Simon Curtis’ Woman in Gold: A Testament to Memory


Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), oil, silver and gold on canvas. Neue Galerie, New York. Acquired through the generosity of Ronald S. Lauder, the heirs of the Estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer, and the Estée Lauder Fund

Never before had gold been used in art in such abundance – at least not since the Byzantine period. As the 19th century was dying, Art Nouveau’s decorative style came to life. Characterized by colourful elements rich with symbolism, it was a movement that transformed the art world with works of art produced by groups such as the Symbolists. 

Vienna's cultural scene at the turn of the 20th century owes much of its vibrancy to Symbolist artist, Gustav Klimt. As a driving force behind the Art Nouveau movement, Klimt is celebrated as a painter of beauty, sensuality, sorrow and hope.

So it was no surprise that in 1904, when the wealthy industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer commissioned a painter to immortalize his wife on canvas, he chose Klimt, a family friend. The resulting portrait, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907), is now an iconic masterpiece. 

Over a century later, film director Simon Curtis has re-created not only the glory of this gilded age, but also the human drama behind the portrait of Bloch-Bauer. The National Gallery is screening Curtis’ Woman in Gold on December 10 as part of its Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Film Circuit program.


Photo: Courtesy of TIFF

“This is a unique forum to rethink one’s way of watching movies,” said Chief of Partnerships, Michelle Robitaille, in an interview with NGC Magazine. “It’s also an opportunity to promote our European art collection.”

In collaboration with TIFF, the National Gallery features four films a year from a selection of renowned productions. Woman in Gold is the final film of the 2015 series. Associate Curator of European and American Art, Anabelle Kienle Poňka, is speaking at the event with Peter Altmann, son of Maria Altmann. The evening offers visitors a wonderful opportunity to meet with friends while enjoying a drink, tapas and a moving story.

I happened to catch the film while on a recent flight overseas. At the time, I knew nothing about the plot; I simply thought it might be good, as Helen Mirren was in it. It was a viewing experience that evoked joy, admiration, anger and even a few tears.

The film is based on the true story of the late Maria Altmann, portrayed by Mirren. Altmann was one of Bloch-Bauer’s nieces, and in the film, she enlists an inexperienced but committed lawyer named Randol Schoenberg, played by Canadian Ryan Reynolds, to help her in her personal quest for justice. Inspired by Anne-Marie O’Connor’s 2012 novel, Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, both book and film are testaments to memory, fairness and the different values we assign to art.

Photo: Courtesy of TIFF

In a series of flashbacks, the screenplay reveals intimate details behind Klimt’s fascinating creations, along with the looting of art that went on in Europe before and during the Second World War. Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938 and the expropriation of the homes and assets of Jewish families soon followed. Leaving the rest of their family behind, Maria Altmann and her husband fled to the United States as refugees.

Most of the Bloch-Bauer family’s possessions, including the Klimt paintings, were confiscated. In 1941, the Austrian State Gallery acquired Adele Bloch-Bauer I. Along with the remainder of Klimt’s oeuvres, it soon became an integral part of the Gallery’s collection and emblematic of Austrian national identity.

In the film, a now-elderly Altmann discovers that her uncle Ferdinand had named his nephew and nieces as heirs to his estate. Altmann decides to submit a claim to the Austrian Art Restitution Advisory Board and hires Schoenberg to help her in her cause. The two go on to fight the Austrian government for nearly a decade in an attempt to reclaim the painting of her aunt Adele.

Klimt's work is characterized by eroticism and colour, often heightened by a sense of joy embraced by sorrow. The National Gallery has a number of Klimt’s works in its collection, including three chalk studies for the portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I and the strange and unsettling Hope I (1903), currently on view in the European Galleries. This controversial life-sized portrait was produced during the same period as Adele Bloch-Bauer I, and although it hardly features any gold at all, it shimmers with the luminous presence of its central figure.


Gustav Klimt, Hope I (1903), oil on canvas, 189.2 x 67 cm. Purchased 1970. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © National Gallery of Canada

Featuring a heavily pregnant nude woman, the portrait juxtaposes motherhood and mortality — a not unusual combination, given the risks faced by both mother and child at the time. Seemingly shielded and protected by her own fertility, the mother-to-be exudes an unperturbed power and a sense of hope that are impossible to ignore.

These two forces are also reflected in the film, Woman in Gold. “This movie directly links to an artist who is represented in our collection,” notes Robitaille. “It gives Gallery visitors a chance to explore the worlds of visual and cinematographic art in one place.”

Woman in Gold will be screened on Thursday, December 10, at 6:30 p.m. in the NGC Auditorium. After the film, stay for a conversation between Anabelle Kienle Poňka, Associate Curator, European and American Art, and Maria Altmann’s son, Peter Altmann, who will share his mother’s first-hand experience. KW Catering will offer tapas and drinks from 5:00 to 6:30 p.m.

Purchase your tickets now!

The book Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is also available for purchase from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore.

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