The doors hadn’t even opened, and already the line wound past the corner and wrapped around itself several times. Such was the draw that five paintings worth a couple hundred million, in one room, by one artist could have. I hadn’t managed to make it over to the Neue Galerie before, and the quintet of canvases by Gustav Klimt was a pretty compelling reason for a visit. Was it really worth it? Do you need to make it over there before they’re likely to be sequestered in private collections, away from your eyes forever? Viewing an original work of art with ones own eyes is so personal an experience that I can’t adequately answer those questions. The difference between seeing the art vs. looking at a reproduction is so vast, that personally, I always find it worth it because I learn so much, and the experience provokes so much thought, even in those rare cases when I find the reproduction outclasses the original.
Displayed behind glass, “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (55-1/8″ x 55-1/8″, oil, silver, and gold on canvas, 1907), the painting for which Ronald S. Lauder paid $135 million, is still undeniably stunning. I’ve seen it a thousand times in reproduction, but had never seen it. The gold is more matte than it seems in photos, shimmering rather than glittering like tesserae, exuding more warmth than bling. While the skin is porcelain smooth, some of the gold areas are textural and built up. The composition flows like music, and respecting the boundaries of utmost decorum befitting the sitter, it does nothing so much as exude sexiness and desirability.
Seeing the photo of Adele Bauer-Bloch on the exhibition signage, I was a trifle surprised to see she was, how can I put it? A bit mieskeit (Yiddish for “Oy vey, a fashion model she isn’t!”). Yet both of Klimt’s portraits of her, especially the one pictured here, manage to be exactingly true likenesses, and portray an incredibly attractive, sexy woman. Klimt conveyed something ethereal that cleary eluded the camera. The combination of her seductively languid yet intelligent gaze, the unusual pose of her long-fingered hands (apparently to hide a physical defect), and the sinuous shapes all work together to overtake the senses and render the viewer helpless. The hieroglyphical motifs around her face and adorning her flowing robe (see detail) heighten the aura of sensual mystique — one could almost believe that Klimt has encoded a secret message about the relationship between himself and the sitter. This painting is inarguably the star of the show, but the other pieces in this war-restitution package to the heirs of Bloch-Bauer are captivating in their own right, and besides which, there’s more to see at the Neue Galerie to merit the $15 cover and wait in line. The colors of the “Birch Forest,” “Apple Tree I,” and “Houses at Unterach on the Attersee” are all more subdued than they appear in goosed-up reproductions. The “Birch Forest” conveys the subtleties of the diffuse light deep in the woods. Klimt has stylized the scene but not to the point of being decorative. The influence of pointillism is apparent, but Klimt’s approach is far from derivative. The palette and compositional rhythms accurately express the nature lover’s experience. (The color of this reproduction is horrid.)
The later portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer is ungilded and the handling of the paint much rougher by comparison, yet it is also a large, imposing canvas (74-3/4″h x 47-1/4″w). Adele continues to captivate, her head propped atop an elongated neck hidden by a bejewelled choker. Michael Kimmelman aptly describes this “second Adele, painted in 1912: a slender, sinuous Coke-bottle-shaped figure, more chaste than carnal…” yet still a magnificent presence, as she towers above the viewer in this life-size portrait.
In the adjacent gallery, a wall of drawings by Egon Schiele (not x-rated), such as “Erich Lederer Drawing on the Floor, 1912″ had a freshness, directness, and confidence that brought to mind contemporary painter Elizabeth Peyton, though stylistically there’s not much connection. This gallery contained numerous sketches and drawings by Klimt, including two that were racy enough to make the crowd collectively blush, even by today’s standards (”Reclining semi-nude facing right” and “The Virgin”). These two pieces were heavily erotic and voyeuristic while being neither lewd nor pornographic, a glaring contrast to most of the sexual imagery we encounter at every turn these days. Also on display at the Neue Galerie are some paintings and drawings by Oskar Kokoschka, some very eerie drawings by Alfred Kubin, Viennese furniture and tableware, and more fine examples of German and Austrian art.
(FYI: the Klimt show has been extended to October 9th, 2006.)