Portrait of Adele Blochbauer (I), Gustav Klimt, 1907. Oil paint, silver and gold leaf.
Mostly known for one of the masterpieces of mainstream art history, Der Kuss (The Kiss), Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter and member of the Viennese Secessionist movement of 1897 to 1905. The Secessionists did not adhere to a specific visual style, but instead believed that art should be utterly new and uninspired by the academic styles that were the money-makers of the time. The Secession reflected the state of Vienna at the fin de siecle: rebellious and unique, optimistic and innovative, elegant and refined, with a variety of individualistic cultural mainstays and inventions, including the writings of Sigmund Freud and the Viennese coffee-house culture.
Art nouveau (known as Jugendstil in German-speaking lands such asAustria) was the dominant, but relatively short-lived, aesthetic style at the time, and so many of the Vienna Secessionists, including Klimt, play homage to Jugendstil with their work. Like his fellow Secessionists, Klimt decidedly took art nouveau one step further, embracing an incredibly unique artistic style during what is known as his Golden Phase, wherein he used gold leaf as much as paint to color his works.
As much as Klimt and his fellows strived to escape from historical traditions, he was heavily influenced by the golden mosaics of the Byzantine era, which can be seen in his excessive use of gold in many of his later paintings (works completed a few years after the Secession was disbanded). Also of note is the geometric patterning standing in for clothing, hair, and background textures in many of his works, creating somewhat of a patch-work feel.
The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer has a fascinating history, which is what originally attracted me to the work. The Bloch-Bauers were a wealthy Jewish family who suffered great losses during the Nazi invasion of Vienna during the Third Reich. Adele had already passed away in 1925, but in her will she stated her portrait would be passed to her family members. It was, unfortunately, confiscated by the Nazi troops during the take-over of Vienna, and like many non-traditional forms of art which were considered diseased and unhealthy under the reign of Hitler, it was locked away for a number of years. Discovered years later, the matter of who could claim ownership of the painting became a controversial issue, and it passed through the hands of many Austrian museums before finally being returned to Adele’s descendant, Maria Altmann…who ended up selling the painting to the Neue Gallerie of New York City in 2006, a sale which broke the record for most expensive painting ever sold at the time. It was purchased for $135 million US dollars, and has remained at the Neue Gallerie ever since.
The Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer has held the position of my favorite work of art for nearly 5 years, and I suspect it will remain so. There really is nothing else like it, and I believe it is one of the most beautiful and lovely images ever produced by man.
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