Monday, 28 October 2013

Facing the Modern - Vienna 1900 at the National Gallery

Vienna 1900, was surely one of the most creative places and times in artistic history. The city was host to a stellar cast of architects, composers, designers, writers and artists in such numbers and of such lasting influence that is unsurpassed in modern times.

The cast list included the likes of Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Koloman Moser, Josef Hoffman, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Stefan Zweig, Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka to name but a few. This explosion of creativity took place for the most part in an extremely short period, between 1900 and 1918 - the end of the First World War when the relatively benevolent if shambling Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in defeat, giving birth to a number of small, independent states and leaving Vienna a metropolis at the centre of the small Austrian republic. 

These two decades of creativity are the focus of the current exhibition at the National Gallery - Facing the Modern - which focuses on the portrait during this period. The exhibition is cleverly divided into a series of themes including self portraits, the portrayal of beauty, women artists, Vienna's fascination with death and the position of Jews within Viennese society.

Erich Lederer by Egon Schiele, 1912.
The exhibition features a variety of artistic styles ranging from earlier Biedermeier works to Klimt's deliciously flamboyant secessionist painting and the early expressionist works of Schiele and Kokoschka. Many of the portraits are of members of assimilated Jewish families involved in the city's cultural life and although affluent and well-established, not immune to the particularly virulent Austrian strain of anti-semitism that began to assert itself during this period. In 1897, the openly anti-semitic Karl Lueger was inaugurated as Mayor of Vienna, continuing in this role until his death in 1910. Credited with modernising the city and with being an influence on the later development of Nazi politics, a major  street in Vienna still bears his name.

One of the works used to illustrate these issues is Egon Schiele's portrait of the young Erich Lederer completed in 1912. The Lederers were a wealthy, assimilated family, originating from the Czech lands. Schiele depicted Erich as an awkward teenager with an elongated body, heavy dark brows and pale complexion, not dissimilar to the artist himself. Frau Lederer was said to have found the picture disturbing and felt that Schiele was not a good influence on her son. Whether good or not, the influence was lasting as in later life Erich became an ardent collector of Schiele's works, the family having left Austria whilst flight was still possible in the 1930's.

Young Rabbi from N by Isidor Kaufman, about 1910
The Lederers were representative of a particular segment of Viennese Jewish society. Isidor Kaufman painted a quite different picture. His portrait entitled Young Rabbi From N is of a young Jewish man with trimmed beard, fur hat and silk caftan, conforming to then (and now) widely held view of Jews as "foreign". However, this is countered by his good looks and steady gaze set against a backdrop containing a Hebrew inscription, demonstrating his confidence and authority. Kaufman himself would have been familiar with the barriers and prejudices faced by Jews in fin-de-siecle Vienna. Born in Arad (then in Hungary, now in Romania) he had originally worked in commerce before being able to pursue art. Arriving in Vienna in 1876, he had been denied entrance to the Academy of Fine Arts and eventually devoted his time to touring Galicia, Poland and the Ukraine to record the life and stories of the shtetl.

As well as recording the worlds and lives of others, the artists of this period also painted themselves. The exhibition devotes an entire room to self-portraits including those of Schoenberg, the painter later turned composer, Richard Gerstl, Teresa Ries, and my favourite, Egon Schiele. His Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder from 1912 shows a thin, vulnerable young man with drawn expression looking directly at the viewer. It has been suggested that Schiele took this approach to appeal to potential patrons, hoping to instil feelings of pity, protectiveness, even sexual attraction that might lead to   commissions and payment. Some observers consider his interest in self-portraits to have stemmed from the death of his father from syphilis when the artist was still a child, suggesting he was traumatised and that this was played out in his art. However, during this period the public and private lives of artists were inextricably intertwined and the self portrait became a way of drawing art and life together.

1912 was not a good year for Schiele as he spent some time in prison convicted of charges of indecency due to what were termed "indecent drawings" in his studio having been seen by minors. Things were to get worse, in 1918, aged just 28, both he and his pregnant wife died from the so-called Spanish Influenza. More people died from this pandemic than did during the whole of the First World War, amongst them Schiele's contemporary Gustav Klimt.

Self portrait with raised bare shoulder by Egon Schiele, 1912.
Speaking of death, one gallery of the exhibition is devoted to this subject including to the preponderance of suicide in Vienna during this period. There have been several attempts to explain this phenomenon including the difficulties faced by huge numbers of people emigrating from rural areas and small towns to the Viennese metropolis to live in and amongst poverty, alcoholism and disease. In the case of the Jewish population, where suicide was of a particularly high rate, the restrictions and severity of institutionalised anti-semitism may have contributed.

The A Beautiful Corpse gallery includes works by Franz von Matsch depicting the dead Emperor Franz Joseph, painted in 1916, a posthumous portrait of Empress Elizabeth painted in 1899, Schiele's portrait of his wife Edith as she was dying  and a series of death masks of Schiele, Klimt and architect Adolf Loos. One of the most striking works in this gallery is Klimt's posthumous portrait of Ria Munk, painted in 1917-18. She was from a prominent Jewish family and had committed suicide by shooting herself in the heart in 1911 after an unhappy love affair with German novelist Hans Heinz Ewers.

Her family commissioned Klimt to paint her portrait posthumously. His first painting of Ria showed her as a beautiful, sensual young woman more asleep than dead - an image that troubled her mother and which she rejected. A second attempt showed Ria as being very much alive, bare breasted in a Chinese silk robe and with a riot of flowers in the background. Again, Ria's mother Aranka rejected the portrait. His third version showed a more demure young woman, smiling but deathly white, with robe pulled about her standing against a wall paper of flowers and oriental images. This approach met with Frau Munk's approval but remained unfinished, Klimt succumbing to the flu pandemic before completing it. She kept the portrait until she was deported to the Lodz ghetto in 1941 where she was subsequently murdered.

Posthumous portrait of Ria Munk lll by Gustav Klimt, 1917-18.
Together with Klimt and Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka is synonomous with the art of Vienna during this period. Kokoschka was not Viennese but originated from a small town in Lower Austria. Like Schiele, his work was subject to fierce criticism from the artistic establishment who dismissed it as being representative of a sickness in society. Also subject to this kind of criticism was his Children Playing from 1909, showing the son and daughter of the Stein family momentarily resting from their games. I have to disagree with the critics - for me this is a picture showing affection and innocence - something that was in short supply in Vienna in 1909. Kokoschka's expressionist style was not to everyone's liking but whist his work remains the subject of admiration today who remembers his critics?

Children Playing by Oscar Kokoschka, 1909.
My final choice from the exhibition is Arnold Schoenberg's portrait of Hugo Botsiber. Botsiber, like Schoenberg, a Jewish musicologist gazes directly at the artist and shows tension, suspicion and insecurity. Painted in 1910, Botsiber's anxiety is prescient for what was to happen in the following decades in Vienna. He fled Austria for London in 1938, dying there in 1942. Vienna 1900 was a time of intense creativity, artistic and technological progress. It was also a dark threatening time for many people, but of course the worst darkness was yet to come.

Hugo Botsiber by Arnold Schoenberg, circa 1910.
The exhibition runs until 12th January. It is a great show - and one to return to.

You might also like Jewish Vienna and Ver Sacrum Magazine and the Vienna Secession


  1. I visited the Vienna exhibition last week and really enjoyed it. You clearly know your stuff art-wise. I am new to writing about art and am striving not to regurgitate commonly held views!

  2. Thanks for the feedback Ruth. Isn't it a great exhibition? We are very fortunate to have access to so many great art shows in London. I read your post on the exhibition and agree with many of your comments. Best wishes!