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by Glen Quick

Alma Mahler, Gustav Klimt, and the Nazi art-lovers and thieves and many other things.

2012 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Klimt. It’s appropriate to remember him and his strong influences on many people and events.

In 2004, the Supreme Court of the USA decided that a case brought by a US citizen, Maria Altmann, for the return of five paintings stolen by the Nazis, could be heard. This led to an arbitration in an Austrian court in 2005. The paintings, by Gustav Klimt, contain some of the most famous images ever created and after 1945, those paintings had been seized by the Austrian Government and placed on display in the Belvedere Museum in Vienna. The Austrian Government, until then, had resisted all suggestions that they be returned to the relatives of the original owner, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. By a strange twist of fate, the lawyer representing Mrs Altmann was E Randol Schoenberg, the grandson of both Arnold Schoenberg and Eric Zeisl; both composers had been refugees in California from Hitler’s persecution of the Jews.

“Now what’s all this got to do with classical music”? I hear you say. Well, the origins of the paintings tie in with the hot-house atmosphere of “fin-de siècle” Vienna; the Vienna of Gustav Mahler, his wife Alma Schindler Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg, Walter Gropius [the founder of the Bauhaus] and many more including Sigmund Freud. Alma Schindler, as a teenager, was reputed to be “the most beautiful young woman in Vienna”. Daughter of a famous painter, Emil J. Schindler, who died young from tuberculosis, she was haphazardly home educated and taught herself to play the piano. Five years after the death of Emil Schindler, her mother re-married another painter, Carl Moll, a former pupil of Emil Schindler. Alma took musical composition lessons from Alexander von Zemlinsky, a protégé of Brahms, the brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg and the only teacher that he ever acknowledged. Zemlinsky was later an assistant conductor to Gustav Mahler at the Vienna Court Opera, then taught and conducted in Prague for many years and later worked with Klemperer in Berlin. Although Zemlinsky was a small and ugly man, she had fallen in love with him and had determined to lose her virginity to him. He was devastated when she met Mahler at a dinner party one night and threw herself at him. Alas, Zemlinsky was just one of many men who fell for Alma and were then left floundering when she moved on.

Alma was a tireless self-publicist and a serial philandering whore and frequent wife. She wrote an autobiography which over-emphasised the number of pieces she had composed and their importance. Musicologists have dismissed her work “And the Bridge is Love” [Hutchinson; London – 1959] as the feverish re-writing of her life story to justify her outrageous behaviour.

But to quote from that long out-of-print book on her “affair” with Gustav Klimt:

Moll was one of a group of painters, sculptors, and architects who broke with the old Vienna Art Institute to found the 'Sezession', which absorbed our thoughts and emotions for a long time. The first meetings of the insurgents took place in the house of my new stepfather, and their first president was Gustav Klimt, a painter of Byzantine delicacy who sharpened and deepened the 'eyesight' I had learned from Papa. I was still quite childish when I met him at those secret sessions; he was the most gifted of them all, already famous at thirty-five, and strikingly good-looking. His looks and my young charm, his genius and my talent, our common, deeply vital musicality, all helped to attune us to each other. My ignorance in matters of love was appalling, and he felt and found my every sensitive spot.

He was tied down a hundredfold, to women, children, sisters, who turned into enemies for love of him. And yet he pursued me to Italy, where I was travelling with my so-called family in 1897. Wherever we stayed, Klimt would turn up looking for me. At last, in Genoa, my mother cruelly killed our romance. Day after day she broke her word of honour, studied the stammerings in my diary, and thus kept track of the stations of my love. And in Genoa—oh, horrors!—she read that Klimt had kissed me.

Gustav Klimt was forbidden to speak to me. In Venice, in the bustle of the Piazza San Marco, we finally saw each other again. The crowd concealed us and his hasty whispers of love, his vows to rid himself of everything and come for me, his commanding request to wait for him, my fear of Moll's eye. Then the family and I left for Vienna, and for months I was on the verge of suicide.

What madness of parents, to presume to play Providence, simply separating us whenever things do not seem safe enough! All young people will understand what I mean, even though their problems now are not like ours were then. Our lives were so hemmed in and twisted by reservations that the concord, when it came, would only make us yawn.

Embittered, I took up the threads of life again. Klimt kept trying to approach me, but I was deaf to all pleas to visit his studio. I still trembled when I saw him, but I observed the moral code of the time.

Sounds like the ramblings of an immature teenager doesn’t it? And Klimt had a series of lovers in Vienna as well as long-term relationships with his models, Adele Bloch-Bauer and Emilie Flöge. It is said that Klimt may have fathered about 14 children by various women acquaintances. It seems highly unlikely that Klimt would have thrown all this away for a chance to marry the 18-year old self-centered, naïve and flighty Alma Schindler!

But Gustav Klimt was a serious and important painter and his paintings of the wives of wealthy and powerful men in Vienna revolutionised the world of portraiture and design. Their influence is felt even today.

Klimt was born on the 14th of July 1862 into a large and very poor family. 2012 is the 150th anniversary of his birth. Early on he showed brilliance in his sketches and he studied at the Vienna School of Arts & Crafts under a scholarship. By 1880, Klimt and his younger brother Ernst, also a painter, had joined with another colleague to paint murals inside the new buildings being constructed along the Ringstrasse in Vienna including the new Fine Art Museum and the Burgtheater. His work was very highly regarded and in 1888 he was awarded a gold medal by the Emperor. In 1892, both his father and his brother died and Gustav Klimt, not quite 30, took on the responsibility of supporting his mother and unmarried sisters as well as his sister-in-law Helene and niece. His sister-in-law came from the relatively wealthy Flöge family who owned a factory making the then-popular meerschaum pipes. At this time he met Emilie Flöge, sister of Helene who became in almost every way, his wife although they never married or had children. Emilie and her younger sister Helene founded a long-lived haute couture business in Vienna as “Schwestern Flöge” [Flöge Sisters]. Klimt became a well-known painter of women and never had to seek commissions for portraits. In about 1898, he started to apply gold leaf to his paintings in a style modelled on the mosaics he had seen on several trips to Italy.

Starting in 1904, Klimt also helped to decorate the interior of the “Palais Stoclet” in

Brussels, a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, or "total work of art", a masterpiece Art Nouveau style mansion built in Brussels for a wealthy Belgian industrialist. See Wikipedia.

In 1908 Klimt worked on another “Gesamtkunstwerk”, this time a ballet, requiring costume and set design for an artistic event at the Vienna Secession. It was one of those all-encompassing events involving the young ballerina Grete Wiesenthal and the young composer Franz Schreker. The event required Schreker to compose one of his finest scores to illustrate the Oscar Wilde story ‘The Birthday of the Infanta”. This story describes the birthday of a 12 year old Spanish princess and her joy at receiving as a birthday present, an ugly dwarf found in the woods. The dwarf falls in love with the Princess and thinks that her interest in him is love, but when he sees his ugliness reflected in a mirror for the first time, falls dead from a broken heart.

After Alma Schindler had suddenly thrown herself at Mahler, become pregnant by him and then married, Alexander von Zemlinsky had felt his rejection by Alma so strongly that he retained a librettist to adapt the Oscar Wilde story ‘The Birthday of the Infanta”. It later appeared as his Opus 17 opera, “Die Zwerg,” [the Dwarf] as Zemlinsky saw himself as the dwarf and Alma as the heartless princess. Art imitating life!

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only woman that Klimt ever painted twice. They had an affair which lasted for some 12 years. Adele Bloch-Bauer was born in 1881, the youngest daughter of a large, wealthy Jewish banking family. A highly-strung and outspoken young woman, Adele, was denied access to university by her gender. At the age of eighteen she entered into an arranged marriage with the business tycoon Ferdinand Bloch to escape her parent’s household. Ferdinand Bloch was an immensely wealthy banker and industrialist of Jewish descent. With a partner, Otto Pick, he owned a sugar refinery at Bruck, near Vienna which produced 20% of all the sugar used in Austria.

The Bloch-Bauers had their portraits painted by artists. Adele was a newlywed when Klimt began the gold-encrusted painting influenced by the Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna that became the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer." Along with "The Kiss," his erotically charged portrait of a passionately entwined couple, and "Judith," in which he portrays the Old Testament heroine as a bare-breasted femme fatale, the "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer" was a masterpiece of his gilded phase and a sublime embodiment of Vienna's golden moment of artistic and intellectual vitality.

Klimt and Adele probably met for the first time when he painted her portrait. He was fascinated by her face and although he made two portraits of her, she also appears as “Judith” in the two most erotic paintings that Klimt ever painted, both of the biblical subject “Judith and Holofernes”. Looking at these paintings, it’s hard not to believe that there was that alleged long-term affair between artist and model. Klimt also made countless sketches of Adele in preparation for these paintings but many did not survive because his studio was over-run with cats which peed on them. Klimt excused the cats saying that their “pee was a good fixative.”

The portrait was a sensation when it was unveiled in 1907, and it made Adele an instant celebrity. Studded with Egyptian motifs and subtly erotic symbols, Adele’s face floated in the golden painting like a silent screen star. Klimt painted Adele with an expression of such vivid restlessness and longing that viewers would question the relationship between Adele and the artist, a notorious seducer. The heavy use of gold leaf also reflected on Ferdinand’s wealth and position in Viennese society.

In 1912, Klimt completed a second portrait of Adele, rendered in a highly coloured style more reminiscent of Matisse. This time, there was minimal gold leaf. This work showed an older Adele, with teeth stained by cigarettes and an expression that had turned from longing to resignation. Her only child born alive had died after just a few days; most viewed her marriage as a union of mutual respect.

The Bloch family also owned three landscapes by Klimt and two other portraits; seven Klimts in all.

But back to our main story about Klimt. Poor Klimt died in 1918. He had always feared having a stroke and in January 1918, a stroke paralysed one side of his body. Unable to paint, he quickly succumbed to the deadly influenza plague of 1918/1919 and he died in February 1918. He left many paintings unfinished but Emilie Flöge, who inherited half of Klimt’s estate kept a “Klimt Room” at her fashion studio until she had to close it in 1938 after the Anschluss. In 1945, more than 50 of his sketch books were destroyed in a fire in the Flöge apartment. Emilie died in 1952 aged 77. She never married. The Bloch family had less success. Adele died of meningitis in 1925. She had no children but she and Ferdinand owned seven Klimt paintings. In her will, she asked that her niece, Maria be given some of the paintings on Ferdinand’s death. Born Maria Viktoria Bloch-Bauer in Vienna on Feb. 18, 1916, Maria Altmann was the youngest of five children of Therese Bauer and Gustav Bloch. Her mother's sister, Adele, married Gustav's brother, Ferdinand, who had taken over his father's sugar factory. After the Bauer sons died, the families united their surnames as Bloch-Bauer, in the style of Vienna aristocrats.

Just before the Nazis arrived in the 1938 “Anschluss” [the joining of Germany and Austria as one nation], Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and Otto Pick set up a trust account at a Swiss bank in an attempt to protect their investments. Under pressure from the Nazis, the Swiss bank violated the terms of the trust fund and the sugar refinery was “Aryanised” and then sold to a Nazi businessman from Cologne for a derisory sum. In 2005, descendants of the Bloch-Bauer and Pick families were awarded $21.8 million USD in compensation by an American court. From the early 1990’s onwards, there had been considerable debate about the behaviour of all Swiss banks during WW2 and a trust fund had been set up by the Swiss banking industry to make reparations as necessary.

In 1938 Ferdinand fled to Switzerland leaving behind his money, his house and paintings and his sugar refinery. He had also owned an exquisitely restored baroque palace near Prague which he used in the summer. This was appropriated by the Nazis and used as the headquarters and home of Reinhard Heydrich, the deputy to Heinrich Himmler in the SS and Gauleiter of Czechoslovakia. When Heydrich was assassinated in 1942, the palace was gifted by Hitler to Lina Heydrich and she lived there with her family until 1945. That palace was then appropriated by the Communist Czech Government and used as a weapons training and development facility. Today, the Czech Government still retains ownership of the palace. Ferdinand died a pauper in Switzerland in 1945.

The newly married Maria Altmann, her husband, various relatives and the Picks fled to the USA. Fritz had been briefly interned in Dachau until he agreed to sign over all bank accounts to the Nazis. Maria and Fritz settled in Los Angeles where Fritz worked in the Lockheed aircraft factory and Maria sold clothes eventually opening a fashion boutique. Some of the Bloch-Bauers’ and the Picks’ went to Canada and after changing their name to Bentley, entered the timber industry where they made another fortune. The company thrives today under the name “Canfor”.

The paintings were seized by the Nazis in 1938 and dispersed as the spoils of war. The 1907 golden portrait of Adele finished up for a time in the enormous art collection of Hermann Goering.

After the war, all of the Bloch-Bauer paintings were returned to Austria where the Austrian Government put them on display in the Belvedere in Vienna. And there they would have remained except for a persistent journalist. Hubertus Czernin, an Austrian, wrote about his country's looted art holdings and eventually a law was passed in Austria allowing repatriation of assets in certain cases. It was Czernin who found Adele’s will and alerted Maria Altmann to the possibility of reclaiming her paintings. Maria Altmann decided to enlist the help of a young family friend, lawyer E Randol Schoenberg. Schoenberg, himself a child of Holocaust survivors and president of L.A.’s Museum of the Holocaust, based his case on a 1976 U.S. law that says sovereign entities do not have absolute immunity when they appropriate U.S. citizens’ property. And the law was retroactive. Schoenberg took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. The next step, he told Altmann, should be arbitration in Vienna. That arbitration decided in 2005 that five of the seven Klimt paintings should be returned to Maria Altmann. The paintings were displayed in Los Angeles; then in New York, and later put up for auction.

The 1907 golden painting of Adele was bought by the cosmetics billionaire Ronald Lauder for $135 million USD. It has been on display in the Neue Gallery in New York since July 2006. The remaining four paintings were auctioned by Christies with the 1912 Adele painting fetching $88 million USD while the remaining three paintings sold for a total of $192.7 million USD. The proceeds of the auctions were dispersed among various relatives. These four paintings went to private collections.

A sixth painting, Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (unfinished, 1917-18), is the subject of a separate lawsuit also seeking its return to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. The Austrian Supreme Court has thus far rejected the heirs' claims, but the case remains on appeal. The seventh Klimt once part of the Adele and Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer collection, Schloss Kammer am Attersee III (1910), was purchased by the Austrian Gallery in 1961. It remains there. Maria Altmann died in February 2011 aged 94. Fritz had died many years earlier. Some of the Klimt frescoes in Vienna were destroyed by the SS as they withdrew from Vienna in 1945. The SS considered them to be pornographic!

Yet, at the end of this long story, it’s interesting to speculate as to how different history would have been if Alma Schindler and Gustav Klimt had married. There may have been quite different later Mahler symphonies; perhaps Mahler may not have died at such an early age; Zemlinsky would not have been so embittered, Walter Gropius [Alma’s second husband] may not have founded the Bauhaus; Schoenberg may not have been so well supported financially by Gustav & later Alma Mahler and Franz Werfel [Alma’s third husband and a writer] would not have escaped to the USA where he wrote a best-seller [The Song of Bernadette] which was adapted to become a film winning four Oscars and so on. And the most famous paintings by Klimt would probably not have been painted so there would not have been anything for the Nazis to steal and the lawyers and descendants to fight over.

It’s an interesting speculation: -- but that’s history!

© Glen Quick August 2012



Klimt, Frank Whitford Thames & Hudson 1990.

And the Bridge is Love, Alma Mahler Werfel Hutchinson& Co 1959


And for musical references:

  • The Orel Foundation is particularly good
  • Zeisl ... and the Requiem Ebraico Decca 460 211-2 (CD)
  • Schoenberg ... and the Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Op. 41 (1942) and Holocaust, A Survivor from Warsaw, Op. 46 (1947)
  • Zemlinsky ... and two of his operas: Eine florentinische Tragödie (1915–16) and the semi-autobiographical Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1919–21), both after Oscar Wilde).
  • Schreker ... and Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The birthday of the Princess) Decca / London 444 182-2 Lothar Zagrosek / Gewandhausorchester Leipzig; March 1994


Return to list of Glen Quick's Musical Notes



Alma Mahler

Alma Mahler aged 18


Gustav Klimt

Gustav Klimt


Gustav Klimt & Emilie Flöge

Gustav Klimt & Emilie Flöge


Alexander von Zemlinsky

Alexander von Zemlinsky


Franz Schreker

Franz Schreker


Grete Weisenthal

Grete Weisenthal


Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907

Adele Bloch-Bauer 1907


Adele Bloch-Bauer 1912

Adele Bloch-Bauer 1912


Emilie Flöge

Emilie Flöge


Judith & Holofernes

Judith & Holofernes




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