Analysis of Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I
Gustav Klimt’s “Golden Style” reached its pinnacle in the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). Here, we see an opulent patchwork of ornaments where Mycenaean gold mingles with Byzantium, creating the overall impression of a religious idol and a seemingly endless array of paintings within paintings.
Gustav Klimt’s portraits of upperclass Viennese bourgeoisie women, including Adele Bloch-Bauer I, required long preparation because of their frequent symbolic depth and richness of ornamental detail. Hence, Gustav Klimt was not a prolific painter. But he was a prolific sketch artist and did many preparatory drawings for his works, around a hundred in the case of the portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I.
Klimt believed in the daily discipline of the pencil to keep his hand in practice. Every day, in an inexhaustible desire for mastery, he quickly captured on paper the movements and erotic poses of the models that camped out in his studio, as if he were writing his own catalogue of a Don Juan without Satanism.
Cataloged by Alice Strobl, 1,003 women were sketched amounting to 4,000 pages that bear witness to Klimt as one of the greatest masters of drawing in the twentieth century. Where once Klimt painted a silky gown, he now portrays a shining metal tunic of the same material as the armchair and background. In the glitter of the gold and a dense vegetation of squares, spirals, triangles, ovoids, and eyes – ornamental motifs as well as secret erotic symbols – the contours of Adele’s bell-shaped figure remain ambiguous. Only the pearly face and nervously interlaced hands of this painting escape the “metallization” and appear as if cut out of the inlay work.
Studded with precious metals, Adele Bloch Bauer I is Gustav Klimt’s expression of the decadent, morbid passion for jewelry and the extreme homage to the femme fatale raised up to the throne like an enigmatic divinity. Yet the triumph of this goddess is also her prison, as if she were mounted in shining metal, captured for eternity in her precious tapestries, sealed alive inside the flat wall of gems, as if the artist secretly wished to neutralize that threat hidden in the mother-of-pearl face.
Recent Controversy Around Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I
This painting, along with other works by Klimt (a second portrait from 1912 and three landscapes), was recently at the center of a lawsuit brought by the subject’s heirs against the Austrian government for the restitution of goods expropriated from Jews during the Nazi period. Immediately after the Anschluss of 1938, unifying Austria with German Reich, the Bloch-Bauer family was stripped of its considerable fortune and collections that, in addition to numerous paintings, included 400 valuable porcelain pieces.
Some works, such as the Klimt paintings, ended up in museums; others were dispersed among art dealers. After sixty-six years, in part because of an Austrian law from 1998 that allowed for the repatriation (or return) of works plundered or extorted from their legitimate owners, the five Klimt works were returned to the family and left the Belvedere museum on February 6, 2006.
Gustav Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer, “the twentieth century Mona Lisa,” was acquired a few months later by cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder for the sum of $135 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at that time, and joined its new collection in New York at the Neue Galerie, the museum founded by Lauder and dedicated to Austrian and German art.
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