The Woman in Gold shimmers in the afternoon sunlight. I stand so close that I can see each delicate golden and silver brushstroke of Gustave Klimt’s masterpiece that took him three years to complete: the full-length portrait of a young and elegant Adele Bloch-Bauer. Inspired by a Byzantine mosaic of the Empress Theodora, Klimt has painted Adele enthroned on a golden chair, adorned her with lavish jewels, and dressed her in the avant-garde fashion of early 1900s Vienna, a swirling evening gown of geometric shapes and Egyptian symbols.
Adele’s beauty is only darkened by the look of weariness that clouds her face. She seems to struggle to keep her eyes open, fighting against an overwhelming exhaustion. It is as if her portrait had glimpsed into the future, as if it knew the turbulent fate that lay in store for her family and for the painting itself.
That story is captured in this year’s film Woman in Gold. The film recounts the valiant fight by Adele’s niece Maria Altmann after WWII to reclaim her family’s Klimt paintings that the Nazis stole. Thanks to Maria’s efforts, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I now resides in the Neue Galerie in Manhattan. After seeing the movie, I knew I had to pay a visit to the museum to admire the painting in person.
The film stars Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, the octogenarian Jewish refugee who with the help of her quick-witted lawyer Randy Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds) prepares to take on the Austrian government in order to right the crimes of the past. The story of Maria’s former life in Austria is told in a series of flashbacks.
Maria grows up in a prominent Jewish family, living a life of wealth and luxury. Her aunt Adele is the hostess of a renowned Salon that welcomes some of the most brilliant thinkers and artists in Austria.
Adele is spared seeing the Swastika fly over Vienna. Suffering from ill health all her life, she dies of meningitis in 1925 at the age of 44. In her will, she requests that her husband at his death leave the Klimt paintings (two portraits and four landscapes) to the Austrian Gallery in Vienna.
Ferdinand outlives Adele by twenty years. In 1938 when Germany annexes Austria, he flees to Switzerland. Maria’s parents unwisely decide to remain in Vienna. The Nazis raid their apartment along with Ferdinand’s estate. His enormous art collection is seized as well as all of his shares to his lucrative sugar company.
One of Maria’s necklaces (which had formerly belonged to Adele and in the movie is depicted as the one she wears in the famous portrait) is sent to Hermann Göring who gifts it to his wife. The Austrian Gallery obtains Adele’s portrait. They rename it Woman in Gold to hide the fact that its subject was a Jew. Adele surely could never have imagined that this would be the way her painting would end up at the museum.
The Nazis hold Maria’s husband Fritz hostage in Dachau until his brother (safe in France) signs over his textile business. They finally release Fritz but keep him under house arrest until he and Maria manage a daring escape and flee to the United States.
Their world has been destroyed, but not their indomitable entrepreneurial spirit. Maria eventually becomes the proprietor of a clothing boutique. The movie does not mention the history behind this. In fact, after the war Fritz’s brother opened a new textile factory in England and sent Maria a cashmere sweater to see how well it would sell in the United States where cashmere was not yet available. It was, of course, a huge success.
Yet, despite her seemingly happy life in the United States, the past still haunts Maria. Efforts over the years to have her family’s paintings returned all fail. You would think that Maria would give up the fight by the time she reaches her eighties. Instead, this is when she takes up the cause once again. A legal technicality may help her finally beat the Austrian government.
I won’t spoil the movie by giving away what that technicality is. Suffice to say that Maria and her lawyer still face an uphill legal battle. At one point, Maria wryly remarks, “They’re hoping to drag it out until I die? Well, I will do them the favor of hanging around.”
Maria is a woman of amazing fortitude. From her we learn that if you believe the cause you are fighting for is noble and just, you can generate in yourself the grit and determination to see it through to the end no matter what obstacles arise in your path. Indeed, Maria’s cause is about much more than having a family heirloom restored to its rightful owner. It’s about refusing to turn a blind eye to the past. It’s about bringing to national attention the atrocities that were committed against not only her family, but all Austrian Jews.
She once nearly agrees to drop the case as long as the Austrian government acknowledges that they acquired the painting illegally. They refuse. She observes, “They’ll never admit to what they did, because if they admit to one thing, they’ll have to admit to it all.” No matter how small this crime seems in light of all the unspeakable evils perpetrated by the Nazis, it deserves to be rectified or the rule of law means nothing.
Even though the painting appears many times in the film, there is nothing quite like seeing it in person. I recommend watching the film and then making the trip to the Neue Galerie in New York City if you can. The museum has a wonderful collection of German and Austrian art though Adele is its crown jewel. After being reunited with her long-lost family, Adele came to reside at the museum where she could be admired by all: a symbol of her heirs’ courage and defiance to see that the horrors of the past would never be denied or forgotten.