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A Dab of Luck on LACMA's Palette

If bought, the luminous Klimts temporarily on display could make the museum the only one in the U.S. with a major program in Modern art.

April 07, 2006|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Luck, according to the Roman dramatist Seneca, is what happens when preparation meets opportunity. If so, Los Angeles is the luckiest city in the world for Modern art right now.

Preparation just met opportunity, and the stunning result is "Gustav Klimt: Five Paintings From the Collection of Ferdinand and Adele Bloch-Bauer," which opened this week to a jostling media throng at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Only one question hangs over the show: How long will the luck hold out?

The exhibition continues through June. But all five paintings are quietly for sale, preferably to a museum. One is a towering monument of Modern art.

This is a powerful test for LACMA. The museum has embarked on a $145-million expansion plan and hired a new director -- Michael Govan, who began work just this week -- expressly to become the only encyclopedic museum in the nation with a major program in Modern and contemporary art. Almost preternaturally, the Klimts arrived as if made to order for achieving the goal. We are about to discover the depth of LACMA's sincerity and ambition.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday April 08, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 73 words Type of Material: Correction
Klimt exhibit: A headline in Friday's Section A said that if the Los Angeles County Museum of Art bought the five paintings by Gustav Klimt that are now on display there, it "could make the museum the only one in the U.S. with a major program in Modern art." In fact, it would make LACMA the nation's only museum with an encyclopedic collection that includes a major program in Modern and contemporary art.

Acquiring the works will not be inexpensive. And you can bet that billionaire cosmetics heir Ronald S. Lauder -- whose private Manhattan museum of German and Austrian art, the Neue Galerie, would go from cult favorite to international sensation if it owned the Klimts -- is waiting in the wings. Surely there are others.

There are five paintings. Two are full-length portraits of Klimt's great patron, Adele Bloch-Bauer, and three are landscapes. They span 1903 to 1916. (Klimt died at 55 in 1918.) As a group their power radiates outward, like ripples from a stone dropped into the pond of Modern art.

At the center is the singular 1907 tour de force, "Adele Bloch-Bauer I," among the greatest early Modern paintings now in the U.S. For LACMA it ranks as a destination work -- the kind one travels just to see -- comparable to Pablo Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" at New York's Museum of Modern Art or Marcel Duchamp's "The Large Glass" at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

As a pair, "Adele I" and "II" create a captivating dialogue of Klimt's artistic trajectory at an unparalleled moment -- a conversation centered on the Jewish patron critical to it. Together they begin to tell the heady story of Vienna as a profound social, intellectual and artistic engine driving modern culture before World War I.

Finally, as an ensemble the five paintings articulate almost the full arc of Klimt's 20th century career. (His architectural murals, of course, are absent.) Yet they also extend the story even further: An Austrian tribunal in January resolved a long-simmering lawsuit -- nearly 68 years after the Nazi regime plundered these paintings -- and returned them to their rightful owners, the family of L.A. resident Maria Altmann.

The narrative now encompasses the entire century -- the radiant flowering of European Modernism, its collapse into fascist anarchy, the rescue of art and artists and the long, slow process of cultural redress.

How often in an art museum does one encounter a veritable anthology like that? The prospect for a permanent LACMA gallery for this astounding group of works is extraordinary to contemplate.

Why is the 1907 portrait so significant artistically? Think of it as a hinge -- a pivot between a moribund, impossibly constricted world about to vanish forever and a new one whose contours could only be imagined.

With an exquisitely rendered image of a pretty, contemplative and artful young woman -- his likely lover -- the artist transformed an illustrious classical myth into a metaphor of creative ecstasy. Adele is Klimt's Danae.

In the ancient myth, the beautiful princess Danae was locked away in a bronze tower by her father, who had been warned by an oracle that one day her son would kill him. The randy Zeus -- a god who loved a challenge almost as much as sex -- devised a way to get to the imprisoned virgin. He transformed himself into a shower of gold dust, seeping through cracks in the ceiling and enveloping, irradiating and impregnating her.

Painters from Titian to Edward Burne-Jones painted the Greek myth, at times casting the characters in their Roman guises. In a monumental 1603 version of the story painted by the great Dutch Mannerist Hendrik Goltzius -- a masterpiece already in LACMA's collection -- the shocking theme is mercenary love. Danae, a sumptuous nude asleep on a pillow of platinum-colored satin amid a flurry of impish cherubs, is attended by a grizzled crone acting as procurer for the impatient Jupiter; leering Mercury, Roman god of commerce, looks on with glee. Greed and power are about to soil purity.

Klimt also painted the myth, in an explicitly sexual work still in a private Austrian collection. But Adele, his metaphoric Danae, is a thoroughly modern Jewish woman of taste, style, brains and means. The artist showers her in a torrent of gold, the light enveloping her body and ready to re-conceive the world.

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