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The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer Paperback – March 31, 2015
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“Fascinating. . . . A mesmerizing tale of art and the Holocaust.” —The Washington Post
“A celebration of art and persistence. . . . O’Connor’s book brings Klimt’s exceptional portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer home, broadening the meaning of homeland at the same time.” —The Christian Science Monitor
“Ms. O’Connor has told an important story.” —The Wall Street Journal
“O’Connor skillfully filters Austria’s troubled twentieth century through the life of Klimt’s most beloved muse. . . . A nuanced view of a painting whose story transcends its own time.” —Bookforum
“Captivating.” —MORE Magazine
“Combines detailed reportage with passionate storytelling. . . . Unraveling the portrait’s journey also reveals how global norms of art and war have changed, and the powerful roles that art plays in politics, society, identity and memory.” —The Rumpus
“A fascinating book.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Richly drawn. . . . Part history and part mystery, The Lady in Gold is a striking tale.” —BookPage
“The lusciously detailed story of Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting, detailing the relationship between the artist, the subject, their heirs and those who coveted the masterpiece. . . . Art-history fans will love the deep details of the painting, and history buffs will revel in the facts O’Connor includes as she exposes a deeper picture of World War II.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Intriguing. . . . Poignant and convincing. . . . Vividly evokes the intellectually precocious and ambitious Adele’s rich cultural and social milieu in Vienna, and how she became entwined with the charismatic, sexually charged, and irreverent Klimt.” —Publishers Weekly
“Writing with a novelist’s dynamism, O’Connor resurrects fascinating individuals and tells a many-faceted, intensely affecting, and profoundly revelatory tale of the inciting power of art and the unending need for justice.” —Booklist (starred review)
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The book captures the richness and liveliness of the lives of wealthy and cultured Jews of Vienna,as O'Connor calls it, the "equivalent of a 1960s happening." The cast of characters wandering through the story includes Arnold Schoenberg, Alma Mahler, Gustav Mahler, Oskar Kokoschka and even Freud. Bloch-Bauer, the self-proclaimed atheist and socialist resides in the middle of this privileged life smoking cigarettes and spending long periods posing for Klimt. The exquisite painting, The Lady in Gold was created in those sittings.
This Utopia is shattered by Hitler's march into Vienna and although both Klimt and Adele are dead, their friends and relatives are confronted with a dystopia no one could imagine. As various Bloch-Bauer relatives are escaping, hiding or dying, the Nazis are looting massive amounts of art, homes, businesses and personal possessions, including The Lady In Gold.
Adele's niece, Maria Altmann, comes onto the scene as a Holocaust survivor from Vienna, a dress shop owner in Beverly Hills and one of the real heirs to the Klimt paintings. Next, Randol Shoenberg enters the picture as Maria Altmann's lawyer who fights to get the paintings returned. Skillful writing makes the transition from cultured and wealthy Vienna, to the Holocaust, to new life in California surprisingly smooth and it seems perfectly natural that another generation of Schoenbergs and Bloch-Bauers from another country and another century figure into this well researched history.
The lawsuit to get the paintings returned to the surviving Bloch-Bauers seems unwinnable, but together Schoenberg and Altmann can seemingly move mountains -- at least mountains of artwork. Somehow, O'Connor quietly and seamlessly threads herself through the story as the journalist that she is, which makes it even more interesting.
This is a richly composed work - not least for the affection and easy fellowship O'Connor seems to feel for her characters. She clearly found Maria Altmann delightful, and her affinity for Adele is palpable. O'Connor has a deeply layered understanding of her subject and that always makes for a good read.
There are lots of family members and other characters that are difficult to keep straight. This made the book a more difficult read than it might have been with a well displayed family tree or chronology of characters that could be referenced easily and repeatedly. The only other criticism is that the book may be too ambitious, with so many characters and events that cannot be fully developed. For example, those an important heroine of the book, I did not feel I really knew what Adele was about and her shift from debutante to socialist--how that transition came about and who influenced her. This is the case with other characters and their evolution. They are introduced, but we don't really get to know them. Perhaps more could be done, but that probably was not the author's purpose. Rather, she has woven through one piece of art a compelling story of personalities and history that is enriching and highly entertaining.