Facing the Modern – The Portrait in Vienna 1900

The National Gallery – Sainsbury Wing 9 October – 12 January 2014

Peter Morrell previews this exhibition which packs a mighty visual punch

Egon Schiele (1890 ˗ 1918) The Family (Self Portrait), 1918
Oil on canvas 152.5 x 162.5 cm
© Belvedere, Vienna

There is a new exhibition at the National Gallery exploring Viennese portraiture during the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867–1918). During that time the style of formal portraits of both Royalty and the Bourgeoisie were broken apart and re-constructed by artists like Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.

The exhibition starts sedately enough with paintings that you would expect as the product of a rich and vibrant city like Vienna. But move into the second gallery and you are immediately confronted with a total change of artistic style.

Facing you is the marriage portrait of art historians Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat by Kokoschka, their knarled hands are almost touching and their bodies juxtaposed to be neither together nor apart. There is a strong psychological element in the painting, not surprising given that it had been painted in the city of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Mahler.

A turn to left was the point at which the first visual punch was thrown. Egon Schiele’s The Family is a painting of the artist naked with his wife and child. This is part illusory, in fact the woman was a model and Schiele was childless. Perhaps this painting was his vision of the future. When he painted it in 1918 he was married and in the autumn of that year his wife was six months pregnant. Tragically she caught Spanish Flu and died, Schiele died three days later at the age of 28. What would he have achieved if he had lived longer?

From this point on the exhibition presents you with a whole range of thought provoking paintings including works by the composer Schonberg. There are many items painted by lesser known artists that carry this psychological element. A naked self portrait of the artist Richard Gerstl, painted after his affair with Schonberg’s wife was discovered, shows him looking smug with his manhood proudly on display, however within a couple of weeks of this work being completed he had committed suicide.

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl Gustav Klimt 1917-18
Oil on Canvas 128 x 128 cm
©Belvedere, Vienna, Donated by Vita and Gustav Künstler

There are some wonderful examples by Klimt including the posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III but the crowning glory and poster girl of the exhibition is Klimt’s Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, strong faced and proud. The work is unfinished as Klimt also died in 1918 from complications caused by a stroke.

Some of the works on loan are from the Leopold collection. Rudolph Leopold was a Viennese doctor who started actively collecting art in the 1950s. His widow Elisabeth, who was at the preview, explained that her husband could not afford old masters so started to purchase more affordable paintings by artists who were then less well known. In this way he amassed a collection of more than 5,000 works and brought the likes of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoscha to the world’s attention.

The collection was purchased by the Austrian government in 1994 and it is now housed in the Leopold Museum in Vienna. So if you don’t get the opportunity to see these visually powerful images in London they are still available for public viewing in Vienna.

I would really recommend that you go and see Facing the Modern – The Portrait in Vienna 1900. It offers a real insight into the avant-garde movement in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Cleverly curated by Dr Gemma Blackshaw, it enables you to understand the development of the movement and the relationship between the key artists. The paintings also have an energy and power that can be easily appreciated by the art layman.

The exhibition has been staged with the generous support of Credit Suisse

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