Years before her story was told in the 2015 Helen Mirren film Woman in Gold, Adele Bloch-Bauer was making waves in the art world. Decades earlier, her portrait was one of the prizes art-hoarding Nazis forced from the hands of rightful owners, but not before they renamed her the aforementioned “Woman in Gold” to prevent a Jewish name from becoming associated with someone so desired. More recently, the painting was the centerpiece of the palatial Belvedere Museum in Vienna, beloved as “the Mona Lisa of Austria.” In 2006, it shattered the previous highest price paid for an artwork. For a time, Gustav Klimt was the most expensive artist of all time.
The story of beautiful women, wealthy patrons and a brilliant artist can be traced in Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age at New York’s Neue Galerie. The iconic “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” joins 11 other Klimts, including his second portrait of Bloch-Bauer—the only woman he painted twice. These two paintings haven’t been shown together in 10 years, but the museum’s 15th anniversary provided the occasion for what curatorial director Janis Staggs called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “It was very difficult to bring these portraits together because of their rarity and the high values.”
Staggs is celebrating too: 15 years at Neue, after a career that brought her from her hometown of Charleston, SC to curatorial posts in Baltimore, Boston and finally New York. What makes the Neue Galerie unlike any other museum, she said, is the focus on Gesamtkunstwerk, a Viennese concept that “all things within one’s life should be beautiful and uplifting…from elements of the architecture, to jewelry and clothing…and of course, fine artworks and the decorative arts…It’s easy to come, spend the afternoon and walk away feeling like you’ve been transported to Vienna. That’s something that’s unique to us.”
In that same vein of uniqueness is “Adele Bloch-Bauer I.” Part realism, part abstraction. Ethereal, yet evoking smoldering sensuality. It is a portrait like no other. Because of her breathless flush and bedroom eyes, it’s been speculated that she and Klimt were lovers, but Staggs thinks not. The differences in social class, the fact that Adele was pregnant at the time and the possibility that Klimt had syphilis “would have put a damper on it. I don’t think someone with her intellectual and social background would want to risk that. A flirtatious relationship I can completely believe… Klimt was said to be very seductive.”
The goldsmith’s son knew how to dazzle, too. “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” shows the artist’s hand come through in astonishing ways. Tiny swirls of paint that appear almost mechanical are delicately applied. Raised decorative abstractions of Adele’s initials, “A” and “B,” emerge. Patches of silver and gold that look like metallic leafing are subtly varied.
Staggs said Klimt’s portraits of women captivate, “because he’s capturing women at a point of transition. Women were just getting the right to go to universities…fighting for the right to vote. They’re beginning to emerge in the workforce… Klimt shows us women that are still very sensuous, very decoratively portrayed, but yet, individuals. They have a lot of presence, a lot of pride. I think today, we can see reflections of ourselves.”