By Dakshayani Shankar
Two naked figures bend forward and guard the highly prized portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (“Woman in Gold”), centered in the middle of Neue Galerie’s Klimt room. Fifty people buzz around in crisscrossed lines, weaving in and out of them as they peek at other famous creations by the portrait’s artist, Gustav Klimt, including “The Black Feathered Hat” and “Park at Kammer Castle.”
The consistent glazed look viewers give these Klimt paintings confirm one thing: The Neue Galerie has successfully enraptured viewers with its captivating “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold” exhibit.
Neue Galerie decided to organize this special exhibit around the lives of Adele Bloch-Bauer and Gustav Klimt to share a tie-in with the film, “Woman in Gold” starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds. The exhibition features over twenty of Klimt’s initial sketches of Adele before he painted the “Woman in Gold” portrait, intimate photographs of himself, the famous portrait, Klimt’s diaries, jewelries of Vienna in the 1900s, as well as his other paintings surrounding his interest in Viennese woman and their effects on Viennese society.
“We’ve had the ‘Woman in Gold’ painting since 2006, after our co-founder, Ronald S. Lauder, purchased the portrait from Adele’s niece, Maria Altmann, right after she won the case against the Austrian government,” said Janis Staggs, Associate Director of Curatorial and Publications at Neue Galerie. “On top of that, when Anne-Marie O’Connor recently released the paperback edition of ‘The Lady in Gold'” — the novel that inspired this film –“we just knew we had to launch this exhibition. It was the perfect timing.”
The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, also known as “Woman in Gold,” features a deep history of struggles, family ties, and female activism. Seized by the Nazis in 1938 upon their occupation of Austria and forcefully held in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace until 2005, the painting has been separated from the heirs of Adele Bloch-Bauer for over 100 years.
Maria Altmann repeatedly requested to reclaim the paintings featuring her aunt under Austria’s Art Restitution Law but was ignored by the Austrian government. In 1998, determined to gain her family’s paintings back, Maria filed a lawsuit against the Austrian government in California, took the case up to the US Supreme Court and coerced the Austrian government into handing over five of her family’s paintings back to her. Her struggle to retrieve this painting is an act of her deep familial love towards her aunt and the passion for women’s suffrage deeply ingrained into her lineage.
Ms. Staggs also indicated how the artist Gustav Klimt, like Adele, believed in the advancement of women’s rights in twentieth century Vienna and subtly implanted this belief into his painting of Adele.
“Klimt befriended many women who were active and keen on breaking the social norms expected of a 1900s woman. He frequented the educational salon Adele created, where woman who weren’t allowed to go to university shared their thoughts,” she said. “In the painting, Adele’s flushed cheeks and red lips may conform to the exaggeration of women’s sensuality at that time. However, his decision to paint her in gold and portray her as an Empress-like figure in the painting shows his agreement with Adele on her work on women’s suffrage rights as well as his sympathetic plight to show women as more than worldly beings.”
Klimt’s determination to characterize Adele in a certain manner in this painting is deeply inherent in his sketches. One sketch features Adele seated forwards in a flowing gown whilst resting her right hand, with her disfigured finger, on her temple. Another shows Adele standing towards her left.
Each sketch focuses on a different position of Adele and helps viewers understand the long hours (four years to be exact), blood, sweat and tireless posing by the frequently sick Adele that went into this portrait.
It’s no surprise that the painting is nothing less than a clear mark of artistic perfection.
Once viewers have had a long gaze at this painting and the sketches, they can also look at other Klimt paintings vaulted in the room that focus on a myriad of women in different settings, shades and situations.
The “Pale Face,” featuring a porcelain-faced bourgeoisie and wrapped in fashionably dark clothing, dramatically sets off the mysterious allure of the 1900s Viennese aristocratic woman. In contrast, the painting situated on the left of it, “Girl in The Foliage” features Klimt’s close friend, Emilie Flöge, against a lush greenery and highlights the freedom Emilie claimed for herself at a time when women weren’t necessarily allowed to go traipsing around the woods alone. Next to the rectangular-shaped floor to ceiling window, “The Dancer,” filled with bursts of color, exhibits a woman full of life that pines for unrequited love.
If the paintings aren’t enough, perhaps the display of intricate jewelry by Klimt and Flöge’s close friend, Joseph Hoffman, might enthrall you. Placed in glass-protected cases, jewelry pieces — including necklaces, chokers, bracelets and earrings worn in the 1900s — give viewers a glimpse into the bourgeoisie life that Adele, Flöge, Klimt, and Hoffman led.
For fans of Klimt, private photographs of Klimt are displayed right next to the sketches of Adele to allow viewers to take a peek at the man of the “golden style” himself.
The exhibition runs until September 7 and is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to be transported back into 1900s Vienna.
Entrance prices: $10 for students and seniors. $20 for general.
Special Acknowledgment: Janis Staggs, Associate Director of Curatorial and Publications and Rebecca Lewis, Director of Communications at Neue Galerie.
Dakshayani Shankar is a contributing writer. Email her at email@example.com.