At the risk of really diluting this blog’s political tint, today I will write a bit about my recent visit to the Neue Galerie at New York City. This tiny museum, prominently located at Fifth Avenue and 86th street, boasts excellent Austrian and German modern art in its collection. The elegant Louis XIII-style mansion that houses the museum has been restored very successfully for its operation as a complex consisting of galleries, shops, and restaurants.
The museum is currently enjoying great popularity thanks to its latest exhibition, “Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer.” It is a curious and technically inaccurate title, as just a couple of months ago, one of those five paintings was purchased by none other than the owner of Neue Galerie, Ronald S. Lauder. Mr. Lauder’s purchase was significant for two reasons: first, the Bloch-Bauer estate fought the Austrian government for many decades before having these paintings returned to them earlier this year (see the July 24 New Yorker for details on the story). Second, the purchase price of the painting, Adele Bloch Bauer I, at 135 million dolalrs, is the most on record for a work of art.
I don’t recall ever going to a special exhibition comprising of just five paintings, but this was actually remarkably satisfying. These are large, imposing, magnificent oil paintings, each representing distinct and significant parts of Klimt’s career. The contrast between Klimt’s portraits and paintings of forests and towns is stunning. His rendering of Houses at Unterach on the Attersee is a living, shimmering piece of Bavarian scenery, as vibrant as a Cézanne. The portraits, Adele I and Adele II, on the other hand, are idiosyncratic works from an ultra-modern perspective.
Now, about that most expensive painting in the world: the first thing that went through my mind was that Adele looks like Frida Kahlo! Both ladies, in my eyes, have the same dark hair and strikingly expressive eyes. Am I the only one who sees the resemblance? Anyway, the painting is unlike any other for sure; the exquisite use of gold elements on the work is quite unforgettable (apparently, Klimt was influenced toward this direction during his visit to the Byzantine mosaics at Ravenna, Italy in 1903). Is it better than Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe, which previously held the world record as the most expensive painting? Not to me, but clearly to Mr. Lauder!
In addition to the ongoing Klimt exhibition, the Neue Galerie has a fantastic permanent collection. There are terrific early works of Kandinsky, as well as haunting sketches by Egon Schiele. Also, a whole room is devoted to very cool objects of modern art from the early 1900s: furniture, silverware, flower vases, etc. This museum is a great example of the virtues of a small, but carefully chosen collection.
P.S. No visit to the Neue Galerie is complete without a stop at Café Sabarski, which transports one instantly to the elegant coffee houses of Vienna. There is often a long wait to get in, however, and the service can be slow. Nevertheless, the excellent pastries, coffees, and respectable entrees have the signature of the highly accomplished chef Kurt Gutenbrunner, making the wait worthwhile.