Adele Bloch-Bauer was an avid art patron at the centre of Vienna’s cultural life. And when she sat for a portrait by Gustav Klimt, she was transformed into an icon, writes Kimberly Bradley.

Pleading… or challenging? In her portraits, it’s difficult to read what might have been going on behind the limpid, dark eyes of Adele Bloch-Bauer, the only women that fin de siècle Austrian artist Gustav Klimt portrayed not once, but twice. But this is clearly a woman of depth and mystery. In a new exhibition Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age at New York’s Neue Galerie, both portraits – the iconic, long-controversial Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907) and the lesser-known but no less stunning Adele Bloch-Bauer II(1912) – will be shown together for the first time in more than a decade. 

Speculation is that she is also the closed-eyed, blissed-out woman in The Kiss

The exhibition includes portraits of other women, but Adele remains the most iconic. It is she, as a ‘woman in gold’, who anchors the works that represent the apex of Klimt’s ‘golden phase’. (Speculation is, too, that she is the half-nude figure in Klimt’s Judith and the Head of Holofernes, and possibly the closed-eyed, blissed-out woman in The Kiss.) It is she who embodies both the vulnerability and strength of women in turn-of-the-century Vienna, a society in profound transition.

In postwar Vienna her image became a symbol of Austrian culture – Adele Bloch-Bauer I was long called ‘the Austrian Mona Lisa’. The painting later became an icon of justice – the 2015 film Woman in Gold is the Hollywood version of the tale of the painting’s confiscation from the Jewish Bloch-Bauer family during World War Two and the long but ultimately successful struggle for restitution by Bloch-Bauer’s niece Maria Altmann. Over the past century, many viewers have asked: who was Adele Bloch-Bauer? 

‘Symphony in gold’

Bloch-Bauer was born Adele Bauer in Vienna in 1881. The daughter of a bank and railway director, she led a privileged, cultured childhood; at 19, she married Ferdinand Bloch, a sugar magnate 17 years her senior. Ferdinand adored the young woman, enough to make her last name part of his own. (Both became Bloch-Bauers; their siblings married each other, too, making for two couples with the same hyphenated last name.) The family were avid art patrons, not only collecting but also commissioning paintings – and the maverick, kaftan-clad Gustav Klimt was one of their favorite artists.

The first portrait of Adele was originally discussed in a letter the then 22-year-old wrote to Klimt in 1903. Ferdinand commissioned it as a gift for Adele’s parents’ anniversary a few years after Klimt co-founded the Vienna Secession, and not long after his scandalous, allegedly pornographic murals saw the University of Vienna blacklist the painter from state commissions. 

The first portait’s background is a lush riot of glittering Oriental and erotic symbolism

Adele Bloch-Bauer I was first publicly displayed in 1907: a stunning scene in oil and gold leaf; it shows a flushed, bare-shouldered Adele in a stylised throne, gazing at the viewer with both vulnerability and pride, her hands oddly clasped in the foreground – one of her fingers was deformed, which she often attempted to conceal in her many sittings with the artist, who created some 200 studies for the portrait. The painting’s background is a lush riot of glittering Oriental and erotic symbolism – triangles, eyes, eggs. “The golden image of Adele Bloch-Bauer I cast a spell over me even as an art history student,” says Tobias Natter, a Vienna-based historian and curator of the Neue Galerie exhibition. “For me it’s a symphony in gold, a unique emblematic triumph.” It is considered an Art Nouveau masterpiece. 

The later painting is a dramatic departure: “How could Klimt have evolved from the first painting?” asks Natter. “With Adele Bloch-Bauer IIfive years later, he does something completely diffferent, an enormous stylistic evolution is clear.” The painting shows the raven-haired Adele in a wide-brimmed black hat standing majestically, frontally facing the viewer; the background a tableau of brightly colored patterned wallpaper. “What excites me about this image is the renewal through the power of colour. 

All that glitters

Here, Bloch-Bauer is very much the grande dame, but her eyes reveal a more mature melancholy. Despite privilege, life hadn’t always been kind to her. Altmann, who died in 2011, remembered her aunt as a “rather cold, intellectual woman who was very politically aware and became a socialist. She wasn't happy. It was an arranged marriage but she was childless, after two miscarriages and the death of a baby. I remember her as extremely elegant, tall, dark and thin. She always wore a slinky white dress and used a long, gold cigarette holder.”

Gustav Klimt’s women exuded not only a profound eroticism, but also strength and confidence. Critics and art historians over the decades have dubbed Klimt art’s “Frauenversteher” – “understander of women,” and many speculated that Adele and Klimt had an ongoing affair. It was never confirmed. In his paintings, Bloch-Bauer always appears sovereign, grand, even exalted.

In at least one area of her life, she very much was. Like others depicted in the Neue Galerie exhibition, she belonged to a largely Jewish bourgeoisie – whose women wielded considerable social and intellectual power through hosting salons. One Berta Zuckerkandl, for example, was of slightly lower social stature but was known as ‘the puppeteer of the Viennese cultural scene’ for all the connections she made, including introducing Klimt to Auguste Rodin; the Secession was apparently conceived over conversations in her living room. Many society women, like Szeréna Lederer (who, over 40 years, amassed the largest collection of Klimt in private hands at the time) and her daughter Elisabeth, appeared in Klimt portraits; the artist began to focus entirely on women as subjects after 1900.

Bloch-Bauer’s weekly salons were frequented by Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig

Bloch-Bauer’s weekly salons were frequented by the likes of composers Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss; author Stefan Zweig was also a visitor. Later, her doctor Julius Tandler – who was also a politician, advocating for social housing and the Austrian welfare state – influenced her toward social reform and women’s suffrage. The Neue Galerie exhibition not only focusses on the shifting roles of women at the time but also on the importance of fashion and design in not only Klimt’s work but in a ‘modern’ Austrian woman’s life. For the many drawn studies for Adele Bloch-Bauer I, Bloch-Bauer posed in stunningly pleated – but completely uncorseted, loose, and flowing – ‘reform’ dresses, at the time worn by bourgeouis women with progressive tendencies.

Bloch-Bauer died of meningitis in 1925, at only 43. Fate perhaps mercifully allowed her to miss the dark years that would descend upon Austria in the 1930s; after her death, her room became a kind of shrine to Klimt’s vision of her. After Austria was annexed by the National Socialists in 1938, the Bloch-Bauers’ art – numerous drawings by Klimt, several landscapes, of course the images of Adele – was confiscated and fell into ownership limbo until both portraits came to hang in Vienna’s illustrious Belvedere museum in the postwar years. There they would stay until 2006, when, after a long and drawn out series of court decisions, the paintings were returned to Altmann, the last surviving direct relative of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer.

Overwhelmed by prohibitive insurance and storage costs, Altmann sold Adele Bloch-Bauer I to Ronald Lauder – heir to the Estée Lauder cosmetics empire, and founder and director of the Neue Galerie – with the stipulation that it must always be on view; the later painting was sold at Christie’s in 2006, and is currently part of a special loan to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. “It’s not easy to borrow the second painting,” says Natter, explaining the infrequency of the two Adeles being shown together.

In April 2016, the new neighborhood currently under construction around Vienna’s main train station got a new street: Bloch-Bauer Promenade, named after both Adele and Ferdinand. Austria “very much misses” the paintings, especially Adele Bloch-Bauer I, says Natter. But now they “belong to the whole world.”

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