Monday, March 03, 2008


This famous portrait by Gustav Klimt was displayed for years as a "national treasure" in a public palace in Vienna.

Nations fought over it. Teams of lawyers, diplomats and politicians debated the painting's ownership in front of international tribunals. The US Supreme Court analyzed its status under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. Eventually, the picture was purchased for $135 million, the most expensive painting in history up to that time.

But circumstances were very different when the painting was first created.

100 years ago, an 18 year old girl named Adele Bauer was pressured by her mother into an arranged marriage with a wealthy older man. Adele had hoped to pursue her education, but her mother insisted on a high society marriage to corporate mogul Ferdinand Bloch. Adele seemed condemned to a life as a bored society wife, childless and neglected by her husband (who was preoccupied with the family banking and sugar enterprises).

Adele stumbled across Vienna's local Jugendstil art movement and wanted to learn more. She purchased work from promising young artists and promoted their art to her wealthy friends.

One day, Adele summoned the courage to call upon the local artist Gustav Klimt to ask him to paint her portrait. Klimt had a reputation as a brilliant but coarse man who often scandalized polite society. Raised in poverty, Klimt spoke with a thick accent and apparently did not bathe as often as he might. He reportedly wore nothing beneath his artist's smock. Models lounged around his studio, naked and available for artistic or any other kind of inspirational activity.

The shocked citizens of Vienna accused Klimt of being a "pornographer" because of his blatantly erotic drawings.

Adele soon formed a close relationship with Klimt. Her husband discovered just how close that relationship had become when he saw Klimt's first portrait of Adele displayed at the Secession Exhibition of 1901. She was wearing the gold choker her husband had given her, but little else:

Biographer Salomon Grimberg pondered:
Was Klimt aware of what he was doing when he chose to exhibit the painting?.... displaying a defiantly staring half nude woman...could be both damaging to Adele and an insult to her husband. The Bloch-Bauers received the exhibition in silence.
Adele's friend Alma Mahler hissed, "I always knew Adele was no holy one." But no matter how much polite society clucked and gossiped, Adele continued her relationship with Gustav for nearly a dozen years. Klimt was reportedly fascinated by Adele and helped to introduce her to Vienna's cultural avant garde. She educated herself and established an important salon where leading intellectuals would come and talk. Together with Klimt, she broke out of the cage that society had planned for her.

When Klimt painted the famous "golden portrait" of Adele, above, he covered her dress with these mysterious symbols:

I do not claim to understand these symbols, but an observer might be forgiven for concluding that Klimt was really, really fond of Adele's vulva, and did not care who knew it:

I'm sure that during their private moments together, neither Adele nor Gustav dreamed that Adele's "national treasure" would one day end up in the geopolitical spotlight.
Over the past century, the portrait's sweaty human origins were forgotten in a tide of bankers, lawyers, accountants and politicians. Respectable elements of society who once felt threatened by Klimt's unruly lusts now acclaimed his painting as "our Mona Lisa." Aging dowagers in elegant ball gowns posed for photographs in front of the painting, proud to be associated with what had now become "high art."

As they toasted the painting with expensive champagne, they seemed totally oblivious to Klimt's symbols, or to the human wellspring of art.


Anonymous said...

What a great, insightful post, David! And great closeups of this masterpiece.

Lately, I've been knee deep in compositional analysis parsing the associative meanings of shapes and forms and the difference between metaphor and symbol in art... so this hits me in a timely way.

Looks to me like Klimt creates a metaphoric cloak that "represents" his love for Adel quilted from symbols abstracted from her charms. A metaphor built of symbols. Fascinating.

Thanks for the insights as always. Wonderfully written!

Kev Ferrara

Mahendra Singh said...

Very good article … perhaps in the future you could do a piece on Klimt's drawings and draftsmanship. He could love 'em and draw 'em with equal facility.

Cheers & thanks!

Annie said...

My friend Andrew told me to check out your blog. He is an incredible artist and I am going to school hoping to major in Art History. I love your articles! They give me something to aspire toward!
Thankfully, I got to see the Klimt's, and I must say that they were as stunning as the papers claimed, but put in their original context, it gives an entirely different view and helps me to find a new appreciation for them!
Keep writing- you've got many listeners!

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Kev. I suspect you won't be analyzing a whole lot of symbols like Klimt's.

Mahendra, I love Klimt's drawings, perhaps even more than his paintings. But there was certainly nothing restrained or "symbolic" about them-- Klimt came right out and said it in his drawings. I think I will have to save those for a separate, "mature audiences only" blog.

Welcome, Annie-- it's good to have you here, and thanks for your comment. I visited your blog and I really like your enthusiasm for art history; good luck with school!

william wray said...

I think your right on the money. ( Vulva wise.) Certainly that artist/ client relationship smelled fishy. If the husband let it go on he was being serviced at the office and didn't care.

A lot of Dick and Jane is symbolized in art as we know. I love the irony of Klimt throwing his lover's vagina to the masses who have eaten it up ever since

Anonymous said...

Man, that was great! I have loved Klimt for a long time even featured him in a graphic novel I did awhile back), but I did not know this. Great insight!

chi said...

a romantic fling and love affair, a life spent on unfaithful marriage, and the devotion of the untamed artist has written an epic of art history.
great article, please reveal more stories behind these wonderful art works.

Anonymous said...

There is a Klimt´s self-portrait draw what he apppears like a falo with balls. His sexuallity was really... important for.

Anonymous said...

There is a Klimt´s self-portrait draw what he apppears like a falo with balls. His sexuallity was really... important for.

Anonymous said...

There is a Klimt´s self-portrait draw what he apppears like a falo with balls. His sexuallity was really... important for.

Aman Chaudhary said...

What a romantic tale! And well-written too. :)

SiliconSurfer said...

Sweaty Sex is awesomely human. Right on.

Laine said...

great post!!! I've admired Klimt's art for a while but I never knew much about the artist himself or the hidden symbols.

illustrationISM.... said...

salvador dali & gala would be proud!

mark @

Roger Haus said...


Anonymous said...

Klimt has always been one of my favorite artists. I was always facinated by his use of goldleaf in his paintings and how various book covers of more recent times would later try to emulate the effect.

Fuel to the fire of the 'fine art' vs 'illustration' debate/line blurring.

Thanks for the entry. Great admirer of your blog.

Simon Morris Winheld said...

Hi, I'm an illustrator and I just found you blogsite. It's beautiful, you have so many of my favorite artists here, with lots of insightful information and context as well.

If you have a chance to check out my work it's at:

Please keep writing and posting work!

Anonymous said...

I adore your blog, thank you for making it. Im on it daily, so i can quote its insight and appear much cleverer than i am to my fellow students.

Anonymous said...

Any idea what the eyes on Adeles' dress symbolise?