Gustav Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” stunned me, overwhelmed me, humbled me, would not let me go. Though I have seen the painting many times online and in print, nothing prepared me for viewing the painting in person. It is a work of art that must be seen to be believed. This past Saturday, I had fully intended on trotting over to the Guggenheim Museum after spending time at the Neue Galerie, where the "Adele" is housed, but I had not planned on being drained by the glowing splendor of Klimt’s genius.
Somewhere, many years ago, I had read an article by a photographer who expressed his deep disappointment in the throngs of crowds that came to a particularly stunning, scenic overlook in one of America's national parks. Nature had bestowed a majestic vista by which few seemed to be awed. They came, paused briefly, snapped a photo (for proof of their visit? or on which to later linger?) and then marched on to the next stop. The photographer sat there for hours, simultaneously absorbing the beauty of the landscape an observing the non-observant visitors. When I finished that article, I vowed not to make the same mistake of settling for fleeting glimpses of awesome beauty.
It was with this tale in mind that I headed to Neue Galerie, on a pilgrimage of sorts, to see the famous 1907 oil, silver, and gold masterpiece for which Ronald S. Lauder paid $135 million. At that time (2006), Lauder set the record for the highest amount paid for a painting. The purchase now ranks number 3 (surpassed twice... in the same year!) on the list of most expensive paintings ever purchased. How often does one have the chance to come nose-to-nose with such luxury? I was bound and determined to go, to see, to observe, to linger. I was ill-prepared for the emotional and psychological experience that would occur.
Klimt’s masterpiece glows. Its repetitious patterns are captivating, and because there are so many different patterns at play (I am a sucker for repitition in art), one easily gets lost in the wilderness, eyes wandering over glittering squares, vine-like swirls, eyeballs that seem to stare back, and the occasional, disruptive zigzag. Gold, oh so much gold! Splashes of silver and whorls of blue, green, red, orange. Oh the glory of the managed busyness! Heaven on canvas.
I stayed and I stayed. I moved closer. I stood back. And then I stood closer, and then moved back—a yoyo in very slow motion, as if Adele herself had me on a string. I stayed and as I remained transfixed, others came and went. Many paused and pondered for a couple of minutes before moving along, while many—bewilderingly, I thought—gave only a cursory glance before continuing their lap around the room, oblivious to the beauty that had left me thunderstruck. One couple even managed to have a protracted discussion over which time in their life was more enjoyable—high school or college? Really? I thought, more than slightly annoyed at their dismissal of museum protocol. We were in a gallery, not a Starbucks! Shush! (And besides, everyone knows that college is the right answer, end of conversation.) And what’s worse, they jabbered away without so much as seeing the glory under which they conversed! The inane conversation temporarily disrupted my reverie…
But only temporarily. I can hardly recall what I was thinking while I continued my affair with the painting. Who knows over which landscapes my mind deliriously and happily wandered, during the ten, twenty, thirty-plus minutes I remained. It didn’t matter.
There's something to be said for spending a lot of time with a piece of art (or picture, or scenery, whatever). The longer our gaze lingers, the more we notice. Mistakes in a painting become apparent, almost glaring. Stare long enough and you'll be able to pick out the hair of a brush left matted onto the canvas, or a faint amber mark of an outline never used. Details, too, seem to pop out. And as was the case with the Klimt painting in question, one gains new appreciation for a piece examined up close and again from afar. New angles and distances bring about literal and metaphorical new perspectives on which to see—actually see—a painting. A greater appreciation for the work as a whole is better attained when one takes the time to invest in the experience. This is what I re-discovered. This is what so many passersby missed that day.
And let's not even discuss the mind wanderings one experiences in thirty minutes of solitutde with eyes transfixed on a work of art. What was the light like on the day Klimt made this portrait? Were he and Adele in conversation? Did he take the piece back to his studio and paint over the chair on which she sat, or did that happen in situ? Why did he choose real gold and silver versus gold and silver paint? Is there added value in the former? Did this work come about in a fury of genius? Out of a moment of inspiration? Or did it unflold over days, weeks, months? Is it worth $135 million?
What is great art?
I thought back to the photographer and his disappointment in the lack of revelry and shared joy of his mountainous scenery, and I felt similarly saddened by the parallel scene unfolding before me. I pity the loss of the many who did not linger that day. Lauder may have paid $135 million for this beauty, but for me, the hypnotic moments were priceless.
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