Gustav Klimt’s Famous ‘Woman in Gold’ Goes On View at Neue Galerie

We talk with museum director Renee Price about the storied work.

 

As legend has it, Gustav Klimt‘s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), the dazzling gold Secessionist-era painting, was stolen by the Nazis in Austria in the late 1930s and eventually returned to the heirs of the original owner after a lengthy court battle. Now, the painting is on safer ground at the heart of the intimate exhibition “Gustav Klimt and Adele Bloch-Bauer: The Woman in Gold,” which opens today at the Neue Galerie.

Aided by the publicity surrounding the release this week of Woman in Gold, a major Hollywood film about the painting starring Helen Mirren, it seems the artwork’s dramatic backstory is moving front and center. (See: Germany Criticized for Bureaucratic “Bullying” Over Gurlitt Restoration and Monet Landscape Found in Gurlitt’s Suitcase).

It is not hard to see why it’s considered one of Klimt’s best works. The portrait, which took three years for Klimt to complete, shows Adele Bloch-Bauer (the wife of Austrian sugar magnate Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer) seated, decked out in elaborate jewelry and an elaborately-patterned gown with flowing fabric that virtually melds into her sumptuous surroundings.

Experts have frequently focused on Adele’s sensual expression and Klimt’s erotic depiction of her. Speculation about a probable love affair between artist and sitter seems to have only ever deepened the public’s fascination with the painting over the years.

Adele died of meningitis in 1925. In 1938, Nazis seized the painting along with much of the contents of the Bloch-Bauers’ home. The work was eventually hung at the Belvedere Museum in Austria, which claimed ownership based on Adele’s 1923 will.

However, when the Austrian government opened its archives in 1998, additional information related to the case was made public. Ferdinand, who died in Switzerland in 1945 after having fled Austria during the war, had left his estate, in part, to Maria Altmann, who also fled Austria and eventually settled in Los Angeles.

In 2006, when businessman and renowned art collector Ronald Lauder learned the work was coming back to the US from Austria, he shelled out $135 million for the painting. Lauder, a co-founder of Neue Galerie, has referred to the work as his museum’s “Mona Lisa,” and a “once in a lifetime acquisition.” (See: Why Ronald Lauder is Right About Nazi Looted Art in Museums.)

At a press conference at the Neue Galerie last week, Lauder reflected on his relationship with Altmann whose efforts through an eight-year legal battle helped secure the work’s return in 2006. Lauder said she sometimes admitted to him she was getting “tired” of fighting and feared she would not live to see the work’s return.

Altmann died in 2011 at the age of 94. Lauder, who was standing next to the painting, said “If it wasn’t for Maria Altmann, this painting would still be hanging in the Belvedere.”

The exhibition, which continues through September 7, features the painting along with fascinating historical materials about Klimt, as well as preparatory sketches, vintage photos, jewelry and other archival materials.

We talked with director Renee Price about the organization of the exhibition, which she accurately described as “an obligation,” in light of the new film.

Price recounted how Altmann continued to live in her modest Los Angeles bungalow following the return of the works. “The only thing she wanted was a new dishwasher.”

 

 


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