It arrived in the mail, one of my first assignments for my Master’s in Fine Arts Program: The Lady in Gold, a book by Anne-Marie O’Connor. I was accepted into a pan-European low-residency program for creative writing, and our first residency was in July, in Vienna, Austria, and the book was to be one of my weekly assignments. I didn’t know what to expect out of the “golden book,” but I had a feeling that, if the picture on the cover and the quote from The Washington Post: “Fascinating…A mesmerizing tale of art and the Holocaust,” had any indication, I was going to be immersed in art, literature, and history; my three favorite subjects.
The subtitle of the title of the book clarified the The Lady in Gold’s focus: “The extraordinary tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer,” and I caressed the surface to see if the gold in the portrait on the cover was a different texture than the rest of the book. The only difference I felt was when my fingers brushed the golden seal that said, “Read the true story behind the film Woman in Gold.” I dreamed of when I would be able view the portrait for myself. What I didn’t know at that moment was that Adele was hanging in New York City, in The Neue (pronounced: noi-u) Galerie. I thought she was in Vienna.
From the moment I held the book, I wanted to know more about Klimt and his art. Not only because I was deeply in love with the idea that I was going to travel as a part of my newest MFA adventure, but also because Klimt fell in love with a woman named Adele. My daughter’s name is Adele, after my mother’s middle name. And for the subject of his painting and affection to have my daughter’s name was the kismet telling me that the trajectory of my life was on track, that I was meant to take this path. A path toward Vienna, to the study of the artist who painted “Austria’s Mona Lisa” (O’Connor).
More of his paintings became well-known to me: The Kiss, Judith and the Head of Holofernes, The Tree of Life,Soclet Frieze, as well as Adele’s The Lady in Gold. I was mystified with his intricate designs and the placement of gold in the paintings. He created emotion and made it flow. I saw the sexual intensity in his art and felt its emotion as I learned more and more about Klimt who:
…was, and continues to be, endowed with numerous titles: revolutionary and trailblazer of Modernism; compulsive pornographer; women’s favorite; overrated painter of golden kitsch; (Gustav Klimt: Life and Work, Agnes Husslein-Arco).
Well, I didn’t know about Klimt being “overrated” but I did feel like his use of color and shimmering gold sets him apart from any other artist I have studied.
When July finally came and I got the chance to see Klimt’s work myself, I wanted to experience it slowly. By then, I knew I wouldn’t see The Lady in Gold when I walked into the Klimt room at The Belvedere Palace in Vienna, but The Kiss was there and it had to be just as brilliant. When I entered the room, the painting hung on the far wall, but I didn’t want to see it at first: I wanted to cherish those precious moments before I gazed upon it. Like a person who slowly savors the most decadent dessert, I wanted to be able to appreciate each sensation as it is carefully consumed.
The other portraits I mused over had been commissioned at about the same time that Adele’s had been, in 1903. The women were seated and painted in muted colors, not in the “golden kitsch” of his most famous work. They looked content in their seated positions as “Klimt portrayed women as individuals, without the presence of a husband, father, or children to suggest their domestic role,” (O’Connor). I skimmed them as I walked on.
Then, as I approached The Kiss, I squinted at the brightness that bounced off the portrait. Light glowed from above, designed to highlight the painting, but was glittering off the golden surface. The emotion behind the woman’s closed eyes was enough to make me stop. His hands, touching her face, held deep tenderness: I could feel the male subject’s longing for her. The pattern on the blanket that surrounded the couple was filled with curly-cues and quilted squares, and they seemed to melt into each other as they stood on a hill of flowers. It was spectacular.
But I felt incomplete. Why? What was my problem? I was in Vienna. Standing in the immense Belvedere Palace with its sophisticated furnishings and countless priceless pieces of art. I felt disconnected in a room full of Klimt paintings. What I really wanted to see was The Lady in Gold.
Klimt painted Adele between 1903 and 1907 when her husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, commissioned the painting. Once Klimt started to work with Adele, he fell in love with her. Some speculate that they had an affair and that many of his other paintings were actually Adele. I, personally, think that Judith looks just like her.
For years, Adele’s portrait lived at The Belvedere, at times hidden in a bunker by the Nazis who stole personal items from Jewish families during World War II, and later, on display by the Austrian government for people to appreciate. O’Connor tells the story of the Bloch-Bauer family and how they got the painting back from Austria. Maria, Adele’s niece, at 92 years of age, took on the Austrian government and won. O’Connor writes, “Maria said she didn’t care if the Austrians were upset. ‘We lent them those paintings for sixty-eight years!’” And, she figured, it was time to get them back.
After the Belvedere chose not to purchase Adele’s painting, as well as a few others that Maria had proven were stolen from her family during the German occupation of Austria, Maria sold them with Christie’s Auction House. Ronald S. Lauder, of the Este Lauder cosmetic fortune, “A man who had seen Adele and never forgotten her paid $135 million to buy her, legally, for the first time,” (O’Connor, 294), for the Neue Galerie in Manhattan. At the time, this purchase marked a record amount for any painting in history.
As I stared disappointedly at The Kiss, feeling disrespectful and frustrated with myself, I imagined that I might be able to fly to Manhattan and go to the Neue Galerie. I had never been to New York City, I didn't have any plans to go there except a short layover during my flight home. I wished I could change my flight to give me extra time in New York but I couldn’t. At least not that trip.
Or so I had thought. When it was time to leave Austria and fly home, I received one more gift from the universe: my flight was horribly delayed. When we finally made it to JFK in New York, everyone was frustrated because we had all missed our connecting flights. But I happily offered to get on a plane the next day. I left the airport and found The Neue Galerie on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. There was Adele on her golden background like she had been wrapped in a blanket. She was now a symbol for me of eternal youth and empowerment. She had survived a thrilling creation, a troubled past, and was now a shining example that one woman could influence history in a lasting way.
And so my trip ended where it began, with me staring at The Lady in Gold, and feeling empowered with my decision to pursue my Masters in Fine Arts.
Amy Webber is a homegrown Oregonian and lover of travel. She has her Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and is working on her first real novel, Calm Chaos. When she isn’t working, riding her bike, or walking her dog, she’s writing in her little studio behind her home in Vancouver, WA.