In 2006, Maria Altmann shocked the art world by winning a landmark case for the return of an heirloom portrait of her Aunt Adele painted by Gustav Klimt. The painting, re-cast as ‘The Lady in Gold’ to hide the fact the subject was a Jewish woman, was one of the many works looted during the Nazi era after the Jewish intelligentsia fled, then displayed for decades in Austria’s national museum. Published just this month, The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” tells the journey of this painting and the fate of its previously unscrutinized subjects.
In 368 pages, author Anne-Marie O’Connor (formerly of the Los Angeles Times, now Washington Post correspondent in Mexico) takes us through different eras: turn of the century Vienna, where readers meet the Jewish women whose portraits would one day be re-cast as Aryan masterpieces; World War II, where these women fight for their lives; and finally the modern era, where Maria Altmann’s legal battle draws to its triumphant conclusion.
“I consider the painting as an arrow to future. The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer embodied turn of the century Vienna, then it traveled throughout history and became freighted with this terrible legacy that Austrian’s like to call ‘the burden of history’ so I felt the painting had to be told as a biography through three historical phases,” says O’Connor in a phone interview.
Though an important story to be told, O’Connor shares that it was a difficult process to trace all the people involved and, significantly, to ask them to share their experience of World War II. “There was a lot of historical amnesia, memories that were too difficult to air even with their own families.” Many were generous enough to give O’Connor access to their memoirs, but there were some–like the WWII survivor who escaped a cruel fate by becoming a Nazi scientist’s protege–that required finesse and tact.
On Sunday, O’Connor shares her story with a room full of art lovers, curious to understand the background in which Klimt’s Gold period gained recognition. Much like her book, O’Connor will take her audience behind the canvas and introduce the subjects of the portraits and their fates during the war, along the way explaining how justice was served when the courts ruled in Altmann’s favor. Though the public lost access to these Klimt paintings, “there is a a tremendous moral gain to have these paintings publicly returned.”
Reserve your seats for O’Connor’s visual-heavy lecture at the LACMA this Sunday. Details here. And, if you miss her talk, she’ll also be giving another talk at the top of March at the Skirball Center.