"A Nervous Splendor," the writer Frederic Morton called it - Vienna at the turn of the 19th century, the twilight of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
No one captured that moment of opulent decadence the way Gustav Klimt did. He was the most celebrated portrait painter of his day, a notorious ladies man, obsessed with women, pale beauties dressed in extravagant gowns … or nothing at all.
Almost a century after his death in 1918 at the age of 55, his work still mesmerizes. Last year, the film "Klimt" opened in New York, starring John Malkovich.
In 2006, the cosmetics heir Ronald Lauder paid a reported $135 million for Klimt's luminous portrait of Viennese socialite Adele Bloch-Bauer, one of the highest prices ever for a work sold at auction. It is the centerpiece of a new show at New York's Neue Galerie, the first major Klimt retrospective in this country, featuring more than 120 drawings and paintings; photographs and handwritten letters; his last sketchbook; his favorite tie pin; his grandiose painting smock; and a re-construction of the ante-room of his studio where he both painted and seduced many of his models.
Safer spoke with Renee Price, director of the museum and curator of the exhibition.
"What might be regarded as the great essence of human nature is captured in his work," Safer suggested. "Love, lust..."
"It's extremely sensuous," Price agreed, "and the themes of life and death are really, you can see this in his work, are very much there."
Klimt was born in 1862 on the outskirts of Vienna. His circumstances were humble, his talent prodigious. In 1876, at only 14, he was accepted by Vienna's School of Applied Art.
Price and Safer discussed some of his early works, completed when he was only 17.
"Yes," Price commented, "these are student works. And you can really see how talented he was already then. I mean, they are masterfully drawn. They almost look like photographs."
In 1883 Klimt, his brother Ernst and their friend Franz Matsch formed the Artists' Company. They decorated theaters and painted murals. It was commercial art on the grandest scale. In 1892, Klimt went off on his own. It was the beginning of a revolution.
"He was instrumental in founding the secession," said Safer, "Vienna's secession. What exactly were these artists seceding from?"
"Well, I would say it's the old order," answered Price, "which was really represented by the Kunstlerhaus, which was an artist organization where they could exhibit. And it turned out that most of the paintings that were exhibited there were very commercial, very much stuck in the 19th century mode. And finally these artists rebelled."
It was 1897. Klimt was 35 and a huge success in Vienna, a city in the last years of its golden age - a remarkable time in art, science and politics. Sigmund Freud was practicing psychoanalysis. Leon Trotsky and Joseph Stalin were there, plotting. Gustav Mahler was conducting the city's orchestra.
Safer asked Price about the so-called zeitgeist, the spirit of the time and whether she felt it was captured in the drawings and paintings.
"Yes," she agreed. "Klimt starts off in a very traditional, academic way, and in the late work, the line almost dissolves. And it's, in a way, very symbolic for what was happening, this sort of unraveling at that time."
The "unraveling" was from the ornate age of the 19th century.
"It's going from a 19th century pomp and artificiality and looking for a new direction, a modernity," Price said. "Looking for truth in art and rejecting the traditional and moving onto something new."
It began with Klimt's hundred foot-long homage to Beethoven, a monumental work covering three walls. It is reborn in New York with his original sketches of man's struggle to attain happiness, ending with paradise and a visual representation of the "Ode to Joy."
A living work of art, Renee Price calls it, that was celebrated by some, condemned by others. But it was Klimt's Faculty Paintings for the Great Hall of the University of Vienna that created an outrage.
"This was a huge public commission that became the biggest art scandal in Vienna," Price explained, "and Klimt endured for many years this harsh criticism."
"It was the content," Price said, that so upset the university. "Klimt was assigned three of the faculties: law, philosophy and medicine. He produced sketches. And they were approved. And ultimately 87 professors signed a petition when he exhibited the first faculty, which was philosophy, that this was not representative of the university."
Klimt withdrew from the project in 1905 and returned his advance, worth roughly $200,000 today. It was his last public commission.
He broke with the Secession and retreated to his studio, painting portraits for a different clientele: women.
"He was clearly in love with, or obsessed with, women," suggested Safer.
"Klimt loved women," Price nodded, "and he must have been extremely charming. There are several reports that he was very charismatic. He was a womanizer. And then of course we have these cliches of what happens in an artist's studio."
"Other than painting, you mean," Safer asked.
"Yes," Price said with a smile, "he did have nude models there who were available at his beck and call, so-to-speak."