Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Woman in Gold: Down the Rabbit Hole, Arty Senger

On Monday, April 13, 2015, I entered a theatre and unknowingly slid down a rabbit hole into an ever expanding new, yet familiar world.  “Woman in Gold”, the film being shown, depicted the true story of a Jewish refugee’s legal battle with the Austrian government to return a painting that had been confiscated by the Nazis in 1938.  The painting, “Adele Bloch-Bauer”, was a portrait of Maria Altmann’s Aunt, created in 1907 by Austria’s most revered artist, Gustav Klimt.

While viewing the scenes of present day Los Angeles, Washington DC, and Vienna morph into memories of past unreal scenes, I felt my emotions being plucked like the strings of a harp.  Flashbacks showed the opulent, gay lifestyle of uber rich Viennese Jews in the early twentieth century… and thirty years later, when all their wealth and possessions were stripped away by the Nazis. 

Images of people experiencing the highs and lows of human existence streaked across the screen.  I was plunged into memories of my deceased husband, a German Jew who left with his family in 1936 for asylum in Italy.  Three years later, Mussolini joined Hitler and the only country left open to his family was China.  Paul’s dreams of becoming a physician were shattered and he became, in his own words, “Just a poor cabinet-maker”.

My trip down the rabbit hole continued when I returned home from the movie.  While removing my coat, I heard the telephone ring.  It was Ray Comeau, a former English professor who facilitates my Friday writing class.  He suggested that I see “Woman In Gold” and, from an artist’s point of view, write up my impressions of the painting.  This call was surely serendipitous.  I sensed this assignment came from “out of time”.

How to describe the painting; is it opulent or decadent, superficial or profound, a masterpiece or kitsch?  Seeing it on screen, I saw beauty.  There is a square canvas, 4-1/2 x 4-1/2 feet.  An elegant, black-haired woman adorned in precious jewels, sits with hands clasped. Her ivory face, neck, shoulders and arms emerge from thick gold paint covered with geometric figures: squares, spirals, triangles, ovoids, eyes, ornamental motifs as well as secret, erotic symbols.  She appears ethereal but frozen in metal and jewels. 

I remember first glimpsing a reproduction of this painting seventy years ago when I was an art major at Mills College.  My instructor dismissed it as “kitsch”!  We were then studying “cubism”, which was considered true innovative art.  I shrink now at the judgment involved.

One other impression of the painting came from a friend, Art Director Diane Leary.  In 1968, she traveled from home in New Zealand to Austria and visited the Belvedere Museum.  She experienced room after room filled with dark, heavy classical paintings in the European style.  Then she saw an unmarked green door, open, framing a staircase with sunlight pouring down.  Curiosity propelled her up the stairs where she stopped in amazement; a huge area spread before her filled with Gustav Klimt’s paintings.  Many were from his gold period.  Her mind said they were garish and she shouldn’t like them, but her heart fell in love.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I is a multi-faceted portrait.  Diane Leary’s impression was the same as mine; the painting exposed two facets of Vienna’s Mona Lisa.  To fully appreciate this art we needed to know something of the artist and to know the artist we needed to know something of the space and time that spawned his genius.  Lastly, what do we know of the subject herself, Adele Bloch-Bauer?

My friend Hana ferreted out the perfect gem of a book for me entitled “Gustav Klimt, Art Nouveau Visionary” by Eva di Stefano, Italian Art critic and historian.  Beautifully reproduced photographs of Klimt’s work were interspersed with comprehensive information.  I was thrilled to bring this wonderful book home with me from the Madison bookstore.

Gustav Klimt, like his painting, was multifaceted.  He was born July, 1862 in a suburb of Vienna.  His father was a gold engraver and his mother an unsuccessful opera singer.  They influenced his love of music and use of gold in art.  Following formal training in Arts and Crafts he became a prolific painter of historic murals and landscapes and he finally concentrated on women’s portraits.  His last thirty years coincided with the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire.  Writers describe this as “the golden age of bourgeois  security”  that slipped into a “gay apocalypse”.  It was described as the “world of yesterday” – aristocratic, elegant with operatic melodies.  It was the cradle of Zionism, anti-Semitism and Austrian Marxism.  The era’s intellectuals, including Sigmund Freud, were redefining subjectivity.  Erotic hedonism was rampant. 

Gustav Klimt, more than anyone else, was able to give a face to the period’s obsessions: the destructive power of eros, erotic superiority of women, and the idea of an elusive, eternal femme fatale.  These were the central themes of his work.  Aesthetic values were taken to the extreme. He had a personal decorative language where ornament was not empty form but part of the structure. 
Klimt’s golden style spanned the years from 190l to 1909.  He used massive amounts of pure gold leaf and gilded paper.  Gustave not only depicted the “gay apocalypse”, but was part of it.  It is reported that he entertained over one hundred lovers at his studio while he continued to live with his mother and sisters.

Gustav Klimt died in 1918, the same year as the dissolution of the Hapsburg Empire.

Key to the final facet defining this revered portrait was the model herself.  Who was Adele Bloch-Bauer?  As the daughter of a banker, and wife of the owner of central Europe’s largest sugar refinery, she represented Austria’s refined Jewish bourgeoisie.  While almost blending in to Viennese high society, she was hostess to the era’s stars, including Alma Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Sigmund Freud.  Gustav Klimt painted two identified portraits and over one hundred sketches of Adele.  It was known that the artist and this lovely married lady were intimately involved.  Several erotic paintings titled “Judith” were said also to depict his lover.  One face glowed with post-orgasmic fervor above bared breasts. 

Brief affairs were common at the turn of the century among wealthy Viennese.  At the young age of forty-three in the year 1925, lovely, lively Adele Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis.  She was spared from seeing her precious belongings seized by the Nazis!

The last serendipitous message I received came from a book.  I knew it was imperative that I finish my assignment.  “The Hare with Amber Eyes” by Edmund DeWaal was loaned to me by my friend, Nellie.  I finally started reading this book two days after seeing “Woman in Gold”.  Edmund Dewaal inherited 264 Netsukes (Japanese wood and ivory carvings no bigger than a matchbox).  He felt compelled to trace their journey through generations of his family.  The journey took him from Odessa to Paris and from occupied Vienna to Tokyo.  To my total surprise, his wealthy Jewish-Viennese family lived on Ring Strasse, the same street at the same time as Adele Bloch-Bauer lived there. 

DeWaal meticulously researched the milieu and personal lives of his great grandparents.  Viktor, 39 years old married Emma, 18 years old in 1899.  He was in love with Emmy and she was in love with an “an artist and playboy who had no intention of marrying anyone.”  I wondered if it could have been Gustav Klimt?  At that time, sex was inescapable in Vienna.  Sex is argued over by Freud.  In “Sex and Character”, the cult book of 1903, women were said to be amoral by nature and in need of direction.  DeWaal states that Emma’s friendships of 100 years ago are no secret.  All her former lovers are known.

The Old Emperor Frans Josef was trying to keep together a harmonious supranational state.  Regarding anti-Semitism, he is quoted “I will tolerate no “Judenhelze” in my empire”.  The empires dissolved in 1918.

“All that glitters is not gold” was the first thought I had on viewing Adele’s portrait.  It is now my last thought.

Vienna in 1906 was like a city with splendid empty palaces setting on decaying foundations.  Oskar Kokoschka would later write, “People lived in security, nonetheless, they were full of fear.”  Old emperor Franz Josef held the idea of a harmonious supranational state, ignoring the unrest and reawakening of nationalism.  He rejected anti-Semitism but still the prejudices grew stronger.  The palatial homes and large families proclaimed stability while spouses took on multiple lovers.  The Austro-Hungarian empire was in denial.  The ultra-rich Jews on Ring Strasse were also in denial.  Their immense wealth allowed them to purchase anything desired; their art collections rivaled those held by museums.  These Jews also blended into the Christian upper class so well they were almost indistinguishable.

Gustav Klimt’s portraits also represent this era.  In Adele Bloch-Bauer, only a small part of the canvas depicts her ivory skin and black hair.  Ninety percent of the area is covered in thick gold with multiple decorative motifs embedded in it.  This large area has little connection to the model and could be a separate painting.  It is like the glitter of denial that covers Vienna is drowning out the image of Adele Bloch-Bauer.

This assignment enchanted me.  I was immersed in the movie, thrilled by Ray’s request, and excited by my trip to Barnes and Noble and discovery of the Klimpt book.  And my balloon popped!

I received back from Hana the first pages of my paper on “Women in Gold” she typed for me.  Where I had written “morph into memories of past Viennese scenes” she had typed “morphed into memories of past unreal scenes”!  What did she mean?  Of course I know this is a story of human beings told from the point of view of ego, my ego.  Of course I know that God did not create a world of pain, loss and death.  Of course in this past week of pure adrenalin I had bought into this story - hook, line and sinker.  Acknowledging ownership of this tale gradually allowed me a different view of this segment of human history.

I thought of Jesus on the Cross, asking God to forgive the two criminals for “they know not what they do”.  I, too saw that the rich Jews, Viennese Christians, Emperor Franz Josef, the Nazis and Gustav Klimt are projections of my own thoughts.  Forgive me, Father, for I know not what I do!  As I forgive myself, I thank God for this wonderful assignment….for all that glitters is not gold!  Last of all, while writing this paper, I dropped my judgments and now can enjoy the “Woman in Gold” portrait exactly as it is.

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