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Good Knight: Another Glimpse of the Klimts

The Los Angeles Times is a frequent and deserving target of scorn, but let us give credit when it is due: in Christopher Knight the Times delivers to its readers one of the very best visual arts writers currently to be had.  He does not quite achieve the consistent heights of, say, Robert Hughes, but when Mr. Knight is good -- which is frequently -- he is very good indeed.

Today, he delivers a terrific column on the five Gustav Klimt paintings (previously mentioned below) temporarily on display at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  The ostensible subject is the literally-golden opportunity that LACMA has to acquire these works for its collections.  To make his point, Knight gives a mini-survey of early 20th century art, makes a compelling case for the historic and aesthetic importance of even the less famous of these five paintings, and does a sterling job of pinning down just how the paintings "work" and why they are themselves so compelling.

The article will inevitably disappear into the Times pay archives, so it should be read promptly.  Here is one of the best passages -- with added links to some of the works mentioned -- focusing on the group's centerpiece, Adele Bloch-Bauer I:

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.

Marvelous stuff.  Read the whole thing and join me in hoping that the Art Museum demigods will smile on Los Angeles and grant Miss Bloch-Bauer and company permanent resident status.


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