“There’s a terrible and relentless TV-movie ropiness about this film [Woman in Gold], combined with a dairy whiff of cheesiness. It deals with a fascinating and important subject but is let down by some embarrassing acting and writing, and it is one that Helen Mirren may have to expunge from any future award-ceremony montages.” (theGuardian.com)

Why aren’t I surprised by the cheesy review of what many people think is a terrific film? Because the review is in The Guardian, probably the UK’s preeminent anti-Zionist daily. The film Woman in Gold, directed by Simon Curtis and starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds, depicts one aspect of a very important book – The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, written by Anne-Marie O’Connor.

In the late 18th century, following the Age of Enlightenment, and especially after the ferment in Europe which began in 1848, Jews began to emerge from their ghettos and to make their way into mainstream banking and commerce, the universities, and cultural endeavors. The book, though not especially well written, is a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of the Jewish merchant class in post-Enlightenment Vienna, the crown jewel of Austria-Hungary (Habsburg Empire).

The Vienna Secession (1897-1939), headquartered in Vienna, was largely funded by the city’s wealthy Jewish merchant class. “Secessionists declared that the aim of their movement was to reunite architecture, painting, sculpture, and music under a common theme in order to break from the segregation of traditional art institutions.” The movement’s credo was, “To every age its art, to every art its freedom.” I believe that the movement was compatible with the Jewish propensity to improve upon the status quo by disruption and radical, new concepts.

The Bloch-Bauer family epitomized the rise of modern Jews in Vienna, the greatest city of the Habsburgs. Adele Bloch-Bauer, born in Vienna 1881, was the youngest daughter of Moritz Bauer, general director of the influential Viennese Bank association and the president of the Orient railway company. In 1899 she married the fabulously wealthy industrialist Ferdinand Bloch, who was seventeen years her senior. Her marriage followed the marriage of her sister Therese to Ferdinand’s brother, Dr. Gustav Bloch. In 1917, in a show of modernism, both couples added the wives’ maiden name to the family name: Bloch-Bauer.

Adele was a thoroughly modern woman. Restrained by social mores from receiving an advanced formal education, Adele studied German, French and English classical literature by herself. She hosted a famous salon frequented by influential gentiles and Jews, where composers like Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, famous authors, actors, Klimt and other Secessionist artists, and later, politicians gathered to discuss the events of the day. (jwa.org)

Gustav Klimt, a leader of the Secessionist movement, “was seen as an artist who was far ahead of his time, and much of the work that was produced during the Austrian born artist’s career was seen as controversial. It was criticized due to the erotic and exotic nature. Although symbolism was used in his art forms, it was not at all subtle, and it went far beyond what the [contemporary] imagination during the time frame accepted. Although his work was not widely accepted during his time, some of the pieces that Gustav Klimt did create during his career, are today seen as some of the most important and influential pieces to come out of Austria.” (gustav-klimt.com)

Adele was both a patron of Klimt and a subject for several of his most prized paintings. With her elegant, narrow face, Adele appeared both beautiful and somewhat arrogant. Klimt painted at least two portraits of her, in 1907 and 1912 (I and II). When the Nazis seized all of Ferdinand Bloch’s possessions, the famous picture’s name was changed to Lady in Gold. Eventually, it was exhibited in Vienna’s Galerie Belvedere, alongside of another famous Klimt painting, The Kiss.

The film, which concerns itself with only one aspect of O’Connor’s lengthy book, describes the efforts of Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, to retrieve the artworks that had belonged to her aunt and uncle. As such, it amplifies O’Connor’s depiction and has the cinematic advantage of showing viewers the gorgeous paintings and the striking beauty of Vienna’s turn of the 20th century architectural treasures. However, seeing the film is not a substitute for reading the book, if one is interested in seeing how Jews can rise and then fall in gentile society, no matter how assimilated they believe themselves to be.

After both my wife Michal and I read the book and saw the film, we made the time on our recent trip to New York to visit the Neue (pronounced Noy-uh) Gallerie in Manhattan, the brain child of the noted Jewish philanthropist/activist Ronald Lauder. The museum has an outstanding collection of Secessionist art and handiworks, including incredible paintings, clocks, furniture, silverware and porcelain. The famous Adele Bloch-Bauer I painting is featured there, as well as other famous Klimt works. (I saw the Adele II portrait hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.)

While we were at the Neue Galerie, we also saw the current excellent exhibition on Russian and German art of the First World War period, including several Jewish artists. We also enjoyed coffee and Viennese pastry in one of the Museum’s two cafes, a delicious finale to our visit.

Despite the The Guardian’s snide comments, I highly recommend seeing the film. If you like to read cultural history, I also recommend the book. If you don’t get to do either of these, at least visit the museum for the apple strudel and Sacher torte.