For Klimt lovers, now is a perfect storm of Klimt-o-mania. With “The Lady in Gold” now playing in theatres, fascinated viewers are snaking round the block of the Neue Galerie, waiting patiently to see and learn more about Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele Bloch.”
The museum acquired the painting in 2006, for $135 million, then the highest price paid for a single painting, and the film has reignited huge interest in its subject and provenance.
And a great story it is. In 1907, Gustav Klimt completed a magnificent portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a prime example of his “golden phase.” Bloch-Bauer was a member of a wealthy and cultured Viennese Jewish family. The painting remained as a centerpiece of the family’s extensive art collection until 1938, when following the Anschluss, it was looted by the Nazis and handed over to the Belvedere Palace Museum. The film chronicles the unremitting and ultimately successful efforts of Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann and her lawyer Randol Schoenberg (a grandson of the composer) to reclaim this and four other paintings owned by her family.
If the movie whetted your appetite for all things Klimt, the exhibit at the Neue Galerie is well worth the wait. The museum has assembled 50 works, including several other magnificent paintings by Klimt, along with drawings, vintage photographs, an assortment of jewelry and decorative objects, and archival material. The highlight of the exhibit is certainly the extraordinary, gilded portrait, with its enigmatic and somewhat melancholy subject sensually clothed in Klimt’s signature mélange of jugendstil, or art nouveau glory, a glowing icon with an unknowable inner life.
Still, other paintings, notably “The Black Feather Hat” (1910) and “The Dancer” (1917) amply reward the viewer as well. The exhibit rounds out our knowledge of fin de siècle Vienna with works by Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, artisans of the time, whose luxurious pieces might have graced the tables and homes of the Bloch-Bauer family.
But if that’s not enough to sate your interest, head downtown to The Museum of Modern Art for Klimt’s second portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, another of the five paintings reclaimed by Maria Altmann, and on special long-term loan from a private collection since fall 2014. Completed in 1912, “Adele Bloch-Bauer II" is a very different painting from the original golden girl. Bloch-Bauer is older in this presentment, less sensual, more grounded, even a little matronly; the artist focuses on her fashionable clothes and obvious wealth. The inner life depicted in the first portrait has been wallpapered over with a colorful back-story of racing horses and expensive chambers.
These days, we’re all Klimtomaniacs; his work is enshrined on everything from magnets to coffee mugs. Interestingly, that was not always the case, at least in the U.S. I checked an old Janson’s “History of Art” from the late 70s and there’s no mention of Klimt. More recent editions provide extensive information about the artist and his work. Clearly the history of these paintings and the fate of the Bloch-Bauer family add a curiosity value to the paintings’ intrinsic, undeniable worth.
“Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold” runs through Sept. 7 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street, Manhattan. "Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer II" is on view at MoMA,11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan.
Gloria Kestenbaum is corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.