The Old World has no claim to great European art. A magnificent gallery showcases Vienna’s treasures in the Big Apple
Europeans like to believe that they have the culture and the taste and Americans have the money. It’s a comforting if arrogant illusion, quickly evaporating for a visitor to the Neue Galerie on New York’s Museum Mile. This is the stretch of 5th Avenue hosting the mighty Metropolitan, the original Guggenheim and now the neues Kind on the block, Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie. All right, so the collection content is European, the magnificently explosive work of the German and Austrian groundbreakers from around 1900 to the 1930s. But the museum itself is a grandly modest American Geldadel (moneyed aristocracy) townhouse, built in 1914 for a millionaire brewer in the then current Beaux-Arts style, its rich dark wood paneling a tasteful alternative to the gaudy gilt of the Habsburg apartments in Vienna’s Albertina. It was later home to Grace Vanderbilt, the last of the great society hostesses who, at the end, lived there virtually alone, other than the necessary staff of 12.
New World, old World
Ronald Lauder, heir to the Estée Lauder empire and rich beyond most of our dreams, is the moving spirit behind the Neue Galerie. Like his counterpart Rudolf Leopold (whose namesake museum in Vienna, too, houses some of the same Viennese greats), Lauder began his collection early by spurning a well-intentioned parental gift in favor of a picture. Where Leopold traded in a car, Lauder cashed in his bar mitzvah money for a Schiele drawing.
Even as a teenager Lauder was fascinated by the Austrian and German rebels of the early 20th century, then over-shadowed by the impressionists and shooting stars of Paris. He put it simply: “I couldn’t afford Matisse or Picasso, and I quickly realized that the works of Klimt, Schiele, Kandinsky and Klee were in the same league. But they were a lot cheaper.” Together with the Vienna-born collector and New Yorker gallerist Serge Sabarsky, they planned a fitting home for the budding collection, in keeping with both the German Bauhaus and Vienna Secession concept of Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art). It was to be an integral experience, “holistic” in hipster-speak. And it is that: As the roar of 5th Avenue traffic fades behind, you step into a seamless synthesis of New World architecture and Old World art.
No Wrinkles on Adele
The museum opened in 2001. At the time there was some speculation about possible conflicts with Lauder’s role as a major donor to the Museum of Modern Art. But as he told The New York Times: “Before I did anything I sat down with people from the Modern … the two collections will work well together. We’re a small, specialized institution, we’re not trying to be the Modern.’’
The collection may be specialized, but it doesn’t seem small, probably because of the subtly dramatic presentation. The in-your-face expressionist rebels Egon Schiele and Koloman Moser are marshaled in one room, an end wall featuring a powerful block of 18 Schiele sketches. The adjoining room is dedicated to Gustav Klimt, his whole gamut from peaceful gardens to the lushly erotic. And, of course, dominant at one end of the room is The Woman in Gold herself, Klimt’s magnificent 1907 portrait of the young Adele Bloch-Bauer, the face that launched a thousand hours of legal wrangling and several movies.
In 2006, Austria reluctantly relinquished its rights to the portrait after a lengthy restitution battle in the courts and Lauder was determined that it shouldn’t disappear from view into some billionaire’s bunker. He paid $135 million to secure it for his Neue Galerie, at the time the highest price ever for a painting. Perhaps it’s only fitting that a fortune built on anti-antiaging cream should guarantee public immortality to a beautiful woman. The museum (thank God!) has a strictly enforced no photography policy, but as a concession to the selfie addicted, there is a full-size reproduction of Adele in the basement across from the restrooms. A wooden bench is artfully positioned to allow taking selfie souvenirs in comfort.
It is the third room on the Austrian floor that confronts you with the full richness of the Gesamtkunstwerk concept. This was the spirit of the Secession, its art was not for decoration but to be lived. The paintings, furniture and clocks that line the walls, the elegant vases and dishes of glass and porcelain, coolly modernistic place settings in silver and steel and rich ornamental jewelry in display cases, all combining in a single sublimely affluent lifestyle anno 1910.
The information tags tell the story of the cross discipline talents behind it all: Moser, Hoffmann, Wagner, Loos – the great painters, designers and architects of Jugendstil, Vienna’s belle époque. Of course all of this is also documented en masse in other great museums, especially in the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) in Vienna itself. But the strength of the Neue Galerie collection is its focus, a finely tuned selection of a few of the best pieces that the movement and the moment produced.
A Little Known Austria
The upper floor is usually devoted to the great German expressionists like Beckmann, Kirchner & Co., the magical Blaue Reiter group, the pivotal Bauhaus movement and many others from the creative landscape pre-Hitler. Right now, this Teutonic art powerhouse has been replaced by a little known Austrian painter, Richard Gerstl. Approaching the stairs to the Gerstl exhibition you are greeted by a photo portrait of an elegant young man, well-trimmed hair and beard, tailored three-piece suit, neat cravat and a long, skinny cigarillo dangling nonchalantly from one hand. Surprisingly, this is the face of the wild young radical, credited as Austria’s first expressionist, whose short life ended in highly publicized suicide. Like his contemporary and fellow painterly radical Egon Schiele, Gerstl’s work is dominated by his self-portraits, haunting images of an intense young man whose eyes bore into the viewer. His work progresses rapidly from early pictures in a classical portrait style, then black-and-white pointillist images reflecting something of the great master Klimt, later portraits fusing into a brutally colorful expressionist haze, where only the eyes continue to stare out with piercing clarity.
And – again like Schiele – there is an abrupt contrast between the fierce vehemence of his faces and the tranquility of his landscapes, something of Van Gogh’s vigorous but affectionate depiction of the countryside (Gerstl is often referred to as the Austrian Van Gogh). Then as now, there is nothing like a scandal to spark interest in the artist if not the art: Gerstl had been a close family friend of the Schönbergs, giving both of them lessons in painting. Arnold Schönberg was already a very competent artist and hoped to improve on his meagre success as a composer by selling his pictures. What his wife Mathilde expected is less clear.
What did become all too clear was an intimate liaison between Gerstl and Mathilde. A few days after it all blew up in the press, Gerstl was publicly refused entry to the opera, whereupon he went straight home and killed himself. Curiously, his portrait of Mathilde with her daughter shows a motherly and rather plain woman, no longer young. Looking at his ravishingly sensual portrait of Henryka Cohn across the room, the viewer wonders at his choice.
Sadly, Serge Sabarsky did not live to see the Neue Galerie open in 2001. But he is remembered fondly in the Café Sabarsky, an authentic Wiener café in the heart of New York City, perhaps the greatest compliment of all. Work your way across the black-and-white tiled floor, take a seat at one of the small marble tables and settle into a dark stained Wiener Werkstätte chair and you’re back im ersten Bezirk (in the 1st district). Flip open the menu to Schmankerln, choose Spätzle or Palatschinken (English translations in fine type) and help it down with a Kamptal Grüner Veltliner or a Burgenland Blaufränkisch. What is not quite authentic: The waiters actually see you when you are ready to order and are friendly to a fault. And on the street corner outside you are looking at a tediously gray-brown 20 floor apartment block and a busy Sabrett hotdog stand, “sundaes, cones and shakes.” It’s New York, baby.