There is a line from Friedrich Schiller's Ode to Joy that reads "You millions, I embrace you. This kiss is for all the world!". In Laurie Lico Albanese's vividly imagined historical novel, Stolen Beauty, Viennese painter Gustav Klimt is looking for inspiration for his famous Beethoven Frieze that decorates one of the rooms in the Secession Building. In particular he is trying to work out how to portray the arts--music, painting, sculpture and poetry--in a mural that will show an entire cycle of creativity. It is Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of Klimt's patrons and likely one of his muses, who suggests the quiet intimacy of an embrace rather than a kiss (though which is more intense is arguable).
You have probably 'met' Adele Bloch-Bauer even if you don't think you recognize the name, and a very long court battle over an iconic Klimt painting (not so very long ago finally resolved and returned to its rightful owner) put her in world news some 80 years after her death. The 'stolen beauty' of the title is Adele Bloch-Bauer's stunning portrait that Klimt painted in 1907. It hung for a very long time in Vienna's Upper Belvedere Museum where I had the good fortune to stand before this immense (it is nearly 5' x 5'), sumptuously golden portrait of a woman I knew nothing about at the time.
The story doesn't revolve so much around the portrait, rather the woman portrayed in it, as well as Adele Bloch-Bauer's family, a prominent Jewish family that lost everything in 1938 with the annexation of Austria by the German Reich. A dark time that Adele did not live to see. Stolen Beauty is a story told in parallel narratives, and Laurie Lico Albanese successfully pulls off both the glittering social whirl of fin-de-siecle Vienna as well as the harrowing nightmare world in which Adele's niece, Maria Altmann and her husband Fritz must endure the 'Aryanization' of. They lose their home, their belongings, and their business, even their country--barely escaping to safety.
Already in the early 1900s, the world in which Adele is a prominent Society lady and benefactress of the arts, along with her husband Ferdinand Bloch, there are hints of what is to come. By the time Klimt is painting Adele's portrait Vienna is showing very disturbing and outwardly blatant signs of antisemitism and intolerance. There is hushed talk of Zionism in the fashionable salons yet the idea that--surely it cannot happen here--still pervades their society. Although it's unknown just how intimate the relationship actually was, the story brings to life an imagined and very persuasive scenario between Adele and the artist. Adele Bloch-Bauer was, apparently, the only woman Klimt actually painted two portraits of. As a girl she dreamed of being an intellectual, learned, artistic woman--not boxed in by her family or a repressed and restrictive society. Her first step is marriage to an older man who seems willing to let her think and act independently, but it is through the artist that she finds her real voice, her passion and even a power.
There is surely a glimpse of the flesh and blood woman both literally and figuratively through those paintings--both the two portraits and the others where she served as inspiration if not the actual subject, as well the author infuses the woman, the 'character' of Adele with light and breath. And then later long after the war has ended, when Maria begins her fight to reclaim her beloved aunt's portrait as well as the other artworks belonging to the family but stolen by the Nazis, Adele's fierce spirit is recalled. I didn't 'know' Adele Bloch-Bauer when I stood in front of her portrait, but Laurie Lico Albanese has filled in the details for me so I can imagine the amazing women she and her niece were.
Stolen Beauty is a story every bit as opulent as Klimt's art and equally as suspenseful as any war story where happy outcomes are not assured. It's a lavish story that Albanese does not scrimp on and a page turner as well. Definitely this is a story I am happy to press into the hand's of friends who love good historical fiction or have an artistic bent! There is so much more I could (and want) to tell you about this wonderful story, but I'll let you discover Adele and her world yourself. You can check out the author's website here. Thanks to Simon & Schuster for offering access to a galley copy of the ebook, though I think I will have to splurge on a paper copy for my own shelves (Vienna being one of my favorite places, if not the actual place these days, at least in the pages of a book!).