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Whose Art Is It Anyway?

Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer Hangs in Austria's National Gallery. Now Her Family Wants It Back.

December 16, 2001|ANNE MARIE O'CONNOR | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A painting, reduced to canvas and cadmium, gesso and wood, is not worth much. It is the genius behind the image that imbues it with value. Its meaning cannot be divorced from history.

You have seen this painting somewhere. The portrait of the sultry woman surrounded by gold is one of the most famous in the world. You may not remember the name of the artist. Perhaps you never knew it. But you remember the woman's face, pale as a diva of the silent screen.

The face keeps resurfacing, on key chains, paperweights, even clogs. People who know nothing about this anonymous woman, or the outrage the artist aroused, are still seduced by her enigmatic smile, by the painter's shimmery language and by the sheer sensuality of art.

A few observers might recognize her as an icon of turn-of-the-century Vienna. A woman who rushed to embrace new ways of experiencing art, music and the human psyche while the rest of the world was still adjusting its eyes and ears.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Saturday December 22, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Czech president: In "The Immortal Golden Lady" (Los Angeles Times Magazine, Dec. 16), it was incorrectly reported that Jan Masaryk was the first president of Czechoslovakia. The first president was Tomas Masaryk.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday January 13, 2002 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 25 words Type of Material: Correction
In "The Immortal Golden Lady" (Dec. 16), it was incorrectly reported that Jan Masaryk was the first president of Czechoslovakia. The first president was his father, Tomas Masaryk.

They recognize Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the patronesses of the arts, most of them Jewish, whose husbands commissioned portraits by the brilliant artistic heretic Gustav Klimt. Perhaps they recall some of her story.

Didn't people once whisper that Adele and Klimt were lovers? Didn't she die young, before Adolf Hitler ravaged her world? Isn't this painting caught up in the international imbroglio over art looted by the Nazis?

This is the story behind the paint on the canvas. It begins in the tumultuous world of fin-de-siecle Vienna and leads to turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, where the value and meaning of this work of art is being debated as fiercely today as the moment it was unveiled.

it is a weeknight in westwood, and a corps of committed art lovers is crowded into a Klimt lecture at the UCLA Hammer Museum. A slide of the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" looms above them like a ghost. Yes, she is beautiful, an Austrian art expert tells the audience, but her face betrays her longings and desires far more than was acceptable for a woman of her time.

Her willowy form is trapped behind the gold armor covering the surface of the painting, just as Vienna's hidebound society contained the forces of modernism straining against it a century ago. Adele, the lecturer says, was a princess of the Vienna avant-garde, one of Klimt's most illustrious co-conspirators.

Just a few miles away, in Cheviot Hills, Maria Bloch-Bauer Altmann, Adele's niece, carefully hands me a Viennese coffee brimming with whipped cream. Once a belle of Vienna, Maria is 85 now, and a widow. She is gracious and warm, the kind of woman referred to in another era as a grande dame. And she is suing the Austrian government, and its national art museum, to recover the portrait of her aunt and five other Klimt paintings.

Maria pauses a moment, trying to decide where to start.

"It is a very complicated story," she begins in an elegant Old World accent, sitting down in her sun-dappled living room. "People always asked me, did your aunt have a mad affair with Klimt? My sister thought so. My mother--she was very Victorian--said, 'How dare you say that? It was an intellectual friendship.' "

Maria looks up at a reproduction of Adele's portrait on the wall, regarding her face thoughtfully.

"My darling," she says finally, "Adele was a modern woman living in the world of yesterday." She was one of those people who are put on earth to ask uncomfortable questions, to imagine the unimaginable, to push history forward.

She was born Adele Bauer in August 1881. Her father was Jewish financier Moriz Bauer, general director of the seventh-largest bank in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Restrictions on Jewish settlement in Vienna, a metropolis of nearly 2 million when Adele came of age, had relaxed. A community of a few thousand Jews had swelled to nearly 1 in 10 Viennese. Wealthy Jews were among the city's most prominent citizens and generous philanthropists. A few, like the Rothschilds, were even given titles by the Hapsburg monarchy. They were, in the words of Czech novelist Milan Kundera, the "intellectual cement" of Middle Europe. Adele grew up in luxury; she was poised and arrogant and seemed perfectly cast in the role she was born to play: privileged society woman. But she was also intellectually precocious. What she really wanted was to study.

It was an unlikely aspiration. There was no high school for girls in Vienna. Respectable women didn't frequent cafes--Vienna's most populist cultural hubs-- where the men table-hopped, smoked and argued in German, Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Polish and Russian. "[Adele] wanted to go to the university. She wanted to work in an intellectual job," Maria says. "But that wasn't done at the time by women of her so-called social position. So she married, at 17, just to get out of the house. They had great respect for each other, but I don't think there was any love, definitely not on her side."

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