Standing in the Neue Galerie in front of Klimt’s Adele Bloch-Bauer I, I couldn’t help thinking of one my favorite Donald Trump anecdotes:
Once upon a time, a fellow billionaire asked Mr. Trump why he’d never amassed a collection of art. Why, in fact, wasn’t he interested in art at all? “You know what a Van Gogh is?” asked an annoyed Mr. Trump in return. “It’s a piece of cloth with some colored mud on it.”
The story is probably apocryphal, but anyone who’s watched The Apprentice will recognize the brusque and dismissive reply as being perfectly in character.
So there he was, The Donald, haunting me as I gazed at the most expensive painting in the world. One hundred and thirty-five million dollars, he whispered in my ear. That’s a lot of money for a piece of cloth with some colored mud on it.
Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) is a feather in the cap of the Neue Galerie, the Upper East Side jewel-box museum devoted to early 20th-century Germanic art. Certainly the purchase of the painting by Ronald S. Lauder, the cosmetics heir who founded the museum, provided plenty of boffo media coverage.
The art of Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) straddles the 19th and 20th centuries—and yet he’s not quite a Modernist. His serpentine compositions, sickly eroticism and decorative flair are beholden to academic precedent and too self-conscious to completely reimagine or revitalize artistic form. A misplaced experimentation, not forward propulsion, defines the oeuvre. Compared to Bonnard or Matisse, Klimt is just a bit stodgy.
All the same, the development of 20th-century Austrian art is inconceivable without him: He co-founded the Vienna Secession in 1897 (roughly speaking, the Austrian stylistic equivalent of Art Nouveau); he was mentor to the exceptionally gifted and eternally adolescent Egon Schiele; and Klimt’s paintings, never less than accomplished, are often magnificent, particularly the landscapes.
But in the greater scheme of things, Klimt is small potatoes. Forget Modernism: If $135 million is considered a commendable investment for a picture by a minor artist, what price tag do we put on a painting by Fra Angelico, a sculpture by Donatello or a drawing by Durer? The question is undoubtedly lodged in the overexcited minds of museums, collectors and auction houses the world over.
To entertain the question at all is to risk making art an adjunct to capital. The relationship between art and money—or power—began on Day 1. (You’d best believe the tribal chieftain had something to say about the paintings daubed on the cave wall.) Yet the greatest works of art have an independence that thrives outside the dictates of wealth, prestige or dogma. This is what has always pissed off those who would seek to control it: Art is alive in a way that confounds practical consideration. Art fetches obscene amounts of money for a reason: Though freedom is impossible to quantify, its presence is real, its value indisputable. Some things can’t be bought. Ponying up $135 million for a painting is, in a roundabout way, an admission of defeat.
There’s another, more heartening story about the Neue Galerie’s newly acquired prize. Adele Bloch-Bauer I—along with four other Klimt paintings—has only recently been returned to the heirs of the Bloch-Bauer family after having been looted by the Nazis.
Though the official line condemned “degenerate” modern art, the Nazis liked these particular Klimts enough to claim them as their own. The pictures wound up in Vienna’s Österreichische Galerie Belvedere. Attempts to recover them led to the United States Supreme Court, and ultimately Austria returned the pictures to the Bloch-Bauer family. It’s hard not to find a certain satisfaction in history having come full circle.
It might be impolitic, after all the money lavished on it, to note that of all the Klimt paintings on view at the Neue Galerie, Adele Bloch-Bauer I is the least interesting. It’s a flashy performance, that’s for sure. Klimt was savvy enough to flatter his subject and do so with bells and whistles.
Compare Adele Bloch-Bauer’s features as seen in an adjacent photograph to the subtle, yet marked, stylizations of the painting. Lips and eyes are enlarged; the face is ascetic and lean. The body is engulfed by a Byzantine field of gold leaf, silver and an ascending array of geometric motifs and abstracted eyes, vaguely Egyptian in character. Klimt’s idealization of Adele, not to mention the painting’s over-the-top ornamentation, is almost ridiculously erotic. Did the painter and his subject have an affair? Standing in front of the canvas, the question seems a no-brainer.
Less showy, and considerably more satisfying, are the four other paintings from the estate, three landscapes and the only other portrait that Klimt painted of Adele. In Adele Bloch-Bauer II (1912), decorative overkill is stifled by a consistent application of oil paint. Leaving the gold leaf and silver well enough alone, Klimt did history a favor by being truer to the art of painting, not to mention the physical characteristics of his subject.
In the landscapes, Klimt achieves a frazzled intensity with his pitter-pat brushwork, transforming the lessons of Impressionism (especially Seurat’s Pointillism) into a veritable pressure cooker of spiritual portent. Houses at Unterach on the Attersee (c. 1916) is as solid as a stained-glass window, Birch Forest (1903) as memorable as the most disquieting of dreams. Apple Tree I (1912), with its gentle, umbrella-like composition, has both the charm and the menace we associate with the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm.
The hubbub surrounding Adele Bloch-Bauer I will die down; the painting will become less burdensome to consider. The Neue Galerie has filled out a rather specialized collection, and the overpriced Klimt will claim its place as the centerpiece. Yet a nagging question remains: Are inflated prices for art an indication of a culture’s well-being or a symptom of its insecurities? Donald Trump couldn’t care less. The rest of us should.
Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer is at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue at 86th Street, until Sept. 18.