Modern portraiture – the Old and the New Viennese

Vienna, also known as the City of Music, was an area where many great composers found their place in musical history, icons such as Mozart, Brahms and Mahler. Theatres and opera houses filled the city with world-class music, attracting tourists and immigrants from across the Empire. During the years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918), Vienna was in a huge state of flux economically and politically, being the main capital of a dual-monarchy. The exhibition Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 focuses on the city’s middle-class who would have had the money to commission their own portraits.

In just six rooms, the exhibition takes us on a loosely-chronological journey from the Old Viennese tradition to the birth and failure of the New Viennese. The first room introduces us to the themes and characteristics of the Old Viennese, with an emphasis on the portrait exhibition at the Galerie Miethke in 1905 which presented the art of the past to the people of the day. Amongst some of the most celebrated artists was Friedrich von Amerling, a painter in the court of Franz Josef I – a study for an official portrait of the monarch features in the corner of the room. Beethoven’s death mask welcomes us alongside a painting of his hands, hinting at the celebratory status of deathbed portraiture in the penultimate room, supported by the theme of loss in Franz Eybl’s The Artist Franz Wipplinger looking at a Portrait of his Lost Sister (1833) suggested by the portrait within a portrait. Wealth and status portraits indicated one’s self-consciousness, leading to the age-old idea of a public image. All the paintings in this room are truly exquisite, most seemingly hyper-realistic with their attention to details, skin tones and naturalism. We lose a lot of this in the next room.

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Image via www.photolondon.co.uk.

Due to the changing climate, many of the paintings in this next room are particularly expressive in their overflowing of emotion. One of the main groups of Austrian artists was the Vienna Secession, whose building displays the phrase “To every age its art. To art its freedom” upon the entrance. Steering away from academic tradition, the Secession artists aimed to create a style that was devoid of historical influence, but embracing the modern home. The paintings here, however, seem contrary to their aim; what is in fact shown to us are families and couples affected by an unstable society in which they don’t seem to firmly belong. Oskar Kokoschka’s Portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat (1909) is extremely vivid in its assortment of colours. The figures are animated but pensive, lost inside themselves. The background is indistinct, save for a white sun in the corner amongst countless other primitive chalk-like marks and symbols scratched with his own fingernails across the canvas without any obvious meaning or intention. However, they do add to the dynamism of the composition. Family, couples and children are the main focus of this room, the latter being considered a figure of innocence, contrasted against the tension of political shifts. The composer Arnold Schönberg, head of the Second Viennese School and famous for his twelve-tone serialism, also happened to be a painter, and we see his son in his Portrait of Georg Schönberg (1910). Painted in the claustrophobic family apartment, his son glances away from the viewer, appearing distraught and melancholy. This is the face of a child unimpressed and unhappy with society, desperate for a better life, a view that could be read in every child’s face in the paintings around this room.

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Oskar Kokoschka, Portrait of Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat, 1909. Image via www.wikipaintings.org.

The vision of a tormented human subject was heavily influenced by the works of Sigmund Freud. This led to the rise of self-portraiture that responded to Vienna’s political tensions, Egon Schiele being the most specialised to this kind of portrayal. His own Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder (1912) was painted with the notion that the artist’s body was a material to be manhandled, something which can be seen in his rather frail-looking figures. Schönberg appears again in a one-eared Blue Self Portrait (1910) where he identifies himself with the outcast Vincent van Gogh, while Richard Gerstl gives us the first naked self-portrait in Austrian art, Nude Self Portrait with Palette (1908). The artist in Vienna was becoming increasingly self-conscious with artists like Teresa Ries portraying herself as a confident female artist and Anselm Feuerbach showing off his technical skill in Self Portrait with Cigarette (1875). The restricted brown palette of the latter seems to be influenced by photographic practices which would have started to emerge at this time.

Eventually we reach the New Viennese section of the exhibition where the middle-class turned to portraiture to define what they considered was ‘middle-class.’ Some turned to the traditions of the past, such as Hans Makart’s Portrait of Clothilde Beer (about 1878) and a photograph album depicting tableaux vivants – dramatic recreations of paintings. Others assimilated the current change and the propositions of the avant-garde. Many of the immigrants to Vienna were Jewish and the artist Isidore Kaufmann chose to depict many of these individuals in traditional dress in front of their places of worship. However, the star of the show seems to be Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady in Black (about 1894), portraying Marie, the wife of Vienna’s master baker Johann Breunig. This painting is a celebratory portrait commemorating her new social status, rising to the middle-class from a modest background as a result of her husband’s commercial success. She stands upright and elegant in a beautiful black dress. One arm wears a black glove while the other is bare, lightly resting upon a chair by her side. The hanging textiles on the back wall reflect her refined tastes, fashion being one of the things which defined her. Klimt is usually better known for his gold, lavishly decorated paintings such as The Kiss (1907-8) and The Three Ages of Woman (1905), but this naturalist style of painting really gives us a different perspective on this well-known artist. I was particularly fascinated by his rendering of the diamond ring worn by his subject, detailing every internal reflection to create a form that is – and can only be – a well-cut diamond. This fascination with decorative jewellery finds itself into his recognisable later style which we get to see in the last two rooms.

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Gustav Klimt, Portrait of a Lady in Black, about 1894. Image via www.credit-suisse.com.

Love and loss are the main themes in the next room, giving us the death masks of Mahler, Klimt, Schiele and the architect Adolf Loos. These were highly sought after, considered as collector’s items. To the present-day viewer, these masks are the closest thing to seeing these famous individuals face-to-face – their exact likenesses really do give a sense of their presence in the room, as if admiring their own works as we are admiring theirs. I found a small crowd being drawn towards Klimt’s Portrait of the Artist’s Dead Son, Otto Zimmermann (1902). Drawn in chalk, it shows the three-month old child wrapped in white cloth, eyes closed and rendered very softly. However, his expression also has a sense of energy to it, appearing almost like a new-born, living baby. One could feel as if those eyelids were about to open, those lips about to pucker and the body about to inhale its first breath of fresh air. One of Klimt’s commissions was to paint the deathbed portrait of Ria Munk who committed suicide after a failed love affair in 1911. Placed next to each other on adjacent walls are two very different portraits for the commission – one being a traditional portrait of the young girl at her deathbed, reminiscent of Picasso’s The Death of Casagemas (1901), and the other being a ‘living portrait’ showing her standing, turning towards the viewer with a smile, framed by Klimt’s ornamentations. Despite holding a pessimistic view of death, the Viennese were fascinated with death and they often celebrated its passing, portraiture being one of the primary means.

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Image via www.artlyst.com.

However, the New Viennese attitude soon died out with the dissolution of the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary in 1918. The paintings of this time were often left unfinished and abandoned, reflecting the failure of the state. Again, we see this in Gustav Klimt, whose Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (1917-18) was left unfinished from the bust down. The dress, which he spent some time choosing as shown in the nearby working drawings from 1913-14, is left as a series of rough working outlines. Dashes of blue and pink fill small areas of the drapery, but they reflect nothing more of what it would have looked like if completed.

This exhibition emphasises the relationship between art and political circumstances, reflecting the minds of the middle-class and the artists in Austro-Hungarian Vienna. The layout is very easy to navigate, especially in Room 4 where a single wall forces us to walk around the room. Portraiture can sometimes be a rather dull genre to look at but this exhibition brings out its significance and brings us closer to the artists and patrons of the Viennese middle-class. Highly recommended, even if it is just to see Klimt’s early developing style and that wonderful diamond ring in the Portrait of a Lady in Black.

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 runs until 12th January 2014 at the National Gallery, London, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.

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