Oh Melon, your wife was just showing us her Klimt


Eggheads weigh in on why underdog Gustav Klimt beat out all rivals in the world's-most-expensive painting competition. Last week cosmetics heir Ron Lauder didn't even reach for the coins but went right for the folding money, shelling out $135 million for Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. That easily tops the previous record of $104 million paid for Garcon à la Pipe by Picasso (Pablo, that is, not Paloma). Interestingly, Lauder emerges as something of a good guy in this story, having supported the heirs of the painting's original owners in their fight to get the Nazi-confiscated piece back from the Austrian government; and his big-ticket purchase seems to have been a reward for that support. Here's what Estée Jr. got for his nine figures:

So where does an artist most people wouldn't know from Paul Klee get off demanding a price like this? According to one Jonathan Jones, it's the pre-war Vienna vibe:

The reason his 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is worth so much is not the gold that dazzles and dissolves in the painting's mysteriously unanchored visual field, or the striking long features and hands of the sitter. It is that this is a piece of real estate in an invisible city, a chunk of the vanished Vienna before the two world wars that tore the life out of it. The very reason such a prime painting has come to auction is that it was successfully claimed by the heirs of the rightful owner, from whom it was looted by Hermann Goering in 1938. It is a glittering fragment of a cruel century whose madness Klimt was one of the first to see coming… [The] sense of savage ritual just under the surface of modern life makes his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer formidable. He adores her, he covers her in gold and jewels, and she becomes an ancient Egyptian queen, bedecked in precious stuff for an eternity in the tomb. It is one of Klimt's masterpieces, and it is worth the money and more.

Christopher Benfey, on the other hand, gives the Close-Up explanation—it's all about sex appeal:

Intellectual friendship was foreplay at a time and place when, under Freud's tutelage, sex had gone upscale. The working classes copulated and procreated, but sex, as portrayed by Klimt in his swooning The Kiss (also 1907), was something properly performed, like Schubert or Beethoven, in upper-class drawing rooms. The femme fatale (or, in Freud's parlance, castrating female) was in vogue; Richard Strauss' Salome premiered in Vienna in 1907, and the American dancer Ruth St. Denis enthralled Viennese audiences with her erotically exotic performance art. Adele Bloch-Bauer, who entertained Strauss in her stylish salon, seems to have welcomed the femme fatale treatment, via a silver choker (symbolizing decapitation, according to Klimt scholar Alessandra Comini) of precisely the kind depicted in his notorious paintings of the biblical heroine and man-killer Judith.

But one generation's femme fatale is the next generation's comforting maternal presence. Walter Pater thought there was something kinky about the Mona Lisa: "like the vampire, she has been dead many times." Now she looks tame enough, with or without a moustache. Whatever sinister behavior Adele Bloch-Bauer was scheming while coyly rubbing her slender hands is gone with the wind. In the Klimt portrait, she looks like a preoccupied mom at a members' opening at the Met. "This is our Mona Lisa," Lauder said, plausibly enough. "I never saw her smile," Mrs. Altmann said of her aunt.

So put that in your pipe and smoke it, garcon. A third possible explanation can be found in this photo of Adele Bloch-Bauer, which shows that the painting is a better likeness than Dora Maar au chat, which is now the third-priciest painting on planet Earth:

Also in Arts & Leisure: Comics Curmudgeon has the full results of the Finger-Quotin' Margo Lookalike Contest, and you'll definitely want to get a load of the contestants.

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  1. Really, who doesn’t know Klimt? Underdog? My ass.

  2. Wien Wien nur Du allein.

    The Klimt exhibit at Belevdere is really cool.

    The only downer is that you have to go by that awful monument to the soviets. bastards.

    Turn-of-the-century Vienna has an amazing allure. Really cool stuff going on.

  3. I’m far more interested in the $82.5 million Portrait of Dr. Gachet by van Gogh. It may only be number 3 or 4 in the auction price list, but last I heard it’s still missing.

  4. Art collecting is a matter of money and taste. This guy obviously has money.

  5. Hmm… I know my Klee from my Klimt, and I prefer the Klee. I wonder what St. Anthony after the Temptation would go for?

  6. i kinda got that feeling watching Menschen am Sonntag (transposed to berlin during the weimar republic…)

    but what berlin lost, hollywood gained…

  7. So where does an artist most people wouldn’t know from Paul Klee get off demanding a price like this?

    That’s just odd.

    Klimt is big with the public-display-of-“creativity” set; he absolutely owns the blank-book (for writing in at the coffee shop) cover market.

    And while I haven’t been to a room in a girls’ dorm in a few years, back when I still occasionally stumbled through them, a shiny Klimt poster–“The Kiss,” usually–appeared to be standard issue.

    He’s huge. He’s Thomas Kinkade for people with “Wellstone!” bumper stickers on their Saabs. They don’t know who Klee is (but they’ll nod if you say his name).

  8. I wouldn’t do Adele Bloch-Bauer with a ten-foot paint brush.

  9. I didn’t know who he was, but then again, I’m not a fan of most painting. There are some artists I like, but I’m not even sure I could name them, either.

  10. I ? Klee!

  11. They don’t know who Klee is (but they’ll nod if you say his name). – Flintstone!

    Yeah, but you have to mispronounce it!


  12. Klimt is wonderful. I’d rather have one of his works on my wall than a Picasso, regardless of the jibes of Flintstone! above.

    He is, by the way, one of those artists whose works lose quite a bit when reproduced. Beyond the standard problems of color shift, resolution, texture, and size, only in person do you get the full effect of the gold leaf.

  13. Flintstone,

    Gotta agree with you. About 50% of all college girl dorm rooms have Klimt’s the Kiss on their wall. Also, a stroll through any art section of Barnes and Noble, or postcard section and you’ll see a lot of Klimt. He is very popular.

    I prefer his pal Sheile better, but Klimt’s pretty good…

  14. My now-eight year old son loved Klee’s “Oriental Promenade” because it was featured in Blue’s Clues when he was about three. Look for those posters to be really big on dorm room walls in about ten years.

    Mr. Klimt’s appeal to college girls must be a recent thing. I recall “Starry Night” being the preferred poster 25 years ago, probably because we all liked the Don McLean song as much as the painting. Also the Salvador Dali one with the melting pocket watch and anything by Botticelli. (I had both “Birth of Venus” and “Primavera.” My dorm room walls had a lot of cracks to cover.)

    As I type this, I really wish there was a futures market for dorm posters. I’d invest heavily in Klee right now. An endorsement by Steve and Blue is not a thing to take lightly.

  15. *ahem*

  16. best. headline. ever.

  17. Schiele? A man who spent his short life painting skanky, consumptive whores for a living? Give me Klimt.

    If Schiele were alive today, he’d paint Ann Coulter.

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