The National Gallery’s Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900, is an exhibition concentrated around the city which, despite being a police state torn by anti-Semitism and misogynistic attitudes amongst other, was a cultural capital and a flourishing art scene. The exhibition hurdles back and forth in time, from the 1820s until the end of First World War, displaying the changes in attitudes among the Middle class over a century that started with democratic reforms and ended in conservative and nationalist mass movements. Artists, such as the leading Viennese painter, Gustav Klimt, who was dedicated to painting the female body, proved a stark contrast to the political attitudes of Vienna and was one of the many who focused on the individual, rather than society. Centring on the Austrian capital’s famous 19th century fin-de-siècle and the painters who worked on demand – Jews and gents alike wanted their portraits painted – the exhibition describes, escorts and journeys the viewers through Vienna.
Being a city known for Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, but also the Vienne Secession movement, the art of Vienna and their cultural weight occupies the dimly lit Sainsbury Wing and creates an impression of dark, claustrophobic pre-war Vienna. The exhibition is neither comforting nor depressing; it rather leaves you to wonder. Klimt, who was the first president of the Vienne Secession movement (a movement which made the French impressionism known to the Austrian public), has a well-deserved spotlight in the National Gallery’s exhibition. Additionally, as Adrian Seale wrote in the Guardian – Klimt’s portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl is the true conclusion to the show. Klimt, who died before finishing the portrait, ends on a note of melancholy, but solace, as we realise that the painting remains unfinished and that the sitter never lived past the horrors of a German concentration camp.
Widely known artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Oskar Kokoschka and Arnold Schönberg, are presented side by side with other influential, but less widely known, painters in this exhibition. Whether intentionally or not, these painters’ work was in contrast to their peers in Rome and Paris, and in Vienna the individual was the essential subject, hence the portraits. The painters painted famous and families alike, always with the human in focus. Maybe this is why the paintings are so powerful – the lives of these people seem distant, yet so intimate, when viewing their portraits in the diffusely lit gallery. Other paintings worth noticing, are Klimt’s portrait of Hermine Gallia, the Jewish patron of art and design who was driven out of the city by anti-Semitism, and also the room of unfinished work that never lived up to the expectations of patrons.
The exhibition opens to the public tomorrow, October 9th.
Highlight paintings include (According to the N.G):
‘The Family (Self Portrait)’ by Schiele (1918, Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna)
‘Nude Self Portrait by Gerstl’ (1908, Leopold Museum, Vienna)
‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’ by Gustav Klimt (about 1894, Private collection)
‘Portraits of Christoph and Isabella Reisser’ by Anton Romako (1884-5, Leopold Museum, Vienna)