Gustav Klimt was a truly controversial artist. When first exposed in galleries, his artworks had to be hidden behind curtains in order to protect the young from such strong, sexual imagery. Some of his early critics even went so far as to accuse him of pornography and outright perversion. Klimt, like many of his contemporary intellectuals, saw in sex the most important and determinant factor of life, and sought to convey it.
This astounding portrait was commissioned by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Viennese sugar industrialist and the husband of Adele. Naturally therefore, Klimt would choose to create a painting that powerfully celebrated the beauty of his subject. His opulent use of mottled gold offsets Adele’s delicately rouged skin and matte black upswept hair. The central column of her dress, covered in what looks like eyes (in Eastern regions, the eye (or ‘nazar’) traditionally stands as a symbol of protection against evil), hints at her feminine shape beneath her billowing golden gown.
Yet, as one looks beyond the golden glory of this portrait, it becomes apparent that it oozes a sensuality which is suggestive of a more than platonic relationship between painter and subject. Adele Bloch-Bauer’s parted mouth exposes two capable teeth, while her heavy hazel eyes suggestively glare. Her body is turned inward – a gesture that is as sensual as it is coy. Klimt’s subtle use of colour is also clearly sexual – blue has been softly applied across the erogenous collar and wrists zones, while Adele’s cheeks are flushed a fresh red. Ultimately, this is not an objective representation of beauty by Klimt, but a personal expression of sheer desire.
Given her marital status, any form of sexual interaction between the two was inevitably illicit. Yet, as Adele Bloch-Bauer coyly stares down at us, it is obvious Klimt has created an image much like a forbidden fruit – elevated beyond reach but magnetically pulling us in, as the artist himself must have been. Her pencil stenciled hands look more like claws than human fingers; she is the ultimate femme fatale.
It has been said that the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I is the Mona Lisa of the 20th century. As one reflects upon Adele’s porcelain beauty and golden armor, all dotted with ancient enigmatic symbols and encased in a huge golden frame, it is clear why. Like Da Vinci, Gustav Klimt creates a visual feast – a portrait that is complex, enchanting, and highly suggestive for its time. However, quite unlike the Mona Lisa, Klimt does not leave us guessing. Rather, he boldly insinuates his infatuation.