Gold & Geld

The Gustav Klimt exhibition, which opened on October 18, 2007, will fill the Neue Galerie until the end of June next year. Its attention-riveting center is Klimt’s 1907 portrait of the prominent Viennese society figure and art patron Adele Bloch-Bauer (see illustration), executed in oils, silver, and gold—a radiant example of his so-called Golden Style, which was inspired by the artist’s two visits, in 1903, to Ravenna, where he saw the Byzantine mosaics in the church of San Vitale.

He was especially taken, Renée Price tells us in her commentary on the painting, by the mosaic image of the Empress Theodora, “glittering before an abstract gold background.” These were “mosaics of unprecedented splendor,” he wrote to his friend Emilie Flöge. But Byzantine mosaics were not the only influences tugging this portrait toward decorative abstraction: Russian icons also embedded faces in a plane of gold; Egyptian art, which fascinated Klimt, is echoed in the hieroglyphic eyes dominating Adele’s strapped dress; and Japanese woodcuts, Janis Staggs writes in her catalog essay on Klimt’s relation to Emilie Flöge, “typically schematize the human body hierarchically: the face and hands are depicted with painstaking verisimilitude, whereas other physical attributes—as well as clothing and elements of nature—are rendered more abstractly.” Horizontal eyes and vertical half-moons in the sitter’s garments both suggest vaginas, indicating another of the painter’s interests and doing nothing to discourage persistent but unproven rumors of a romantic connection between the artist and his subject.

The main titillation, however, to the throngs that crowd the Neue Galerie’s marble stairs and exiguous spaces is perhaps less Klimt’s sexiness than Ronald S. Lauder’s extravagance; he paid $135 million to add the portrait to his collection and his museum, once the work had, over a half-century after its expropriation by the Nazis, been restored by a panel of Austrian judges to the Bloch-Bauer heirs. So Adele Bloch-Bauer’s portrait is by several reckonings a celebrity painting, bound to be the star attraction for years to come at the elegant little museum bestowed by the Lauder cosmetics fortune upon the corner of Fifth Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street.

Dazzling in the amount of gold and Geld lavished upon it, Adele Bloch-Bauer I (another portrait, less dazzling, followed in 1912) repels critical judgment. Does its subject’s lush, heavy-lipped, dark-browed, green-eyed face, beneath a black blob of hair and above a silver-encrusted collar, a pale stretch of upper chest, and a rather anxiously wrung pair of skinny pale hands, really mesh with the astonishing efflorescence of perspective-free patterns—eyes, spirals, squares, streaks, and splotches, ostensibly related to the wistful sitter’s dress, robe, and armchair? Or does she look like a decal stuck onto a collage of tinselly wrapping paper? A witty and surprising patch of green in the lower left corner represents, it must be, a floor—otherwise the Vienna socialite, twenty-six at the time of this portrait, would seem to have been transported, bodiless, to a giddy Heaven of teeming ornament. Is such an abrupt juxtaposition…

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