Ben Heineman Jr.: The Portrait and the Nazis

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[Ben Heineman Jr. has held top positions in government, law and business. He is the author of High Performance with High Integrity.]

On a quiet Friday morning, my wife and I came face to face with history.

The face was a portrait, painted by Gustav Klimt in 1907, of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the spouse of a wealthy Austrian businessman. It is one of the iconic paintings of the 20th century.

A heavy-lidded, red-lipped, enigmatic 26-year-old woman is sheathed in a body-hugging gown of gold leaf punctuated by blue triangles and emblazoned with obscure Byzantine, Greek, Egyptian, and modernist symbols. She merges into darker gold leaf with swirling designs, and her long fingers are delicately intertwined below a shimmering necklace.

Klimt was a leader of Vienna's art nouveau movement (or jugendstil, "youth art," in German). His unique decorative style and his erotic sensibility made him a controversial painter of the time and a widely popular artist as sexual mores changed. Although he painted portraits of wealthy women to earn a living, even those works had strong hints of sensuality. And, although he touched on a variety of subjects, many of his best known works were quite explicitly sexual. Reproductions of "The Kiss" decorate dorm rooms of college students everywhere....

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