Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Review: Facing the Modern - The Portrait in Vienna 1900

Detail from 'Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl', 1917-18
by Gustav Klimt
© Belvedere, Vienna
Donated by Vita and Gustav Künstler
Facing the Modern - The Portrait in Vienna 1900 opens to the public tomorrow at the National Gallery (Facebook) in London.  The exhibition is being held in the Sainsbury Wing (Level -2).

The exhibition is about the development of portraiture at the turn of the century (1900) in Vienna. This was a time when the multiculturalism which had become dominant in Vienna was helping to redefine portrait painting and what styles could be employed when creating a portrait - or a self-portrait.

You can see some of the works on display on the website. The exhibition includes paintings that don't move very often from their homes in the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna or other public and private collections and there have been some generous loans. Plus it also includes the death masks of Beethoven, Mahler, Klimt and Schiele!

Below I've given an overview of the exhibition - plus included links to the Belvedere website and others which provide resources related to the art in this exhibition.

Who should visit this exhibition

I highly recommend this exhibition to:
  • portrait artists of every persuasion - from those who prefer very detailed realistic rendering to those who pursue expressionism.
  • those interested in European art history.  It includes three very important artists associated with the Vienna Secessionism movement - Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and early expressionism Egon Schiele (1890-1918) and Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980).  Links in the names are to WikiPaintings where you can see a lot more of their art.

I liked it - and explain why below.

Scope of the Exhibition

The exhibition explores a pivotal period of the life of the city of Vienna. As capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire

The rooms within the Exhibition are as follows

Room 1: The Old Viennese - paintings of the ancestors.  A fictional family for the new Viennese  who poured into Vienna from across the Austro-Hungarian empire.  These portraits are typically exceptionally skilled and rendered in great detail.  There's an exceptionally fine tiny painting by Klimt which I absolutely loved.

The view as you enter Room 1: The Old Viennese
Room 2: The Family and the Child.  Paintings of the family and children within the context of what was happening in Vienna at the time.  You need to read the catalogue to understand what was happening in Vienna at the time and why the home and the family became a place of refuge and respite for many Jewish families.

Room 3: The Appeal of the Artist.  Paintings of the artist - many self-portraits. Demonstrating the notion that the self-portrait was a way of declaring prowess in terms of technical skills and artistic allegiances - of marketing one's art within a very competitive environment.  Also the self-portrait was a way of experimenting with the very nature of portraiture.

Some of the paintings are very powerful - such as the small self-portrait by Schiele (see below). The more I looked at it the more I was persuaded that this painting was created by first painting in oil and then rubbing off and removing paint - there's a clear thumb print in one bit of the painting.  Whatever his technique it's highly effective.  This probably the smallest painting in the room and yet it leaps off the wall and demands attention.

Self Portrait with raised bare shoulder 1912
by Egon Schiele - painted age 22
oil on wood, 42.2 x 33.9
© Leopold Museum Private Foundation, Vienna

Room 4: The New Viennese (one of the portrait gallery corridors)
Room 4: The New Viennese.  The main room in the Sainsbury Wing Gallery had been divided in two to create two wide corridors - or picture galleries - where portraits of the people who were new to Vienna are hung.  Most but not all are commissions. Portraiture was a way of describing who you are in the new Vienna.  However family and friends also contributed to the development of portraiture at the time.

Room 5: Love and Loss - drawings of people who are dying and dead
In the foreground are the death masks of Mahler, Klimt, Schiele and Loos

Room 5: Love and Loss.  Rather a sad room as everybody in it is either already dead or in the process of dying.  It tackles the topic of making a picture of somebody after their death.  It also highlights the impact of the influenza pandemic and the exceptionally high suicide rate among the assimilated Jewish youth which led to a symposium, chaired by Sigmund Freud, to try and understand the reasons for this.

There's a very sad story about the commission Klimt accepted to paint a portrait of Ria Munk III following her death (she shot herself in the heart following a failed love affair).  The one below is unfinished but was accepted by the parents who had rejected two earlier versions.  I found it a great way to understand how Klimt painted his paintings

Posthumous portrait of Ria Munk III 1917-18
by Gustav Klimt
oil on canvas, 180.7 x 89.9cm
© Property of The Lewis Collection
Room 6: Finish and Failure
Room 6: Finish and Failure. This room includes paintings which are unfinished by both Klimt and Kokoshka.  In part because of the war and then - in Klimt's case - because he died.  I learned that he used to do a lot of preparatory drawings - and there are two on display. It was suggested that this demonstrates an interactive process where the model (commissioning the painting) decide how she wants to be represented and gets to experiment and try things out in partnership with the artist (eg to arch the eyebrow or not!)

Kokoshka by way of contrast obviously felt his way around a portrait using thinned oil paint and a brush

You can read the story of the painting which dominates the room on the Belvedere website - see Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (if you use Chrome and the instant translate facility).  It's believed that she died in Theresienstadt, one of the concentration camps in WW2.

Why visit this exhibition

Here's some reasons to visit this exhibition.

First, it takes an unusual approach and displays two quite different kinds of art alongside one another - from either side of the divide that was and is 1900.

The Historicism approach of the nineteenth century is shown alongside paintings of early expressionism as seen in Vienna.  These are links to the relevant artists and styles of painting around about 1900 on the Belvedere website

I found the contrast in portrait styles to be stimulating. For me, it highlighted more clearly the similarities and the differences.  I found myself studying the different techniques employed to create different effects.

While for the most part it contrasts the work of different artists, it also highlights the contrasts to be found within the portfolio of an artist - witness the portraits by Klimt below painted 10 years apart.

Changes in the portraiture of Gustav Klimt
Left: Portrait of Hermine Gallia, 1904
oil on canvas, 170.5 x 96.5 cm, National Gallery
Right: Portrait of a lady in black c.1894
oil on canvas, 155 x 75cm, Belvedere - loan from a private collection

It's an exhibition which also reflects a country and a city in flux.  In effect, the exhibition is a portrait of a city.  That city is Vienna - the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire which is coming to an end.  It's an empire of many nations and many different cultures.  As the capital of a new empire Vienna grew tremendously during the nineteenth century. By 1910 it was a city of 2 million people and the 4th largest in the world - and the tensions associated with that multiculturalism were showing.  It was a city where strong anti-Semitic feelings were expressed about Jewish people - and their portraits - on a regular basis.

It struck me that there were quite a lot of similarities between Vienna and London now - and I thought it a pity that there weren't more events which addressed issues of multi-culturalism and its impact on assimilation and integration - and portraiture

There are lots of endings in the exhibition - and new beginnings. The exhibition effectively ends in 1918 - a year in which:
  • a century ended 
  • The first World War - the war to end all wars - came to an end. The Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed as a result
      Portrait of Edith Schiele, dying
      28 October 1918 - she died 3 hours later
      by Egon Schiele
      (who died 3 days later on 31 October 1918)
      Both were victims of the Spanish Influenza pandemic
      Black chalk on paper 44 x 29.7cm
      © Leopold Museum Private Foundation, Vienna
    Both Klimt and Schiele died in 1918
    • Klimt died on 6 February 1918 of a stroke followd by pneumonia
    • Schiele died on 31 October 1918, three days after his wife. Both he and his wife were victims of the Spanish Influenza pandemic
    It's an excellent way of learning about the context of painters one knows about - without actually knowing too much!

    I came away liking Klimt even more than I did already - and I need to study him some more.  Watch this space as they say!

    The catalogue has a number of useful essays about the themes and sub-themes of the exhibition

    Events associated with the Exhibition

    You can find details of all the events associated with the exhibition on the website.  A number of them are free but you do need to book in advance.

    There's a lunchtime talk by the curator on Tuesday 22 October, 1–1.45pm in the Sainsbury Wing Theatre


    This exhibition is:
    • curated by Dr Gemma Blackshaw, Associate Professor History of Art and Visual Culture at Plymouth and guest curator at the National Gallery
    • organised by the National Gallery, London
    • sponsored by Credit Suisse as part of its partnership with the National Gallery since 2008. It's worth noting that Credit Suisse are also the people who sponsor the late night opening of the National Gallery
    • The events programme for 'Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900' is kindly supported by Martin Halusa

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