Woman in Gold
The importance of being honest…about WWII
The story of the painting “Woman in Gold” symbolizes the systemic denial, dishonesty and downright criminal attitudes that still reign in Europe and America about the subject of looted art during the Nazi period.
A shamefully low percentage of Nazi looted paintings and works of art have been restituted to their rightful owners or their heirs. Art that ended up in private hands is virtually impossible to trace, let alone restitute but a great number of works are part of the collections of the great museums in the Western world and these institutions fight tooth and nail to not give up their “treasures”. The documentary film “The Rape of Europe” gives a very good overview of the subject.
The recent film “Woman in Gold” tells the story of Maria Altmann’s fight to get back precious paintings that were rightfully hers, helped by a lone young lawyer. It did not help that one of the paintings was “Woman in Gold”, the portrait of her aunt Adele Bloch-Bauer by Gustav Klimt and the lawyer was the grandson of Arnold Schoenberg, the great Austrian composer and artist.
Austria was NOT going to give up the “national” treasure without a fierce fight. As we all know, in this gratifying “David and Goliath” story, the outcome was not what the Austrians suspected…The portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer now adorns the Neue Galerie in New York. All the years that the painting was the epicenter of the Belvedere in Vienna, its title was simply “Woman in Gold”, not declaring the identity of the sitter: a Jewish lady of Vienna’s pre-war high society.
Ironically, Germany, still embroiled in many lawsuits about stolen Nazi Art, recently accused the Russians of not restituting the art they looted during the fall of Germany at the end of WWII. A case of the pot calling the kettle black…
Another ongoing story, amongst many, is about the fate of the “Goudstikker Collection” from Amsterdam. This story is close to home to me. As a Dutch woman, I am often congratulated by my friends abroad as coming from the country that “did so much to protect the Jews”. I then have to deny this claim, because actually Holland has a bad record on this taboo subject and I am often the bearer of bad news. The Holocaust was very effective in Holland: more than 80% of the Dutch Jews perished.
Strangely, when I recently visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, I stood a long time admiring the paintings of “Adam and Eve” by one of my favorite painters Lucas Cranach the Elder, not realizing that painting is the object of a lawsuit by the heirs of the Dutch art dealer Goudstikker. Goudstikker’s entire collection was illegally “bought” for a song by Goring, after he fled Amsterdam in 1940. You can read the conclusion of the Commission for Art Recovery (click here).
WWII seems to be an intrinsic part of my life and it is imperative that we hurry to grasp and preserve whatever we can of knowledge and truth from the fast disappearing witnesses of that tragic period, so we can tell the story as truthfully as possible. It is the only way to heal…