Text by Geoffrey Smith
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This breathtakingly beautiful painting, encrusted with gold leaf like a Byzantine icon, embellished with myriads of swarming devices from his personal lexicon of decorative forms (some raised from the surface in low relief, built up with layers of gesso), is one of Klimt’s most celebrated works, produced at the apogee of his powers – his most sumptuous portrait and the best example (together with The Kiss) of his ‘gold’ period.
The subject is Adele Bloch-Bauer, the wife of Jewish Austrian industrialist Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer and, according to rumour, the lover of Klimt, an infamous womaniser (who nevertheless lived most of his life with his mother).
Adele’s head, shoulders and hands emerge from the mesmerising surface, a focus of feminine reality, perhaps at risk one feels, of becoming subsumed once more within the welter of sinuous decoration, enveloped, suffocated, by the encroaching gilding, almost as if she were a victim of the same god who granted King Midas his wish. There is no attempt to place the sitter in any meaningful three dimensional space – the line of her dress has become just another element in the compositional scheme with its references to earlier conspicuous consumers of precious materials, the civilisations of Egypt and Mycenae and Rome.
Presenting Adele like some Byzantine treasure was not only artistically intriguing, it was also a clear reference to the wealth, affluence and taste (in both art and women) of Adele’s spouse, Ferdinand, who would later commission another portrait of his wife from Klimt and also owned several of his landscapes.
Were Adele and Klimt lovers? It is impossible to say for certain. They met at about the time of her marriage to Ferdinand. She was the only woman to sit twice for a portrait by Klimt. Some point to Judith and Holofernes (also known as Judith I) painted in 1901, in which the features of Judith, depicted in a state of sexual arousal, bear a striking resemblance to Adele’s. As if the facial similarity was not enough, the prominent gem encrusted gold choker worn by Judith seems to be the same as that worn by Adele in this portrait.
This painting entered the Neue Galerie’s collection in June 2006 when it was purchased at auction in New York for a record $135m. For years earlier the portrait had hung in the Belvedere Gallery in Vienna, the city which was home to both artist and sitter. However in February 2006, after a long court case, the portrait was among five paintings by Klimt returned to Maria Altmann, the Los Angeles-based niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer.
Adele had died in 1925 but her husband Ferdinand retained the painting until he was forced to flee Vienna after the Nazi annexation in 1938. Ferdinand lost everything, his huge art collection was looted, some paintings, including this picture finding their way into Austrian galleries.
After World War II, legal moves to secure restitution of the estate of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer for his surviving heirs were unsuccessful but in the late 1990s further efforts were made to gain possession of paintings stolen from Ferdinand’s collection. Finally, in 2006 several works by Klimt were transferred to the ownership of Maria Altmann, Adele’s niece who then made the decision to sell this portrait.
The sensational bidding in New York saw Klimt overtake Pablo Picasso as the ‘holder’ of the record price paid for a painting. It is interesting that in the same year Klimt was at work applying the glittering gold surface to this picture, Pablo Picasso was in Paris grappling with Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, that shockingly heretical icon of avant-garde severity. They had taken very different directions in their search for a new art but they are now linked as the two painters who command the heights of the art market at the beginning of the 21st century.
1907 Henri Matisse: Le Luxe I, Paris, Musée National d’Art Moderne