It's been exactly nine years since the glorious day when Michael Govan, the newly appointed Director of Los Angeles County Museum of Art, greeted a larger than usual crowd at a press opening in March of 2006. He started with a priceless tongue in cheek remark, "Nothing is going to rain on our parade today." Indeed, it was raining cats and dogs, and all the guests were sitting in the courtyard, protected by a specially erected plastic tent. Everyone was staring at a formidable 90-year-old woman at the podium, who was emanating a sense of victory.
She was Maria Altmann, a long-time resident of Los Angeles, who had ultimately succeeded in a battle with the Austrian government to reclaim five great paintings by Gustav Klimt, once owned by her family, but looted by the Nazis. After World War II, these paintings ended up on permanent display at Belvedere Gallery in Vienna. The most famous of these five paintings was "Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer," (1907) which is often referred to as the Lady in Gold.
At that rainy press conference, Maria Altmann spoke about her childhood memory of this famous painting, which happens to be a portrait of her Aunt. Next to Maria sat another smiling person less than half her age, E. Randol Schoenberg, the lawyer who had helped her to win this improbable victory. If you're curious to see this historical moment, there is a video done by KCET and posted by Randol himself online.
Unfortunately for us Angelenos, Michael Govan's valiant effort to secure funds to acquire these Klimt paintings for the museum was unsuccessful. But at least the Lady in Gold was acquired by Ronald Lauder, and ended up displayed in his Neue Galerie in New York.
The newly released movie, "Woman in Gold," with Helen Mirren as Maria Altmann, is an eloquent retelling of this complicated story, allowing us a glimpse into the relationship between Klimt and his glamorous subject. It follows with devastating scenes of Nazis breaking into the Block-Bauer home and a lucky last minute escape by Maria and her husband. My favorite part of the movie is of Maria Altmann's reluctant return, 50 years later, to Vienna, to fight and ultimately win this battle.
Last week, there was a chance to preview the highlights of an upcoming Sotheby's auction in New York, including paintings from the collection of Hollywood Legends Samuel Goldwyn Sr. and Jr. The preview took place at Sotheby's West Coast offices in West Hollywood, and I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of some of the paintings collected by the moguls. Their choices were much more intelligent and adventurous than what most Hollywood celebrities were known to collect at that time. I am pretty sure that smart investment was not the priority when the Goldwyns acquired all these artworks, but it definitely turned out to be a damn good investment, indeed. Many artworks are estimated to be valued at over a million dollars. Picasso's painting alone is estimated to sell for $12-18 million.
And now, we have at last the chance to see the exceptional documentary by Wim Wenders, "The Salt of the Earth," about the famous Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. It was screened for just a few days in December, to become eligible for an Oscar nomination, and is now back in theaters.
Be sure not to miss this documentary, which will introduce you to the beautiful and heartbreaking images captured by Salgado over decades of traveling around the world and documenting what he saw, from the gold mines of Brazil to the famine and war in Africa. Talk about a treasure trove of art...
Edward Goldman is an art critic and the host of Art Talk, a program on art and culture for NPR affiliate KCRW 89.9 FM. To listen to the complete show and hear Edward's charming Russian accent, click here.