NEW YORK — The Neue Galerie, a mid-sized museum on Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street in Manhattan, gets pretty crowded around lunch. The Café Sabarasky (named for the institution’s co-founder Serge Sabarasky, who opened the Neue in late 2001 with Ronald Lauder) is a hot draw, but the artwork lingers longer than the pastries.
On the second floor of this converted mansion, designed by legendary Gilded Age architects Carrère and Hastings and once owned by Grace Vanderbilt, there hangs the portrait of a woman who died 90 years ago. Her story is still being told.
Adele Bloch-Bauer was part of a prominent Austrian-Jewish family, patrons of the arts whose belongings were plundered by the Nazis. Among the works stolen were two portraits of Adele by Gustav Klimt, commissioned by her husband. The first – with gold leaf applied directly to the canvas – is the more famous. “A painting sold on refrigerator magnets” as Charles Dance’s character, a lawyer skeptical about restituting the work to its rightful owner, reminds us in the new movie “Woman in Gold.”
After World War II, surviving members of the Bloch-Bauer family escaped to the United States. Their artwork remained behind – the “last prisoners of war.” The case of “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” made international headlines (and has been the subject of documentaries) but “Woman in Gold” is the first time it has been dramatized.
Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece who demands to see justice done before she passes from this world. You’d think it would be a fairly simple task to reclaim the family treasures in the late 1990s, with the Cold War over and everyone everybody else’s friend. But this isn’t how it went down.
The Austrians, who considered Klimt’s painting “their Mona Lisa,” weren’t about to give it up, even if it was the right thing to do. They stood their ground on a flimsy bit of legal evidence – that Adele had wished for the painting to end up at the Belvedere Gallery when she died. But clearly having Nazis storm in with their boots and rip it off the wall isn’t exactly what she meant.
This is an aspect of “Woman of Gold” that is really important. It doesn’t tarnish all of today’s (or the late 1990s’) Austrians. Indeed, the wonderful actor Daniel Brühl has a good turn as the guilt-ridden countryman trying to bring about truth and reconciliation.
But the movie refuses to accept the myth that Austria was yet another occupied victim. It reminds us (in flashback) how the Nazis were treated with kisses and flowers as they came into Vienna. When the trial for ownership of the painting is over, the Austrian officials try to make a deal. Helen Mirren (great, always) says the painting will go where the woman in the painting would have gone to be safe.
So now it’s in Midtown Manhattan, and in really fancy digs at that. At the time of its sale to Ronald Lauder, estimated at over $100 million, it was the highest sum ever paid for a single painting. (My hunch, Lauder intended to overpay, to prove a point. A character based on him in the film makes a brief appearance.)
Today there’s also a fascinating section of the museum where Austrian schoolchildren were commissioned to make artwork envisioning Adele’s life in America. Some are hilarious, like one that says “Arrrrrdele” and includes a pirate’s eyepatch, or one that has her driving by a Burger King. Others are touching, like a collage of modern Austrian citizens shouting “Adele geh nicht!” (These images, by the way, are all near the bathrooms, but, hey, that’s New York, where every bit of wall space counts.)
He’s the attorney who stumbled in somewhat over his head and ended up arguing before the Supreme Court
Elsewhere, on a crisp March afternoon, a mere twenty minute walk from the Neue Galerie, the cast and crew of “Woman in Gold” were doing their best to promote the movie, which is something of a legal thriller with emotional flashbacks to the last days in Austria before Nazism. The most interesting conversation I had was with lawyer E. Randol Shoenberg, played by the very handsome Ryan Reynolds in the film.
Shoenberg, the grandson of the composer Arnold, is president of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. He’s the attorney who, through family connections, stumbled in somewhat over his head and ended up arguing before the Supreme Court for the right to sue the Austrian government to get the painting back. (Among his notable credentials, besides being tenacious in the face of international bureaucracy, is giving Justice David Souter a slight zetz, making the remaining eight members of the bench crack up.)
“If you go down on the ground and you look up, it changes the whole picture because of the overlay of the gold leaf, you can see the textures differently,” Shoenberg says of the painting. He hasn’t actually looked at it since 2006, but says every time he’s with it is emotional.
Seeing it from down low is very likely how Maria Altmann, his client, first encountered it when she was very small in Austria. The film shows how Klimt’s art, and others, decorated her family’s large apartment in Vienna.
“That’s her high culture,” Shoenberg says of Altmann, who died at the age of 94 in 2011. “Helen Mirren was quite accurate in portraying her in the sort of the way that she did. I told her, yes, she had elegance and charm, but it was unaffected. It was just sort of who she was. She would quote from operas in a way that was completely natural. No one else could get away with it.”
“Maria’s wedding, shown in flashbacks in the film,” British director Simon Curtis says, “was the last great Jewish social event before the Anschluss. I really tried to get that sense of a community blown apart by fate. I’ve been told that when the Jews left Vienna, Vienna lost 64 percent of its doctors, for example. There was an amazing collision of thinkers, artists, writers, scientists, doctors, and architects. Vienna was where it was at.”
This is part of what makes the current residence of “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” such a victory. The Neue Galerie bills itself as a “Museum of German and Austrian Art,” but a Germany and Austria inclusive of all artists and thinkers – a Germany and Austria in cultural exchange with its Jews.
Last year’s hit show focused on what the Third Reich called “Degenerate Art.” By the time “Woman in Gold” is released in theaters (and through September 7) the main exhibit will devote itself exclusively to Klimt and his relationship to Adele Bloch-Bauer.
It’s a show that exists because Maria Altmann and E. Randol Shoenberg refused to take “nein” for an answer.
“Woman in Gold” will be in US theaters on April 1, in UK theaters on April 10 and in Israeli theaters on April 17.