VIENNA — Christmas came early for the Leopold Museum in Vienna recently when anonymous donors unexpectedly financed the purchase of a famous 19th-century oil painting at auction.
“The Altar of Dionysos”, by renowned Austrian artist Gustav Klimt was auctioned off Tuesday night by continental Europe’s largest auction house, the Vienna-based Dorotheum. It sold for $560,000 — well above the estimated range.
A spokesman for the Leopold Museum called the acquisition extraordinary and said the way it was financed was a first for the museum.
“The day before the auction a Viennese couple called our director to talk to him about the painting,” spokesman Klaus Pokorny told Zenger News in an interview. “They are frequent guests in the museum and very fond [of] it, they said, and they would be very pleased if the painting would be hung on one of our walls for the public to enjoy, rather than end up in a private collection.”
The couple offered to put up the money for museum director Hans-Peter Wipplinger to buy the painting, but on one condition: They remain anonymous.
In a press release, museum director Hans-Peter Wipplinger spoke of “an early Christmas stroke of luck” at a difficult time of financial adversity in the face of the coronavirus pandemic crisis, which has kept the museum closed for the entire month of November.
“That someone would approach me one day before the auction and commission me with the task of acquiring this … highly significant work is something I have never experienced before,” Wipplinger said in the statement.
The Leopold Museum is home to some 6,000 works of art, according to its website. The gallery is notable for its large and varied collection of 19th-century Austrian art that already includes eight of Klimt’s works.
All that is known about the generous givers is that they are an art- and theater-loving married couple from Vienna, who have also been steady visitors at Vienna’s national theater stage, the Burgtheater. It was there that the couple developed a particular affection for “The Altar of Dionysos.”
Today, Klimt is best known and adored worldwide for his later works, the easily recognizable paintings in the art nouveau style. They often depict scantily clad or naked women and are richly decorated with floral ornamentation and gold plating. In his youth, however, Gustav Klimt adhered to the more historicism school of art that dominated Vienna up until the turn of the 19th century.
With his brother, Ernst Klimt, and fellow painter Franz Matsch, the younger Klimt garnered a reputation and local fame as a contractor for large interior decoration works. He later broke ties with Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts, founded the Secession movement, and became its most celebrated proponent.
In 1886, Austrian Emporer Franz Josef 1 commissioned a 24-year-old Klimt, his brother and Matsch to decorate the interior of the recently built Burgtheater. They were to adorn the theater’s large staircases with a cycle of paintings that would symbolize the history of theater. One of these paintings was “The Altar of Dionysus,” which Klimt created for the entirety of a 12-meter (39 feet) arch. In preparation for the elaborate wall painting, he created the 158 by 32 centimeter (5 feet by 1 foot) oil-on-canvas study, which will now hang in Leopold Museum.
“The painting is a very important addition to our collection. With its theme and the incorporation of naked women, a typical trait of many of Klimt’s later works, it illustrates the transition that Klimt underwent from historicism to art nouveau,” Pokorny said. “It is a wonderful bridge between these two phases in his career.”
The painting features an altar crowned by a bust of Dionysus, the ancient Greek god of wine, fertility, theater and festive ecstasy, surrounded by worshipping muses and servants. The women are either naked or scantily clad. One can be seen reclining against the altar, exhausted from the frenzy, extending an arm with a golden wreath of laurel towards the god.
The inspiration for the painting came from staged pagan events that are believed to have been the origin of theater. And although it earned Klimt a Golden Cross of Merit from the emperor, it is still overshadowed by his later works, both in terms of popularity and price level.
Klimt’s most famous work, “The Kiss,” hangs in Belvedere Museum in Vienna, which houses the world’s largest and most complete collection of Klimt paintings.
“The most expensive Klimt painting ever sold was a portrait of the Jewish Vienese banker daughter and industrialist wife Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), which is best known as “Golden Adele”, or “Woman in Gold”.
The painting, better known as “Golden Adele” or “Woman in Gold”, was auctioned off in 2006 by Christies in New York following a six years-long legal battle between the Austrian state and the niece of Adele Bloch-Bauer, Maria Altmann, over the rights to the painting, which had been expropriated by the Nazis and since ended up in the Vienese Belvedere Museum’s collection. The story of the legal battle, which Maria Altmann eventually won, was turned into the Hollywood blockbuster “Woman in Gold” in 2015 starring Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds as Maria Altmann and her lawyer.
After the verdict, the painting was sold to cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder for a price of $135 million, making it the most expensive painting ever sold at the time. “Golden Adele” is exhibited in Lauder’s Neue Gallerie in New York today.”
One explanation for the comparatively low price is also that the Austrian department of cultural heritage had barred “The Altar of Dionysus” from leaving Austria, limiting the number of prospective buyers.
Yet Pokorny said $560,000 is still a large sum to a museum, especially when it comes in the form of a donation.
“It is not unusual that museums receive generous donations, but a donation of this size is extremely rare. I would say it’s a wonderful exception,” he said.
“The Altar of Dionysus” will receive a prominent place in the Leopold Museum’s 19th Century collection, Pokorny said. The museum reopened on Dec. 8.
(Edited by Natalie Gross and Bryan Wilkes.)
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