New Yorker - United States

The Neue Galerie’s new Klimt.
Issue of 2006-07-24
Posted 2006-07-17

“Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), by Gustav Klimt, is a showboat painting that,
last month, fetched a showboat price: a hundred and thirty-five million
dollars, the most on record for a work of art. The cosmetics magnate and
collector Ronald S. Lauder bought it for the Neue Galerie, the spruce little
museum of Austrian and German modern art at Fifth Avenue and Eighty-sixth
Street which he co-founded in 2001 with the late dealer Serge Sabarsky.
“Adele” is now on display there, along with four other Klimts, among them
“Adele Bloch-Bauer II” (1912), which are owned by “Adele” ’s seller, the
estate of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. An Austrian Jewish sugar industrialist and
Adele’s husband, he fled the country after the Anschluss, in 1938; his
belongings were seized by the Nazis. (Adele had died in 1925, of meningitis;
Ferdinand died in 1945.) The works hung in the Austrian Gallery of the
Belvedere Palace, in Vienna, while, year after year, lawyers wrangled over
ambiguous wills; an Austrian arbitration panel awarded the paintings to the
heirs early this year. Adele, a twenty-five-year-old socialite and patroness
in 1907, was probably one of the priapic Klimt’s many lovers, though perhaps
not for long: the gold- and silver-leafed hieratic portrait is piercingly
erotic; its brushy, more Expressionist 1912 sequel is not. Klimt was working
in the Indian summer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the period of Robert
Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”—an efflorescence, soon to be ruined, of
pell-mell modernization, careering idealism, incendiary genius (Freud,
Mahler, Wittgenstein), and, among the rich and cultivated, zealous
decadence. It’s all there in “Adele”: the painting is exquisite and brazen,
compelling and brittle, too self-conscious to be experienced as altogether
beautiful but transcendent in its cunning way.

The subject is placed off-center, to the right, on a canvas more than four
and a half feet square. Imperious and smart, making her slightly horse-faced
features seem a paradigm of feminine perfection, she wears a shoulder-strap
gown with a cloak-like, billowing outer layer and broad gold and silver
bracelets and a bejewelled silver choker. A storm of patterns—spirals,
targets, nested squares, split ovals, checks, dots, short vertical bars,
arrowhead triangles, ankh-like eyes—may represent fabric, furniture, and
wallpaper, or they may be sheer invention. Most of the ground (not
background, because almost everything in the picture that isn’t flesh snugs
up to the picture plane) is mottled gold. Her asymmetrically upswept hair is
painted matte black. Her right hand is oddly raised to her shoulder and,
wrist bent at a painful-looking right angle, is grasped by her left, as if
to restrain it. (On a Viennese note of that epoch, the pencil-outlined
fingers faintly suggest claws.) Her frontal gaze turns inward, registering
sensations that can only be sexual. Her dark-shadowed hazel eyes, under
tapering black brows, are wells of seduction; someone could fall into them.
Her bee-stung red mouth parts to expose two competent teeth. Blue tints
along her collarbones, wrists, and hands hint at subcutaneous veins:
erogenous zones. She is a lighthouse, or shadehouse, of desire. (Lauder,
speaking for the Neue Galerie, has called the painting “our ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” I
have seen the “Mona Lisa,” and “Adele” is no “Mona Lisa.” Not very much is
mysterious about this cookie.) The picture is most excitingly viewed, after
close inspection, from afar. Patterns shatter into drifting, pure
abstraction while the facial expression still reads at full power. The
double pleasure dizzies.

Is she worth the money? Not yet. Paintings this special may not come along
for sale often, and the hundred and four million dollars spent for a so-so
Picasso, “Boy with a Pipe,” two years ago indicated that irrational
exuberance could be the booming art market’s new motto. But Lauder’s outlay
predicts a level of cost that must either soon become common or be relegated
in history as a bid too far. And the identity of the artist gives pause. The
price paid is four and a half times the previous high (already a stunner, in
2003) for a Klimt; until a few years ago, the artist ranked as a second-tier
modern master both at auction and in the estimation of most art critics and
historians. Unlike another painting that was made in 1907, Picasso’s
“Demoiselles d’Avignon,” “Adele” was the climax, rather than the big-bang
launch, of an era. The design and the architecture of the truncated modern
movement in Vienna proved vastly more consequential than the Middle-European
style of Klimt and his roguish younger colleague Egon Schiele—a blend of
Symbolist portent, Jugendstil chic, and archaic elements (Byzantine opulence
in Klimt’s case and neo-Gothic contortion in Schiele’s). Klimt made serious
art of frankly decorative aesthetics, in service to a reigning aristocracy
of wealth and sensual indulgence, and his greatness is secure partly because
no subsequent, first-rate talent or comparable milieu has arisen to rival
its terms. Klimt and his world remain marginal to the battered but still
persuasive avant-gardist chronicle of Western modern art: roughly, Paris to
New York, and Cubism to abstractionism, with special status for futurism,
Dada, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Dutch de Stijl, and
Surrealism. The purchase of “Adele” tests the possibility—ever less to be
sneezed at, these days—of rewriting art history with a checkbook.

On varying scales, such manipulation has been a regular feature of the art
game in the century since the Machiavelli of dealers, Joseph Duveen, in
order to boost his trade in Old Masters, was said to have bullied a seller
into accepting more payment from him than had been asked. But attempts to
make self-fulfilling prophecies of publicized prices have never seemed more
a participatory sport than they do today—among collectors, auction houses,
and dealers. (Lauder sometimes sells works from his collection at auction.)
Money talks, always. Lately, it roars, drowning out other measures of
comparative value, among them the humble sentiments of critics, curators,
and independent scholars. A rule of gold uniquely befits the art business,
whose material goods, by any criterion that is not strictly subjective, are
worthless. And no chemical analysis can sort out, in a given sale price, a
ratio of considerations that may include honest judgment, heartfelt passion,
and competitive exigency. Plainly, a decisive factor for Lauder is his
devotion to his institutional scion, the Neue Galerie. However the publicity
haloing “Adele” affects the expensiveness and prestige of Austrian modern
art, it certainly escalates the prominence of the museum, which, to date,
has been less well attended than its consistent excellence deserves. (It is
miles above the class of Huntington Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern
Art, though that 1964 folly, on Columbus Circle, promoting the supermarket
heir’s anti-modernist taste, can’t help but come to mind as a precedent.) I
met Lauder by chance at the Neue Galerie, days before the opening, and
remarked that, thanks to “Adele,” the intimate place may soon have a
crowd-control problem. He replied quickly, “I hope so!”

Austrian Emigre gets a golden New York welcome

From Monday's Globe and Mail
E-mail Simon Houpt

The lines are snaking down the block on the Upper East Side these days to
catch a glimpse of the lady in gold in her new home. The crush began even
before Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I settled into the
central room on the second floor of the Neue Galerie at Fifth Avenue and
86th Street last week, as new members rushed to join the private museum so
they could be the first to see the painting.

Klimt's star has been rising over the last few years, and of the roughly 220
Klimt paintings in existence, there are perhaps only 30 great ones outside
his native Austria. But the main reason for the crush is that last month
Adele I got a new title, The Most Expensive Painting in the World, when the
cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder purchased it on behalf of his Neue Galerie,
which specializes in early 20th-century Austrian and German art, for a
reported $135-million (U.S.).

No one really knows the identity of the most expensive painting in the
world, since many works change hands outside of the auction room, away from
the public's prying eyes. But Adele I is an undeniable rarity since many of
the most expensive works sold at auction -- like van Gogh's Portrait of Dr.
Gachet ($82.5-million in 1990; about $117-million in 2006 dollars) Picasso's
Boy With a Pipe ($104-million in 2004), and his Dora Maar With Cat (which
sold in May for $95-million) -- disappear into private collections.

And the art world is getting giddy over the open wallets out there. Renee
Price, the director of the Neue Galerie, told me that Philippe de Montebello
at the Met, referring to his museum's 2004 acquisition of Duccio's tiny
Madonna and Child for $45-million, said to her jovially, "thanks for making
my Duccio look so inexpensive."

The record sale price actually ushered Adele into the third phase of her
fame. The first came when she was alive. With her husband Ferdinand, a sugar
magnate, she cultivated a salon in her Viennese mansion where figures like
Klimt mingled with Richard Strauss, Alma Mahler and other artists. Early in
the marriage, Ferdinand commissioned Klimt to execute a portrait of his
wife, leading to three years of sketches, painting, rumoured romantic
assignations and, eventually, a stunning painting finished in 1907.

"There were things going on in literature, the arts, in music. This painting
brings it all together," said Lauder at a press preview last Wednesday. "It
became very much the icon of what Vienna was about."

Photographs rarely reproduce paintings very well, but they seem especially
inept at capturing the extraordinary characteristics of Adele I, her
three-dimensional reliefs and her surprisingly muted gold tones. When I
first walked into the upstairs gallery at the Neue for the press conference,
I was shocked at how dull she first appeared. I'd expected the canvas to
shimmer like a firecracker. But oh, how it comes alive when you spend time
with it: Adele's face, done in ethereal oils, seems to float atop a field of
gold, and her arms and neck peek out from the intricate gold and silver
reliefs of her bracelets and necklace. Looking closely, you can see her
initials, done in more Byzantine-inspired reliefs scattered throughout the

In 1912, Klimt painted a much more reserved portrait of Adele, which is also
at the Neue along with three of his landscapes that belonged to the
Bloch-Bauers. Ferdinand hung all five paintings in Adele's bedroom, in a
shrine of sorts, after she died of meningitis in 1923, at age 45.

It took a long time for them to find their way to New York, because of the
second phase of Adele's fame. During the Second World War, Ferdinand escaped
to Switzerland when the Nazis seized most of his assets and forced a sale of
the Klimts to extract "taxes." The paintings were scattered to different
owners but reunited in 1945 when the Austrian government, declaring the
wartime sales illegal, seized them for itself and installed them in the
Belvedere Gallery in Vienna.

For decades, Ferdinand's heirs -- his feisty niece Maria Altmann, now 90 and
living in California, and a collection of four publicity-shy Canadians
living in California, Vancouver and Montreal -- believed they had no claim.
But in 1998, the Austrian government opened its archives and was forced to
admit that its own claim on the paintings may have been ill-founded. A
family friend, E. Randol Schoenberg -- the composer's grandson -- initiated
legal proceedings that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he
won the right to sue Austria in the United States for the return of the
paintings. Then the two sides agreed to binding arbitration, and last
January Austria threw up its hands, sending the Klimts to their rightful

It turns out that Lauder was always behind the scenes, occasionally helping
to pay costs incurred by Altmann in the course of the case. The relationship
clearly helped when Adele I came to market, but the family wasn't interested
in selling to a private collector, so Lauder had to buy it for the Galerie
rather than himself.

At the press conference last week, Lauder referred to the Klimt paintings,
and others still in museums and private collections with uncertain
provenance, as "perhaps the last prisoners of World War II." But Lauder
himself is under some scrutiny for dragging his feet on opening up the
details of his private collection, which includes at least two Egon Schieles
claimed by others.

To some, the Klimts' arrival in New York is bittersweet. The Neue Galerie
only acquired Adele I, which means the collection of five is only guaranteed
to stay intact until Sept. 18. A critic for The Los Angeles Times lamented
that selling the other four to different buyers, breaking up the group,
would mean the loss of their "epic narrative."

The family says its primary objective is to have the Klimts stay in public
view, which is admirable given that the pieces could likely fetch more from
private collectors. But then, the family already seems overwhelmed by their
financial windfall and the long-awaited resolution of the case.

"It was a relief when it was over. It's been eight years, and every hurdle
Randy [Schoenberg] came across, somehow we overcame it," said Trevor Mantle,
an heir who had flown in from Vancouver for the preview last week. "I just
think it's all very surreal."


Posted on Mon, Jul. 17, 2006

Museum charges $50 to see costliest artwork
Associated Press

NEW YORK - Admission is being tripled to $50 on an extra weekday for viewing
Gustav Klimt's art nouveau portrait of "Golden Adele," the world's most
expensive painting.

The 1907 oil of a Viennese society woman in an elegant gown was purchased
for a reported $135 million by cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder from the
U.S. and Canadian heirs of an Austrian Jewish family, whose art collection
was looted by the Nazis.

With crowds queuing up to view the 55-inch-by-55-inch portrait in gold, the
Neue Galerie museum announced it will stay open on Wednesdays, from noon to
4 p.m. during the exhibit through Sept. 18.

Regular admission is $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Normal
openings are Thursdays through Mondays, with Tuesdays closed and Wednesdays
reserved for members.

The museum seemed unconcerned that the premium entry price might raise
eyebrows. The Museum of Modern Art came under criticism in 2004 for boosting
entry to $20. The Metropolitan Museum of Art followed suit last week.

"The precedent for our special viewing day comes from the Met, which does
$50 special Mondays for its major exhibitions," Deputy Director Scott
Gutterman told The Associated Press on Monday.

The portrait, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," and four other Klimts were surrendered
by the Austrian government early this year after a lengthy court battle over

The ensemble went on display last Thursday at Lauder's museum for German and
Austrian art, after their U.S. premiere in April in Los Angeles, where the
heirs waged a seven-year legal battle with Austria.

News of Lauder's purchase and old rumors about a love affair between the
artist and his beautiful model whetted public interest in the works.

"We have had about 1,500 (visitors) per day, which is quite high for us,"
Gutterman said. "We expect many more in the weeks ahead, especially as it
moves toward the closing date." Crowds line up from the door of the
mansion-turned-museum around the corner onto Fifth Avenue.

Lauder confirmed that he shelled out more than the listed world art record
of $104.2 million paid at auction for Picasso's 1905 "Boy With a Pipe (The
Young Apprentice)." But he is barred by the purchase agreement from
revealing the exact price.

The other four paintings - a full-length oil Adele and three Austrian
landscapes - have an estimated worth approaching $140 million.


Neue Galerie, New York: http://www.neugalerie.org