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Capital portraits: the stylistic shifts in portraiture in fin de siecle Viennese painting reflect the changing face of the city.

Facing The Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900

9 October-12 January 2014

National Gallery, London

Catalogue by Gemma Blackshaw (ed.) with a foreword by Edmund de Waal

ISBN 9781857095616 (hardback), 35 [pounds sterling] (Yale University Press)

This impressive exhibition does not merely blazon the fame of Vienna's well-known Secessionist artists, but includes a panoply of early to mid 19th-century Viennese portraiture admired by these artists--a legacy on which Klimt, especially, was concerned to draw. And, presented with widely varying faces from later decades, we are in effect the recipients of a portrait of Vienna itself--one that tells above all of middle-class aspirations, most usually on the part of immigrant families, of commitment to the arts, but of a city suffering, by the early 20th century, from a growing malaise and discord.

Towards the end of Franz Josef's long reign (he became Emperor of Austria in 1848) and after a certain cultural impasse, the city had once again become intellectually vibrant: now cosmopolitan, for many thousands had come to live there from other countries, confident and self-aware. Its citizens not only looked to the future, but respected its past, as shown in the introductory section devoted to the hugely popular 1905 exhibition at the trend-setting Miethke Gallery, of portraits by Biedermeier artists. In this array of accomplished, meticulously painted likenesses by artists unfamiliar to many of us, the thoughtful pairing of Georg Waldmuller's Portrait of an Unidentified Seated Girl in e White Satin Dress (1839) with Klimt's Young Girl Seated (1894) demonstrates how the latter emulated Waldmuller in his own early portraits, paying close attention to the sitter's hair, hands and skin, and the fabric of her dress.

The exhibition moves on to family portraits, where large canvases bear witness to the rise of many of Vienna's middle-class dynasties. In Josef Maria Auchentaller's Bunte Bande (Portrait of Maria) of 1912, the young daughter of the house takes centre stage, bedecked in a floral gown and shawl, while Alois Delug's The Markl Family (1907), shows the mother in her sitting room, proud of her children, and smartly dressed for the outdoors.

Next, Biedermeyer-period self-portraits are intermingled with later ones to provide stark contrasts between the different eras. While Friedrich von Amerling and Anselm Feuerbach's fine portraits of themselves, dated 1867 and 1875 respectively, are models of conventional representation, in the expressionist Richard Gerstl's confrontational Nude Self-Portrait with Pelette (1908), the artist depicts his skinny body with bold, diagonal brushstrokes, and stares aggressively out at us.

Gerstl was among Jewish artists whose contribution to the arts at this time was considerable. Since 1867, when all citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had been granted equal rights, Jews had successfully integrated into Viennese society, while for the most part determinedly retaining their own cultural identity. With the appointment of the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger as mayor in 1897, they began to feel, in Kokoschka's words, 'less secure than the rest of the Viennese Establishment'. Prominent Jewish figures were portrayed by artists in markedly different ways--Kokoschka painting the writer Peter Altenberg in 1907 as an anguished, grubby figure, Klimt and Gerstl accepting commissions to portray wealthy and fashionable Jewish women, and Isidor Kaufmann's remarkable Young Rabbi from N. (C. 1910), showing the subject as a dignified and steadfast figure (Fig. 2). This attractive oil on panel depicts the self-assured young man dressed in a traditional black silk kaftan and fur hat, standing in front of a colourful green, red, gold and blue Torah curtain. In another of the exhibition's adroit pairings, two paintings of Jewish subjects, Klimt's Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904), and Gerstl's Mathilde Schonberg in the Studio (1908), are hung side by side. Whereas Klimt's sitter, enveloped in a long white dress, becomes a frothy confection in white, pink and grey, Gerstl's portrait of Schonberg's wife, wearing a blue dress and rendered in an impressionistic, near-pointillist technique, has an altogether more earthbound presence.

Klimt's predecessor as the chosen painter of fashionable women had been Hans Makart, an artist who, frequently portraying his sitters in historic dress, but paying attention primarily to their faces, had been criticised for producing inaccurate likenesses. The two examples of his work here, portraits of the luscious Hanna Klinkosch (c. 1875), and the seductive Clothilde Beer (c. 1878), show his subjects as arguably more alluring than Klimt's, an exception being the latter's refined and beautiful Portrait of a Lady in Black (c. 1894; Fig. 1). Indeed, the Secessionist's late portraits, showing women encased in myriad gold and coloured ornamentation, have been said to have been springboards for his own allegories.

From an era when a woman artist's road to success was still a stony one, there are works by just three women. Broncia Koller, Elena Luksch-Makowsky and Teresa Ries. The most talented of these, Koller, often exhibited with Klimt, first coming to prominence in the 1908 Kunstschau. Originally from Galicia in Eastern Europe, she settled in Vienna's Oberwaltersdorf area, her home becoming a centre for literati, artists and musicians. Her sensitive compositions, exemplified here in Nude Portrait of Marietta (1907), and her portrait of her daughter, Silvia Koller with a Birdcage (1907-08; Fig. 3), have a refreshing simplicity and deserve wider recognition.

The agenda of other artists working in the early 20th century was very different, as they created 'psychological' portraits, perhaps influenced by Sigmund Freud, and reflecting the growing unease and introspection that had taken root in the Austrian capital. Two, in particular, Max Oppenheimer's Portrait of Heinrich Mann (1910) and Albert Paris von Gutersloh's Portrait of a Woman (1914), present the German novelist and the anonymous woman as anguished figures no longer at ease with their world.

Throughout, Egon Schiele's portraits claim our attention. His Portrait of Erich Lederer (1912), the teenage son of the industrialist August Lederer, vividly relays the awkwardness of his adolescent subject, with his uncertain look and splayed fingers, while the tortuous paintwork of Schiele's Self-Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder (1912), makes it an arresting image.

A macabre but intensely moving aspect of the National Gallery's exhibition is the inclusion of the death masks not only of Klimt and Schiele, who died of influenza in 1918 aged only 28, but of Mahler and Beethoven. The latter's death mask was made by two young Viennese painters, Josef Danhauser, who had been at Beethoven's deathbed in 1827, and Matthias Ranftl.

Averil King's Emil Nolde. Artist of the Elements was published in March.
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Title Annotation:Facing The Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900
Author:King, Averil
Publication:Apollo
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 1, 2013
Words:1065
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