Monday, September 3, 2012

A Small Triumph for Truth and Restitution

I will freely admit that I have a real interest (my husband and kids call it an obsession) in the plight of Jews throughout the various diasporas and the Holocaust. I am intrigued with the evil that men do and how it is rationalized politically, socially, religiously. Jewish history gives a host of examples of just this thing that man does to man over and over again.

I also admit that I am an art junkie. I don't know a lot, but I have a great interest in seeing the beauty that man creates and the cultural clues that paintings and sculpture and theater and poetry and literature give the person who will only look and think and delve into the lives of the creators. That is why I have fallen hard for this book. It melds the story of a Jewish family at the height of the cultural heyday in Vienna and the rise of the artistic star of Gustav Klimt with the subsequent fall from grace of Austria after the first World War. Enter the Nazis in the 30's and we all know it ended very badly for Jewish culture  - once again.

I heard about this book while making dinner one evening. I was listening to an interview on National Public Radio's 'All Things Considered' in which Anne-Marie O'Connor was talking about her exercise in following the convoluted path that Gustav Klimt's gold leafed masterpiece portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer has taken over time. Adele became enthralled by Klimt and sat for pencil studies and this portrait in turn of the century Vienna. She and other wealthy Viennese intellectuals were at the center of the artistic whirlwind of early Modernism. Her salons attracted great men like Richard Strauss, Gustav Klimt, Carl Moll, Egon Schiele - musicians, architects, artists and the cream of the Austrian intelligentsia and socially connected. It was an era that embraced a new and unconventional attitude toward art and culture that lasted through the 1920's and into the 30's.

When the Germans invaded Austria, the Nazi Party policies changed the lives of Vienna's cultured bourgeoisie. Jewish citizens scrambled to escape the harsh treatment of Nazi sympathizers. Some hid their assets and hunkered down in Vienna and the outskirts, some read the writing on the wall and fled with what they could carry or tranfer into Swiss banks. Artists and artwork became the target of Hitler and his lackeys. As the tragedy of the Holocaust unfolded, Adele's portrait and thousands of other pieces of artwork were snatched by opportunists and German officials, hastily sold by desperate Jews looking to finance their escape from German held countries, and looted for personal collections by the greedy. The reader follows Adele's portrait as it makes its way from Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's personal collection into German Nazi Party possession and after a time to an art repository in the Austrian countryside, as the fall of the Nazi Reich becomes imminent. It made its way back to the Belvedere Museum in Vienna after the war  ... and there it was displayed as a treasure of Austrian culture. Adele's name was removed from the title and the painting was renamed 'Lady in Gold'  to hide the fact that this beautiful rich woman was a Jewess. Nowhere was the history of the painting discussed - it was a Klimt and was revered because of that fact. Its beauty made it an icon of Austrian Secession modernism.

At the time that O'Connor became interested in the story behind this painting, the story of the Viennese pre-war culture, the Bloch-Bauers, and the career of Gustav Klimt,  the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was embroiled in one of the most important legal cases that involved restitution and return of property confiscated by Austrian and German Nazis before and during World War II. She has told the full story dispassionately and in great detail, unraveled the many personalities, historical events, and the legal story of Adele Bloch-Bauer's legacy with aplomb, and left the reader with a disturbing picture of the state of artworks that still sit in private collections and museums just waiting to be investigated. It's a tangled web of deceit and greed, cold-blooded cruelty, and underhandedness - most of all, though, this book is a tale of triumph over the creeps that would hide the dirty little secret of the Austrian government and its attempt to sweep the crimes of war under the carpet at the Belvedere and other state sponsored museums.

An excellent read ... I highly recommend it ... and when you're done reading the book, you can make the trip to NYC to see Adele's Klimt portrait at the Neue Galerie where it has found a permanent home after being sold and placed there with the blessings of the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

1 comment:

  1. Like you I have an interest in the Holocaust (okay, obsession!) Trying to understand man's inhumanity to man will be a lifeling search I fear. I haven't heard of this book though - sounds like one I should look out for.
    Have you read the Hare with the Amber Eyes? I would highly recommend it as it would follow on from your Viennese experience with this book
    here's my review of it...