Monday, September 27, 2010

Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga

New York City's Neue Galerie is on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, a few blocks north of the Met and a few blocks south of the Guggenheim. They don't call it Museum Mile for nothing.

Neue Galerie focuses on German and Austrian art and design from the early 20th century, including the paintings of Gustav Klimt, one of which is the anchor of today's post. When I visited for the first time a couple of weeks ago, all but two of the small institution's rooms were closed for installation of a new exhibition. They were two very fine rooms.

Klimt's 1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I dominates the east wall of the room at the top of the Neue Galerie's stairs. I knew it from reproductions, and grouped it in my mental map of the arts as a giddy celebration of turn-of-the-century wealth (the turn into the 20th century, that is). I don't know a lot about the Vienna Secession movement, of which Klimt was a founding member. I appreciate decorative art from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- I could spend mornings without end at Vienna's Café Central and never complain -- but I never made a study of it.

Once in the same room with Klimt's portrait, though, I stopped and stared for a long and fascinated while. The work is flat-out beautiful, neither giddy nor gaudy. Its masses of not-quite-regular ornament -- squares, triangles, iconic eyes, spirals -- draw the viewer into the painting's strangely-flattened planes and elements: Bloch-Bauer's dress, her chair, the room in which she sits, the head that appears, oddly, to be cut out from another work and pasted into the portrait. The canvas compels attention.

So does its history.

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only subject Klimt painted twice (the second portrait is dated 1912). Her husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, was a wealthy industrialist who supported Klimt and collected his work. In her will, Adele Bloch-Bauer asked her husband to leave the Klimt paintings they had collected to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, which currently holds the artist's well known canvas The Kiss, among others. One of the paintings collected by the Bloch-Bauers is the portrait that now hangs in Neue Galerie.

Adele died in 1925. When the Nazi Anschluss overran Austria in 1938 Ferdinand fled with his life -- but not his art collection. His property, including the paintings, was confiscated by the Nazis, and remained in the hands of the Austrian state until quite recently. Ferdinand's will designated nieces and nephews as his heirs; he died in 1945.

"Until quite recently" is code for a widely-reported blockbuster legal case between one of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's nieces and heirs, Maria Altmann, and the Republic of Austria. Briefly, the case considered whether Adele or Ferdinand was the owner of five Klimt paintings before they were appropriated by Goebbels and company; and, consequently, whose will governed their disposition once the works were recovered from the defeated Nazis.

The case wound through Austrian and U.S. courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- before the parties agreed to arbitration. In a 2006 decision that, as Wikipedia puts it, "came as a great shock to the Austrian public and government," the paintings were judged to have been Ferdinand's property, and therefore Maria Altmann's inheritance, as Ferdinand's will directed. Altmann sold the portrait of her aunt to Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics baron and co-founder of Neue Galerie; the other four paintings recovered through the legal proceedings were sold to private collectors and have not been seen in public since their exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Neue Galerie directly following the paintings' depatriation -- that is, their recovery by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's heirs.

"Depatriation." That's a provocative word-choice, no? Provocative enough to serve as a cliff-hanger of sorts?

I'm going to continue writing about Adele Bloch-Bauer I next week, focusing on ideas about culture, time, property rights, and power that Klimt's portrait inspired when I viewed it earlier this month...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Property: thoughts on Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Art bliss at MOMA


  1. I'm glad to have seen it in person. There are many textual details I had never noticed from the reproduction.

    Thank you for pointing out to the article on Wikipedia. Apparently, the decision made by the Austrian court was based on that Adele was not really the owner of the painting, therefore her bequeath was invalid. Therefore the standing of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's heirs.

    Matthew Felix Sun

  2. Here's a rich new source of detailed description of the saga of Klimt's painting: The Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer by Anne-Marie O'Connor was published in February 2012. Here are reviews in the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, SF Chronicle, and (for a crowd-sourced take) on Goodreads.