I have had the most remarkable experience of seeing a museum exhibition of an artist’s work, and a few months later, seeing a film on the very paintings I saw. Last night I saw The Woman in Gold, a film starring Helen Mirren, which was the reason I saw it at all, which turned out to be about the real-life story of how Maria Altman, a woman who fled from Nazi Vienna to California was able to recover several Gustave Klimt paintings belonging to her family and stolen by the Nazi regime, then conveniently acquired by a Dutch Gallery. One of the paintings is the gorgeous gold-leafed portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, and one of two portraits he did of her; Adele is maria’s aunt. The movie is informative, a bit too quickly and easily paced, with an unnecessary Hollywood made-up escape sequence, but it is sumptuous in its depiction of the elegance of Vienna on the verge of take-over.
My sister-in-law took me to the Neue Galerie in New York this past December. We started with a delicious lunch at Cafe Sabarsky, named after the co-owner of the gallery, then made our way to see the Austrian Masterworks exhibition upstairs. There were the Klimt portraits, far more breath-taking in life than the many reproductions one sees of “The Kiss” and so on, as well as a stunning woman who surprisingly wandered the gallery dressed like Adele Bloch-Bauer in a pale gold evening dress. Was she a visitor dressed in homage for the occasion, or was she a gallery employee?
The other owner of the gallery is Ronald Lauder, son of Estee, who made an appearance in the fim, offering to help win back Maria Altman’s inheritance (“I love your mother’s lipstick says Maria in the film, pointing out the shade she is wearing. It is a charming moment, and Mirren acts it well, flirtatious and calculating, even as her character Maria says no to Lauder’s offer of an expensive lawyer.)
There are three documentaries on Adele and Maria’s fight, as well as a book she wrote.
On an NPR Morning Edition report of the painting’s muse, Susan Stamberg quotes Janice Staggs, curator at the Neue, who says of Adele:”She suffered poor health all her life…
“And she experienced great tragedies as well — two miscarriages and a son who died just a few days after he was born. She was 22 when Klimt began this portrait, and those losses show in her eyes.
“She can perceive for herself what the rest of her life will hold. The opportunities she had dreamed of as a young girl were going to be denied,” says Staggs.
The painting of nine-year-old below by Klimt is of Mada Primavesi , not Adele Bloch-Bauer, but it shows what the hope of facing a world squarely and expecting nothing less might look like.