Nov 2013 Journal
Art Notes (review)
In the National Gallery’s new exhibition Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (until 12 January 2014, sponsored by Credit Suisse), we see the old order is dying: classical portraiture, with all its bejewelled formality, is on the way out. The ‘New Vienna’ presents a middle class in the flux of change. Immigrants flood in from across the Empire, new industrial money invigorates art but, sadly, what begins with liberalisation ends in nationalism and prejudice aimed at the new Jewish immigrants.
Artists with a Jewish background lead the art of protest art, the first tentative steps of Expressionism soon to be stamped on by the oncoming Nazi regime. Up to this point fin-de-siècle artists were commissioned by wealthy patrons and the work of the artists in this collection includes iconoclasts Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Oskar Kokoschka, Isidore Kaufmann and Arnold Schönberg, the composer of 12-tone music.
But the new modernism was diverse, from Schiele’s heart-rending family portrait, the flesh leathery, the faces introspective, a baby which will never be born, perched like a ghost between his mother’s knees.
In his own self-portrait with raised bare shoulder, Schiele anticipates Francis Bacon - spiky black hair and flesh exposed like meat. In another style, Schiele’s portrait of Erich Lederer shows a young man with a small pale head above an assertive body dressed in lederhosen and with a large hand on his hips. The work of Schönberg, by contrast, is grim and contained, the flesh colours a dull cobalt, while Klimt in his earlier work retains classical detail. His 1894 painting Young Girl Seated describes the intricate folds of a blouse in muted colours and his famous Portrait of a Lady in Black still retains its classical provenance.
But the Klimt we recognise bursts into action around 1904 in Portrait of Hermine Gallia, she of the surreal diaphanous dress, and in 1917 in his flowing and languid Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk.
But in 1846 little was rocking the boat. Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller’s Portrait of Schaumberg’s Wife, for instance, gives Viennese society what it is accustomed to. Here are all the detail and sobriety of the classical painting, with trimmings of lace and brocade.
The emphasis on death - Beethoven’s death mask, as well as Schiele’s Portrait of Ria Munk, even Anton Romako’s wistful painting of his nieces (his two daughters killed themselves in 1887 while he himself died two years later aged 57) - can be read prophetically with regard to the future for Viennese art, but the Pre-Raphaelites equally had a propensity for the morbid.
Gerstl’s final work, Nude Self-Portrait with Palette, with its scrambled background and tousled hair, was said to have been painted shortly before his suicide.
Broncia Koller’s study of a young girl with a birdcage typifies change in art. Carl Moll’s 1906 self-portrait in his study, still classical in tone, with slanted light across the tiled floor, heavy wood furniture and sculpture, shows the artist in the background behind pale curtains - almost an afterthought. This is a view of a changing world: exciting, important and nostalgic.