Monday, July 9, 2012

MWA V: Klimt's Adele

The Neue Galerie here in NYC is celebrating the 150th birthday of the Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, and it seems only appropriate then to share as this MWA one of his most exquisite paintings, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907 (image: Wikipedia), which the gallery owns and now proudly display as the centerpiece of its collection of Austrian and German art from the 1890s through the 1930s. The painting itself is oil and gold on canvas, and it shimmers both in person and in digital format. I can say it is definitely one of my favorite works of art in NYC, as it's both historicized and modern at the same time. Klimt had recently visited Ravenna, with its thrilling Byzantine church mosaics (the church of San Vitale will take your breath away), and decided to paint Bloch-Bauer using the jewel-like tones and effects he observed from these mosaic panels. Her portrait conveys a sense of Mannerism as well, with her attenuated limbs and facial features. At the same time, Klimt was conscious of the work of C├ęzanne and others in the way color could be used to create a flattened picture plane, for Bloch-Bauer clearly is sitting in a chair, but the pattern of her dress and the background meld into into another and we see a two-dimensional picture (keep in mind that Picasso and Cubism were only just beginning to get started at this time). But the story behind it this picture is just as striking as the picture itself. Adele had been the wife of the wealthy Jewish art collector Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, who fled Vienna with the rise of Nazism, leaving his art collection behind. He later died in Switzerland, having bequeathed his art collection to his nieces. The picture hung for decades in the Belvedere, an Austrian museum, but through the intervention of Nazi reparation, it was given back to his heirs, his surviving niece Maria Altman. She in turn sold the painting in 2006 to Ronald Lauder (heir to the Lauder cosmetics firm) for the then record-breaking sum of $135 million, who purchased it for the Neue Galerie, which he had founded. Needless to say, Altman's action came under a lot of heat, turning what some critics saw as a moment of triumph for the proper restoration of art works to Jewish families into a money-making venture that reeks of American capitalism. Regardless, the picture is exquisite, and it should be high on anyone's list to see if whenever you're in NYC. For more on the picture and its history, you can read this book or this book, or take a look at any article about it, like this one.

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