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'The Lady in Gold,' 'Good Living Street' tell poignant family stories behind Klimt portraits

The two women stare from the paintings, beautiful and serene. Adele Bloch-Bauer and Hermine Gallia were real people, among a select group of wealthy and cultured Jewish women in Austria whom Gustav Klimt would immortalize in his ravishing portraits during the first decade of the 20th century.

The women, the paintings and the milieu that created them and then left them behind are the subjects of two remarkable books, Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900 by Tim Bonyhady and The Lady in Gold by Anne-Marie O'Connor. Their publication coincides with Klimt's 150th birthday in July, which is being celebrated in his hometown of Vienna with a number of museum exhibitions.

Bonyhady, an Australian art critic and environmental lawyer, is the great-grandson of Hermine Gallia, the woman wearing white, and his book is both historical account and moving memoir, based on his own research plus old family letters and diaries, and conversations with his mother, Anne Herschmann-Gallia Bonyhady, who died in 2003.

O'Connor is a journalist with no personal connections to her subject. Central to The Lady in Gold is a major news story beginning in the late 1990s that O'Connor covered. Maria Altmann was the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the lady in gold, and lived in California before her death in 2011; Altmann successfully argued that her aunt's portrait was part of Nazi looting. Her case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and forced the Austrian government to return the portrait and other Klimt paintings to her and several other heirs in 2006. They sold them all. Ronald Lauder, who had founded the Neue Galerie in New York, a museum devoted to modern Austrian and German art, paid a jaw-dropping $135 million for Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (Lady in Gold).

Aside from that contemporary hook, the books tell similar stories. Each chronicles the rise of a wealthy Jewish family in fin de siecle Vienna after Austrian Emperor Franz Josef relaxed laws restricting Jews from such personal freedoms as owning property and the right to marry, as well as the dazzling cultural climate the Jewish community helped create and its demise under the devastating march of Adolf Hitler across Europe in the late 1930s. The families were part of the diaspora that scattered several generations across the world during the war and in its aftermath.

The actual making of the paintings and Klimt's presence in their subjects' lives takes up a small part of these stories. Instead, the works and the women become symbols of all that was achieved, then lost and finally, in part, retrieved.

In the early 1900s when the paintings were created, Klimt (1862-1918) was both revered and reviled. He was a leader in the modernist movement called the Viennese Secession that broke from the restrained classical themes and conventions honored for decades. His work was provocative and often infused with a frank eroticism.

Society portraits provided a lucrative income for Klimt. He could pick and choose his subjects, whom he always portrayed in a flattering way. He produced only five or six paintings a year and charged today's equivalent of about $100,000 for commissioned portraits, which gave him the financial freedom to pursue his avant-garde work. The Kiss, his most famous painting, was one of those noncommissioned, controversial works.

{a past lost and found}

Bonyhady wrote Good Living Street to reclaim his family's past, which his mother was determined for most of her life to erase, so unhappy was her childhood and so traumatizing the Nazi encounters that preceded her immigration to Australia from Austria in 1938, when she was 16. As a boy, Bonyhady did not know he was Jewish and knew almost nothing about his family's illustrious Austrian past.

That is where he begins his book, with the glittering world of his great-grandmother Hermine and her husband, Moriz. Both came from the provinces, children of large, affluent families who moved to Vienna at the beginning of its economic and cultural boom years.

He was her uncle; intermarriage among Jewish families wasn't unusual and was a way to conserve family wealth. He made a fortune first in gas lighting, then in electricity. They had a son, Erni, a daughter, Gretl, and twin girls, Kathe and Lene. The family lived in a grand apartment on Wohllebengasse, or Good Living Street, in a newer part of Vienna. They were patrons of the opera and symphony, traveled widely and were among the major collectors of contemporary art and decorative objects. They hired Josef Hoffmann, Vienna's leading architect, to design their rooms and outfit them with custom furniture. Klimt's portrait of Hermine Gallia was painted in 1904 when she was 32; it was one of his first society portraits.

Moriz died in 1918, Hermine in 1936. The family fortune had been buffeted by World War I and the Depression, but there was still plenty of money and a house full of treasures that were divided among her three remaining children (Lene died in 1926).

After Hitler annexed Austria, the Gallia sisters and Gretl's daughter Anne, like many Austrian Jews, left just days after the brutal attacks of Kristallnacht. Some of their extended family had already fled; many others who stayed died. Gretl and Kathe took little of their fortune but were able to ship almost all of their possessions ahead of their departure for Australia. Their treasures inherited from Hermine and Moriz were the finest private collection to escape intact from Nazi Austria.

The sisters, unprepared to be self-supporting, became so. Anne married an Australian and had two sons, Bruce and Tim. Tim Bonyhady writes that his mother never lost her fear of persecution because of her Jewish identity, despite her conversion to and fervent embrace of Catholicism. When Tim was a young adult, she reluctantly turned over dozens of personal papers the family brought from Vienna and even more reluctantly wrote about her family's history for her son.

When she needed money to help support her aging mother and aunt, she sold most of the Gallia trove. In 1971 the National Gallery of Victoria bought all the Hoffmann furniture as well as decorative objects and jewelry for about $30,000, less than what they would have fetched on the open market because she wanted the collection to remain intact and in Australia. Hermine's portrait was auctioned by Christie's for about $51,000. It was a record for a Klimt but a pittance compared to later sales. In 1976 it was acquired by the National Gallery in London.

{beauty and tragedy }

The Lady in Gold is another story of a Klimt painting and the family who owned it but is far more tortuous, though its beginning is similar to that of Good Living Street. Like Hermine Gallia, Adele Bloch-Bauer was the subject of a Klimt portrait. She, too, came from a large Jewish family who moved to Vienna. And like Hermine's, Adele's marriage to Ferdinand, a wealthy industrialist, was arranged (though he was not a relative). They had no children.

Adele was beautiful, and Klimt didn't have to idealize her as he did some of his subjects. She was also close to the painter, the only society woman he painted twice, and there was conjecture from the beginning about an affair. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is a later painting, completed in 1907, far finer than Hermine's and one of his most famous. It was part of Klimt's "golden period," which was inspired by the Byzantine art and mosaics he saw on a trip to Italy.

In the painting, Adele is swathed in gold leaf and mysterious "tiles" of painted symbols. Her pale face and awkwardly bent hands (a Klimt trademark) emerge as dominant elements. It's a remarkable tour de force and one the Nazis coveted after Ferdinand had fled to Switzerland. For museum exhibitions, they renamed it The Lady in Gold to cover up Adele's Jewish identity.

Adele had died in 1925, but during the war most of her family remained in occupied territories and endured torture, rape and horrible indignities. Many were murdered or committed suicide. Maria Altmann and her husband made a harrowing escape and immigrated to the United States. Like many of her peers, Maria was unprepared to make a living, but she became a successful businesswoman. Unlike Anne, she left with little and was determined to pursue restoration and compensation from the Austrian government.

The struggle for Adele's portrait was a bitter one, more so because the government-owned Vienna museum that took possession of it after the war displayed it under the Nazi title and made no reference to its provenance. They dragged out the lawsuit, "hoping I would die," Maria joked. But she didn't, and the museum handed the work over after it had exhausted every legal option. She was criticized by some for cashing out instead of donating it to another museum, where it could be a public testament to her family's tribulations. But what, really, did she owe a world that had been so callous for so long?

Neither Hermine nor Adele could have imagined the destruction of life as they knew it or that their portraits would become celebrated in major museums far from their homeland — or that their privileged families would sacrifice so much simply to survive. Each believed her painting would be the major part of her family's posterity. In ways the women never planned, they are.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

Good Living Street: Portrait of a Patron Family, Vienna 1900

By Tim Bonyhady

Pantheon Books, 376 pages, $35

The Lady

in Gold

By Anne-Marie O'Connor

Alfred A. Knopf, 349 pages, $30

'The Lady in Gold,' 'Good Living Street' tell poignant family stories behind Klimt portraits 03/15/12 [Last modified: Thursday, March 15, 2012 7:33pm]

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