|"Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I," Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil, silver, and gold on canvas.|
It quite literally was a dark and stormy afternoon when I slipped recently into New York’s Neue Galerie, seeking shelter from a sudden summer downpour. I had never before ventured through the ornate doors of this tiny museum devoted to German and Austrian art, even though I had walked past the former 19th century mansion where the Neue Galerie is housed – close by the Metropolitan Museum of Art – countless times. I was again heading to the Met this past July when the clouds burst open, making me change my plans. I am glad that I did.
On show was the Gustav Klimt 150th Anniversary exhibition (until Monday, Aug. 27), the only large-scale tribute to the Viennese painter, born July 14, 1862, in North America. In Austria, tributes to the Symbolist painter known as one of the founders of the Vienna Secession movement, a uniquely Austrian interpretation of art nouveau, are more pronounced. There, several internationally acclaimed museums, among them the Albertina, the Belvedere, the Kunsthistorisches, the Leopold and the Wien Museum, continue to honour the painter with various exhibitions highlighting different aspects of Klimt’s artistic legacy. The Neue Galerie show is smaller, if not more intimate than these others, showcasing just 12 items in a multi-media show that includes the cufflinks made for the artist by the Austrian architect Josef Hoffman in 1906.
I am not a Klimt expert, just a fan. Without intending to trivialize my interest in his work, for my wedding invitation – 17 years ago – I had used Klimt’s famous painting, entitled The Kiss, as the cover art. As a result, for years afterwards, well-intentioned friends sent me all sorts of Klimt memorabilia, thinking me Klimt-obsessed. (I had really just liked the image of lovers entwined in a sinewy embrace.) I now have in my possession a barely-used mug as well as stationary embossed with a reproduction of The Kiss. Like many artistic geniuses whose work has captured the popular imagination, Klimt has permeated the culture but with some of his work having the undesired effect of appearing as kitsch. With this exhibition before me, I all at once had an opportunity to judge for myself what all the fuss was about. What was Klimt’s enduring allure?
|Gustav Klimt in 1912 (Photo by Moritz Nahr)|
It was, of course, the wrong position to take at a time to object when other world-class museums were actively addressing the grave injustices associated with Nazi looted art and were clearing their holdings of any and all works whose provenance as deemed suspicious. While the case dragged on in the courts for years, in the end the heirs won, and the painting was returned to them from Austria. I had since moved on from visual arts reporting and wasn’t aware that Adele Bloch-Bauer I was then sold and purchased by Ronald Lauder of Estée Lauder cosmetics fame (and fortune), who then donated it to the Neue Galerie, which is how I came to be staring at the canvas on that day.
It is one thing to see a work of art in reproduction; quite another to see it up close. In photographs, the gold-paint style comes across as a flat wash of (albeit magnificent) all-over colour. In reality, the gold is a shimmering mosaic of gilt-saturated whose richness appears inspired by Byzantine portraiture. Adele Bloch-Bauer wasn’t Christian, but here she was rendered as something anciently holy and mysterious, an icon of feminine beauty and charm. She was truly beguiling. I stepped back to see how the overhead light danced off her patterned gold robe decorated with what looked like a series of all-seeing eyes. Klimt had allowed that robe to grow and expand around her, making her look as if shrouded in opulence. I was struck by her pile of ink-black hair and arching eyebrows, the elegance of her aquiline nose and sensuality of her rosebud mouth. The posture had her slender hands clasped before her chest, exposed by the décolleté of her evening dress. With her lips slightly open, she looked as if caught at the moment of conversation. Was she ruminating on her and her husband’s imminent ruination at the hands of the Nazis? Or was she coquettishly telling Klimt a humorous anecdote, something she had observed at one of her famous soirées? We’re none’s the wiser.
|"Pale Face," Gustav Klimt, 1907.|
The Neue Galerie makes the case that Klimt, who died in 1918 at age 56, deeply appreciated women; certainly he loved their company. In addition to drawings and paintings, the exhibition highlights rare and never-before-seen photographs of Klimt at his art studio, and also in the countryside accompanied by his close female companion, the pioneering fashion designer Emilie Flöge. I had never heard of Flöge before (more a comment on my ignorance than her accomplishments, which are considerable) and read with great interest how this couturier, who was a seminal member of the Vienna’s fin-de-siècle bohemian movement, had created a line of clothing that liberated the female form from the corsets and stays that constituted female dress of the day. This made her a kind of Isadora Duncan of the fashion world. Klimt was enamoured of his prototypical feminist girlfriend. In the photographs on display at the Neue Galerie he is seen laughing in her presence. Later, I read that he frequently painted her. It is said she is the female model for The Kiss, with Klimt himself said to be the male.
At last, I had found the real Klimt behind the kitsch: a portrait of kindred spirits, male and female, equitably united in a passionate and unabashedly sexual embrace. A discovery worthy of all that gold.
– Deirdre Kelly is a journalist (The Globe and Mail) and internationally recognized dance critic. Her first book, Paris Times Eight, is a national best-seller. Deirdre will be signing copies of her soon-to-be-released second book, Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection (Greystone Books) at Teatro Verde, 98 Yorkville Avenue, Toronto, on Sept. 29 and 30, 2 to 3pm.