The BUZZ:Winner of the Marfield National Award for Arts Writing, the nonfiction story behind Klimt’s masterpiece and its interesting fate, dramatized in the the movie starring Helen Mirren (as Maria Altmann) and Ryan Reynolds (as attorney E. Randol Schoenberg), The Woman In Gold.
The GIST: Adele Bloch-Bauer was the wife of a wealthy Austrian industrialist. Her husband commissioned Gustav Klimt to paint her portrait, which was admired as one of Klimt’s finest works. This book tells several stories that revolve around the painting, weaving them together in a sequential timeline. Adele’s story is one of the intellectual elite in Vienna at a time of great influence for the Jewish aristocracy. Klimt’s story provides a peek into an art revolution. Lastly, the story follows Maria Altmann, Adele’s Jewish refugee niece, who sued the Austrian government to reclaim the portrait that was stolen from her family by the Nazis. The rise of anti-semitism in Austria after the first world war is explored from these angles.
The WRITING: Ambitious and evocative. At times, O’Connor, a foreign correspondent and culture writer for the Washington Post, tackles too much. The characters are many, and the timeline is extensive. It’s hard for the reader to keep track of all the convoluted details. Still, the story holds its own, overall. I found the chapters about Klimt fascinating. He battled powerful resistance to change, and won, although his colorful life ended too early. O’Connor cleverly connects threads over generations, including Klimt, Adele, and Maria, and their contemporaries. She explores many topics – art, religion, politics- with strong knowledge and research. Her scrutinies of sexism and racism are a satisfying element across the annals. She includes an intriguing survey of international law in the court proceedings, covering Maria’s lengthy battle for restitution.
BUY OR BORROW: Borrow. Although difficult to follow at times, the people and history surrounding this painting provide enough gold to make up for it.
“Austrians were allowed to paper over their pasts and portray themselves as unwilling participants. They felt sorry for themselves, and for the proud family names sullied with the taint of Nazi collaboration.”