Facing The Modern – The Portrait in Vienna 1900: Is a new exhibition at The National Gallery, London (9 October 2013 – 12 January 2014) Art Journalist Sara Faith takes a look at the dark undercurrent running through this significant exhibition.
The period surrounding Vienna in 1900 conjures up an image of immense creativity in art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, psychiatry and theatre. To many it is synonymous with the works of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and the writings of Sigmund Freud. Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffmann, Joseph Maria Olbrich and others founded the Vienna Secession in 1897 in order to distance themselves from the traditionalism of the Vienna Kunstlerhaus. Similarly, the Wiener Werkstatte was founded in 1903 in order to reform the applied arts. From 1867 until the end of the First World War in 1918, Vienna was the imperial capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Facing the Modern – the Portrait in Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery introduces the public to a more troubled period of history. The period began with liberal and democratic reform, urban and economic renewal and religious and ethnic tolerance. However, it ended with the rise of conservative, nationalist and anti-Semitic movements. The exhibition sets out to show how the New Viennese used portraiture to show their status and sense of belonging but in reality it highlighted their growing anxiety and alienation.
Although there are some magnificent works on display, as an exhibition there are flaws. It is organised by theme rather than chronologically and so flits back and forth from 19th century to early 20th century in order to highlight the link to the historicism of the past. It is also a dark show. Not only literally dark in respect of the lighting and hanging space, but also dark in tone. It is peppered with death masks and paintings of the dead like Gustav Klimt’s infant son and his portrait of Ria Munk on her Deathbed; tragic stories like the suicide of the talented artist Richard Gerstl who killed himself over his broken romance with Arnold Schonberg’s wife Mathilde and the untimely deaths of both Klimt and Schiele. The final room leaves one rather flat with a series of unfinished works intended to represent the failure of the state and society and also to suggest a shift of identities towards the regenerative potential of Vienna and the small, narrow layout of rooms will prove a problem when the exhibition is full.
However, as I said before there are some magnificent works on show and it is always a pleasure to discover a new artist. I was particularly taken with the works of Broncia Koller; a Jewish woman artist married to the entrepreneur Hugo Koller (1867–1942), one of the major Viennese art patrons, who supported young artists like Egon Schiele. The Kollers actively participated in the circles around the Wiener Werkstätte and the Secession. Broncia Koller-Pinell had especially close ties to Klimt’s group and exhibited with them in 1908 and 1909 at the Kunstschau and in 1911 at Vienna’s leading Gallery Miethke. Her 1907-8 portrait of Silvia Koller with a Bird Cage has a strong composition with a simplistic, elegant style with Secessionist sensibilities especially with the use of squares. Similarly, her Nude Portrait of Marietta of 1907 has a simple L shaped composition with blocks of flat pale colours. There are more links to Secessionism in Gustav Klimt’s 1904 Portrait of Hermine Gallia, from the National Gallery’s own collection, as the portrait was commissioned to compliment the interiors of the Gallias Josef Hoffmann designed house.
Richard Gerstl is another of the lesser-known artists to stand out. His Nude Self Portrait of 1908 was the first full frontal self-portrait in Austrian art. His use of icy blue colours and expressionistic, powerful brushstrokes underline the emotional turmoil of the artist. The loose frenetic brushstrokes his Portrait of Alexander Zemlinksy conceal an earlier darker self-portrait on the reverse of the canvas.
Nevertheless it is the works of the best-known artists that dominate the exhibition. Schiele’s staged Holy Trinity style The Family (Self Portrait) of 1918 is truly outstanding. His Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder of 1912 carries the angst of his generation and his 1918 Portrait of Albert Paris von Gutersloh is such a powerful image. The background orange colours are much brighter than in reproductions and the powerful stare of his eyes are haunting. But it is the hands that leave you full of emotion. To me it is the hands in the exhibition that leave a longstanding mark whether they are rigid as in Kokoschka’s 1909 Portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, his portrait of the tubercular ridden Count Verona and in Schiele’s Portrait of Erich Lederer, clasped in simple elegance like in Klimt’s Portrait of Hermine Gallia or gently resting on the back of a chair as in his 1894 Portrait of a Lady in Black.
Photo/Vine © P C Robinson Artlyst 2013