Sunday 3 November 2013

Art Review: 'Facing the Modern': The Portrait in Vienna 1900, National Gallery, London

The Artist's Nieces, Elizabeth and Maja, Romako (1873)

'Facing the Modern' - the reference to ‘modernity’ in the title of the National Gallery's exhibition on the portrait in Vienna in 1900 has occasioned some comment. Richard Dorment in the Telegraph even goes so far as to suggest that it should have been entitled 'Middle Class Portraiture in Vienna from 1867 to 1918', were it not for marketing considerations - a comment which seems to imply the distinctly uninteresting nature of the nineteenth century and the bourgeoisie when compared with rebellious and groundbreaking modernity.

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (unfinished), Klimt (1917-8)

 It almost seems as if the exhibition organisers agree with him. The images which they’ve selected to promote the exhibition – Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder (1912) and Gustav Klimt’s Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (unfinished) (1917-18) – are among the most strikingly modern in the collection, as well as the latest. But much of the exhibition is comprised of more conservative paintings which depict the Viennese middle classes in the latter half of the century – paintings such as Anton Romako’s The Artist's Nieces, Elizabeth and Maja (1873) - which evidently foreshadow, rather than just contrast with, the intensity of expression and revelation of the uncanny underside of the familial which surface in the later artwork.

Ries' self-portrait (1902)
The central aim of the exhibition, described as telling ‘the story of Vienna’s middle classes –their rise and fall in political power, their hopes for the future, and their claims to the past’, is frustrated by its thematic organisation. We are introduced to the ‘Old Viennese’ but the following rooms are devoted to set topics such as self portraiture and death. And this means we lose all sense of how progressive each painting was seen to be in its time and the course of artistic development – something which could have been avoided with a clearer sense of chronology. As with much discussion of modernity in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century literature, what comes across is a sense of difference, rather than relationship and continuity. It’s as if the turn of the century suddenly made paintings like Schiele’s Portrait of Erich Lederer (1912) inexplicably possible, when they are so divided from their historical and sociological contexts.

I enjoyed the exhibition, from the society portraits of Hans Makart to the commanding self portrait of Teresa Feodorowna Ries and the death masks of Beethoven, Klimt and Schiele. But Vienna, and its society, remained impenetrable – and what exactly it means to be or face the modern confused and unresolved. 

What did you make of the National Gallery's exhibition? Let me know here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist.

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed the exhibition and was particularly interested to see so many strong women portrayed, not least the Teresa Ries self portrait you mentioned