'Nothing is hidden, except Adele Bloch-Bauer herself. She is still a mystery '

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (‘The Woman in Gold’), 1907, by Gustav Klimt (1862–1918), 54in by 54in, Neue Galerie, New York City. Credit: Bridgeman Images

Sigrid Rausing says:
Whenever we’re in New York we visit the Neue Galerie. We eat apfelstrudel and drink coffee in the old-fashioned cafe, where the newspapers hang like flags on wooden holders. “As in the old days, my dear”, says my husband in a mock German accent, a self-ironic joke, a code, a reference to a history so tragic – Holocaust and exile – and so familiar. Then we visit the woman in gold. Is it the faintly orientalist mosaic of gold leaf that draws one to the painting or is it the tragic history of looted art? I’m not sure. The canvas glows, but isn’t it also a poignant image of a woman captured, framed, by gold and diamonds? Adele’s expression, seductive, searching and yet also somewhat uncertain and detached, is poignant. What is she thinking? What is she doing with her hands? And what is Klimt thinking about? Nothing is hidden, except Adele Bloch-Bauer herself. She is still a mystery .

Sigrid Rausing is a philanthropist, anthropologist and owner/editor of the publishers Granta. Her book, Mayhem, is shortlisted for the Wellcome Book Prize 2018, the winner of which will be announced on April 30

John McEwen comments on The Woman in Gold:
Adele Bauer was the daughter of a Viennese banker. Her parents arranged for her to marry another banker, Ferdinand Bloch. She was 18, he was 35. Combined surnames sealed the deal. Their three children all died at birth. She died in 1925.

The picture was only returned to its rightful owner, Adele’s niece Maria Altmann, in 2006. Maria, who fled occupied Austria to the USA with her husband – saved by ransom from Dachau – remembered her well. ‘I never saw her smile. She was always very serious and wore flowing white dresses and carried a gold cigarette holder when it was very unusual for women to smoke.’ She had a salon, not ladies’ tea parties. ‘She would have loved to have been a woman of today.’

By 1900, Klimt was the fashionable choice for the portraits of the emerging class of largely Jewish businessmen who formed Vienna’s new haute bourgeoisie. Inspired by Ravenna’s gilded mosaics, he beautified his pictures with gold and silver leaf. It lent the subject a sacred, magical, even erotic quality – had not Zeus impregnated Danae as a shower of gold?

Only a fraction of this painting depicts Adele. It took three years to complete – gossip said they were lovers. ‘How dare you ask such a thing?’ Maria’s mother said. ‘It was an intellectual friendship.’ Maria had her doubts.

In 2006, she sold it to Ronald Lauder of Estée Lauder and also the former American ambassador to Austria, to be the Mona Lisa of his five-year-old Neue Galerie. The price was $135 million (£94.5 million), which remains the most expensive American museum purchase.


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