Immortalized As 'The Woman In Gold,' How A Young Jew Became A Secular Icon

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Adele Block-Bauer, photographed circa 1915, was from a prominent Jewish family in Vienna. (IMAGNO/Austrian Archives)
Adele Block-Bauer, photographed circa 1915, was from a prominent Jewish family in Vienna. (IMAGNO/Austrian Archives)

In Woman in Gold, Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann — an octogenarian Jewish refugee who fought to recover the Gustav Klimt paintings the Nazis seized from her family in Vienna at the outset of World War II. On Friday, Mirren received an award for her performance at New York's Neue Galerie, which is now home to more Klimts than anywhere else in the country.

The Neue collection includes a 1907 portrait of Altmann's aunt, Adele Bloch-Bauer — the woman in gold. Several of Klimt's other portraits have joined Adele Bloch-Bauer at the Galerie in an exhibit on display until Sept. 7.

One of those portraits — The Dancer -- was painted in 1917, and it was one of Klimt's last. The real dancer's name was Ria Munk. She took her own life at age 24 after an unhappy love affair, explains museum director Renée Price.

She was in love with an impoverished poet who got cold feet and broke up with her in a letter. "She took a revolver and shot herself in the chest," Price says. "Her parents were so devastated that they wanted Klimt to make a posthumous portrait of her."

Lovely young Ria stands surrounded by colorful, densely painted flowers. Her robe, open at the breasts, is patterned green and red. The portrait is decorative and joyful.

Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was seized by the Nazis at the outset of World War II. A film starring Helen Mirren now tells the story of Adele's niece, who fought to recover her family's paintings more than a half century later.
Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was seized by the Nazis at the outset of World War II. A film starring Helen Mirren now tells the story of Adele's niece, who fought to recover her family's paintings more than a half century later.

The Dancer was the first Klimt to be shown in the United States, says curator Janis Staggs. "So that's how Americans first began to think of Klimt, as this person who painted these luscious, beautiful portraits of women — kind of idealizing them," Staggs explains.

But the best-known Klimt woman here is Adele Bloch-Bauer, or, as some have called her: "The Mona Lisa of Austria."

Klimt titled the portrait simply Adele Bloch-Bauer, but when the Nazis seized the painting and displayed it in the early 1940s, they removed her name and called her The Woman in Gold instead.

"They took away her identity," Staggs says. Without a Jewish name, the work became appropriate to show in Hitler's Third Reich. "So it is a betrayal on the grandest scale."

It was a violation, enacted by officials who knew exactly who she was. From a prominent family, Adele Bauer was the daughter of a banker and the wife of Ferdinand Bloch. (In sweets-loving Vienna, Bloch made his fortune in sugar). He was nearly twice her age — their marriage was arranged when she was just 18.

The Neue Galerie, which specializes in German and Austrian art, even has a tribute to Gustav Klimt in its café: The Klimt Torte is a chocolate hazelnut cake decorated with a tiny edible gold leaf — a nod to The Woman in Gold.
The Neue Galerie, which specializes in German and Austrian art, even has a tribute to Gustav Klimt in its café: The Klimt Torte is a chocolate hazelnut cake decorated with a tiny edible gold leaf — a nod to The Woman in Gold.

Her life in the 1890s was one of leisure — there were servants, fittings, art shows and the opera. There were no universities for Viennese women.

"So if you were her generation or earlier you coped by hosting a salon," Staggs explains. "Writers, politicians, intellectuals, musicians — [and] artists such as Klimt."

Adele's loving husband commissioned their illustrious friend Gustav Klimt to paint two portraits of her. (Adele Bloch-Bauer II is at the Museum of Modern Art).

"He was, by the early 20th century, the most beloved and widely known Austrian artist of his day," Staggs says.

Most of his clients were wealthy Jews, and owning a Klimt was a mark of prestige. "I think to those families it was a way of saying they had made it," Staggs says.

The Dancer — depicting Ria Munk, who took her own life after an unhappy love affair — is one of the last portraits Klimt made.
The Dancer — depicting Ria Munk, who took her own life after an unhappy love affair — is one of the last portraits Klimt made.

Klimt — in his long artists smock which he wore, according to reliable sources, with nothing underneath (he had some 14 illegitimate children) — spent four years painting his tall, slim subject. He puts Adele in a throne-like chair. Her long neck is sheathed in a gem-encrusted choker. Her voluminous gown is covered in geometric patterns inspired by gold-embedded mosaics he'd seen on a trip to Ravenna, Italy. The dress is three-dimensional in some places — the paint built up and off the canvas. He painted not only with oil, but also layered in gold and silver leaf, Staggs says.

Adele has a cloud of black hair piled on top of her head, and thick, lush eyebrows. "Her lips have this rosy tint — they're full, slightly parted," Staggs says. That sort of sign of sensuality was unusual in portraits of that time.

Her hands are clasped in front of her chest in a strange, awkward position. "She had a disfigured little finger; she was very self-conscious about this," Staggs says.

Adele's eyes — heavy-lidded and dark in her pale face — hint of life in a gilded cage. There's sadness in them. For all her wealth and privilege, Adele Bloch-Bauer had much to bear.

"She suffered poor health all her life," Staggs says. She was frail, suffered bad migraines and was a chain smoker.

Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer II is on view at The Museum of Modern Art.
Klimt's Adele Bloch-Bauer II is on view at The Museum of Modern Art.

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.

Adele died of meningitis in 1925 at age 43. The prominent artist who painted her portrait — which was shown in Germany, Vienna and Switzerland in her lifetime — had made her into a secular icon. Staggs theorizes that was a gift to both of them.

"The unhappiness that she felt in real life — he could offer her something in this eternity that he created by becoming this icon of Vienna in the early 20th century," Staggs says. "It helped realize both his ambitions artistically but also hers as a woman — and what she wanted to be but couldn't."

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

More On 'The Woman In Gold':

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A Manhattan art museum got a dose of Hollywood glamour last week when Helen Mirren accepted an award there for her performance in the movie "Woman In Gold." The painting known as "Woman In Gold" by Gustav Klimt is hanging in that very place, the Neue Galerie. And the movie follows the painting, which was seized by the Nazis and restored to the Jewish family that owned it eventually. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went there to see it.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: What do you have for dessert?

ROBIN GRAU: There's the sachertorte, which is a classic dark chocolate Viennese chocolate cake.

STAMBERG: The Neue Galerie at 86th and Fifth specializes in German and Austrian art. The cafe feels Viennese. So do the sweets waiter Robin Grau recites.

GRAU: We have the Klimt torte, which is a chocolate and hazelnut cake.

STAMBERG: It's not fattening?

GRAU: If you look at it, no (laughter).

STAMBERG: The Klimt torte is decorated with a tiny, edible, gold leaf, a nod to the museum's most famous painting, Gustav Klimt's 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the "Woman In Gold." She and other Klimt women are now on view at the Neue. One of his very last portraits, "The Dancer," was done in 1917.

RENEE PRICE: Her name was Ria Munk.

STAMBERG: She was just 24 when she committed suicide.

PRICE: The reason for her suicide was an unhappy love affair. She wanted to marry an impoverished poet.

STAMBERG: The poet got cold feet. Museum director Renee Price says he broke up with Ria in a letter.

PRICE: And so then she took a revolver and shot herself in the chest. And her parents were so devastated that they wanted Klimt to make a posthumous portrait of her.

STAMBERG: Lovely young Ria stands surrounded by colorful, densely painted flowers. Her robe, open at the breasts, is patterned green and red.

JANIS STAGGS: Very decorative, very joyful.

STAMBERG: Curator Janis Staggs says "The Dancer" was the first Klimt to be shown in this country.

STAGGS: So that's how Americans first began to think of Klimt as this person who painted these luscious, beautiful portraits of women, you know, kind of idealizing them.

STAMBERG: Other Klimt women here - the Neue has the most Klimts in the U.S. - have flat-brimmed hats and big, black hats with feathers and big hair. But the best-known woman has been called the "Mona Lisa" of Austria - Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

STAGGS: It's also been called the lady in gold or woman in gold. In fact, when the Nazis seized the painting and first displayed it in the early 1940s in the first major retrospective of Klimt's work during World War II, they called it dame in gold.

STAMBERG: Lady in gold. In fact, the portrait is merely entitled "Adele Bloch-Bauer." The Nazis removed her name.

STAGGS: They took away her identity.

STAMBERG: Without a Jewish name, the work became appropriate to show in Hitler's Third Reich.

STAGGS: So it is a betrayal on the grandest scale.

STAMBERG: A violation enacted by officials who knew exactly who she was. Her family was prominent. Adele Bauer was a banker's daughter, the wife of Ferdinand Bloch. In sweets-loving Vienna, he made his fortune in sugar.

STAGGS: It was an arranged marriage. She was married when she was only 18 years old to a man almost twice her age.

STAMBERG: Her life in the 1890s was one of leisure. There were servants, fittings, art shows, the opera. No universities for Viennese women then.

STAGGS: So if you were her generation or earlier, you coped by hosting a salon - writers, politicians, intellectuals, musicians, artists such as Klimt.

STAMBERG: Adele's loving husband commissioned their illustrious friend Gustav Klimt to paint two portraits of her. "Adele II" is at the Museum of Modern Art right now.

STAGGS: He was, by the early 20th century, the most beloved and widely known Austrian artist of his day.

STAMBERG: Most of his clients were wealthy Jews. Curator Janis Staggs says owning a Klimt was a mark of prestige.

STAGGS: I think, to these families, it was a way of saying that they had made it.

STAMBERG: Klimt, in his long artist's smock with nothing underneath, according to reliable sources - the guy had some 14 illegitimate children, by the way. Klimt spent four years painting his tall, slim subject. He puts Adele in a throne-like chair. Her long neck is sheathed in a gem-encrusted choker. Her voluminous gown is covered in geometric patterns inspired by gold-embedded mosaics he'd seen on a trip to Ravenna, Italy. The dress is three-dimensional in some places - the paint built up and off the canvas.

STAGGS: Painted not only with oil but also layered in gold and silver leaf.

STAMBERG: Adele has a cloud of black hair piled on top of her head, thick, lush eyebrows...

STAGGS: And her lips have this rosy tint. They're full, slightly parted.

STAMBERG: Unusual in portraits then, a sign of sensuality. Her hands are clasped in front of her chest in a strange, awkward position.

STAGGS: She had a disfigured little finger. She was very self-conscious about this.

STAMBERG: Adele's eyes, heavy-lidded and dark in her pale face, hint of life in a gilded cage. There's sadness there, melancholy. For all her wealth and privilege, Adele Bloch-Bauer had much to bear.

STAGGS: She suffered very poor health her whole life, was very frail, suffered terrible migraines, was a chain smoker.

STAMBERG: And experienced great tragedies - two miscarriages and a son who died just a few days after he was born. Twenty-two years old when Klimt began this portrait. Those losses show in her eyes.

STAGGS: She can foresee for herself what the rest of her life will hold. The opportunity she had dreamed of as a young girl were going to be denied.

STAMBERG: Adele died of meningitis in 1925. She was 43 years old. The prominent artist who painted her portrait, which was shown in Germany, Vienna and Switzerland in her lifetime, had made her into a secular icon. Curator Staggs theorizes that was a gift to both of them.

STAGGS: The unhappiness that she felt in real life - he could offer her something in this eternity that he created by sort of becoming this icon of Vienna in the early 20th century - that it helped sort of realize both his ambitions artistically but also hers as a woman and what she wanted to be but couldn't.

STAMBERG: The exhibition "Gustav Klimt And Adele Bloch-Bauer: Woman In Gold" is at New York's Neue Galerie until September 7. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: See the portraits of Adele I and II and other Klimts at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.