Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 @ the National Gallery

Introduction

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…

Old Vienna

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.

Portrait of Clothilde Beer by Hans Makart, 1878 (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of Clothilde Beer by Hans Makart, 1878 (Wikimedia Commons)

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’!

Lady in Black by Gustav Klimt (1894)

Lady in Black by Gustav Klimt (1894)

It is comparable to the fabulous portrait of the Empress Elizabeth by Benczur with its stunning, John Singer Sargeant-ish sumptousness.

The Empress Elizabeth by von Gyula Benczur (1899)

The Empress Elizabeth by von Gyula Benczur (1899)

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.

Ria Munk by Gustav Klimt, 1913-18 (Wikimedia Commons)

Ria Munk by Gustav Klimt, 1913-18 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Nude self portrait by Richard Gerstl, 1908 (Wikimedia Commons)

Nude self portrait by Richard Gerstl, 1908 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Blue self-portrait by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910

Blue self-portrait by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910

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.

Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat by Oskar Kokoschka (1909)

Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat by Oskar Kokoschka (1909)

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 Family by Egon Schiele (1918)

The Family by Egon Schiele (1918)

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.

 Portrait of the dying Edith Schiele, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

Portrait of the dying Edith Schiele, 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

The end

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.

Amalie Zuckerkandl by Gustav Klimt 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

Amalie Zuckerkandl by Gustav Klimt 1918 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

Related links

Other reviews of National Gallery exhibitions

The Rest is Noise 1: Here comes the 20th century

21 and 22 January 2013

When Jude Kelly, artistic director of the South Bank, finished reading American critic’s history of classical music in the 20th century, The Rest Is Noise, she was so impressed she rang up the author. “Hey Alex. How’s about we put on a year long festival of music at London’s premiere art complex in celebration of your book? We should be able to rustle up nearly 100 concerts devoted entirely to 20th century music, plus loads of spinoff events. And let’s scatter through the year a series of 12 study weekends, where we invite leading historians, art critics and musicologists to explore the cultural milieu of pre-War Vienna, Paris in the 20s, Weimar Germany, music under the dictatorships and other key moments. Whaddya say?”

Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 saw the first in-depth weekend, titled The Big Bang, designed to explore the music of pre-War Vienna, dominated by the giants Strauss and Mahler, but with the new sounds of Arnold Schoenberg beginning to disturb the peace.

Saturday 21 January

Here Comes The Twentieth Century The Right Honourable The Baroness Williams of Crosby (Shirley Williams to you or me) belied her 82 years to present a sweeping overview of the 20th century. Necessarily a high level review it was striking for on the one hand retreading some overfamiliar terrain – Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen from the Great War – on the other completely omitting the Bolshevik Revolution and the chaos all across central Europe after the Great War. Why, I thought as I sat in the splendid Queen Elizabeth Hall, didn’t they invite a historian to do this? But towards the end she surprised me again by choosing to focus not on our ongoing anxieties, but on three great moments of hope: Martin Luther King’s Civil Right movement; Gorbachev letting the Berlin Wall come down; Nelson Mandela walking free to seal a peaceful transfer of power in South Africa. Her point was, Change can happen, political processes can improve the world. This fed back to her dwelling on the post-war founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time I thought it was light on historical detail, a week later I realise it was really about this positive, liberal vision.

Still, no denying the 20th century was the century of catastrophe; Leonard Bernstein called it the Century of Death. 20 million dead in the Great War. 60 million dead in the Second World War. 30 million killed by Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Without doubt the most catastrophic century in human history and also the most complex. Almost impossible to reconcile the billions of individual stories, achievements, discoveries and art works with the complex political and social movements all round the busy globe. It’s almost enough to make you ashamed to have been born into such a terrible century. Following Dame Shirley was…

Alex Ross, the man himself whose brilliant book started all this, Alex turns out to be a smart, suave, bullet-headed young American, personable, polite and dazzlingly knowledgeable. He delivered an hour and a quarter lecture which you can listen to on the South Bank website. I think he’s appearing four times over the year, so in each speech has to cover four of the twelve themed weekends, so this first address stretched long to cover Schoenberg, the nationalist and folk movements, and 1920s Paris. His key point is that listeners accept all the techniques of the supposedly difficult Second Viennese School, when it’s presented in film scores – but balk at them when presented in the concert hall, and then pondered why this should be. In this speech and the next day’s Q&A what emerged is the tremendous conservatism of the classical music world and its audience; as a rule of thumb classical music can be taken as about 60 years behind the times. Looking around at the grey-haired audience, and remembering the deep squareness of all the classical musicians I’ve ever known, I’m not surprised.

Alex mentioned the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, but eventually returning at which point the distraught painter set fire to his paintings, stabbed himself and hanged himself in front of a full-length mirror in his studio. Schoenberg was finalising his Second String Quartet with its intense, angsty sound, so everyone can do some amateur psychology about this typical overwrought episode from the heart of Teutonic Expressionism.

After these two start-up lectures, we the audience had a choice of events to go to. For example, throughout the weekend they were screening the BBC’s new three-part series about 20th century music, The Sound and The Fury. I figured I can see this on  when it’s shown in February. There are ‘Sound bites’ – hour slots containing four x fifteen minute presentations about key figures of the (early) twentieth century eg the Wright brothers, Marie Curie etc. I chose:

The Birth of the Modern In a packed house in the Level 5 Function room in the Festival Hall for a presentation by art historian Tag Gronberg about art in prewar Vienna. This started with Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss and explored the tensions between Klimt and the Sezessionists, the Austrian wing of Art Nouveau known locally as the Jugendstil – and their opponents like the satirist Karl Krauss and the architect Adolf Loos, who rejected  Klimt’s fine decoration in favour of plain truth, Loos’s plain functional building anticipating the clarity of the Bauhaus and all 20th century Modernist architecture. The audience was old, as in most art galleries plenty of grey haired ladies looking at pictures of naked men and women and drinking in a lecture about sex, love and the decorative arts.

Lisa Appignanesi: Freud and the Modern Age Ms Appignanesi was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2013 New Year Honours for services to literature. She has written widely on Freud and gender. A vivacious, laughing lady with big auburn hair like Rula Lenska, Ms Appignanesi gave a rather disappointingly basic introduction to Freud, skimming over the early publications and basic ideas, while recommending her books which were on bookstands located around the foyer.

Main points were that, though Freud prided himself on his ability in language and his works are often thought of as being more literary than scientific – he was musically null. He liked the obvious greats of the day but had little or nothing to say about music. If Ms Appignanesi had referenced any psychoanalyst who has applied Freud to music, or developed her own thoughts about psychoanalysis and music, it would have been useful. Instead we learned that prewar Vienna was awash with artistic movements, that Freud’s ideas have shaped the century, that he spent a few hours psychoanalysing Mahler on a famous walk, and learned that Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, left him during the composition of the Second String Quartet and, you’ll never guess what happened!!

Resisting the lure of a Sound Bites session including the Birth of Radio, I stayed in the foyer of the QEH for –

Listen to this – a listening guide to the weekend’s music presented by Head of Music at the South Bank, Gillian Moore. Either playing chords herself on the grand piano or introducing clips from CD, Gillian explained in detail the music of Salome (Richard Strauss’s radical opera which was being performed later that evening), its deliberate use of barbarism, atonal chords etc, before moving on to explain the hyperchromaticism which was turning into atonality in Schoenberg.

5.30 and I was full, and so didn’t go on to the evening concert, a concert performance of Strauss’s opera ‘Salome’, centrepiece of the first chapter of Alex’s book – let alone to the interesting-looking Ida Barr’s Music Hall Night Club which followed through till midnight. What a varied and interesting day, and all for £10!

Sunday 22 January

Breakfast with Schoenberg – Focus on Schoenberg’s 2nd String Quartet Back in the foyer at 10.15 for a very interesting hour-long explanation of the structure and technique of this transitional work. Presented by Fraser Trainer with an actual string quartet (musicians from Aurora Orchestra) on stage who played short fragments illustrating Fraser’s points. The cellist, Oliver, also added points of his own, including the interesting facts that Schoenberg’s music carries the most detailed instructions for the player; instructions to play notes in novel positions ie at the bridge on string instruments thus creating an eerie sound with strange overtones. Fraser’s enthusiasm was infectious. This was great!

Except. For some reason he and Gillian Moore from yesterday both tended to apologise for talking about keys and chords and scales; and when they demonstrated them tended to do so in a hurry, as if ashamed or embarrassed. Why? Who do you think is attending this weekend? It smacked of a very British philistinism and embarrassment, fear of being even a teeny bit intellectual or demanding. In fact both presentations would have benefited from a relaxed ten minute introduction explaining how basic triadic harmony works in classical music or pop songs, with a few easy examples. Once this is established it’s easier to show how the chording of Wagner, Strauss et al becomes more and more complicated – extended tonality, as it’s called – until it starts to compromise harmonic language and you begin to lose the sense of a tonal centre ie it’s hard for your ear to hear which key the music is in, where’s it’s meant to return ‘home’ to give the sense of completeness as in a Mozart piece. It’s this tonal drift which creates unease and anxiety, the predominant emotions of the broader cultural Expressionism of these years, and the angsty sound which the average listener associates with Schoenberg, Berg and Webern to this day.

Of course Fraser told us the story about Schoenberg’s wife, Mathilde, leaving him to have an affair with the painter, Richard Gerstl – and did you hear what happened when she finally returnd to composer? You’ll never guess!!!

Alex Ross in conversation with Jude Kelly Back in the sumptuous Queen Elizabeth Hall head of the Southbank, Jude, asked Alex a number of questions before questions from the floor. Among many points I remember:

  • the tragedy of America rejecting its black heritage, jazz – there was a crossover moment in the 20s and 30s but it was rejected, and America’s greatest folk tradition was fatefully barred from its classical composers
  • what is it about classical music that is so offputting?  Both discussed the offputtingness of the Concert Hall with its nineteenth century architecture, its intimidating dress codes etc. Jude asked if there were any black people in the audience? There was one Asian guy, no one of African descent. I didn’t see any black people all weekend apart from a few security guards and assistants.

You can hear the full conversation here.

Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire Back in the performance space behind the Royal Festival Hall bar, students from the Royal Northern College of Music performed Schoenberg’s half hour masterpiece, 21 poems spoken by the folk character Pierrot, divided into three thematic groups, set to music. Three different young ladies sang, wearing black outfits with white facepainting and makeup – Natasha Best, Rosie Middleton and Emma Stannard. The distinguishing thing about the music is Schoenberg’s deployment of Sprechstimme ie a style half way between singing and speaking where the voice swoops and dives between notes, creating a strange otherworldy affect, which matches the strange words of the deluded Pierrot looking up at the imaginary moon.

The Air of Other Planets: Understanding Schoenberg’s Journey into Atonality presented by Julian Johnson, Professor of Music at Royal Holloway, University of London. Suave and posh Professor Johnson once again told the story of Schoenberg’s wife running off, then returning and the distraught painter setting fire to his paintings then hanging himself. Fourth time I’ve heard this story. Is it really the only thing to say about Schoenberg?.

The professor assumed this great offputtingness in Schoenberg as the premise of his presentation before leading off into an exploration of the issues. To be honest I was full up and don’t remember much. the best moment was a question from the audience at the end: a youngish man said he’s no great musical expert but he doesn’t see what’s so difficult about Schoenberg!. To him Schoenberg sounds like the soundtrack to any number of horror movies, thrillers or psycho films; jazz incorporated atonality in the 60s, rock bands did it in the 70s. If you approach him like that you can swallow him whole without blinking. What Schoenberg problem?

It’s true. You have to approach the Second Viennese School from the extremely conservative, ears-closed, up-tight bourgeois classical position to be daunted by them. In other words, you have to be the typical classical music audience as described by Alex and Jude this morning. If, like me, you were brought  up on the Velvet Underground, the Sex Pistols, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, the Clash as well as The Exorcist, The Omen, Alien and so on, Schoenberg, Webern and Berg sound either pretty familiar or fairly easy to swallow. It’s only putting them into the antiseptic and reverential concert hall that their music begins to sound out of place.

You have to have lived a very sheltered musical life, in other words, to find these guys ‘difficult’. Much more difficult to listen to is something like Les Noces’ by Stravinsky. And hardest of all is something like the orchestral works of Bruckner or Nielsen or Sibelius at his worst. Incredibly long and awesomely boring, I’ve never made my way to the end of one. Whereas Webern with a whole suite in 5 minutes, was made for the ipod age.

Schoenberg’s daughter A major reason for attending Day 2 of this weekend was to see Ms Moore and Professor Johnson in conversation with Nuria Schoenberg Nono, 80 years old this year and not only daughter to the great Arnold but wife to the Italian Modernist composer Luigi Nono. Unfortunately she was too ill to attend. Maybe she would have told us the story about Mathilde running off with the painter Richard Gerstl but then abandoning him whereupon he… oh, but I don’t want to spoil the story for you…

Conclusions Ross is an amazing man who wears his encyclopedic knowledge with grace and elegance. The festival is an epic and unprecedented project. Why, in a year dedicated to embedding 20th century music into its historical context – are there no historians? The art lecture was so-so. The Freud one was disappointing. The musical analysis was riveting and I wanted it to be more confident and genuinely didactic, teaching me slowly and thoroughly how this music is made and how to appreciate it.

But for organising these and all the other events coming up during 2013 – Well done, South Bank!

The festival continues for the rest of the year.

Of course, an enterprise like this runs the risk of being accused of dumbing down or glossing over complexities. That’s certainly what I felt about the Freud lecture, and felt was being demonstrated in the repetition of the same tired stories about Schoenberg. See the comments on this Guardian page for quite fierce accusations of dumbing down.

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