Friday, August 24, 2012

Klimt Revealed: 150 Anniversary Exhibition in New York City

"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)
I hurried up the museum’s marble staircase and entered one of two rooms devoted to Klimt. There I was instantly arrested in my walk. Outside it may have been black skies, but inside the Neue Galerie there were starbursts of gold shining through a treasure trove of jewel-toned paint.  To say I was dazzled barely covers it.  Before me was Klimt’s exquisite Adele Bloch-Bauer I, a high-gloss portrait of a high-society lady of the same name painted on commission in 1907. I knew the image well. In the late 1990s for my Toronto newspaper I had worked for a few years as an investigative reporter in the visual arts, specializing in art fraud and other crimes including the looting of art works by the Nazis during WWII. One of the works I had written extensively about was this one which, after being stolen by Hitler, had ended up in the hands of the Austrian state. The original members of Vienna’s wealthy and socially prominent Jewish family, the Bloch-Bauers had long ago perished, but the heirs were scattered around the world, most notably in Canada and the US, and they were indignant that a piece of their family history was still, technically speaking, in looters’ hands. As it was then being well documented in the international press, the heirs filed a lawsuit against the Vienna museum which in turn steadfastly refused to give up the painting, claiming it rightfully belonged now to the Austrian people.

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.
My imagination had obviously clicked into overdrive. The image intrigued, but so did the back-story. If I didn’t look at anything else inside the Neue Galerie that day I would have left already visually and intellectually inspired and sated. But there was more to stir the mind. To my right on the wall was another portrait of a society woman, this one nameless and identified only by the pearl-like luminescence of her regally chiseled visage. Pale Face, as the painting is called, was painted in 1903 and it stands in stark contrast to Adele Bloch-Bauer I in being almost completely encased in black. The face in question peeps out from a cascade of black hair topped by a black chapeau whose undulating shape flows seamlessly into the blackness of a thick winter coat buttoned high to the chin. The woman sits in a partial profile, and while the front of her is a solid mass of black, the back of her ripples against a curve of snowy white which punctuates her funereal figure with a suggestion of hope. Is she a grieving widow? Behind her can be glimpsed a checkerboard pattern of tiny of blue and gold, accented with the slightest suggestion of vermilion red.  The woman’s eyes are downcast; she is oblivious to this riot of decorative detail behind her back. Klimt appears to be suggesting a rich inner life for this anonymously shrouded woman. Certainly, he hints here at the sensuality that lies beneath the surface of socially accepted norms of behaviour – black for mourning, for instance.  I looked around at the remaining paintings of woman in the exhibition, in particular the deceptively sombre The Black Feather Hat (1910) and the riotously colourful The Dancer (1916-18) and noticed that in each Klimt is always drawing out some suggestion of an inner life, be it pensive or highly sensual, as is the case with the bare-breasted dancer seen clutching a bouquet of yellow flowers backstage in her dressing room. 

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. 

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