In “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900” at London’s National Gallery, an entire room is devoted to the grim reaper. There are death masks of such crucial figures as Mahler and Klimt, plus the latter’s pictures of Ria Munk, a rich young woman who was unhappy in love and shot herself in 1911.
The artist painted her on her deathbed, and posthumously against his trademark mosaic of brilliant decoration. The second picture was left unfinished on Klimt’s own demise in 1918.
Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka are represented by major works. Among the showstoppers is Schiele’s “The Family (Self Portrait),” painted shortly before the artist’s early death at the age of 28, also in 1918. That was the year that brought down the curtain on Vienna’s brief period as the capital of the multi-ethnic, multi-faith empire.
In the late 19th and early 20th century it had been a city in which the cultured Jewish population of the city took leading roles as artists, sitters and patrons.
The final room includes Klimt’s “Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl” (1917-18). Some 25 years later, the glamorous and intelligent subject was murdered in a Nazi extermination camp.
Mortality is also to the fore in such works as Franz Eybl’s mournful study of “The Artist Franz Wipplinger looking at a Portrait of his Late Sister” from 1833 and the full-frontal ‘’Nude Self Portrait with Palette” that Richard Gerstl painted before committing suicide by both hanging and stabbing himself. (The reason was an unsuccessful romance with Schoenberg’s wife).
Gerstl (1883-1908) emerges as a wild and erratically brilliant painter who killed himself just as he was attaining artistic maturity. Even stranger -- as a painter -- was his rival in love: Arnold Schoenberg. The great master of twelve-tone music also attempted a career in art, saying that his complete lack of training and conventional skill was an asset.
This was an idea nearly a century ahead of its time. In the 1980s and 1990s, his clumsy pictures, verging on outsider art, might have gone down well. While fellow composer Gustav Mahler kindly bought one work, Schoenberg’s foray into painting failed.
The survey begins with early 19th century works, and contains less familiar names such as Anton Romako (1832-1889) and Hans Makart (1840-1885): two Viennese virtuosos of the brush who ventured boldly miles beyond the boundaries of good taste.
Walking through “Facing the Modern” amounts to a crash course in a century of Austrian art. Because the rooms are hung thematically, it also makes the chronology confusing and causes some uncomfortable juxtapositions: as if a bit of Pre-Raphaelite schmaltz were to be hung next to a Francis Bacon.
Putting artists from different eras together makes a point: even Viennese radicals were conservative. Klimt spent the first half of his career as an academic 19th century painter; Schiele’s expressionism relied on old-fashioned draughtsmanship.
Elsewhere, cubism and pure abstraction were appearing. In Vienna, the brush-strokes might get looser and the backgrounds jazzier, yet art continued to be mainly about pictures of people. Actually, that is its fascination.
“Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900” is at the National Gallery, London from Oct 9 to Jan 12, Sponsored by Credit Suisse.
(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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