whom he portrayed twice.
Art experts have tried to find the hidden meaning in both portraits, of very different styles and poses. When Klimt finished the first, Adele was 26 years old. When the painter finished the second, 31.
In the first, of Egyptian inspiration, there are those who see a woman embraced by gold while others intuit her buried in it. Where some see opulence and indolence, others see her imprisoned in a golden cage that distances her from nature. In her face, some of her see peace and others resignation.
In the second, more Western style, there are those who see her happier than five years before. Others, however, feel burdened and constrained by her dress and accessories.
Certain experts also highlight the physical resemblance between the model in the painting Judith with the head of Holofernes (1901) and Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the necklace is very similar to the one Adele wears in her portrait. This is one of the artist’s most erotic paintings, according to expert Laura Payne, author of Klimt, Essential Art (2001).
Klimt died of a stroke in 1918 at the age of 56. He never married, but he lived with many of his models and, after his death, several of his former lovers alleged that the painter was the father of his children.
Adele died of meningitis in 1925, aged 43. in his will She asked her husband that, when he died, his two portraits painted by Klimt be donated to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna. The city she loved so much epitomizes the passage from the 19th to the 20th century, from modernity to postmodernity, which seeks new forms of expression in architecture, arts, literature and music, while transcendental social changes take place, economic and scientific.
A time of progress that will end abruptly, in 1938, when Nazi Germany annexes Austria: hundreds of thousands of Viennese enthusiastically welcome Hitler without knowing that very soon the persecution of the Jews will begin and the Nazis will confiscate all their properties.
To erase any trace of its past, Nazi art experts change the title of the work, renaming it Woman in Gold (the golden lady). The painting will be installed in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, where it will remain for almost six decades, converted into the equivalent of the Mona Lisa for Austria.
The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is also called Anne-Marie O’Connor’s book on the history of the famous portrait, and Woman in Gold (the golden lady) is the title of the film that, in 2015, brought to the cinema the story of Maria Altman, played by Helen Mirren.
For the niece of Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the painting was not a masterpiece of universal painting but simply the portrait of her aunt Adele, a determined and elegant woman whom, when Maria was a child, she dreamed of being like when I was older.
For this reason, 56 years after the painting was stolen, in 1998, Maria decided to do justice and recover what was hers, starting a legal battle against the Austrian government.
When Adele’s husband died, in 1945, in his Swiss exile (where he suffered numerous hardships), he left written in his will that he bequeathed Klimt’s paintings to his three nephews, whom he loved as if they were his own children. In 1998, of the three, only María Altmann was still alive.
And so it was that, at the age of 82, with the help of her lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (a descendant of Arnold Schoenberg, a Jewish composer who frequented her aunt Adele’s house and who also managed to flee Nazi persecution), Maria began a process unprecedented, traveling to Vienna to try to take back what had been taken from his family.
One of the most painful memories that Maria kept was that of her father, who died two weeks after the Nazis entered his house and took everything from him, especially his beloved Stradivarius cello.
Austria delayed the process as long as it could, embarrassed to have to remember that dark episode in its history. It was seven years of investigation, lawsuits, bureaucracy, fight and discouragement, in which the Austrian government clung to Adele’s first will to defend her right to preserve a work that was a national icon.
Finally, in 2006, a court in the United States ruled that Maria Altmann was the legal owner of the six paintings painted by Klimt (the two portraits of her aunt and four landscapes) that belonged to Bloch-Bauer. Austria resignedly accepted the verdict and sent the paintings to Los Angeles.
Maria Altmann had the support of Ronald S. Lauder, son of Estée Lauder, the creator of a cosmetic empire. In 1986, Ronald Reagan had appointed him United States Ambassador to Austria, and he knew the picture, the country, and the case well.
Bill Clinton appointed a commission to examine the cases of theft of works of art from the Nazi government, to which Lauder also belongs, as well as to the World Jewish Restitution Organization who, for years, has dedicated himself to trying to recover them.
More than 100,000 are still unaccounted for today or in the hands of those who are not their true owners, as is also told in the film The Monuments Men (2014). Others were returned to the heirs of their rightful owners.
Exhibited in New York
On November 16, 2001, Ronald S. Lauder opened the Neue Galerie in New York, located on Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street), on the so-called “golden mile of museums”, in front of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). Dedicated to German and Austrian art from the early 20th century, it houses one of the world’s best collections of paintings by Egon Schiele and other works recovered from Nazi looting.
Maria Altmann sold the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I to Ronald S. Lauder for $135 million (the highest amount paid for a painting up to that date), on the condition that it be exhibited at the Neue Gallery, so that anyone who wanted to could look at it and enjoy it, as her aunt Adele would have wanted.
The rest of the pieces were auctioned at Christie’s for about 190 million. Among them, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, sold in 2014 for $88 million to Oprah Winfrey. Two years later, the presenter and journalist sold it for 150 million dollars (almost double what she had paid) to an unidentified Chinese buyer.
Maria Altmann died in 2011, at the age of 94. She and her children created, with part of the proceeds from the sale of the paintings, the Maria Altmann Family Foundation, to support the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum and other Jewish community causes.
“My aunt would have loved to live as women do today in the United States. She would have gone to college and dedicated herself to politics,” her niece assured, before she died. “She was not a woman to be locked up in picnics and parties of high society ladies.”
We will never know if Adele Bloch-Bauer would have done what María Altmann thought, the only thing certain is that her portrait is today one of the most famous paintings in the world, and that her life remains an unsolved mystery.
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