Some 70 portraits from turn-of-the-century Vienna have been collected at the National Gallery to give insight into both the genre of ‘the portrait’ and into this famously creative time and place. The exhibition features not only heavy-hitters like Kokoschka, Klimt and Schiele but a host of less-well-known artists, including several women, to provide a really rounded ‘portrait’ of the era. The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent audioguide voiced by novelist Esther Freud, great grand-daughter of Sigmund.
From 1867 to 1918 Vienna was capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, one of the largest countries in Europe, comprising over 11 national groups. In the second half of the century a new middle class emerged, wealthy from banking and manufacturing, a notable percentage of whom were Jews, often recent immigrants to the city. This ‘New Vienna’ class used portraiture for a number of purposes, to establish themselves, to announce their wealth, their place in Society, their education and connection with the Arts.
But as the century headed to its end the atmosphere turned darker with the rise of nationalist movements throughout the Empire, increasing attacks on the ‘cosmopolitan’ ie Jewish nouveaux riches and on decadent, often Jewish, artists. The election of the right-wing Karl Lüger as Mayor in 1897 marks a decisive moment in the rise of official anti-semitism. Very neatly, the same year saw the founding by one of the city’s leading artists, Gustav Klimt, of the Secession Movement of Modern Art.
The position of Jews became increasingly stressful. The high suicide among Jewish young men prompted Freud to convene a psycho-analytic conference devoted to the subject. In the noughties and tens Vienna was a troubled, conflicted place…
The exhibition opens with a room dedicated to an exhibition which took place in 1905, dedicated to portraits from the first half of the 19th century. It presented ‘Old Vienna’ in its reassuring Victorian solidity. Seeing a dozen or so traditional figurative portraits gathered together like this makes you realise how boring, how stiflingly dull, these worthy paintings were. The outstanding figure was Hans Makart (1880-84) the city’s most celebrated artist, brought from Hungary to Vienna by the Emperor himself, where he established a great reputation for his sumptuously realistic portraits of the highest society figures. The reproduction below doesn’t do justice to the tremendously lush, thick, countoured surface of the oil in this wonderful Portrait of Clothilde Beer (1878). The rich deep velvet red became known as ‘Makart red’ after him.
Structure of the exhibition
The exhibition is arranged in six rooms which address themes such as The Family and The Child, the Appeal of The Artist, The New Viennese, Love and Loss, Finish and Failure. See more on the National Gallery website. In contrast, I am going to review it artist by artist:
Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)
Gustav Klimt‘s life was coterminous with the Empire itself. He was a stunning virtuoso. The Lady in Black looks like a photograph. the commentary says ‘even today her sleeves are thrilling to behold’!
It is comparable to the fabulous portrait of the Empress Elizabeth by Benczur with its stunning, John Singer Sargeant-ish sumptousness.
But within a few years Klimt had developed his more highly worked style in which the figure stands in a flat plane covered in decorative mosaics of circles and squares until, in the later figures, clothes become fully intertwined with the backgrounds, epitomised by the famous Kiss. The exhibition only has a few Klimts, including the haunting unfinished portrait of Ria Munk, a rich man’s daughter who shot herself after a failed lover affair.
Richard Gerstl (1883-1908)
At the first of The Rest Is Noise weekends, on Vienna 1900, held in January 2013, we heard the story of how the painter Gerstl had an affair with the composer Arnold Schoenberg’s wife, who ultimately returned to her husband, shortly after which the painter hanged himself. It is a story emblematic of the highly-strung milieu of Austrian Expressionism. But I’d never seen his paintings. They are intense and disturbing, including this, the first nude self-portrait in the history of Viennese art.
A matter of days after this painting was completed Gerstly hanged himself.
Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951)
Schoenberg is one of the two giants of 20th century music for his invention of twelve-tone or serial music which came to dominate the middle of the century. But he was also an amateur painter of an Expressionist bent, who prided himself on his lack of formal training. This does give his paintings a combination of naive style with haunting intensity.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
Kokoschka has four or five paintings in the display, including the fabulous double portrait of music critics Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat.
Vienna hated Kokoschka. Critics said his art was decadent, degenerate; that you could only going to a Kokoschka exhibition if you had already survived the onslaught of syphilis.
Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
Schiele may be my favourite artist. He created utterly new, modern, hieratic poses for the body, reminiscent of the non-Romantic choreography Nijinsky developed for Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). And a painting style made of broad strokes dividing the canvas into crushed rectangles, which also involved a systematic deformation of the human figure, which becomes uncannily elongated, with spatulate fingers and oddly blank animal eyes complementing the unnatural poses to create images of overpowering intensity. No reproduction can convey the overpowering size and primeval power of the original painting. It’s worth visiting the exhibition just for this.
The painting of Edith, Schiele’s wife, in a green top, is among my favourite works of art. I had never seen the powerful pen portrait he made of her as she lay dying of the Spanish flu at the end of the Great War. It is powerfully reminiscent of Wyndham Lewis’s sharp-edged portraits. She was six months pregnant when she died. Egon died three days later.
The exhibition ends with a room titled Finish and Failure, tying together Austro-Hungary’s defeat in the Great War, the disintegration of the Empire into a number of smaller countries, the collapse of its ruling family and class, eerily accompanied by the deaths in the same year of its two most famous artists, Klimt and Schiele. The room focuses on Klimt’s portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, a rich Christina who converted to Judaism to marry a Jew and commissioned Klimt to paint her. Her marriage failed, her country collapsed, Klimt died before he could finish her portrait, and 20 years later, she was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Thereisenstadt concentration camp where she was murdered.
If pre-War Vienna was a culture holding irreconcilable forces in an anxious balance, some of those forces were to turn out to be very, very dark indeed.
A footnote on chronology The audioguide referred to Vienna around 1900. But although Klimt founded the Secession in 1897, most of the paintings here are from the late noughties, from 1908, 09, 10 and on through the Great War. It is breath-taking to think that, while this highly developed and psychological piercing art was being produced in Vienna, Edwardian England, in wholesale reaction against Aestheticism, laboured under the horrible daubs of the Camden Town group and could at best produce the milk and water modernism of the Crisis of Brilliance group.
- Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 continues at the National Gallery until 12 January 2014
Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions
- Painters’ Paintings: From Freud to Van Dyck (August 2016)
- Delacroix and the Rise of Modern Art (February 2016)
- Every room in the National Gallery (December 2015)
- Goya: The Portraits (November 2015)
- Inventing Impressionism (May 2015)
- Making Colour (September 2014)
- Veronese (May 2014)
- Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (January 2014)