She Never Gave Up: Mona Lisa of Austria in Triumph at the Neue Galerie

by Franklin Hill Perrell

Astonishing as a work of art, Gustav Klimt’s quintessential masterpiece, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I,” 1907, is at once the defining icon of Jugendstil, “young style” – Austria’s art nouveau, an embodiment of the period’s pinnacle of glamor, wealth, and aesthetic innovation, and above all an enduring testament to the triumph of good over evil.
Neue-Galerie-01  klimt  Woman_in_Gold_film_poster
(L-R): Neue Galerie in NYC; “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” and Woman in Gold movie poster

The painting’s rightful heir, Maria Altmann (1916-2011), niece of its’ subject, Klimt’s patron Adele Bloch Bauer, never gave up on her just claim despite seventy plus years of lies, cover-ups at the highest level of government, and devious legal wrangling intended to deprive her of her rights, ever since the painting was stolen by the Nazis. She never gave up: this is the story presented now at the Neue Galerie, its timing making it an essential corollary to the just released movie, “Woman in Gold.” Today, this painting is the gem of the Neuer Galerie since it was purchased by its founder, Ronald S. Lauder, in 2007.

You would be well advised to start your visit with a long look at the painting itself. Its compelling fascination is inescapable. The seductive, dark-haired Adele gazes at us deeply. Her elongated neck and elegant coiffure is an ideal foil for the swirling patterns articulated throughout her dress. It’s understandable that speculation arose that she was the artists’ mistress as well as his muse. Swatches of jewel-like color in the background set off this fin-de-siecle Viennese siren’s undulating silhouette, a mass of shimmering gilt patterns whose design is echoed perfectly by the period jewelry of Viener-Werkstatte master Josef Hoffmann, displayed nearby.

Context is established by a handsome survey of Klimt oils in the same gallery. Opposite Adele is another Jugenstil femme fatale, this one in sumptuous all-over patterned color rather than gold. Klimt’s exploration of the portrait is primary to this exhibition, though landscapes featuring nearly abstract designs with pointillist color are well represented also.

The second gallery is dominated by the numerous studies on paper that Klimt created in his exploration of the theme’s compositional possibilities, as well as photographs of the artist and his companions, and documentation relating to Adele Bloch-Bauer and her family. The turbulent history of the painting itself, and its ultimate restitution, is portrayed chronologically in a series of concise panels with photographs of the narrative’s participants. The shocking lapses of ethics and propriety on the part of government in this story come as little surprise. What is more strikingly notorious is the conduct of museum officials from whom one would expect a higher level of humanity. Some of these individuals apparently backdated or falsified records to strengthen their case. One wonders about where else such conduct might have been standard procedure.

We urge you to see this exhibition along with a related survey of expressionist art, and a special Schiele portrait exhibition. Also recommended is the Neue Galerie bookstore and gift shop, both of which have some remarkable finds. The Cafe Sabarsky is always a treat. This visit, however, I sought quicker refreshment and found it downstairs below in the Cafe’s casual adjunct (which you might not know about). I enjoyed a cappuccino and linzer torte, both delicious.

Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, at 86th Street : “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold,” closes Sep. 7

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