“Adele Bloch-Bauer I” (1907), by Gustav Klimt, is a showboat painting that, last month, fetched a showboat price: a hundred and thirty-five million dollars, the most on record for a work of art. The cosmetics magnate and collector Ronald S. Lauder bought it for the Neue Galerie, the spruce little museum of Austrian and German modern art at Fifth Avenue and Eighty-sixth Street which he co-founded in 2001 with the late dealer Serge Sabarsky. “Adele” is now on display there, along with four other Klimts, among them “Adele Bloch-Bauer II” (1912), which are owned by “Adele” ’s seller, the estate of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer. An Austrian Jewish sugar industrialist and Adele’s husband, he fled the country after the Anschluss, in 1938; his belongings were seized by the Nazis. (Adele had died in 1925, of meningitis; Ferdinand died in 1945.) The works hung in the Austrian Gallery of the Belvedere Palace, in Vienna, while, year after year, lawyers wrangled over ambiguous wills; an Austrian arbitration panel awarded the paintings to the heirs early this year. Adele, a twenty-five-year-old socialite and patroness in 1907, was probably one of the priapic Klimt’s many lovers, though perhaps not for long: the gold- and silver-leafed hieratic portrait is piercingly erotic; its brushy, more Expressionist 1912 sequel is not. Klimt was working in the Indian summer of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the period of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities”—an efflorescence, soon to be ruined, of pell-mell modernization, careering idealism, incendiary genius (Freud, Mahler, Wittgenstein), and, among the rich and cultivated, zealous decadence. It’s all there in “Adele”: the painting is exquisite and brazen, compelling and brittle, too self-conscious to be experienced as altogether beautiful but transcendent in its cunning way.
The subject is placed off-center, to the right, on a canvas more than four and a half feet square. Imperious and smart, making her slightly horse-faced features seem a paradigm of feminine perfection, she wears a shoulder-strap gown with a cloak-like, billowing outer layer and broad gold and silver bracelets and a bejewelled silver choker. A storm of patterns—spirals, targets, nested squares, split ovals, checks, dots, short vertical bars, arrowhead triangles, ankh-like eyes—may represent fabric, furniture, and wallpaper, or they may be sheer invention. Most of the ground (not background, because almost everything in the picture that isn’t flesh snugs up to the picture plane) is mottled gold. Her asymmetrically upswept hair is painted matte black. Her right hand is oddly raised to her shoulder and, wrist bent at a painful-looking right angle, is grasped by her left, as if to restrain it. (On a Viennese note of that epoch, the pencil-outlined fingers faintly suggest claws.) Her frontal gaze turns inward, registering sensations that can only be sexual. Her dark-shadowed hazel eyes, under tapering black brows, are wells of seduction; someone could fall into them. Her bee-stung red mouth parts to expose two competent teeth. Blue tints along her collarbones, wrists, and hands hint at subcutaneous veins: erogenous zones. She is a lighthouse, or shadehouse, of desire. (Lauder, speaking for the Neue Galerie, has called the painting “our ‘Mona Lisa.’ ” I have seen the “Mona Lisa,” and “Adele” is no “Mona Lisa.” Not very much is mysterious about this cookie.) The picture is most excitingly viewed, after close inspection, from afar. Patterns shatter into drifting, pure abstraction while the facial expression still reads at full power. The double pleasure dizzies.
Is she worth the money? Not yet. Paintings this special may not come along for sale often, and the hundred and four million dollars spent for a so-so Picasso, “Boy with a Pipe,” two years ago indicated that irrational exuberance could be the booming art market’s new motto. But Lauder’s outlay predicts a level of cost that must either soon become common or be relegated in history as a bid too far. And the identity of the artist gives pause. The price paid is four and a half times the previous high (already a stunner, in 2003) for a Klimt; until a few years ago, the artist ranked as a second-tier modern master both at auction and in the estimation of most art critics and historians. Unlike another painting that was made in 1907, Picasso’s “Demoiselles d’Avignon,” “Adele” was the climax, rather than the big-bang launch, of an era. The design and the architecture of the truncated modern movement in Vienna proved vastly more consequential than the Middle-European style of Klimt and his roguish younger colleague Egon Schiele—a blend of Symbolist portent, Jugendstil chic, and archaic elements (Byzantine opulence in Klimt’s case and neo-Gothic contortion in Schiele’s). Klimt made serious art of frankly decorative aesthetics, in service to a reigning aristocracy of wealth and sensual indulgence, and his greatness is secure partly because no subsequent, first-rate talent or comparable milieu has arisen to rival its terms. Klimt and his world remain marginal to the battered but still persuasive avant-gardist chronicle of Western modern art: roughly, Paris to New York, and Cubism to abstractionism, with special status for futurism, Dada, Russian Suprematism and Constructivism, Dutch de Stijl, and Surrealism. The purchase of “Adele” tests the possibility—ever less to be sneezed at, these days—of rewriting art history with a checkbook.
On varying scales, such manipulation has been a regular feature of the art game in the century since the Machiavelli of dealers, Joseph Duveen, in order to boost his trade in Old Masters, was said to have bullied a seller into accepting more payment from him than had been asked. But attempts to make self-fulfilling prophecies of publicized prices have never seemed more a participatory sport than they do today—among collectors, auction houses, and dealers. (Lauder sometimes sells works from his collection at auction.) Money talks, always. Lately, it roars, drowning out other measures of comparative value, among them the humble sentiments of critics, curators, and independent scholars. A rule of gold uniquely befits the art business, whose material goods, by any criterion that is not strictly subjective, are worthless. And no chemical analysis can sort out, in a given sale price, a ratio of considerations that may include honest judgment, heartfelt passion, and competitive exigency. Plainly, a decisive factor for Lauder is his devotion to his institutional scion, the Neue Galerie. However the publicity haloing “Adele” affects the expensiveness and prestige of Austrian modern art, it certainly escalates the prominence of the museum, which, to date, has been less well attended than its consistent excellence deserves. (It is miles above the class of Huntington Hartford’s short-lived Gallery of Modern Art, though that 1964 folly, on Columbus Circle, promoting the supermarket heir’s anti-modernist taste, can’t help but come to mind as a precedent.) I met Lauder by chance at the Neue Galerie, days before the opening, and remarked that, thanks to “Adele,” the intimate place may soon have a crowd-control problem. He replied quickly, “I hope so!” ♦
The Tale of Cupid and Psyche continued:
Psyche traveled long distances, mourning and looking for her husband. She encountered Ceres and asked for help, but that goddess would not risk incurring the wrath of Venus. She then came to Juno, and asked her, as protectors of pregnant women, for help; Juno too had to refuse her.
Psyche then decided the only course left was to be humble and present herself to Venus. In the meantime, Venus had asked her brother Mercury for help in tracking down her son’s wife.
Psyche arrived and Venus’s maidservant Habit viciously dragged her inside. Venus saw her and cackled in angry rage that Psyche had finally condescended to visit her. She then ordered Psyche whipped and tortured.
After that she began to give Psyche tasks. The first was to sort a huge heap of beans and seeds into their respective piles before the night was over. Left alone, Psyche despaired, but a group of country-ants did it for her.
The next morning Venus was full of rage when she saw this, and accused her of not being Psyche’s own work. She gave her a new task of bringing a tuft of wool from the golden fleece of a sheep down by the river.
Psyche went to carry out the task but the river spoke to her and told her she could not simply go down there and do that because it was too dangerous; instead, she had to wait until the hot afternoon when the sheep were drowsy and get a piece of wool stuck to the branches of bushes.
Psyche accomplished this easily, but Venus was not at all assuaged. She told the girl to bring her a jug of icy water from the stream’s highest point, which was an incredibly dangerous task since the rocks were jagged, the water was rushing, and snakes guarded it. Thankfully Jupiter’s royal eagle swooped down and helped her gather the water.
This could not calm Venus, though, and she sent Psyche down to Proserpina in Hades to get a bit of her beauty preparation and put it in a little box. Psyche despaired because this seemed to be her doom. She went to a tower and prepared to throw herself off, but the tower spoke to her and gave her detailed instructions about what to do. It said she must go to Taenarus to descend down to the palace of Orcus. Then she should put two coins between her lips and carry barley-cakes soaked in sweet wine in her hands. She should ignore a lame ass along the way and not speak to him or his driver. She should give one coin to Charon to take her across the river, ignore a decaying man in the water, do not touch the loom of the old women because the cakes must be kept in her hands, offer Cerberus a cake for his spoils, and come before the queen. She should then sit on the floor and take only coarse bread to eat. She will tell Proserpina why she came, get the beauty oil, turn around, give Cerberus more cakes, pay Charon, and deliver the box. Above all she must not look in the box.
Psyche did everything perfectly but her curiosity got the best of her and she looked in the box. She was thrust into a deep Stygian sleep and lay on the path home inanimate.
Meanwhile Cupid had recovered in his mother’s house and was sick with love for Psyche. He found her and roused her with an arrow, gently chiding her problematic curiously. Psyche went to give Venus Proserpina’s gift, while Cupid visited Jupiter and laid his problem before him. Jupiter understood his plight and decided to help him out.
He called a convention of the gods and announced that Cupid and Psyche were to be together. He told his daughter Venus that he was going to make Psyche immortal so there would be no difference in status between the two.
This being done, Psyche and Cupid married in a lavish celebration, and not long after Psyche gave birth to their daughter, Pleasure.
This is the end of the story told by the old hag to the young girl, which Lucius listens to. The robbers return and say they need to retrieve some bundles.
This is hard for the wounded Lucius, and the robbers become frustrated and plan to dispose of him. Lucius knows his plight is dire and must escape.
Once left alone by the robbers, Lucius breaks free from his tether. The old woman tries to intervene but he kicks her away. The girl sees what is happening and speaks soothingly to Lucius, jumping on his back to escape as well.
As they flee, the girl praises and thanks him and tells him how honored he will be when they get to her home. Unfortunately, the girl and Lucius debate which road to take and the robbers come upon them again. They beat Lucius and take them back to captivity. Along the way Lucius sees the hanged body of the old hag.
The robbers discuss how to kill the girl, which they agree must be done. One of them has a winning idea –to kill the donkey and sew the girl inside of it. She will fade away from hunger and the terrible stench of the dead donkey’s insides.
Lucius weeps with terror.
A new robber arrives and tells the group that there is no suspicion of them for the crime of robbing Milo, since a houseguest named Lucius had not been seen since. Lucius is frustrated with this new development and curses Fortune’s treatment of him. He wishes he could defend himself but now that he is an ass he cannot.
The robbers discuss their plan to kill Lucius and sew the girl in him, but another says they need to concentrate on getting fresh recruits; in fact, he says, he already has one –a young, strong, powerful man. He produces the young man right away, and indeed, he is handsome and muscular. He explains that his name is Haemus the Thracian, a celebrated brigand who “despoiled the entire land of Macedonia” (123).
He then begins to relate why he is alone, having lost his whole regiment of comrades. He tells the story of the emperor’s financial assistant, falsely accused by deceitful people at court and forced into exile. That man had a devoted and intelligent wife, Plotina, who accompanied him to their new place of Zacynthus. The robbers planned on overtaking the contingent, but the wife raised such commotion and they did not succeed. Eventually the man was reinstated and his wife praised for her integrity and keenness. The brotherhood of Haemus was then dissolved and the gang hunted down and killed, all except Haemus, who escaped by dressing as a woman.
After his story, he lays down two thousand gold pieces and the robbers unanimously vote him as leader of their gang. He tells them they should not destroy the girl, but rather get their money’s worth by selling her into a brothel. When the girl sees Haemus and hears his plan, a smile spreads across her face. Lucius is disgusted because he wonders why she has forgotten her husband so quickly.
Haemus then says he will take some men and attack a neighboring village. As they prepare for this, he serves them a great deal of food and wine and they grow drowsy. Lucius is put off by the way the girl swoons all over the young man, and berates her (although he only sounds like a donkey). Finally he comes to understand that the young man is not Haemus but actually the girl’s husband Tlepolemus. He was mixing drugs into the robbers’ drinks and then binds them up when they grow dead to the world.
The town welcomes Charite (the girl), Tlepolemus, and Lucius back to town. They take the robbers’ gold and slay them.
Charite takes good care of Lucius and decides he would be happy with unrestricted freedoms in a pasture. Sadly, although he had high hopes for this and thought roses would be abundant, the groom put in charge of him is terrible, and his wife even more so. He is beaten and forced to work for the grinding-mill.
Later he is moved to a pasture with stallions, but they are jealous of him and cruelly attack him. He is then moved to a job carting timber down the mountain, and the boy in charge is an abominable creation.
He beats Lucius mercilessly, weighs him down with heavy loads, jumps on him, and ties together a bundle of sharp thorns that pierce him when he walks. One day he throws a hot coal onto his bundle and it catches fire. Lucius runs into a muddy pool in order to save himself, and the youth cries loudly to those around him about how terrible the ass is. His lies cause the men around him to call for the ass’s death, but another suggests cutting off his genitals.
The next morning the boy takes Lucius up the mountain for this terrible punishment, but a huge she-bear comes out of a cave, causing Lucius to break away in fright. A traveler finds Lucius and mounts him.
When the townspeople come across the man, they accuse him of stealing Lucius and having killed the boy. They force the herdsman back into the woods with them to look for the boy. There, Lucius sees the boy’s remains scattered all over the place, but the men do not see and focus on the herdsman.
Later the boy’s mother bursts into the stable, distraught and infuriated. She blames Lucius for not saving the boy, and execrates him with harsh words. She beats him and takes a red-hot poker and sodomizes him, and his only recourse is to excrete all over her.
Apuleius concludes the tale of Cupid and Psyche, returns to his time in the cave, brings in Tlepolemus who tells a false story about being a brigand named Haemus, and then continues with the narrative about his trials and tribulations as an ass. By now the reader has been exposed to the curiosity of the plot’s many stories-within-stories, and expects Lucius to continually digress as he moves forward with his narrative. While there are certainly many things that are unique about this novel, the tale-within-a-tale is not necessarily unprecedented. In another critical article on the text, James T. Svendson discusses the work in relation to Homer, noting Apuleius’s similarities to the Greek master.
Svendson claims from the outset that Apuleius’s “narrative techniques are highly traditional and have analogues not only in earlier Greek and Roman fiction but even in the Homeric epics themselves.” The similarities include, among other things, the fact that The Golden Assand The Odysseyare both examples of a bildungsroman in which the protagonist undergoes struggles in order to grow, there is a “mythic voyage into the unknown”, there are both evil and kind gods and goddesses and other divine figures, and women are generally depicted as helpers or hinderers in the hero’s journey. The tale-within-a-tale is certainly part of The Odyssey,as Telemachus hears about his father’s journey through stories. Homer and Apuleius both use mirroring, in which new characters “[become] an alter ego or ‘mirror’ of the main protagonist, and his character is established, developed, and ‘rounded’ by comparison and contrast. There are instances in both of juxtaposition, montage, and ring composition. Despite all these instances, Svendson notes that one of the truly inventive things in Apuleius’s work is the first-person perspective; hearing about events from Lucius himself brings new, more modern immediacy and intimacy.
Besides structural elements, these books of The Golden Assare interesting for several other reasons. One is the crassness and explicitness of the text, which can occasionally shock modern readers. Apuleius has already given the reader sexually explicit scenes (between Lucius and Photis), and here brings in excrement, sodomy, and horrific violence. In regards to the first two, Greek and Roman audiences were used to coarse, vulgar jokes and expected them in a comedy. It was not at all disconcerting to have a work contain both Platonic philosophy as well as jokes about massive penises and/or shit.
As for Lucius as a character in these books, he is certainly not progressing or evolving. He is still befuddled by his condition and is taken advantage of by nearly everyone he comes into contact with. His mind is sharp in some respects, but his self-pity ironically combined with self-importance (evinced when he saw fit to judge Charite for her putative acceptance of “Haemus’s” plan for her) make him rather obnoxious. He still has a ways to go before he is worthy of deliverance.
Finally, a note about the goddesses featured in the Tale of Cupid and Psyche. Ceres is another name for Demeter, who was the central figure in the Eleusinian Mysteries (similar to the cult of Isis). Her daughter, Proserpina, was taken by Dis in his chariot and imprisoned in Hades. She returns to earth each summer, a cycle that symbolizes death and rebirth; this element of the tale foreshadows the death and rebirth of Lucius in Isis’s cult at the end of the novel. Juno also has a relation to Isis, as scholar P.G. Walsh explains –Hera is connected with Samos and Argos and the Carthaginian tutelary goddess Tanit. Inachus, the river-god at Argos, was the father of Io, “whose myth was enacted in the liturgy of Isis.”