As Gustav Klimt watched the train carrying Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma pull away and begin their trip to America in 1907, he said a single word—“Vorbei!” (“It’s over!”). With their leaving, Vienna’s golden decade of the two Gustav’s ends. Thanks to the Neue Galerie in New York, however, Gustav Klimt’s coming to America marks a new beginning, specifically the grand celebration of the Neue Galerie’s acquisition of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (above), the finest example of Klimt’s personal golden age. After a long journey marked by the sadness of Nazism and the long struggle for restitution, Adele Bloch-Bauer I finally arrives in America in grand style as part of Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections, the biggest exhibition of the works of Klimt ever to be seen in the United States.
This show marks the culmination of Ronald S. Lauder’s long infatuation with “Adele.” In his introduction to the catalogue to the show, Lauder goes back to the day he first saw the painting thirty-seven years ago in Vienna, arriving eagerly at the museum just as the doors opened that morning. Thanks to the efforts of the estates of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer, the painting of Adele finally returned to its rightful owners after the Nazis stole it and other artwork during their conquest of Europe and oppression of the Jews. The heirs then sold it to Lauder in 2006 for approximately $135 million. Adele rightfully takes her place as the jewel of the Neue Galerie collection and helps erase the sadness of the past with this joyous celebration of the art of Klimt.
Renee Price, Director of the Neue Galerie, curator of the exhibition, and editor of the catalogue, traces the slow process of Klimt’s coming to America in her essay, “Gustav Klimt and America.” It’s hard to believe today, but Klimt was relatively unknown in America until the 1950s, not having a solo show until 1959. Once America “discovered” Klimt, however, it couldn’t get enough of him. Prices for his paintings rose quickly in the 1960s. Despite art critics in 1960s calling works such as The Kiss “the essence of the vulgar fraud that [Klimt’s] ‘art’ truly was,” Klimt became the poster of choice of college dorms across the nation. Celebrities such as Frank Lloyd Wright and Barbara Streisand collected his work, helping make Klimt a household name in America by the 1970s. “By the 1970s the American psyche was newly receptive to Klimt’s overt and covert messages,” such as that found in Hope II (above), writes Price. “The painter’s influence was seen in every level of creative and commercial endeavor, from the work of artists and designers to the mass-productions of trinket-makers.”
Price goes on the prove this pervasive influence of Klimt in several special sections later in the catalogue. “This is an intellectual sensuality—and sexuality—from which I learned a lot,” says the artist Vanessa Beecroft of Klimt’s influence on her art, just one of the examples of Klimt-inspired contemporary fine art shown. Klimt-inspired jewelry and high fashion by designers such as Alexander McQueen and Christian Dior demonstrate Klimt’s continued influence on women’s fashion. The examples gathered under “Klimt in the Popular Sphere”—including John Malcovich’s film Klimt, Klimt finger puppets, Klimt-quoting advertisements, and even Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Klimt-esque cover to A Kiss in the Dreamhouse–reinforce the power of Klimt on the modern imagination, especially in America.
View of Gustav Klimt’s studio on Josefstädter Strasse 21, Vienna, ca. 1912. Photograph by Moritz Nähr. Furnishings were designed by Josef Hoffmann and executed by the Wiener Werkstätte. The painting is Klimt’s Hope II (1907-08), now in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
The Neue Galerie exhibition not only brings Klimt to the present day, but also brings the present day viewer back to turn of the century Vienna and the spirit of that age. A reconstruction of Klimt’s receiving parlor of his second studio, complete with original furnishings, allows you to step back into Klimt’s world. Klimt’s inner sanctum, which he only opened up to models, clients, and friends, reached mythic proportions in his day amidst rumors that the society ladies he painted became his lovers behind those doors and the legends of models would walking around the studio nude, waiting to be painted or serve a different “purpose.” Although Klimt was justly famous for his sexual appetite, the exhibition catalogue goes a long way in dismissing the myths surrounding Klimt and his women, especially the society women he immortalized.
Sonja Knips, the first society woman painted by Klimt in 1898 (with whom he did have a brief affair years before), emerges as just one of a series of strong women in Klimt’s life. Klimt opens up a world of art to Knips, who in exchange opens up the world of society to Klimt. The Lederer, Zuckerkandl, and Bloch-Bauer families, especially the wives, become Klimt’s greatest supporters “progress[ing] from being mere onlookers to becoming veritable protagonists in the cultural process,” writes Sophie Lillie in her essay. The stories of these collectors and their collections make for riveting reading—case histories of the course of art in war-torn twentieth-century Europe. The immolation of much of the Lederer collection by the retreating Nazis in 1945, which Lillie calls “the greatest single loss of Klimt works in history,” still stuns with its utter senselessness. After the war, “Masterpieces such as the golden portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer became icons of collective identity” for Austria, Lillie writes, “but the processes leading to the expropriations of such works were glossed over—just as Austria glossed over its own role in and responsibility for the Nazis’ atrocities.” Lillie’s essay not only uncovers those dirty little secrets, but more importantly introduces us to Adele Bloch-Bauer herself, the person behind the painting. Price’s interview with Marie Altman, Adele’s niece and one of those instrumental in the restitution process, further recovers the lost humanity of these great patrons and lovers of art.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), The Black Feather Hat, 1910; Oil on canvas; Private Collection, New York, courtesy Neue Galerie New York
Despite the popular caricature of Klimt surrounded with easy women, the real-life Klimt sought the company of exceptionally strong women, as embodied by the woman painted in the pensive The Black Feather Hat (above). The art critic Berta Zuckerkandl becomes Klimt’s chief spokesperson. Fashion designer Emilie Floge served as a kindred spirit to Klimt, designing long, flowing gowns for women that Klimt would copy in his own painter’s smock. Klimt called for his “Midi,” his pet name for Floge, on his deathbed. The central figure in Klimt’s pantheon of powerful women, however, remains Alma Schindler. When Klimt met the teenage Alma, she was, as Alessandra Comini describes her, “shockingly outspoken, demandingly curious, widely if randomly read, trained in piano and composition, and possessed of a vibrant, willful personality that projected through intoxicating blue eyes.” Alma and Klimt’s shared fascination soon fell apart, setting the stage for the composer Gustav Mahler to meet and marry the dazzling Alma. Thanks to this “Alma factor,” the two Gustavs never become close friends, but do collaborate on the multimedia Beethoven tribute of 1902 that spawned Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze as set to the accompaniment of Mahler’s rescoring for wind and brass of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” movement from his 9th Symphony. Just as Alma served as a bridge between Klimt and Mahler (and later Oskar Kokoschka and Walter Gropius as she cut a romantic swath through all of the Germanic artistic geniuses), Alma and these strong women serve as a bridge to today’s viewer of Klimt, who can see Klimt as more than just a lover of women’s forms but also as an admirer of their minds and spirits.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Two Reclining Women Facing Right, ca. 1904; Pencil; Private Collection, New York, courtesy Neue Galerie New York
Klimt loved women’s bodies, of course. The many drawings with strong sexual content, such as Two Reclining Women Facing Right (above), prove just how long and intensely Klimt studied the female form. Marian Bisanz-Prakken writes at length on Klimt’s fascination with the nude female body as part of a larger phenomenon in European culture involving treatises on anatomy in the name of “science.” “Authors never tired of pointing out how educational the ‘pure’ observation of beautiful undressed people—above all women—could be,” she writes. This “education,” Bisanz-Prakken asserts, at least for Klimt, consists of a focus “on stages of erotic awareness and the associated emotional states of the woman,” manifested best in works such as The Virgin and The Bride. Taken in this context, Klimt’s works and their powerfully erotic content (a problem during his life as much as today) appear not as “dirty pictures” but as explorations into the human, specifically female, psyche. In a separate essay, Price links Rodin’s The Kiss and Klimt’s The Kiss (which he may have begun in response to indecency charges against drawings by Rodin in 1907), showing how Rodin’s portrayal of the psychological through the physiological influenced Klimt’s thinking. To focus on hands in Klimt’s works the same way one focuses on them in Rodin’s art is to see Klimt in a whole new, intriguing light.
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Head of a Woman with Closed Eyes, Facing Right, 1913; Pencil; Serge Sabarsky Collection, New York
This exhibition and catalogue should open many eyes to a new vision of Klimt. Drawings such as Head of a Woman with Closed Eyes, Facing Right reveal Klimt as a master draftsman, reminding us of his power to inspire Egon Schiele and others in their own styles. Small details such as Klimt’s encounter with evolution and Darwinism, suggesting the possibility that the ornamental dots and squiggles of his paintings actually mimic life as seen under a microscope, bring Klimt himself into greater focus. Scholarly addendums listing the history of Klimt in exhibitions in the United States and cataloguing works by him in American collections combined with the lavish photography and insightful essays make this catalogue a must-have for any enthusiast of Klimt or German art in general. The man who said “It’s over!” one hundred years ago could never have known how wrong he was.
[Many thanks to the Neue Galerie for providing me with a review copy of the catalogue to Gustav Klimt: The Ronald S. Lauder and Serge Sabarsky Collections and the images from the exhibition.]