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:
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.