Gustav Klimt was a golden boy in every sense of the word.
The child of a goldsmith, Klimt was nurtured in Vienna, where he soon received important commissions from the Burgtheater and Kunsthistorisches Museum. The city is in the midst of celebrating the 150th anniversary of his birth, as is the Neue Galerie New York, the largest repository of his works in the United States.
Some of his ideas, however, proved too provocative even for the city of Freud, and the idiosyncratic Symbolist artist abandoned the public sphere for private patronage, developing a style inspired by Byzantine iconography that would locate the profane in the sacred and render the metallic erotic.
Among the gilded Klimt treasures is the Neue Galerie’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, in oil, silver and gold on canvas. A superb example of the artist’s “golden style,” the painting has a tragic provenance worth noting.
Adele was the wife of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, head of the Austrian sugar industry, who commissioned Klimt to do two portraits of her. A series of drawings in the exhibit charts the evolution of the Neue Galerie portrait from the fragile outline of a woman in a flowing gown to the glittering masterpiece, in which the almost photographic depiction of Adele’s striking face, creamy décolletage and slender arms seems to float on a sea of gold.
But this is no mere homage to Eastern icons. The checkerboard, eye-shaped details give the picture its fin-de-siècle edge, with the touch of green sneaking up on you to add perspective.
“Adele Bloch-Bauer I” – the only golden-style Klimt work that is part of the Neue Galerie collection – was among the Bloch-Bauer holdings confiscated by the Nazis in 1938. It was returned to the heirs of the family after a lawsuit upheld by a landmark 2004 Supreme Court decision. Subsequently, the Neue Galerie purchased the work.
It was one thing for Klimt to bring his golden touch to a proper matron. It was quite another to use it to alchemize warrior goddesses, biblical heroines and damsels in distress, along with lovers whose all-consuming ardor is enveloped in yellowish hues, like those in the Rodin-inspired “The Kiss” (1907-08). Klimt was a passionate devotee of the female form and he savored capturing women in the most intimate acts. But he also knew their mettle and used his shimmery palette to plumb the irresistible lure of female strength and sensuality, a classic fin-de-siècle obsession.
His “Pallas Athene” (1898) is a felicitous marriage of subject and style, as Zeus’ gray-eyed daughter was the ancient Greek goddess of war as well as wisdom and has often been portrayed with helmet and spear, the terrifying serpentine head of Medusa gleaming from her aegis or breastplate. Klimt’s “Judith I” or “Judith and Holofernes” (1901) is a more carnal, archetypal fin-de-siècle affair, imagining the Hebrew widow’s bare-breasted, heavy-lidded, lip-parted allure, which beckoned the Assyrian general to his decapitation. Here gold both conceals and reveals, particularly the siren-like plunge of the neckline, with Judith’s gold collar adding a touch of decadent deception that implies a slavery to which she and her countrymen would never submit.
Perhaps the most erotic of all Klimt’s golden works is “Danaë” (1907), based on another one of those Greek myths in which women have to suffer because of male egotism. When Danaë’s kingly father learns of a prophecy that says he’ll be killed by his daughter’s son, he locks Danaë away in a bronze tower. But that’s not strong enough to keep out Zeus, who loves too much but none too well. He visits her in the form of a golden shower and she subsequently gives birth to the hero Perseus, who saves another distressed damsel, Andromeda, from a sea monster and beheads Medusa, thus giving Athene a nice trophy and bringing us full circle.
Klimt depicts the Titian-tressed Danaë nude with her legs drawn up as Zeus rains down on her, her eyes closed and lips parted. Clearly, rainfall never felt so good.
Back at the Neue
As the Neue show demonstrates, Klimt painted other kinds of works, including lush, vibrant landscapes that are cousins to scenes by Gauguin and Van Gogh. In these he was inspired by the lakeside retreat he shared outside Salzburg with Emilie Flöge, sister of his brother Ernst’s wife, Helene. Emilie was a proponent of Reformkleider (“reform clothes”), colorful caftans designed to liberate women from the strictures of their corseted turn-of-the-century wardrobe. Photographs in the exhibit show Flöge and Klimt himself in the loose-fitting garb. Together with Helene and sister Pauline, Emilie founded Schwestern Flöge (Sisters Flöge), a design salon that probably made Klimt’s indigo artist’s smocks.
Klimt died in 1918 at age 56 following a stroke. He left behind some 250 works, many of which immortalize the female body and the sexuality associated with it as an alchemic experience.
[stextbox id=”gold” caption=”GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY“] There’s no escaping Gustav Klimt this summer. (Not that we would want to.) “Gustav Klimt: 150th Anniversary Celebration” runs through Aug. 27 at the Neue Galerie New York. There you can enjoy the Klimt cake in the Café Sabarsky. (It’s chocolate hazelnut cake with gold leaf, inspired by the “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” portrait.) The Design Shop has the gold and silver cufflinks Josef Hoffmann created for Klimt, reproduced exclusively for the Neue Galerie by First Edition, while the Book Store has two new publications featuring the museum’s “Adele Bloch- Bauer I” on the cover Anne-Marie O’Connor’s “The Lady in Gold” and Eric Kandel’s “The Age of Insight.”
Museum hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursdays- Mondays. Admission is $20; $10 for senior citizens and students. Children under age 12 are not admitted and those 12 to 15 must be accompanied by an adult. The museum is at 1048 Fifth Ave. (at 86th Street). (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.