Miracles never cease. If D hadn’t pulled off an amazing one-time-only week of work placement in New York, and if N hadn’t mentioned the idea of going to the cinema there and seeing “The Woman in Gold” before it came out in Europe, then neither of us would have ended up doing just that, or consequently hotfooting it to the Neue Galerie, making an unplanned book purchase, and getting last minute tickets to see Helen Mirren on Broadway…. Not to mention queuing up at the stage entrance post performance, knees knocking and hoping for an autograph on the programme… I know, I know.
New York is of course magic. Magical. Everything about it is larger than life, especially when you know that while you might visit it regularly on the big screen, you are (in my case) very unlikely to be physically standing on its streets except under very exceptional circumstances. We were there for just over a week this June, and it was utterly unforgettable – more on Literary Trails in New York shortly, but back to the mission in hand – my own paper trail from cinema to museum to theatre, leading to exchanging nods with none other than the phenomenal H.M. ( well, Dame ! ) Helen Mirren in person…
The film of “The Woman in Gold” tells the story of the Austrian equivalent of the Mona Lisa being restored to its owner almost a century after its commission. Maria Altmann flees Vienna during the Second World War, and makes a new life for herself in Los Angeles, no doubt little imagining that by the start of the 21st Century when she herself is in her eighties she and her lawyer will lock horns with the establishment and endeavour to have the Bloch-Bauer legacy returned to its rightful heirs. It takes eight years of legal wrangling, but as we all know by now, justice is eventually meted out and the Galerie Belvedere is constrained to return the work of art to the family. Maria’s case highlights an all too common story of priceless works of art disappearing underground during those troubled years (remember the hugely hyped yet greatly disappointing film “Monuments Men” with Cate Blanchett spitting into glasses and uncharacteristically misplacing her accent, while George added the most incongruous music to a plot that somehow managed to make real events seem make-believe?? what were they all thinking?!), and this film does do a jolly good job of demonstrating the laws of restitution stepping into action.
Thoroughly enjoyed the entire show, which is very easy on the eye (Ryan in particular – that is a bit of a stretch, but hey), and particularly liked the flashbacks to the younger Helen Mirren, sorry, Tatiana Maslany, but do have to agree a tiny bit with the much-maligned Jonathan Romney, who dares to suggest that H.M. is a tad guilty here and there of “indomitably twinkling”.
It’s all a little too cosy at times, and some of those escape scenes do take a little too much poetic licence, but as true stories go it is a very solid piece of cinema.
The painting itself is quite staggering. Imagine the jubilation of being able to up sticks and hop on the subway up to the Neue Galerie that same week to stand in awe in front of the very Klimt painting that had once been hung in the Bloch-Bauer home and which Ronald Lauder spent a record-breaking $ 135 million on in 2006 when he finally bought it from Maria ! We were lucky enough to catch the start of the small exhibition, nicely timed to coincide with the opening of the film, and to view black and white photos of old Gustav in his smock resplendent with moggy, and to gaze upon the gilded golden lady in person and ponder over such a chequered history ‘come good’. We have a couple of Klimt posters adorning the walls of our flat; the real thing is something else indeed.
But for a more in-depth examination of the extraordinary tale of how the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer aka the “Lady in Gold” came to be the world’s most expensive painting at the time in 2006 – this honour now being held by one of Cézanne’s depictions of “Les Joueurs de Cartes” – the pricey one is in Qatar, as Vanity Fair recounts, but you can see one of the ‘cheaper’ versions in the Musée d’Orsay, by the by – then go no further than the eponymous book penned by Anne-Marie O’Connor. The film is good, but the book is brilliant.
It takes the reader on a whirlwind tour not just of the story of the painting, but of an entire epoch. As Kathryn Lang’s article details, it’s an extraordinary tale, and the reader is entreated to an entire world, one on the cusp and very much entrenched in its times, yet also peopled with situations we can imagine very clearly even without the silver screen to help us.
The author met with Maria Altmann after learning of the story back in 2001, a good few years before the case even came before the Supreme Judge. It’s a great story in itself: she simply found her number in the equivalent of the Yellow Pages, got herself invited over for Viennese coffee and lashings of whipped cream, and set off on her own investigative trail on parallel tracks with Randol Reynolds, oops Schoenberg (coincidentally yet tellingly himself the grandson of Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg).
By complete coincidence, D and I also found ourselves following somewhat in Maria’s footsteps of the book, as we visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington just before returning homewards, guided by S and A. It was a very chilling and unforgettable experience, and I found myself relieved but dismayed in equal quantities to find that the room containing the victims’ shoes was closed at the time of our visit. I had heard about this and the fact that the sight and smell of these 4,000 shoes is the most searing memory for many of us today visiting the events of yesterday. Shortly afterwards, I came across this passage from “The Lady in Gold”: “On the eve of the February 2004 hearing, Maria walked through the corridors of the Holocaust Museum in Washington. She studied the images of the concentration camps liberated by American soldiers, filled with dead prisoners and emaciated survivors. They could have been her. All of them. She was alive because she had escaped. If her father hadn’t died, she would have stayed in Vienna. They would have been doomed”.
The book also examines the possibly secret relationship between ‘Aunt’ Adele and Gustav the painter; O’Connor fills her pages with peripheral characters and vivid details without moving too far from the central story; and for me she captures the tone of the Jewish aristocracy in Vienna quite effortlessly. Have to say I read it from beginning to end without pausing for thought – it’s a cracking read, very thought-provoking and very well written. Would highly recommend for anyone interested in art, that particular period or as follow up to the film.
Oh, and the icing on the proverbial cake? Getting those last-minute tickets to see Helen Mirren in one of her final showings as H.M. Elizabeth II in “The Audience” two days later on Broadway. The New York Daily News called her “the jewel in this crown – New York is fortunate to have an audience with her” and we were certainly fortunate to find tickets. As the Prime Ministers filed by and she whipped off layers and added ball gowns and tiaras, as she gently and acidly made her side remarks in turn, we sat way up high and loving every moment, quite in thrall. As the corgis pounded across the stage to her, and she took her final curtain calls, we were further enraptured. And when Helen Mirren herself took the time to sign my blessed programme and have a quick, smiling chat about Bill Nighy and how great New York is at the back door after the show, my cup was genuinely overflowing. An evening out like that just off Times Square doesn’t come along very often. Bloody marvellous all round, in fact.
‘The Lady in Gold’ rating : 9/10.