Franz Xaver Stöber – as depicted by Friedrich von Amerling (right) – is just the type I imagine frequenting the kaffeehaus of mid-19th Century Vienna: the high forehead and intense, bespectacled gaze of the intellectual elite, the dapper black necktie signalling the cosmopolitanism of the imperial capital, while the slightly unruly sweep of hair belies the artistic ferment simmering just beneath. The painting is immediate, alive with character, and close-cropped with no sense of artifice or theatrical staging. Stöber was a successful engraver, while von Amerling was portraitist at the court of Franz Josef. His work, together with other – then renowned, but now largely unknown – Austrian portrait painters such as Waldmüller and Eybl, is shown in the first room of the National Gallery’s rather unwieldy exploration of Viennese portraiture.
The premise in this introductory selection of sedate society portraits is to introduce the ‘Old Viennese’ as they were presented to a new and rapidly expanding ‘New Viennese’ society in 1905 at the progressive Miethke gallery. The inclusion of Klimt’s tiny and exquisite oil, ‘Young Girl, Seated’ (left, 1894), saves this from being a totally anomalous preface by making clear the transition between the traditional and the modern. Klimt matured as an artist in the 19th Century and was highly proficient in the detailed, realist style of ‘Old Vienna’ – Waldmüller, especially, proves a striking comparison here.
This inclusion is important; without it one would be thrown headlong from the realist tradition into the extreme modernism of the early 20th Century that predominates in the following room. These totally disparate paintings are held together by the theme of ‘The Family and the Child’, which provides many interesting and unusual juxtapositions – yet it could be an entirely separate exhibition in itself. And strangely, there is no example by Klimt to make a profit from the connection previously established and to thus create at least a superficial coherence (indeed, his ‘Lady in Black’, also of 1894, is stranded three rooms away). Which is all the more odd considering that Klimt produced some exceptional paintings of children and of maternity, not least ‘Mada Primavesi’ (1912), which would have illustrated beautifully his development from the ‘Young Girl’ to a modernist interpretation of the subject; or ‘Mother and Child’ (1905), potentially a perfect foil for Schiele’s ‘Family Group’ (below, 1918), which as it is sits awkwardly against Delug’s ‘The Markl Family’ (1907), in overly stark contrast.
‘Family Group’ is a powerful late work by Schiele – one of the largest and most complete – and should have been placed at the climax of the exhibition. Introducing it near the beginning undermines its importance both in the artist’s oeuvre and within the context of Viennese painting more generally; the nakedness feels out of place and awkward here. Schiele’s slightly earlier ‘Portrait of Erich Lederer’ ( below right, 1912), however, is well-chosen; more intelligible as a comparison with other contemporaneous depictions of children, it also clearly demonstrates the highly individual style and precocious talent of the artist. This should have the been the single, statement introductory picture.
Elsewhere within this theme, I was delighted by the hanging of Anton Romako’s ‘The Artist’s Nieces, Elisabeth and Maja’ (1873) next to Richard Gerstl’s ‘Caroline and Pauline Fey’ (1905). Painted a generation apart they nevertheless present a strikingly similar approach to their subjects – though with completely antithetical aesthetic results. Romako’s nieces are Pre-Raphaelite in their detail and demeanour, their hair gossamer-fine, the fronds of the harebells impossibly delicate. They gaze into the unknown distance, with blue eyes and pink cheeks and white aprons all testament to their virtuous piety.
In contrast to the pure white background and cherubic golden halo of hair that liken them to the moralistic allegories of Millais or Holman Hunt, Gerstl’s depiction of the Fey sisters appears like a vision out of hell. Against a horrifying black void the sisters stand out like pale ghosts, with a melancholic, introverted stare less comtemplative or visionary than indicative of an intrinsic existential nihilism. The Feys were friends of the Gerstl family, the daughters painted immediately after their return from a ball; knowing this it is less surprising that the house should be shrouded in darkness or that the girls should look exhausted, drained. Of course their true appearance is undoubtedly distorted by the artist projecting his own troubled psyche through his work.
Then we reach the territory of the self-portrait – a genre that took on a whole new guise and importance under the altered psychological conditions of the 20th Century. Traditionally a means for the artist to advertise his skills – and in some cases his fashionable bohemian looks – the 19th Century examples by Amerling and Feuerbach illustrate this practical purpose admirably. But with modernism came the perception of painting not as a profession so much as a vocation, the artist no longer a craftsman but a solitary genius. By the early years of the 20th Century, in the age of Freud and Nietzche, the self-scrutiny is painfully honest. Often depicting themselves naked and vulnerable, artists such as Gerstl and Schiele unflinchingly reveal their tortured souls through tormented brushstrokes and harsh distortions that seem to signify revulsion for their physical selves and inflict a metaphorical self-harm. Schiele is renowned for depicting himself nude with limbs arbitrarily amputated or dislocated; in his Self-Portrait of 1912 (right) he presents himself in a contorted pose, the hunk of flesh of his shoulder dominating the foreground and pushing his face back in space as if he has just recoiled from a physical blow. This fragment of his body is set against an empty white ground, the slightly impasto swirl of brushstrokes that shriek of muscles tensed and strained are abruptly cut off, detached, truncated. Gerstl, on the other hand, portrays himself in his studio, a full-length, full-frontal nude with palette in hand that must have influenced Lucian Freud’s late, naked self-portrait many decades later. Yet the background interior seems to dissolve in long diagonal slashes and coils of paint, while the hand holding the palette is barely legible at all. What stands out is his own luminously pale body, awkward and angular. It is the source of his undoing, his fateful affair with the wife of the composer Arnold Schoenberg driving him to suicide shortly after this painting was completed in 1908. Mathilde Schoenberg herself is pictured (left) the year before in a pseudo-pointillist style akin to Vuillard’s decorative compositions. Demure and composed, if perhaps a little troubled, she too is missing her hands – which is interesting, as hands conversely play such a key part in articulating the angst of Schiele’s aesthetic.
Not far from Mathilde, in a procession of modern Viennese characters enlivening the large central room of the exhibition suite, is Alexander Zemlinsky (right, 1908), another composer who was then living in the same building as Gerstl and Schoenberg. Here Gerstl’s style is even looser, so that the figure is barely a solid form any longer, disintegrating into the sea as the horizontal dashes of the water overlap the the pale fabric of his suit.
Others in this society line-up include an operatic portrait by Hans Makart, full of sumptuous baroque fabrics and his eponymous deep red tones; and Anton Romako’s twin portraits of Christoph and Isabella Reisser (the latter left, 1885). These are almost in the realist, Biedermeier tradition, but somehow subvert it with a hint of the satirical style that would become associated with Otto Dix in the 1920s. Isabella’s portrait, especially, seems to exaggerate her wasp waist, hooded eyelids and delicately defined teeth to an almost caricatural degree. This is emphasised by her pallid complexion and rest of the washed-out, sepia-toned palette in which she seems to float outside any social or temporal context – making her fashionable garb look strangely inappropriate.
Finally we reach some more Klimt paintings – and not before time. Klimt could have provided the crucial thread for this exhibition, leading us through from the 19th to the 20th Century, and from traditional realist portraiture to the modernism of the Secessionist movement and beyond. Instead, the thread is picked up at random and dropped again, tying us in knots – or, switching metaphors, the number of stiches dropped result in the garment totally unravelling into a mess of prettily coloured yarn. Hermine Gallia (right, 1904) is a Whistlerian ‘harmony in grey’, her diaphanous skirts assuming a semi-abstract, decorative function that is echoed in the floor decoration, drawing comparisons to its neighbour, Gerstl’s portrait of Mathilde, and pointing to the more opulent, Byzantine-influenced decorative portraits – such as ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Adele Bloch-Bauer’ – that would emerge in 1907-8.
‘Lady in Black’ (left, c.1894) is a beautiful portrait, every detail of hair, skin, fabric and jewel faithfully represented, the silhouetted figure enlivened against the compositional balance of elongated canvas and brightly patterned rug on the wall behind. But why here? We are suddenly thrust back to 1894 in the midst of a stuttering progression towards modernist portraiture. This belongs at the beginning – not intruding between Gerstl’s late works, where form disintegrates into daubs of pigment, and the nightmarish characters of Oskar Kokoschka who seem to loom out of the flames of civilisation. Kokoschka grasps the baton from Romako, abandoning any superficial gentility pertaining to the society portrait and moving closer to the cynical, cruel and caricatural eye of the Neue Sachlichkeit style that would emerge 15 years later in Weimar Germany. Count Verona (right, 1910) suffered from tuberculosis and was painted by Kokoschka at a Swiss sanatorium in the advanced stages of the disease. In his gaunt, drawn face his eyes stand out with a piercing helplessness. The portrait of Peter Altenberg, an avant-garde Viennese writer, is similarly arresting; his heavily-lidded eyes staring intently at his interlocutor, his gnarled hands expressive, he is caught in a moment of earnest, impassioned dialogue. But though they capture the pathos of these personalities, the portraits also seem to condemn them as part of a dissolute and ailing society, as they are literally consumed by the morass of fiery paint surrounding them.
The two final rooms are elegiac postscripts to this powerful and chaotic modernist maelstrom. One, dimly lit to encourage a suitably reverent and mournful attitude, is devoted to deathbed portraiture. This was apparently a sub-genre particular to Vienna’s middle-classes, among whom suicide rates were unusually high. It partly explains why the exhibition began with the death mask of Beethoven, which I initially chose to overlook as an inexplicable anomaly.
Klimt depicts Ria Munk lying like Millais’ Ophelia, surrounded by flowers. Her parents commissioned the portrait (above, 1912) after Ria committed suicide aged twenty-four, and though she appears serene as Sleeping Beauty, it must have been a disquieting image for the family home. Therefore the Munks requested a posthumous portrait of her living self; the third attempt is exhibited here – a full-length figure with her smiling face turned towards us, surrounded by the mass of flowers and organic patterning that characterise Klimt’s later work, the lower third left unfinished, charcoal sketched on canvas, on the artist’s own death in 1918. There is a very touching chalk drawing of Klimt’s own dead son, still a baby swaddled in cloth, appearing wraith-like in the soft grey medium. And a poignant sketch by Schiele of his pregnant wife Edith as she lay dying of Spanish flu (left, 1918), to which the artist himself succumbed three days later.
Not only these individual lives were extinguished in 1918, but the whole structure of the Austro-Hungarian empire in which they had played out. The last room is proposed as a summation of this endpoint, though ‘finish and failure’ is a peculiarly negative title for an exhibition that purports to celebrate the extraordinary eruption of creativity that centred on Vienna in the decades immediately before and after 1900. Choosing paintings to represent this vague and ambivalent conclusion must have been a challenge. There are three portraits by Kokoschka of the Schmidt brothers painted between 1911 and 1914, which might illustrate the claim for Vienna as a city of ‘shifting identities’ and ‘painterly experimentation’. Each is approached in a different style – one more akin to Picasso’s blue period, another to Toulouse-Lautrec – but all are sketched in oils, tapering out to bare canvas, the immediacy of the creative process still apparent. Klimt’s portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl (below, 1917-18) is the grand finale. Unfinished on Klimt’s death, she presents a hieratic figure, caught as yet unembellished – save for the frill around her throat – against a pale green ground. Her legacy is tragic and enigmatic; from this zenith as the wealthy patroness of a modernist master, all trace is lost until her eventual incarceration and death in a Nazi concentration camp. It is sad to end on this note, though perhaps understandable as we are still dealing with this legacy today; as a result of their high profile at auction Klimt’s paintings have come to symbolise the problem of the restitution of works looted by the Nazi regime. Yet should this really taint the whole of the flowering of Viennese modernism?