21 November 2020

Tales of the Viennese Jews:
19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and
Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’

‘The Kiss by Gustav Klimt’ … is it an ‘idealised portrait’ of Adele Bloch-Bauer?

Patrick Comerford

The Tales from the Vienna Woods is a waltz by the composer Johann Strauss II (1825-1899), written just over a century and a half ago, in 1868. Although Strauss was baptised in the Roman Catholic Church, he was born into a prominent Jewish family. Because the Nazis had a particular penchant for Strauss’s music, they tried to conceal and even deny the Jewish identity of the Strauss family.

However, the stories of Vienna’s Jews cannot be hidden, and many of those stories from Vienna are told in the exhibits in the Jewish Museum in its two locations, at the Palais Eskeles on Dorotheergasse and in the Misrachi-Haus in Judenplatz.

Rather than describe both museums in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided after my visit to Vienna a year ago to post occasional blog postings that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.

The Kiss was painted by Gustav Klimt , the leading Austrian Symbolist painter in 1908-1909, at the high point of his ‘Golden Period,’ when he painted a number of works in a similar gilded style.

Klimt’s The Kiss is so popular that it is impossible for visitors to Vienna to avoid finding copies of it everywhere – on postcards, mugs, cheap prints, chocolate wrappings, and cheap souvenirs. Yet it continues to fascinate and enthral in a way that gives it iconic status.

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) was an Austrian symbolist painter and the most prominent member of the Vienna Secession movement. His primary subject was the female body, and his work is marked by a frank eroticism.

The Kiss is painted on a canvas that is a perfect square, 180 cm × 180 cm. We see a kissing, embracing couple whose bodies are entwined in elaborate robes decorated in a style influenced by both the Art Nouveau style and the earlier Arts and Crafts movement. The two are locked in intimacy, while the rest of the painting dissolves into a shimmering, extravagant flat pattern, lost on the edge of a patch of flowery meadow.

Klimt painted The Kiss with oil and applied layers of gold leaf that give the painting its strikingly modern, yet evocative, appearance. The painting is now in the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere museum in the Belvedere Palace, Vienna. It is a symbol of Vienna Jugendstil – Viennese Art Nouveau – and is Klimt’s most popular work. It was received enthusiastically, but earned Klimt his reputation as an enfant terrible.

Klimt’s biographer Adam Whitford points out that some preliminary sketches for The Kiss show a bearded figure that was possibly a self-portrait, and he claims the female partner is an ‘idealised portrait’ of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

The only evidence to support this theory is the position of the woman’s right hand, as Adele had a disfigured finger following a childhood accident.

On the other hand, Adele Bloch-Bauer was the model for Klimt’s 1901 painting Judith and the Head of Holofernes and she sat for two portraits by Klimt – Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (also known as The Lady in Gold or The Woman in Gold) in 1903-1907 and Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912).

Adele Bauer was born into a wealthy Jewish Viennese family. Her father was a director of the Wiener Bankverein, the seventh largest bank in the Austrian Empire, and the general director of Oriental Railroads. She met Klimt in the late 1890s, but opinion is divided on whether they had an affair.

The artist Catherine Dean believed Adele was ‘the only society lady painted by Klimt who is known definitely to be his mistress.’ Melissa Müller and Monica Tatzkow say ‘no evidence has ever been produced that their relationship was more than a friendship.’

Adele’s parents arranged a marriage with Ferdinand Bloch (1864-1945), a banker and sugar manufacturer who was born in Prague. Her older sister had previously married Ferdinand’s older brother. When Adele and Ferdinand married in 1899, she was 18 and he was 35, and they decided to share the family name Bloch-Bauer. Adele suffered two stillbirths and her third child died two days after birth.

Adele brought together writers, politicians and intellectuals for regular salons at their home. The couple shared a love of art, and patronised several artists, collecting 19th-century Viennese paintings, modern sculpture and porcelain.

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the model for Klimt’s ‘Judith and the Head of Holofernes’ (1901)

Klimt painted Judith and the Head of Holofernes in 1901. Adele was the model for the work, and wore a heavily-jewelled deep choker given to her by Ferdinand. It has been described as ‘Klimt’s most erotic painting.’

In 1903, Ferdinand bought his first Klimt work from the artist, Buchenwald (‘Beech Forest’).

‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I’ … painted by Klimt in 1903-1907

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, painted by Klimt in 1903-1907, was commissioned by her husband Ferdinand. The painting, later known for being stolen by the Nazis in 1941, is the final and most fully representative work of Klimt’s golden phase. Klimt’s second portrait of Adele was completed in 1912, and the two are among several works by Kilmt owned by the family.

Meanwhile, Ferdinand acquired the Jungfern Breschan and Odolena Voda estate in Bohemia in 1909, where he lived in the Lower Castle and housed his art collections. After the collapse of the Habsburg Monarchy, he opted for Czechoslovak citizenship in 1918/1819 and his estate 15 km north of Prague became his main residence.

When Adele died in 1925, she asked in her will that the artworks by Klimt be left to the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, although they belonged to Ferdinand, not her. Following the Nazi invasion and occupation of Austria, Ferdinand fled Prague to Paris and then to Zurich. He left behind much of his wealth, including his large art collection, and died in poverty in 1945.

Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was stolen by the Nazis in 1941, along with the remainder of Ferdinand’s assets, after the pretext of tax evasion. The lawyer acting for the Nazi state gave the portrait to the Galerie Belvedere, claiming he was following Adele’s wishes in her will. In his will, Ferdinand stated his estate should go to his nephew and two nieces.

The Austrian journalist Hubertus Czernin revealed in 1998 that the Galerie Belvedere held several works stolen from Jewish owners during the Holocaust and World War II. The gallery had refused to return the art to their original owners, or to acknowledge any theft.

Ferdinand’s nieces, Maria Altmann took a case against the gallery for the return of five works by Klimt. After a seven-year legal action, an arbitration committee in Vienna agreed that the portrait and other paintings had been stolen from the family and that it should be returned to Altmann. She sold it the same year for $135 million to the businessman and art collector Ronald Lauder, who placed it in the Neue Galerie, the New York-based gallery he co-founded.

The history of the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I and the other paintings taken from the Bloch-Bauers has been recounted in three documentary films, Stealing Klimt (2007), The Rape of Europa (2007) and Adele’s Wish (2008).

The painting’s history is described by the journalist Anne-Marie O’Connor in her book The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (2012). The history, as well as other stories of other stolen art, is told by Melissa Müller and Monika Tatzkow in Lost Lives, Lost Art: Jewish Collectors, Nazi Art Theft, and the Quest for Justice (2010). The story of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Maria Altmann formed the basis of the novel Stolen Beauty (2017) by Laurie Lico Albanese.

Maria Altmann died in 2011, aged 94. Her story was dramatised in the film Woman in Gold (2015), starring Helen Mirren as Maria and Ryan Reynolds.

‘Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II’ … completed by Klimt in 1912

Tales of the Viennese Jews:

1, the chief rabbi and a French artist’s ‘pogrom’

2, a ‘positively rabbinic’ portrait of an Anglican dean

3, portraits of two imperial court financiers

4, portrait of Sigmund Freud, founder of psychoanalysis

5, Lily Renée, from Holocaust Survivor to Escape Artist

6, Sir Moses Montefiore and a decorative Torah Mantle

7, Theodor Herzl and the cycle of contradictions

8, Simon Wiesenthal and the café in Mauthausen

9, Leonard Cohen and ‘The Spice-Box of Earth’

10, Ludwig Wittgenstein and his Jewish grandparents

11, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his Jewish librettist

12, Salomon Mayer von Rothschild and the railways in Vienna

13, Gustav Mahler and the ‘thrice homeless’ Jew

14, Beethoven at 250 and his Jewish connections in Vienna

15, Martin Buber and the idea of the ‘I-Thou’ relationship

16, Three Holocaust survivors who lived in Northern Ireland.

17, Schubert’s setting of Psalm 92 for the synagogue.

18, Bert Linder and his campaign against the Swiss banks.

19, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt’s ‘Lady in Gold’.

20, Max Perutz, Nobel laureate and ‘the godfather of molecular biology’.

When the beggar’s bowl and cup
become the chalice and the paten

‘I was ill and you visited me’ … see ‘I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36) … a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican, in Rome (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Over the past few days, I have been putting the finishing touches to my sermon for tomorrow (22 November 2020), the Feast of Christ the King.

In the Gospel reading (Matthew 25: 31-46), Christ comes as again ‘in his glory, and will sit on the throne of his glory.’

But instead of coming as a despotic monarch, Christ comes with all the values of the Kingdom of God: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Those kingdom values are a stark contrast to the values of a president who behaves more like a tyrant, locking himself away, ignoring the rising toll in Covid-19 deaths, and investing all his energy in petulant struggles to frustrate a democratic transfer of power that is the democratic will of the people.

This is a president who has used his office in a vain-glorious, despotic and self-serving way, to the point of even humiliating and debasing those who were once close to him.

Those who were hungry were left without food, those who were thirsty were left without something to drink, the strangers were separated from their children and held in cages, women were treated as naked subjects for his misogynistic and lewd behaviour, those who were sick were told to blame the virus on China and mocked when they wore a facemask, and the statistics show that those who are in prison were disproportionately likely to be black and living in poverty.

In my mind’s eye, I was brought back to a recent visit to Rome, and how I found people from every age group begging on almost every street corner, and not just in the areas seen as tourist traps.

Homeless couples and individuals could be easily identified as they walk the streets. Clusters of homeless people gather on the steps of many churches.

It was interesting during that visit to see a large group of homeless men gathered on the steps of the Chiesa Nuova, off the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, which is one of Rome’s main streets, running from the bridge over the Tiber to by Piazza Navona. The church and the oratory beside it were founded by Saint Philip Neri, whose work among the poor, the sick and the homeless earned him the title of ‘Apostle of Rome.’

Sunday’s Gospel reading inspired two works in Rome by the Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz, who says many of his works are visual translations of the Bible. He quotes Saint Gregory the Great, who said that ‘art is for the illiterate,’ an effective way of educating the general population.

His first sculpture outside North America was installed on the grounds of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in 2015. Christ is shown as a man lying down on a park bench, his body almost entirely covered by a thin blanket, his face shrouded. The only indication that this is the Crucified Christ is the feet poking out under the blanket, bearing the marks of the crucifixion.

The artist decided to depict Christ like this after seeing a homeless person sleeping on a bench outside one Christmas. ‘That is Jesus. That is how we should perceive the least among us in our heart,’ Schmalz has written.

Since then, many similar sculptures have been installed in Australia, Cuba, India, and Spain. At the start of Holy Week last year, a bronze sculpture of the ‘Homeless Jesus’ was also placed in a courtyard in the Vatican, at the entrance to the Office of Papal Charities.

In Rome, there are two similar statues by Timothy Schmalz outside the entrance to the new wing of Santo Spirito Hospital on the banks of the River Tiber, close to the main entrance to the Vatican.

The Church of Santo Spirito in Sassia was first built by an English Saxon monarch, King Ine of Wessex, who died in Rome in the year 728. The hospital attached to the church is the oldest hospital in Rome and was founded after a nightmare experienced by Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). In his dream, the Pope saw an angel who showed him the bodies of Rome’s unwanted babies dredged up from the River Tiber in fishing nets.

As a result, the Pope decided to build a hospital for paupers, and to this day the hospital continues to care for the poor and the homeless.

Timothy Schmalz believes ‘Christian sculpture acts for many as a gateway into the Gospels and the viewer’s own spirituality.’ The artist says: ‘I describe my sculptures as being visual prayers.’

One of his statues outside Santo Spirito Hospital depicts Christ as an impoverished patient lying on a makeshift bed on the steps of the hospital. The words beneath him are from tomorrow’s Gospel reading: ‘Ero malato e mi avete visitato. I was ill and you visited me’ (Matthew 25: 36).

In March 2016, he donated a second bronze statue on the same steps, showing ‘Christ the Beggar’ sitting nearby. Once again, the accompanying words are from tomorrow’s Gospel reading: ‘Ha avuto fame e mi avete dato da mangiare, ho avuto sete e mi avete dato da bere. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink ‘(Matthew 25: 35).

The bowl and cup in front of ‘Christ the Beggar’ could be a chalice and paten. As I prepare too to celebrate the Eucharist tomorrow morning, I am reminded that true Communion with Christ is giving food and drink to those who hunger and thirst.

‘Christ the Beggar’ … a sculpture by Timothy Schmalz on the steps of Santo Spirito Hospital near the Vatican (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)