Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Lady in Gold: Adele Bloch-Bauer

One of the wonderful things about living in New York are the museums, big and small.  The Neue Galerie on 5th Avenue is one of my favorites, particularly because of this painting.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Neue Galerie, NY

This lovely lady in gold is Adele Bloch-Bauer, painted in 1907, by this gentleman, Gustav Klimt, one of the foremost painters of fin-de-siecle Vienna.

The painting was bought by Ronald Lauder for $135 million dollars in 2006 after the painting was finally released by the Austrian government to the relatives of  Adele Bloch-Bauer who fought for over 8 years to have the painting and 4 others returned to the family.  From the moment that I saw the painting in the museum, I've been curious about this beautiful woman with the rather sad eyes who was painted by one of my favorite painters.  It turns out that I'm not the only one who has long been fascinated by the subject of the painting. Lauder stated that as a young teenager of 14, he too had become fixated on the painting.

According to Anne-Marie O'Connor in her new book entitled Lady in Gold: The Extraordinary Tale of Gustav Klimt's Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, it took Klimt 3 years to paint Adele's portrait.  At the time, Adele was a 21 one year old married socialite from a well to do Jewish family. Her father was the head of one of hte largest banks in the Hapsburg Empire, as well as head of the Oriental Railway, whose Orient Express ran from Berlin to Constaninople. At the age of 17, she'd married Ferdinand Bauer, a sugar-beet baron who was 17 years older than she was.  Adele's sister Therese had married Ferdinand's brother Gustav.  After their marriages, the couples hyphenated their last names to Bloch-Bauer.

Adele was apparently not only very intelligent but also a bit bohemian compared to her more staid hubby.  She was also considered a bit of a rebel, she had wanted to attend university, or to have some sort of intellectual job.  Instead, she bowed to convention and married. Although her husband adored her, commissioning not one but two portraits of Adele from Klimt, Adele was frustrated with her life.  Unfortunately Adele and her husband were unable to have children which meant that she had failed in her primary duty.  Instead, Adele threw herself into the world of art patronage, nobbing with some of the most influential mind in Viennese society, including Schnitzler, and Freud.  One of her closest friends was Alma Mahler who came very close to having an affair with Klimt as a teenager. Adele's niece Maria describes in her in the book as being somewhat cold and impatient with children.  Adele smoked which was tres risque for the time, especially in public.

Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II, 1912, 
 private collection

There is speculation that Klimt and Adele were lovers were a brief time.  Adele was the only woman that he painted twice. No one knows for sure since Klimt left very little in the way of private letters or a diary.  He was known to be a bit of a scoundrel, Wikipedia writes that he had 16 illegitimate children.  Unlike Adele, Klimt grew up dirt poor, so poor that he didn't go to school for a year because his parents were embarassed by his shabby clothes. Initially Klimit just hoped to become an art teacher, he had no vision that he would one day be considered one of the greatest Austrian artists. Of course that happened after his death.  While he was alive, Klimt was considered a rebel, an artistic heretic.  He refused to paint pretty pictures of landscapes, or society portraits like Winterhalter or Markt.  Klimt was influenced more by the work of the Impressionists in Paris and then later by the works of Matisse & Picasso.  Shunned by the Viennese aristocracy, Klimt looked to the rich Jewish industralists as art patrons.

Klimt didn't look like a painter, he looked more like a sculptor or a wrestler.  He was tall, and built like an ox.  Typically he wore large smocks and sandals to paint, designed by his companion Emilie Floge, with nothing on underneath.  People talk about his charisma, almost an animal magnetism.  Looking at his photographs, I can definitely see how he seduced so many women.  Klimt seemed to have not only loved women, but respected them as human beings.  He understood that they had sexual desires like a man, there are several drawings in the Neue Galerie that Klimt did of women in the throes of ecstasy or pleasuring themselves.  For most of his life, he lived with his mother and his sisters.

Both Klimt and Adele died young, in their 50's.  Klimt died in 1918 just as World War I was ending, Adele died several years later of meningitis.  Their secrets died with them. 

The Lady in Gold is a fantastic read, a vivid portrait of a world that was lost with the advent of World War I, it's also the story of a family and what they endured, as well as a brief history of the Jews in Vienna.  It's a pretty quick read, and well worth it.  There is happiness and sadness, particularly the rift that developed in the family over the fight for the family's Klimt paitings.  Although the family made a great deal of money from the sale of the 5 paintings, I think it's a shame that the two portraits of Adele are seperated.  I don't know why Lauder didn't buy the 2nd painting.  It would have been wonderful if the paintings could all have gone to a museum.  Perhaps one day.

In the meantime, if you get a chance, please do visit Adele at the Neue Galerie and then head downstairs to Cafe Sabarsky for a piece of sachertorte and a cup of strong Viennese coffee with whipped cream.


LollyWillowes said...

I adore his paintings. I have to say that he himself has always repelled me though. I shudder when looking at him for some reason and have never understood why any woman would have let him within feet of her!

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