The Klimt sale.

The big picture.
June 20 2006 3:53 PM

Perils of Adele

Ronald S. Lauder buys a Klimt.

Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907. Click image to expand.
Gustav Klimt, Adele Bloch-Bauer I, 1907

The stratospheric price that cosmetics maven Ronald S. Lauder shelled out for Gustav Klimt's 1907 society portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I—reportedly $135 million, the most ever paid for a work of art—is the least of its luxury attributes. Everything about this gold-flecked portrayal of a Viennese sugar-manufacturer's wife radiates luxury, one of the three things (along with calm and sexual pleasure) that Baudelaire said we require from great art. The painting will look right at home when it arrives on July 13 (the day before Klimt's birthday) in Lauder's jewellike Neue Galerie at Fifth Avenue and 86th Street in New York. Through shrewd acquisitions and smartly turned out exhibitions, no American has done more than Lauder, a former ambassador to Austria, to raise the visibility (and enhance the value) of often neglected German and Austrian art in the United States.

First, the painting itself is made of luxury materials. Under the joint inspiration of Japanese lacquer and the Byzantine mosaics he'd studied in Ravenna, Italy, Klimt, son of an engraver in precious metals, applied generous expanses of gold and silver leaf directly onto the canvas. The result is that Adele's head and hands seem to float in an entirely artificial world, like Yeats' fantasy in "Sailing to Byzantium": "Once out of nature I shall never take/ My bodily form from any natural thing,/ But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make/ Of hammered gold and gold enameling." The luxury effect is enhanced by exotic symbols and swirls that Klimt has borrowed from Egyptian and Mycenaean art and woven into the gilded fabric of Adele's cascading dress.

Advertisement

Second, the painting shows a prominent member of Vienna's wealthy industrial elite and was commissioned to show off her expensive charms. Women like Adele Bloch-Bauer flocked to Klimt's elegant studio, which was outfitted with Josef Hoffman's Wienerwerkstatte furnishings, and paid a high price for the master's attentions. The resulting painting, displayed in the intimacy of the bedroom, was itself the ideal emblem of opulence.

And third, the painting confirms the turn-of-the-century Viennese conviction that sex was the proper province of the rich and cultivated. In his voluminous pleated blue smock, Klimt—who once drew a self-portrait of himself as genitalia—played the sexy artist to the hilt. Part of the commission seemed to be that rumors would be spread of some hanky-panky between artist and model. Lauder bought the painting from Adele's niece, Maria Altmann, who once asked her mother about a possible love affair. According to Carol Vogel's June 19 report in the New York Times, Altmann's mother was furious and exploded, "How dare you ask such a thing? It was an intellectual friendship."

Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908. Click image to expand.
Gustav Klimt, The Kiss, 1907-1908

Intellectual friendship was foreplay at a time and place when, under Freud's tutelage, sex had gone upscale. The working classes copulated and procreated, but sex, as portrayed by Klimt in his swooning The Kiss (also 1907), was something properly performed, like Schubert or Beethoven, in upper-class drawing rooms. The femme fatale (or, in Freud's parlance, castrating female) was in vogue; Richard Strauss'Salome premiered in Vienna in 1907, and the American dancer Ruth St. Denis enthralled Viennese audiences with her erotically exotic performance art. Adele Bloch-Bauer, who entertained Strauss in her stylish salon, seems to have welcomed the femme fatale treatment, via a silver choker (symbolizing decapitation, according to Klimt scholar Alessandra Comini) of precisely the kind depicted in his notorious paintings of the biblical heroine and man-killer Judith.

But one generation's femme fatale is the next generation's comforting maternal presence. Walter Pater thought there was something kinky about the Mona Lisa: "like the vampire, she has been dead many times." Now she looks tame enough, with or without a moustache. Whatever sinister behavior Adele Bloch-Bauer was scheming while coyly rubbing her slender hands is gone with the wind. In the Klimt portrait, she looks like a preoccupied mom at a members' opening at the Met. "This is our Mona Lisa," Lauder said, plausibly enough. "I never saw her smile," Mrs. Altmann said of her aunt.

Maybe she sensed what was coming. As Robert Frost once wrote, "Nothing gold can stay." The Bloch-Bauers were Jewish and the Nazis liked Klimts. Adele died in 1925 of meningitis. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, her husband fled to Switzerland, where he died in 1945, having left his art collection behind. The Nazis put three of the paintings in the Austrian Gallery and sold the rest. A complicated restitution case played out over many years, eventually going to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Mrs. Altmann, who lives in Los Angeles, could sue the Austrian government in American courts for her family's lost property. In January, she was awarded the portrait of her aunt along with four other Klimt paintings, including a later portrait of Adele and three extraordinary landscapes (a genre in which Klimt excelled). During the legal maneuvering, Ronald Lauder remained a staunch supporter of Mrs. Altmann, and his loyalty was richly rewarded in the privately arranged sale.

The Neue Galerie, New York. Click image to expand.
The Neue Galerie, New York

As for the $135 million, the price seems low to me. Most art prices seem low to me. What's a reasonable price for a one-of-a-kind masterpiece? If the Texas Rangers once paid Alex Rodriguez twice that amount to play shortstop for 10 years, hasn't Lauder gotten his Klimt, which he owns in perpetuity, for a steal? (I'd rather have Adele on my wall than A-Rod on my team.) Fortunately for the rest of us, Lauder's luxury object will be available to all of us, radiating luxe, calme, et volupté forever. As for the fate of the other four paintings in Mrs. Altmann's collection, also on view at the Neue Galerie through Sept. 18, stay tuned.

Christopher Benfey, Mellon Professor of English at Mount Holyoke, writes about art for Slate.