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Museum Barbie

A new doll is inspired by Adele Bloch-Bauer, Klimt’s famous Austrian Jewish model. It’s one of a new series of collector’s edition dolls dedicated to great works of art.

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Klimt Barbie; “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” at the Neue Galerie. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; Barbie photo: Mattel; Neue Galerie photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

She was the model for (and possibly the lover of) Gustav Klimt, whose ravishing golden portrait of her, finished in 1907 and modeled on Byzantine mosaics of Empress Theodora in Ravenna, came to symbolize the edgy glamour of fin de siècle Vienna. But it was only after her death in 1925 that Adele Bloch-Bauer became a worldwide celebrity, when the shimmering portrait became the focus of an international legal battle over its status as Nazi war loot. Eventually restituted to the niece of the sitter, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I became famous for yet another reason: In 2006, it was sold to Ronald Lauder for a reported $135 million, said to be the highest price paid for an artwork at the time. “Our Mona Lisa,” as Lauder called her, now resides in the Manhattan museum he founded, the Neue Galerie, across Fifth Avenue from the Metropolitan Museum, and she has begun earning her keep by inspiring a jewelry line designed and executed by experts from the Gem Palace Jaipur, offering such steals as an $8,750, 22-carat spiral cuff bracelet.

More recently, however, the brainy, beautiful muse of Austria’s avant-garde has inspired a product vastly lower in price but higher in cultural currency: a Barbie doll. The Klimt-inspired Barbie, in her glistening, geometric gown—along with, fittingly enough, a Mona Lisa-inspired Barbie, adorned in Renaissance finery, and a van Goghian Barbie, rocking a Starry Night cocktail dress—are the three inaugural offerings of the Barbie Collector Museum Collection. At $34.95 each, these dolls are aimed not at the youthful Barbie enthusiast—nor, for that matter, at the art enthusiast—but rather at the adult consumer, someone who might also acquire the glamorous, Project Runway-ready Barbie whose look was inspired by the Sydney Opera House.

That the Jewish grande dame of Vienna’s salons would become a classic American doll is less a stretch than it seems, given Barbie’s origins. She was created by Ruth Handler, daughter of Russian-Jewish immigrants, who took the concept from paper fashion dolls, the shape from a sexy German doll, and the name from her daughter. The product was available in blonde or brunette, with multiple outfits sold separately.

Though she was an immediate hit, Barbie was long maligned by intellectuals for her anatomical and political incorrectness. But now Handler’s creation is finally enjoying a post-modernist, post-feminist bump. The doll who has been toyed with by so many artists—sometimes lovingly, sometimes sadistically—is now a museum piece. The original 1959 Barbie Teen Age Fashion Model, known as Barbie No. 1, was recently acquired by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which will feature her (and Ken) in its upcoming show “California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way.” 

Barbie now has an iPad, according to her Twitter feed, and a subscription to Architectural Record. That’s for Architect Barbie, who debuts this fall. Part of a new line of professional Barbies, she almost didn’t happen until concerned women in the profession took up her cause, reasoning that there’s no point in throwing out the bombshell with the bathwater if there’s a chance to influence young women to take on the profession.

Architectural historian Despina Stratigakos recounts in Design Observer how, after lobbying for the production of Architect Barbie, she and a colleague worked with Mattel to develop the doll’s outfit. After much debate over the skirt vs. paints conundrum, they decided on a pink-and-blue A-line dress (topped with by a short-sleeve, wide-lapel jacket), black ankle boots (with a chunky heel), nerdy black glasses (on her head, not her face), a white hard hat, and a pink drawing tube. The feminine touches, Stratigakos explains, are “not an act of oppression, but of resistance,” channeling “girl power” by transcending restrictions and stereotypes of the past. (The doll is available in Caucasian and African American versions.) Real-life members of the American Institute of Architects, which supports the doll, can enter a competition to design Barbie’s Dream House. But in dreams begin responsibilities: Architect Barbie needs a home that is green and sustainable.

Adele Bloch-Bauer Barbie, on the other hand, is homeless. She is a collector’s item, not a role model. Removed from her real-life connections—to her past, the Holocaust, the courts, the art market—she’s all about that dress. Are there more chapters for this Viennese Jewish princess, other products to inspire? Appropriate quarters might be nice. Maybe one day a kid inspired by Architect Barbie will build Adele a dream house of her own, one to match the mansion in which her namesake’s painting now hangs.

Robin Cembalest is executive editor of ARTnews. She blogs at

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Adam says:

I love it. I don’t think that Adele Bloch-Bauer Barbie is homeless. Now many children can have their own Klimt-esque masterpiece. She is free to scamper along with whatever a child’s mind can come up with. She has transcended whatever it is that we see when we see her. Truly art in the age of mechanical reproduction!

JCarpenter says:

Jules Breton’s 19th cent. realism paintings of peasant women working in the fields (“Song of the Lark” for one) would be a challenge for non-working Barbie.

yehudah says:

robin – great piece, as always! i was in ravenna last summer, and saw those mosaics without making the connection

I’d like to see a Gauguin Barbie. :P

Sorry, but I don’t get the significance being put upon the actual person, Adele Bloch Bauer, via this Barbie doll. While others seem to accept the connection as credible, frankly I don’t. For the last fifteen years, I’ve kept a reproduction of the Klimt portrait on the shelf of my closet to keep it safe and clean(was the original idea) for framing. Then something happened, subtly. Each time I opened the closet, she looked out of her portrait, directly at her viewer, in that ultimate haughty elegance of Viennese society. It is an odd painting. Just the mere tip of the brush-stroke placing a light that takes on a shape,indicates one bead after another of her jewelry, very subtle abstraction, while she all too realistically looks out at you from her inimitable social position; all too full of herself with her blue black hair piled into a twist like my grandmother wore her hair when she was a young woman.

In no way does the present Barbie,aka Adele Bloch Bauer, actually resemble that superior plane of reference to a world that was.
The hair of the doll appears to be an approximate sketch and the maquillage results in a totally different person in another era of time. Too much emphasis placed on an approximation of her “costume” doesn’t succeed either. The wardrobe of occasion throughout Klimt’s genre is more symbolic and invested with a message about an emotion. The result when reduced to a Barbie outfit is kitsch.

I hate it; it is disrespectful of the artist and his subject: which is a particular culture of a particular time. Linking it up, for the sake of connectiveness, to doll-maker Ruth Handler’s fashion-designs does sentimentalize the child’s toy while neglecting the person that Klimt chose to reflect one fragmented aspect of an ephemeral disappeared world that remains in some paintings, a play or two, a refrain of music, all of it as fragile as the crystal stemware Josephine Meissner left for me as a small but historic addition to a dowry because…

esthermiriam says:

Well, Adela is also about the jewelry. After the Neue Galerie, self-proclaimed as the “Museum for German and Austrian Art,” offered a wonderful exhibit of jewelry of the period from the Weiner Werkstatte, documenting and demonstrating its connection to Klimt and his circle, whyever would it choose to promote an expensive line from India?!

brynnafogel says:

How fascinating to witness not just Klimt’s portrait of Frau Adele Bloch-Bauer, once a private image not for public consumption, transformed into a commodity, as it was when the Nazis seized it and then again when Ronald Lauder paid his outrageous sum for it, but the very person of Bloch-Bauer herself now reduced to another collectible tchotchke, which one supposes is the perverse logic of American capitalism. The reality of her life, of her world wiped away by one of the most murderous regimes in the history of the world, of a small but extraordinarily vibrant group of people who brought new life to a moribund culture and were nearly exterminated from the face of the earth if they were not fortunate enough to flee, is now rendered almost invisible in this piece of molded plastic and polyester. Oh well, some of us will remember the world that produced Bloch-Bauer and that she and others produced, before it was destroyed, “Barbie” or no Barbie. Loss of aura, the commodity fetish, and mechanical reproduction, indeed, or as Paul O’Neill said, “the genius of capitalism”!

Beatrix says:

Though I never liked Klimt, and I understand from Klimt lovers that I’m the only person on the planet who feels that way, I loved this painting.

After reading the article, I went to Allposters and ordered a copy, which I’m looking forward to receiving.

I’m still not a big Klimt fan—I think he’s often phony—but I think he cared about this woman and I may leasrn to care about him.

Victoria says:

” Are there more chapters for this Viennese Jewish princess, other products to inspire?”

Hmmm “Jewish princess” – not liking the use of the term.

lazer says:

I’m curious as to what the author means by “post-feminist”, and whether she sincerely believes we’re somehow at that stage in society

Bravo for you, my buddy. I confess you’re versatile blogger.

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Really good post. I like your no bs posts they are the reason I keep coming back here.


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Museum Barbie

A new doll is inspired by Adele Bloch-Bauer, Klimt’s famous Austrian Jewish model. It’s one of a new series of collector’s edition dolls dedicated to great works of art.

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