Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka make history in blockbuster show at National Gallery

By Mark Sheerin | 08 October 2013

Exhibition review: Facing the Modern – The Portrait in Vienna 1900, The National Gallery, London, October 9 2013 – January 12 2014

Colour oil painting of a young woman on a floral deathbed
Gustav Klimt, Ria Munk on her Deathbed, 1912© Photo courtesy of the owner. Private Collection Courtesy Richard Nagy Ltd., London
There’s nothing like a focused group of masterpieces to open up a distant time and place. You may not, so far, have cared too much about the denizens of fin de siècle Vienna. But the social historical aspect of this show makes the Austro-Hungarian empire seem like yesterday.

And since gallery going is in some ways quintessentially middle class, it is only a surprise that no one has thought of this before. Because the picture which emerges of Vienna between 1867 and 1918 is of an art crazy middle class, flushed with its own success but filled with angst regarding its roots.

On his way to becoming world famous, Gustav Klimt painted a baker’s wife on her way to becoming a member of the high bourgeoisie. For his Portrait of a Lady in Black, Marie Breunig disguises humble origins with a daring evening gown. She looks like a pillar of old Vienna.

Tall thin oil painting of a tall thin man in expressionistic style
Egon Schiele, Portrait of Erich Lederer, 1912© Kuntsmuseum Basel. Photo Martin P Bühler. Gift of Frau Erich Lederer-von Jacobs, in memory of her late husband
Klimt was not the only one to take risks. Oskar Kokoschka paints the married couple Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat. Both were art historians who thought enough of his picture to hang it above the fireplace at home. But the Jewish husband and wife were wary of letting the public see this work. No sooner had expressionism arrived in Vienna than it was denounced as degenerate.

As a result, many of the middle classes kept their aspirational tastes to themselves. They filled their houses with art and, like artist and curator Carl Moll, retreated to their studies. In a beguiling self-portrait, Moll can be seen through a curtain, absorbed in his work. If you don’t like his expressive statue by George Minne or painting by Van Gogh, that’s tough.

It is a paradox that as genres go, portraiture can give rise to at once the most ostentatious and the most domestic of works. But Anton Kolig renders family life in its full alienating splendour with his Portrait of the Schaukal Family from 1911. It’s a finely composed scene, in which all five members look in different directions, animated by bold and rapid brushstrokes.

Meanwhile, Teresa Ries is upsetting family mores by setting herself up as a female painter. Her self portrait, in an artist’s smock, reveals a forceful personality and a casual index finger pointing at her loins. She means business, but whether that is artistic or sexual remains to be seen. Possibly both are on the agenda.

But whereas Ries must have been difficult to refuse, poor Ria Munk suffered for her unrequited love; Klimt came to paint her and in his floral and flushed work Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-18), you would never guess this wholesome young woman had turned a 5mm pistol on herself. This, at a time and in a city where suicide rates for the under 30s were a scandal.

Indeed portraiture and death seemed to go together in Vienna at that time. Klimt also paints his dead son; both Egon Schiele and Friedrich von Amerling paint their wives dying; and it was all the rage to take your deceased to a photographic studio where they could ‘pose’ for a final snap.

Death masks were also popular, and thanks to these ghostly forms the visitor can enter the presence of Klimt, composers Beethoven and Mahler, plus the architect Adolf Loos. Schiele, too. Strange to think that live wire once closed his eyes for good; we can see them both, blue and lit up, as if they could give speech in his 1912 Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder. Portraits, if nothing else, are about posterity. Those collected in this show are a fabulous tribute to a fraught but golden age.
  • Admission £12.50 (£5.50). OPen 10am-6pm daily (until 9pm Friday). Exhibition sponsors Credit Suisse.
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