Monday, February 8, 2010

Neue Galerie

1/18/2010, Monday (MLK Jr Day) continued

TIME: 1.5 hrs
COST: $15 each
COFFEE BREAK: 2 coffees + Klimpttorte @ Café Sabarsky, $18

When I think of Germanic culture, painting is not the first thing that comes to mind. I think of brooding philosophers (Kant and Nietzsche), brilliant scientists (Einstein and Max Planck), disturbing writers (Hesse and Kafka), and maybe some really dreary operas (Wagner), but I have to say that painters don’t make the list for me. Yet around the turn of the century there was a revolution in the art of Germany and Austria that produced fantastic artists that I’ve definitely heard of, like Gustav Klimt, Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee. Today we visited a museum devoted solely to these artists.

This museum is the newest addition to Museum Mile, aptly named Neue Galerie (German for “New Gallery”), and housed in an elegant former mansion. The building has gone through all 3 stages of what Paul calls “The Natural Lifecycle of a Mansion”. Stage 1: The Mansion Ascendant, when the mansion is built in a neo-classical style (in this case Louis XIII) by the obligatory fashionable architectural firm of the day (Carrère and Hastings, designers of the New York Public Library) for an obscenely wealthy business tycoon (industrialist William Starr Miller), occasionally passing through famous hands (Grace Vanderbilt) until it reaches Stage 2: The Decline, when the building is transferred to those with less money and attempts are made to convert it to commercial use, such as a hotel, school or library (Institute for Jewish Research) until the building begins to deteriorate and becomes too costly to maintain, at which point it enters Stage 3: The Museum, when it is bought by/donated to the city, restored and preserved as a historic building and museum. Most of the museum buildings we’ve seen to date have gone through this process, leaving us to ponder the fates of mansions that don’t make it to the final stage. Destroyed by fire? Allowed to rot?

The Neue Galerie is logically divided into 2 floors, with the first devoted to occasionally dreamy and somewhat sad Austrian art, and the second to an angrier and more aggressive German perspective.  Most of the collection was assembled by just one man (art dealer Serge Sabarsky) and centered on the works of just a few artists, which makes for a very cohesive and (to me) a very clear window into the culture and attitudes in this one region at the turn of the century; the Zeitgeist if you will. Paul didn’t like the Neue Galerie as much as I did. He claimed it felt like a “Germanic Ideal" of a museum: rigidly organized, well engineered, goal directed, and, like most German cars, a bit over priced. He likes his museums a bit less tidy.

The centerpiece of the museum is a stunning picture by Klimt called the “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (see picture above), featuring a sensual woman (rumored to be a lover of Klimt’s) surrounded by golden patterns. It's very much in the style of “The Kiss”, the famous and somewhat cheesy Klimt painting of two lovers that adorns the dorms of college freshmen everywhere. The “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I” was purchased for the museum by cosmetics magnate Ronald S. Lauder in 2006 for $135 million, setting the record for the highest sum ever paid for a painting. Seems like a lot of money to us, but we can’t deny the painting is impressive, and very very shiny.

One final note about the museum. When we arrived, we found a huge line filling the lobby, and were considering leaving to find a museum with less of a wait, when the security guard asked us if we were here for the Café or the museum. When we answered museum, he cleared a path through the throng and we got to the desk without a problem. Naturally, we were curious as to how a humble museum café could warrant so much attention in a city with a thousand cafés and asked someone in line who said, “They have the best coffee in New York.” Now that is quite a statement, and needed to be investigated! Café Sabarsky prides itself on being a classic Viennese Café, with a menu in German (plus English translations) and serving classic Viennese dishes and cakes. We had the Klimttorte (a wonderful dense largely flourless chocolate, hazelnut and marzipan cake) and two Wiener Mélanges (lattes). It was fabulous. I haven’t had enough coffee in New York to be qualified to rate it as the best, but I can say it was better than anything I ever had in Seattle, Land of the Latte. We highly recommend it if you’re in the area, but try to avoid the lunch hour crowd.  

Pictures in this post, from the top: Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, by Gustav Klimt; exterior of Neue Gallerie; Mr. Spindler by Albert Birkle; Sudwestkorso, Berlin Five O’clock in the Morning, by Ludwig Meidner; Forester House in Weissenbach on the Attersee, by Gustav Klimt,


  1. Did you see any paintings by Moritz von Schwind (1804 - 1871) or Arnold Boecklin (1827 - 1901)? Maybe they didn't qualify as new. They were two painters of whom Hitler approved, while he condemned most contemporary art as degenerate. Not sure where he ranks as an art critic. Then there was the declaration of President Eisenhower, on the occasion of an American exhibit going to Moscow, that he didn't know much about art, but he knew what he liked, and he knew what the American people liked. Before condemning the two of them as philistines, recall what Jean Cocteau (I think) said, that when a work of art collides with the head of the man in the street, and a hollow sound results, there is yet a question which of the two is at fault. - Mike

  2. Your description of the Klimttorte had my mouth watering and a Wiener Mélange sounds like the perfect complement to it.
    You didn't mention who painted the warped street perspective picture... Was it Kandinsky? Klee?

  3. Loved reading your description of the museum and contents. Half the fun in touring is the great mansion itself. Too bad they don't leave the wallpaper, fixtures, etc.
    I agree with your "disturbing writers" and "dreary operas" comment. When we lived in Portland, Mike threatened me a time or two with Wagner's "Ring of the Nibelung" which he saw in Seattle. Now German movies, that's another matter. Very good!
    The Portrait - could that be a typical German man of that time? Quite enigmatic, but appealing nonetheless. Lynn

  4. We've had a several people ask about the paintings in the Neue Galerie post. The portrait is “Mr. Spindler” by Albert Birkle 1921, and the streetscape is “Sudwestkorso, Berlin Five O’clock in the Morning” by Ludwig Meidner 1913. We’ll try to be better about labeling artwork in the future.