Among the most controversial issues roiling fin-de-siècle Vienna was “Die Frauenfrage,” or “the woman question.” As they were doing in many other cities and nations of Europe and North America, women were challenging a patriarchal society that judged them unworthy of the rights customarily accorded to men.
You would hope that “Klimt and the Women of Vienna’s Golden Age, 1900-1918,” at the Neue Galerie, would delve widely, deeply and fearlessly into this complex topic. But while scholarly essays in the hefty, 320-page catalog do just that, the show itself only partly and obliquely brings out the most interesting issues relating to women and the art of Gustav Klimt.
That said, the 11 life-size portraits at the heart of the show are fascinating to look at and, with help from the catalog, to think about. Among them, naturally, is Klimt’s best known painting, “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), which sold for a record $135 million in 2006, was made more famous last year by the movie “Woman in Gold” and has been on permanent display at the Neue Galerie since 2006.
And yet, portraiture wasn’t Klimt’s main thing. He was primarily an allegorist who folded mythic figures into otherworldly visions of pagan religiosity. During the period covered by this show, he produced an average of only one portrait a year, all of women, and he hewed to a relatively standardized approach, a compromise between tradition and Modernism. In his major portraits, the subject’s head and features are rendered in a more or less conventionally realistic manner while the clothed body and background are painted more freely in styles reminiscent of Impressionism, Symbolism and Fauvism.
While the paintings represent chic, modern women who belong to a world of elegance and luxury, they also have the effect of exoticizing and etherealizing their subjects. As the art historian Jill Lloyd observes in her catalog essay, they seem both women of their time and timeless symbols of femininity, at once contemporary and archaic.
Ms. Lloyd avers that while Klimt’s preoccupation with women in the full range of his art “may well relate to a personal obsession, it also seems likely that Klimt viewed the subject of women as a key to the modernity of his art.” His portraits, she observes, “embody allusions to ‘the women question’ that are far from straightforward to read.” In light of the ways women are represented in popular culture today, these ideas are as relevant now as they were a century ago.
The exhibition, which includes a selection of life drawings as well as numerous pieces of jewelry, decorative objects and furniture designed by Wiener Werkstätte artists like Josef Hoffmann and Koloman Moser, doesn’t go much into Klimt’s personal life. But the catalog does. He was, as Ms. Lloyd puts it, a “serial philanderer.” He never married but is believed to have fathered 14 children by his models and other working-class women. But he also had a lifelong companion and confidante in the dress designer and business woman Emilie Flöge, though whether they were lovers remains a mystery.
Did Klimt suffer from Sigmund Freud’s Madonna-whore complex? Perhaps. In any event, his portraits of actual women are certainly exalting. Unfortunately, none of the explicitly erotic drawings he made of his models masturbating or of couples making love are included in the show for comparison with his more chaste portrait paintings here.
On a more pragmatic level, Klimt had a considerable investment in his few portraits because he depended on their subjects for his income. In his catalog essay, the exhibition’s organizer, the Klimt scholar Tobias G. Natter, explains that after a successful, albeit controversial, career under Austrian state patronage, Klimt renounced governmental support and became the first president of the renegade Vienna Secession. This posed a problem, however, because Vienna lacked the independent dealer and gallery system that artists in Paris and London could rely on. Instead of such a marketplace, Klimt depended on a small circle of wealthy, private patrons. “The more he sought out adventure and distanced himself from his state patrons, the more indispensable the commitment of his private collectors and clients became,” Mr. Natter wrote.
Klimt’s most important sponsor was Szerena Lederer, the subject of one of the exhibition’s more beguiling portraits. Made in 1899, it depicts its 26-year-old subject in a gauzy, glowing white dress against a pale beige background that contrasts sharply with her black hair and clearly defined facial features. The effect is ghostly. Along with her industrialist husband, August Lederer, Szerena would eventually amass the largest collection of Klimt’s work in private hands.
The Lederer’s daughter, Elisabeth, is the subject of another life-size portrait. Made in 1914-16, the portrait shows her swathed in a white, oddly elongated, cocoonlike dress against a blue background decorated with cartoonish Asian figures. Yet another member of the Lederer clan, Szerena’s niece Ria Munk, who committed suicide over a failed love affair at the age of 24 in 1911, is the subject of a posthumous portrait called “The Dancer” (1916-17). She is shown in a richly floral patterned robe open to reveal her bare chest against a background of flowers and Asian figures.
The painting that conveys a spirit of modern femininity best isn’t of a woman but of a 9-year-old girl, Mäda Primavesi. Made in 1912, it depicts her in a white, knee-length dress standing on solidly planted feet with one arm akimbo. Gazing back at the viewer with a calm, forthright expression, she projects a self-assurance that girls often are blessed to own. The painting could serve nicely as a poster for Day of the Girl, which just happened on Tuesday.