Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings from the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer

Special exhibition at the Neue Galerie, extended through October 9.

No matter how many times I experience it, the dramatic difference between viewing a familiar painting in a book or on a computer screen and viewing it in person still startles me. Fixed images give you the illusion of having experienced a painting, but they don’t really show you how large or small the painting is or how the brushwork looks in three dimensions or how vibrant the colors are or how the painting changes when viewed from different angles. Being in the presence of a painting touches you in a way that simply seeing it cannot. I have to relearn that lesson every time I visit a museum, and this time I relearned it at the Neue Galerie.

I’d seen Gustav Klimt’s first portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer countless times alongside the numerous articles about its acquisition by the Neue Galerie, but the painting surprised me nonetheless. Photographs don’t do it justice. In person, the luster of the gold and silver and the bold accents of red and blue and green make it look almost mystical, like a religious icon.

Byzantine mosaics inspired Klimt’s “Golden Style,” of which Adele Bloch-Bauer I is one of the finest examples, but this painting, at least, manages to be strikingly contemporary despite its obvious fourteenth-century roots. Perhaps the sensuality of the portrait has something to do with that. Bloch-Bauer’s pale face, shoulders, and forearms stand out amidst the heavy embellishments, and her slightly parted lips and bare skin are inviting. Her oddly posed hands somehow manage to look charmingly individual instead of awkward, and that makes the portrait special, too.

The humanizing capacity of Bloch-Bauer’s hands is no match, however, for the deifying power of the rest of Klimt’s painting. He has enthroned her, bejeweled her with precious metals, and decorated her with Byzantine and Egyptian iconography; she looks like some sort of Eastern Orthodox saint. I wonder what it must have been like for Frau Bloch-Bauer to hang this portrait in her home. It’s flattering, yes, but wouldn’t it also be bewildering, even embarrassing, to see yourself imagined as some sort of demigod?

Hopefully Adele Bloch-Bauer didn’t have my hang-ups because her husband commissioned Klimt to paint a second portrait of her several years after the completion of the first. In Adele Bloch-Bauer II (also on display at the Neue Galerie), Klimt trades Byzantine embellishments for Japanese ones. Bloch-Bauer is as holy as she was before, but she appears not as an Eastern Orthodox saint but as the serene central figure in an ethereal Japanese garden. Even without her gold and silver throne, she still looks like royalty as Klimt has made her proud and statuesque, elongating her figure and rendering it in cool blues against the rich pastel background.

The other three Klimt paintings at the Neue Galerie exhibition are landscapes—lovely ones (I particularly like Apple Tree I) but fairly typical post-Impressionist stuff. The portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, on the other hand, are the truly memorable works, strikingly different in style yet perfect companions to each other. We all should be immortalized as beautifully as Adele.