|Portrait of Ria Munk III, Klimt|
In the beginning is Beethoven and in the beginning is the end.
The National Gallery’s new exhibition, Facing the Modern: The portrait in Vienna 1900, is, on the surface, a look at the portraiture of the cultural centre of fin-de-siècle Mitteleuropa.
This is not, though, a city of Strauss waltzes, but a haunting look at a clash of old and modern, life and death, at Europe’s heart.
We start with the mask of Beethoven’s face taken after his death in 1827.
The cast is not the finest: so scared was he of poisoning that he insisted that his demise should be followed by a postmortem. Both the damage done by that process and by the time lapse between death and the casting mean that the ‘final expression’ – the aim of a death mask – has been blurred.
Yet still it retains power; a face pinched by pain or the fire that always consumed the composer.
This is all context: the absorption with death that becomes pronounced as we encounter later works started long before the works that constitute the core of this exhibition and before Freud, whose own work seems to hang over the paintings.
Contextually too, Beethoven was one of the fathers of German romanticism. Like the artists of the Vienna Secession, whose work follows, Beethoven kicked down the old and created a new artistic language.
The Secession understood this and its 14th exhibition was dedicated to the composer.
The exhibition has left some critics grumbling about the context of that mask, and about how the exhibition as a whole is arranged – in other words, not chronologically. But this has benefits for the visitor.
For instance, seeing Oskar Kokoschka’s 1909 Portrait of Lotte Franzos hanging right next to Hans Canon’s Girl with a Parrot from 1876, presents an unusual opportunity to grasp what a shock the modern must have been to a public weaned on an art form that was as constrained by convention as society itself.
We move through rooms covering different themes, from initial context to the family to Jewish identity in the city to death.
|The Family (Self Portrait), Shiele|
The presence of works by Teresa Ries (a self portrait of great self-confidence), Broncia Koller and Elena Luksch-Makowsky all make the point that women were involved at the highest levels of artist endeavour and were exhibiting as such. It’s subsequently that they appear to have been largely forgotten.
But death is a dominant theme here: so often the outcome as the modern and the old collided; as anti-semitism rubbed against the flowering of secular Jewish artists, intellectuals and businessmen; as Vienna became a magnet for émigrés from central and eastern Europe; as liberalism collided with conservatism; as people started to question religious conventions and social mores, and as individualism warred with the subjugation of the id in the name of society and family.
But to begin with, there is death and convention.
Passing through the rooms, we discover Friedrich von Amerling’s Antonie von Amerling on her Deathbed from 1843, Franz Eybl’s The Artist Franz Wipplinger, Looking at a Portrait of his Late Sister, from 1833, Gyula Benczúr’s Portrait of Empress Elisabeth from 1899 (painted a year after she was assassinated, and representing her some 40 years earlier, portrayed against a stunningly-realised background of gold) and even Emperor Franz Joseph on his Deathbed, by Franz von Matsch from 1916.
There’s work by Richard Gerstl, who killed himself when 25, after a short affair with Schönberg’s wife, and was only later recognised as a seminal Austrian Expressionist.
Of the Klimt works, while two early ones are astonishing for their photographic quality, the latter ones exhibited here all seem connected to death.
A deathbed portrait of Ria Munk (1912), after she had shot herself in the heart, aged 24, following an affair, sets the scene for one of two posthumous portraits of her that is displayed here.
And then a pastel of Klimt’s dead infant son, Otto Zimmermann, together with a photograph of the child in a coffin.
Such postmortem photographs were so popular in the Vienna of the time that the government enacted a law banning the presence of corpses in photographic studios.
Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl was being worked on even as Austro-Hungrary itself was in its death throes, and was unfinished when Klimt himself died in 1918.
As if reflecting those ends, you look at this work and sense that you know where Klimt’s characteristic gold would have gone, but while the spaces are there, they remain ungilded.
But death had not had its fill of this portrait: Zuckerkandl herself would later be murdered in a Nazi death camp.
And then there is Schiele.
Ah yes: this notoriously ‘difficult’ artist.
The Family (Self Portrait) dominates a room – light years away from the chocolate-box sentiment of Alois Delug’s The Markl Family (1907) that hangs just a few metres from it (another illustration of how effective the design of the exhibition is in presenting stark contrasts).
Schiele’s gaunt figures, blank-eyed, stripped almost of flesh and with brushstrokes that could be the underlying muscles; angular, and devoid of what the artist considered to be aesthetic hypocrisy, seem to be the perfect visual metaphors for a Europe brutalised and shattered by the war that was finally grinding to an exhausted halt.
|Death mask of Gustav Mahler|
And more death masks follow, like a frame of the exhibition: of Klimt, of Schiele, of architect Adolf Loos and of the composer Gustav Mahler.
The latter, made in 1911, is unusual in that it was cast by an artist, Carl Moll, and includes much of Mahler’s head and neck as well as his face. The detail is staggering: eyelashes and pores on the neck: it as though you are looking at the composer himself, sleeping.
There are aspects of this exhibition that seem full of life as opposed to death.
Moll’s Self Portrait in his Study, from 1906, may on the surface be conventional, but it has some interesting touches and is beautifully executed.
Gerstl’s Portrait of Lieutenant Alois Gerstl (1907) seems to have something of both van Gogh and Chagall about it.
Schiele’s Portrait of Albert Paris von Gütersloh (1918) has the same blank look of The Family (Self Portrait) from the same year, but his subject sits, utterly modern, against a red and gold background that recalls to mind the icons of Orthodoxy.
There are other patches of the gold that is so familiar in the work of the Secession, as behind the head of the subject in Koller’s Nude Portrait of Marietta (1907), but also in Isidor Kaufmann’s Young Rabbi (1910).
Anton Romoko’s portraits of Isabella and Christoph Reisser from 1885 both hint at the same thing in their blank backgrounds, while some of Kokoschka’s earlier backgrounds do something similar, with their mix of reds and golds.
It is the exoticism of the East blurring into the West.
|Portrait of Heinrich Mann, Oppenheimer|
There’s the discovery that Arnold Schönberg was not only the creator of the 12-tone scale, but a painter of some note.
Works by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller from the pre-Secession era show, however, that not every artist was trapped completely in conventionality.
Gerstl’s Nude Self Portrait with Palette from 1908 (the year of his suicide) is striking too – not least for its apparent prefiguring of Schiele’s angularising of the human body.
And the exhibition as a whole is fascinating because it offers the chance to see how European artists outside France and Spain (Matisse and Picasso, in other words) explored, dissected and made the anew.
If I have a quibble, it is the odd way in which sex is treated – or rather: not.
It’s skated around: mentions that Klimt fathered a number of children by several mothers, and of painters and subjects and their affairs.
One can, in Schiele’s 1912 Portrait of Erich Lederer (left), even see a harbinger of Weimar androgyny.
Yet Koller’s Nude Portrait of Marietta is the point at which the curator chooses to inform of us that it is ‘different’ from other nudes of the era in being ‘non-sexual’.
Which is one interesting – not least, as, in our time, we seem increasingly to be seeing any nude as sexual: see the moral panics that have been thrown up by pictures of naked children being snatched by the police and the photographers arrested, even when they are the parents.
Yet there seems also in this an attempted rejection of the fact that human beings are also sexual beings. However much some may try to pretend otherwise, we view our fellow humans at least partially in terms of sex.
In fin-de-siècle Vienna, as in so many other places and at other times when conventions were being torn at, the rejection of sexual conformity was a vital part of that. And in a Freudian world, and one where individuality is being explored and old beliefs dumped, this seems even more the case.
In Schiele’s oeuvre it’s impossible to miss this.
In 2007, at the Barbican’s Seduced: Art and sex from antiquity to now, works by both Schiele and Klimt were included.
It’s difficult to see how, for instance, Schiele’s Two Girls Embracing (1915) can be seen as pornographic – the gaze from the two women is a challenge to the viewer as voyeur. And Eros, from 1911, of a male nude with vast, erect penis and, again, a challenging look at the observer, does not seem intended to arouse.
Perhaps, rather, they confuse in their lack of shame, and the frankness and boldness of that challenge.
But if Nude Portrait of Marietta is a portrait, then so, surely, is Eros.
That is, however, a relatively minor quibble.
If you expect a Vienna of gaiety and Strauss, this may not be for you. But Facing the Modern is an intellectually challenging exhibition and one that brings great rewards on that score. Gemma Blackshaw deserves great credit for her work on it.
And it’s also an exhibition that will, I suspect, stay in the mind for a very long time to come.
• Facing the Modern: The portrait in Vienna 1900 is at the National Gallery, London, until 12 January. Find out more here.