During my long absence yesterday, I visited the Neue Gallery in New York, where for the first time I saw Gustav Klimt’s breathtaking portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer.


The public clearly loves it, and reviews have been predictably mixed. Here’s the slightly snarky New York Magazine:

3. Adele Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Viennese, may or may not have been Klimt?s lover, which is part of the picture?s beguiling mystery. She was certainly his muse. The painting is an altarpiece for the romantic imagination. Klimt worked on it for three years, embedding Adele in a softly undulating and hypnotic cloud?a melting halo of gold. Her expression is languid, her dress full of fluttering eyes. She kept the painting in her private sitting room.
4. Klimt was inspired by the glorious Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy, where the gold and jewels flicker in an otherworldly light. At the Neue Galerie, Adele Bloch-Bauer I is well placed in an imposing and handsome room. But the flat and even light, while ideal for many other paintings, deadens the imaginative shimmer of Klimt?s gold. It may take some time before the museum?s curators get just the right sort of glimmer.

The New York Sun was much snarkier, denouncing the painting as “a celebration of the wealth of bourgeoisie — a kind of Hail Mary pass from the modern world to the old.”
Notwithstanding any of these criticisms, I love the work. I think it’s a beautiful thing, naively decadent in a good way, reflecting Klimt’s absinthe-laced Art Nouveau times. More than one art critic has noticed an underlying defiance of spirit (which might be missed by those who dismiss the apparent foppish estheticism):

the portraits, with their timeless aspect, may be perceived as defying fate. Sleep, Hope (a pregnant woman surrounded by baleful faces) and Death are subjects no less characteristic than the Kiss. Yet life’s seductions are still more potent in the vicinity of death, and Klimt’s works, although they do not explicitly speak of impending doom, constitute a sort of testament in which the desires and anxieties of an age, its aspiration to happiness and to eternity, receive definitive expression.

As to Neue’s display, I thought it was perfect; my only problem was that the room was crowded, but this was a Sunday.
The gallery paid $135 million for the painting, the highest price ever paid for any painting. While of enormous interest to art historians, it’s simultaneously of great interest to Holocaust historians and legal scholars:

Adele Bloch-Bauer had indicated in her will that Klimt’s paintings should be donated to the Austrian State Gallery.[4] She died in 1925 from meningitis. When the Nazis took over Austria, her widowed husband had to flee to Switzerland. His property, including the Klimt paintings, was confiscated. In his 1945 testament, Bauer-Bloch designated his nephew and nieces, including Maria Altmann, as the inheritors of his estate.[5]
As Bloch-Bauer’s pictures had remained in Austria, the government took the position that the testament of Adele Bloch-Bauer had determined that these pictures were to stay there. After a protracted court battle in the United States and in Austria (see Republic of Austria v. Altmann), binding arbitration by the Austrian court established in 2006 that Maria Altmann was the rightful owner of this and four other paintings by Klimt.[6] The decision was received in Austria with dismay. After the pictures were sent to America, they were on display in Los Angeles in 2006 before the portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer was sold to Lauder.

The entire Supreme Court opinion is here, and it’s complicated, because while the moral issue was quite clear (Nazis stole the painting from the family) the legal issue involved the retroactive application of the Federal Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA).
Kennedy, Rehnquist, and Thomas filed a lengthy (IMO persuasive) dissent, and I’m not entirely sure the court reached the right result in the majority opinion. I say this despite the fact that I am delighted that the family got the painting, and that it is now in New York and not Austria. I consider the Austrian government’s conduct to have been a shameful ratification of the Nazi theft. The problem is, the damned sovereign immunity laws allowed them to get away with it at the time — a grievous wrong, if a legal one. Morally speaking, Austria did not deserve the painting. A legal technicality — a loophole, if you will — permitted them to get away with it.
Yet the law is built on technicalities, and I’m always concerned when I see retroactive application of any law, even in the most morally egregious situations. If conduct is heinous enough, there seems to be a consensus that laws should be bent.
Whether that’s a good idea poses an entirely new moral question. Lots of people think that in cases of things like the Holocaust, or crimes against children, principles like retroactivity should be disregarded. I’d rather see extralegal conduct committed in the name of morality than see legal principles disregarded. The adbduction of Eichmann is a good example. I support Israel’s moral right to do that, just as I would have supported their moral right to send a special op team into Austria to seize the stolen Klimt paintings notwithstanding Austria’s technical legal rights.
That would make me anarchistic, as well as anachronistic. (But appreciative.)