Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918
By Bobbie Leigh
“All art is erotic,” Viennese painter Gustav Klimt famously said. Klimt loved many women, fathered some 14 children, and never married. Women as well as his art patrons and collectors apparently adored him. Although he is said to have had many affairs, his true love, who may or may not have been his mistress, was the stunning haute-couture designer Emilie Louise Floge, the younger sister of his brother Ernst’s wife. A successful, independent, business woman, Floge was clearly Klimt’s most intimate friend and lifelong muse. She designed many of the sumptuous gowns featured in the grandly scaled portraits in Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918 at the Neue Galerie.
This exhibition includes 12 paintings, drawings, exquisite Josef Hoffmann jewelry, and archival photographs. They all seem uncannily contemporary. Dresses you could wear today and brooches and bracelets that are up-to-the-second contemporary. At the end of his life in 1918 at age 56, Klimt left most of his paintings and drawings to Floge, among them many unfinished.
Early in his career, Klimt accepted public works on official buildings. Harshly criticized, he decided to reject state-sponsored projects and work only on private commissions from rich patrons. Having Klimt paint your portrait was a status symbol in turn-of-the-century Vienna. The women featured in portraits in this exhibition were clearly emancipated for their time. Caught up in the search for the new, they had most likely traveled, seen and admired the works of Cezanne and Van Gogh. These were daring, emancipated women who abandoned corsets, crinolines, and tiny waists, and embraced the new loose and flowing styles –big sleeves, highly ornamented fabrics, and exotic patterns in Floge’s costumes.
The show-stoppers here are two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer from Klimt’s golden period. Bloch-Bauer shines, captivates, and surprises with her mass of black hair, shiny red lips, and shimmering costume. She radiates wealth and prestige. A nice addition to deepen your understanding of how Klimt’s travels influenced his art, the Neue obtained a historical reproduction (1951) of the mid-sixth century mosaics of Empress Theodora from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Mosaics were an mportant influence and inspiration for the profuse ornamentation in Klimt’s portraits.
Aside from seeing Bloch-Bauer “in the flesh” and not reproduced, Klimt’s portrait of Szerena Lederer (1899) is one of the most captivating in the show. In a tall format painting that emphasizes her slender figure, she seems friendly and approachable. Her white gown overflows the canvas and she beckons the viewer with a half-smile. Szerena’s favorite Klimt was the 1914-1916 portrait she commissioned of her 20-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, which Klimt worked on for several years, changing his concept many times.
Klimt was a notoriously slow painter. Szerina became so impatient waiting for Klimt to finish painting her daughter’s portrait that one day unannounced she seized the painting from his studio and “kidnapped” it. As Szerina and August Lederers were among Klimt’s most important and wealthy patrons, he didn’t demand its return although he did say: “Now it is even less her!”
The painting of daughter Elizabeth is intriguing. The difference between the mother and daughter paintings are like night and day. Szerina’s portrait is muted, quiet, and intimate. The portrait of Elizabeth is vibrant, dynamic, and richly patterned. The color contrasts are striking too. Elizabeth stands in white silk pumps on a tiny red square of a carpet that sits on an orange rug, surrounded by small figures that appear to be indecipherable little Japanese or Chinese men and women. Her helmet hair, dark eyebrows, and deep set eyes are mysterious. Nothing of her personality is revealed. Her sheer, white billowing dress with a fashionable “hobble skirt” are garden-party contemporary although her cape with its wide variety of colorful ornaments is pure invention.
As most of the Jewish women featured in this exhibit, Elizabeth suffered from the Austrian Anschluss. Her Christian husband divorced her fearing retribution being married to a Jew. To escape the Nazi racial laws, her mother declared Elizabeth the illegitimate daughter of the pure-bred German Klimt. Thus she was protected from deportation.
The lush creations of Klimt were revolutionary for their time. He broke new ground with his modernist portraits blending his obsessions with Chinoiserie and Japonisme and at the same time, he became a strong supporter and admirer of independent women.
Neue Galerie New York; 1048 Fifth Avene. www.neuegalerie.org
On view through January 15, 2017