Monday, July 16, 2012

BOOK REVIEWS: The Year that Changed the World, The Lady in Gold, and The Hare with Amber Eyes

 When we travel, I usually try to find something to read that is related to our trip. For our most recent trip, I reread The Year that Changed the World: The Untold Story Behind the Fall of the Berlin Wall by Newsweek Eastern European Bureau Chief Michael Meyer.

Meyer was in Eastern Europe for most of 1988-1989 and was an eyewitness of the events he writes about.  He does an excellent job of describing the fall of communism not just in East Germany, which actually came towards the end of the process, but also in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania. He debunks the idea that this was a US-led transformation, although he acknowledges the role of Ronald Reagan, particularly in his ability to negotiate with Mikhail Gorbachev. He spends most of the book examining the actions of amazing, courageous European leaders and commoners who truly deserve the credit for most of the change.

The second book I picked up  is an extensive history of a single painting: The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Anne-Marie O'Connor, a Washington Post reporter and former staff writer for the New York Times. O'Connor has also studied painting at the San Francisco Art Institute.

The author uses the painting of this very wealthy Jewish woman who was at the top of the social ladder in pre-War Vienna as the primary focus of the book, but around that center she weaves a fascinating story that includes an interesting biography of Klimt himself, a truly unique man considered an "artistic heretic" during his day.

Klimt, 1914
Klimt not only revolutionized the Viennese art world, but he also had a big impact on psychology, culture, and even fashion, of all things. (He and those in his circle, including Adele Bloch-Bauer, rebelled against the restrictive clothing of the day and wore these cute caftan-style outfits. )

O'Connor helped me understand the Secession art movement in the late 1890s and early 1900s.  She writes,
Vienna artists were frustrated.  Aesthetic tastes were dictated by a handful of upper-class patrons who had the money to buy and commission art.  They preferred historic art . . . that endlessly repeated medieval or ancient Greek themes . . . . Vienna artists who had defected from the official Kunstlerhaus were electrified by Vincent van Gogh and the French Impressionists.  They wanted the freedom of Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. In Paris and Munich, the work of new artists hung alongside the old.  But the staid Vienna establishment refused to display experimental work in major museums.  In Klimt's view, state sponsors created a "dictatorship of exhibition" that showed only "weak" and "false" art, and grasped "every opportunity for attacking genuine art and genuine artists.  [It was] a stale culture of art-for-hire that stifled innovation and had people buying paintings that go with the furniture. . .  Shall the Viennese painters be damned to remain petty businessmen, or should they attempt to become artists?" Those artists "who are of the opinion that paintings are goods, like trousers or stockings, to be manufactured according to the client's wishes," should stay in the state-sponsored Kunstlerhaus. . . . . "Those who want to reveal--in painting or drawing--the secrets of their soul, are [part of the Secessionists]."

This seems to me to be a pretty good analysis of not only art at the beginning of the 20th century, but also of the philosophy behind today's contemporary art scene.

Even more interesting to me, however, is O'Connor's research regarding:
- the Nazi art-grab in 1941
- the "renaming" of any work that was painted by or of a Jew (for example, the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became The Lady in Gold)
- the Nazis' treatment of the rich Jews who had shaped much of Vienna's high culture (at the turn of the century, one in ten residents of Vienna was Jewish)
- the fate of the Bloch-Bauers and their relatives
- post-War chaos in Europe in general and Austria in particular
- the refusal of Austria to acknowledge its crimes for decades after the War and their general cover-up of the art theft (O'Connor is pretty hard on Austrian officials who made these decisions and on citizens who could elect a man like Kurt Waldheim, an intelligence officer in the Nazi Wehrmacht, to be president in 1986.)
-  lawsuits over ownership of this particular painting that actually ended up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

I'm not to that part in the book yet, but I know that Adele Bloch-Bauer's niece, who lives in Los Angeles, was finally able to claim the painting in 2004, and that two years later she sold it for $135 million to American Jewish businessman Ronald Lauder, the most money ever paid for a painting at that time. (See the story here, and by the way, last year the royal family of Qatar paid $250 million for a Paul Cezanne painting of two men playing cards.) Klimt's masterpiece now hangs in the Neue Galerie in New York City, a small museum dedicated to German and Austrian art.

Bob, we need to go back to New York City to visit Adele.
Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Gustav Klimt, 1907
A third book to consider reading in connection with a trip to Vienna, especially if you plan on visiting the Kunsthistorisches Museum, is The Hare with Amber Eyes.

Edmund de Waal, a British ceramics artist, traces the origin of an inheritance he received: 264 Japanese netsuke--miniature wood and ivory carvings made in 17th century Japan--from their purchase in Paris in the 1870s to Vienna, where they miraculously survived two World Wars before ending up back in Japan in the hands of de Waals great-uncle Iggy, who, when he died, left them to de Waal. It turns out that his Jewish ancestors, the Ephrussis family, was once as rich as the Rothschilds, but that after World War II, this collection of tiny objects was all that was left of their vast wealth.

De Waal says the story became "a story about identity, about what families tell each other and tell their children about who they are and where they come from. My story really is about memory and objects and families and objects and a story really about what happens in families . . . ."


  1. I'm in the middle of "The Year That Changed the World", which is even more interesting after having been to many of the places mentioned in the book. Not a Klimt convert quite yet, although I do like Adele.

  2. The Year That Changed the World was great. I'm sure we'll get back to NY again someday. It is a fabulous place.

  3. Wow--wish I'd read this before I went to NY, then I would have put a gallery visit on my list. Oh, wait. I had about three museums I didn't get to either. How DO you guys get so much done on a trip?