Monday, December 17, 2012

Klimt's Golden Lady

I used to hate Klimt. All I knew was The Kiss, or Kuss in German. And while it’s grown on me a bit, it’s still not my favorite. Something about that thick man-neck and the guy’s obscured, caveman-like features. And the impossible angle of the woman’s head. Also, that robe the man is wearing (although it’s interesting to note that it looks similar to the ones Klimt himself went commando underneath). Basically the whole man and how he seems to be interacting with the woman. He looks predatory and unstable.

However, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 painting Adele Bloch-Bauer I is one of my favorites.

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907, oil, silver, and gold on canvas, 140 x 140 cm.

I first noticed Adele Bloch-Bauer I while I was in graduate school. It was the go-to example when talking about Nazi-Era provenance issues. I thought it was beautiful. Painted during Klimt’s “Golden Phase,” the work is an art nouveau/symbolist masterpiece with influences as diverse as early Byzantine mosaics and Egyptian and Mycenaean art. What I love about it is the way the perfectly modeled face, shoulders, and arms emerge from abstraction. Klimt has covered the rest of the figure (i.e. the clothing) and the background with flat, detailed pattern, a practice known as horror vacui, or “fear of empty space” in Latin. I also like the awkward position of Adele’s hands, which Klimt apparently did to hide a deformed finger. Overall, the painting is opulent, mysterious, and wonderfully bridges the art of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Now, since it’s become such a big part of the work, I thought I’d tell you a little bit about the painting’s history and the reasons why it’s the go-to example when talking about Nazi-Era provenance issues.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I was originally commissioned in 1903 by Austrian/Jewish sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer (né Bloch) and depicts his wife Adele Bloch-Bauer (née Bauer). She was incredibly independent for her time. Although she looked fragile on the outside, she was active in the Austrian art scene, loved learning and the pursuit of knowledge, and carried a gold cigarette holder at a time when women didn’t smoke. It was even rumored that she had an affair with Klimt! She was basically an Austrian Isabella Stewart Gardner (if you don’t know Isabella, look her up. She’s awesome).

Adele Bloch-Bauer

Adele died of meningitis in 1925. In her will, she asked her husband to donate Adele Bloch-Bauer I along with a couple other Klimts to the Austrian National Gallery upon his death. But before that could happen, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and Ferdinand fled to Switzerland, leaving all of his possessions, including the Klimts, behind. Eventually, the Nazi’s divided up and sold the Bloch-Bauer’s property and occupied their home. Although the Nazi’s considered other Viennese artists of the era “degenerate” and banned them for being un-German, they liked Klimt. The Nazi’s renamed Adele Bloch-Bauer I The Lady in Gold to hide its Jewish origins and placed the painting in the Austrian Gallery.

Ferdinand died in Switzerland in 1945. He had lost nearly everything in the Holocaust and had no children of his own. In his will, he bequeathed his estate to his nieces and nephew (Ferdinand’s brother had married Adele’s sister). After the war, they recovered some of Ferdinand’s possessions, but the Austrian government refused to return the Klimts. They argued that Adele’s will gave them legal ownership after Ferdinand’s death. But, as we know, Ferdinand, not Adele, owned the Klimts. He had commissioned them, and while he may have wished to respect Adele’s request, he was not obligated to.

In 2000, Maria Altmann, Ferdinand and Adele’s last surviving niece, sued Austria from the United States, where she lived in California. The case went to the United States Supreme Court and was arbitrated by a panel of three judges in Austria. In 2006, Adele Bloch-Bauer I and four other Klimts were returned to Altmann and the heirs.

Soon after its return, Maria Altmann sold Adele Bloch-Bauer I to Ronald Lauder of the Neue Galerie in New York City for the record-breaking sum of $135 million. The museum’s director calls it their “Mona Lisa.” The work people will come to see. And it works. That’s why I ended up there.

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