Clifford Ellis: Graphic Artist, Camofleur, Abstractionist & Teacher

Clifford Ellis studied illustration at the Regent Street Polytechnic, an institution that specialised in ’practical trade classes’, from 1924-27. He went on to design book covers (notably for Collins’ ‘New Naturalist’ series) and posters for London Transport, the General Post Office, Shell-Mex, the Empire Marketing Board and J. Lyons & Co., along with his wife, Rosemary Ellis, whom he married in 1931 while he was teaching at the Polytechnic.

The couple’s poster designs combine striking colour with bold typography and depict stylised scenes of the countryside, birds and animals.  In the 1930s London Transport commissioned over forty posters a year from well-known artists such as Laura Knight, CRW Nevinson, Edward Wadsworth, Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Edward McKnight Kauffer – a bold policy that did much to popularise avant-garde artistic styles that stemmed from Cubism, Futurism and Abstraction.  Such an influence is clear in the Ellises poster ‘It’s better to shop early’ (above, 1935) in which arms, hands and parcels are disjointed and angular with the text on a slant, like the collaged newsprint insertions of synthetic Cubism.

This strong foundation in graphic art clearly influenced his approach to composition for the rest of his career.  Even his later abstract work, though tonally subtle, is based on a simple but powerful linear design.  ‘The Coming of the Ice Age’, a series of watercolour and crayon studies (one large finished canvas, ‘Advance of an Ice Age’, exists in the collection of Derbyshire and Derby School Library Services) reduces natural forms to simplified shapes and colour planes, though retaining the texture of brushstrokes and crayon. The Ellises visited the Devon coastal town of Teignmouth to carry out a commission for Lyons for a lithograph in 1947, and the rocky bay with its whitewashed buildings and sailboats (below) caught Clifford’s imagination.  He painted numerous preparatory watercolour views for the lithograph, while both the grey-blue colour palette as well as the pleasing repetitive geometry of sails reflected on water might be discerned in later abstract works.

During the Second World War Ellis served as a camouflage artist and official war artist with the Grenadier Guards.  Roland Penrose was another British artist who worked in this area and wrote ‘The Home Guard Manual of Camouflage’ which effectively adapted modern painting techniques for use in warfare.  The tonal colour range of many of Ellis’s post-war paintings and the abstract network of shapes – for instance the pale blue patchwork ‘glacier’ in the ‘Coming of the Ice Age III’ (below) – seem to hark back to the art of the modernist camoufleur.

Ellis played another important role during the war, painting and drawing scenes of Bath for the Recording Britain project.  This project was conceived by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, alongside the official War Artists scheme; its aim was to document Britain’s landscape and architectural heritage in the face of the imminent threat of invasion and bomb damage. It also had a propaganda motive; the resulting works were exhibited during the war and aimed to boost the nation’s morale (they are now in the collection of the V&A). The paintings were predominantly in watercolour, a traditional British medium that Clark was keen to promote and felt would complement the subject matter.  Two of Ellis’ pupils, discussing his watercolour sketch of VE Day in Bath, recall him as quietly observant but also someone who enjoyed life; the painting is spontaneous and full of the movement of dancing figures and waving flags. 

In particular, Ellis was commissioned to depict examples of Bath’s decorative architectural ironwork before it was removed to help the war effort and he also recorded the effects of bombing raids on the city.

Meanwhile Ellis had joined the staff of the Bath School of Art (or Bath Technical College). Its temporary residence was destroyed by bombs in 1942 and Walter Sickert’s house at Bathampton offered as a refuge (Sickert, who had taught at the School, died in January 1942). After the war the School began its transformation into the Bath Academy of Art based at Corsham Court, of which Ellis was the Head from 1937-72, training art teachers and developing a pioneering new syllabus.

If you are interested in purchasing works by Clifford & Rosemary Ellis, please visit http://manningfineart.co.uk/product-tag/clifford-ellis/

Or come and visit Manning Fine Art’s stand at Olympia Art & Antiques Fair from 31st October – 5th November http://www.olympia-antiques.com

What, if anything, is the legacy of British Modernism in British art today?

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Modernism, and its British manifestation especially, is much disputed still. The movement is positioned vaguely in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the influencing factors identified as industrialisation, urbanisation, and increasing aesthetic introspection. The modern in art has generally been associated with the breakdown of the Western tradition of art mirroring nature – a tendency that appeared concurrently with the rise of nationalism in Europe. The Impressionists started to fragment their brushstrokes and give priority to atmospheric effect just as Italy and Germany formed nation states; and so, as the Serbs demanded independence and the Austrian Empire teetered on the brink of shattering into its component ethnic groups, Cubism flourished and Kandinsky claimed to have reached true abstraction in painting. But Britain stood apart both from the cutting edge of European modernism in its move towards abstraction and from the radical redrawing of national boundaries. Yet British art during the early twentieth century was certainly not lacking in dynamism. British Modernism, therefore, demands a different interpretation to the wider movement, rooted as it is in the traditions, society, history and culture of Britain as an independent nation. Art reacts to political events or social conditions, but reacts in a way consummate with the national character. Thus it seems entirely appropriate that following the horror of the First World War and the accompanying disillusionment experienced by those who survived it, the British sense of humour should prevail. Accompanied, of course, by a quiet celebration of the enduring British landscape. In a subtle manner, as is customary to the British disposition, these were the means by which British Modernism made its subversive voice known in the years immediately following the war.

ovidDouglas Goldring, assessing the attitude of young British artists in the 1920s, concluded that the hostility of public and press bred in them ‘an affected arrogance, which is an inevitable result of real or imagined “persecution”’ – and this led to a ‘vein of mordant satire.’  Those whose careers had been cruelly interrupted by the war – such as Wyndham Lewis, once leader of the radical Vorticist movement, left artistically isolated in the Twenties – were understandably disaffected and their paintings appear hard-edged, tainted with bitterness [Lewis, ‘Tyros (A Reading of Ovid)’, 1920-1, left]. However, the satirical strain of modernism developed beyond this initial reaction, younger artists picking up its thread and creating modernist satirical works that were light-hearted and mocking – and, most importantly, radically contemporary in their style, technique and topical subject matter. Satire’s traditional function is a moralistic one, the correction of social vices through ridicule; in the context of the 1920s, when accepted moral values were being challenged and rejected, leaving codes of behaviour uncertain, satire was a weapon of moral ‘rearmament’, an undermining of punitive censorship and political cant. Satire in this sense counterbalanced with ridicule the mood of fear and mistrust that permeated the post-war years.

It cannot be claimed that a comparable climate of fear or instability exists today; however, the mode of satire has persisted within British art, mutating to address the prevalent issues of each subsequent generation. And it seems to be making a quiet but marked renaissance among contemporary British artists. Where once the cinema and jazz music were considered dangerously decadent, a modern ‘opiate of the people’, today these anxieties are directed towards the internet and technology advancing beyond our control, by the unseen yet ubiquitous threat of jihadists and drones. In response, a number of artists have chosen to address these issues by using the traditional forms of painting and drawing to make a satirical comment on today’s society.

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Edward Burra came of age in the early 1920s, the war a constant backdrop to his otherwise quiet middle-class upbringing at Springfield, Rye. His work from this decade draws on the muted dissent of modernist satire – indeed his friend and mentor Paul Nash dubbed him ‘the modern Hogarth’.  His paintings are concerned with the surface of things, detached from their subject matter, depicting a false gaity that masks – both literally and metaphorically – a seriousness and anxiety so ubiquitous that it was, consequently, deeply unfashionable [Burra, ‘Minuit Chanson’, 1931, above]. Burra’s work is determinedly awkward to classify – a fact he no doubt revelled in – and this may go some way to explain why he has been for so long overlooked as a important figure in British modernism.

dockside-cafe-marseilles-by-edward-burraAs Jane Stevenson argues, Burra is ‘a considerable complication in the story of English modernism’, a far cry from those modernist icons such as Ben Nicholson who were neo-classical ‘in the sense of being restrained, cerebral and strongly dependent on design’; she describes Burra in contrast as a ‘baroque modernist’ [Burra, ‘Dockside Cafe, Marseilles’, 1929, left; and ‘Harlem’, 1934, below right]. This terminology is a useful way to approach British Modernism as it bifurcates, describing more than simply the figurative versus the abstract, or design versus narrative. The term ‘baroque’ hints at the anti-classical elements of humour and bad taste, as well as a new focus on modern urban life, that Burra’s works embodies. Attempts were made to involve him with British Surrealism – Paul Nash encouraged him to join Unit One in 1933 and Burra showed with the British Surrealists in 1936; Harlem 1934 by Edward Burra 1905-1976but on a wider European basis, Burra’s work seems to correspond better in style, subject matter and socio-analytical purpose to the New Objectivity movement in Germany in the Twenties. The title New Objectivity (or Neue Sachlichkeit) suggests an anti-metaphysical and anti-romanticist mentality, a matter-of-factness, and its characteristics have been variously defined as a sharp focus, inexpressive brushwork, unified and undramatic lighting, and often an unnaturally close standpoint; Richard McCormick describes it as ‘a “sober” and unsentimental embrace of urban modernity’, open to ‘modernity and mass culture.’  New Objectivity – and its best-known representatives such as Otto Dix and Georg Grosz – has come to symbolise in visual terms the culture of Weimar Berlin. Burra’s use of similar tropes to represent the popular culture of post-war London, Marseille or Toulon should therefore be valued more highly as a critical modernist statement.

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2052AM01X-12-07-22Charles Avery is one contemporary artist working in Britain who has inherited this legacy of British Surrealism and New Objectivity-influenced artists such as Burra [Avery, ‘Untitled (Expedition)’, 2012, above, and ‘Ceci nest pas un Bar’, below; Burra, ‘Funfair’, 1928-9, right]. He works predominantly in pencil with splashes of colour; his scenes from the lives of ‘The Islanders’, an ongoing project, portray frozen moments in a parallel society, the narrative ambiguous. An early review describes his ‘anachronistic style of drawing’, with its air of detachment and irony that signal it as a satire.

cb588c57194969cfc94ee5461d4beb6dThough ‘The Islanders’ project depicts a fictional and allegorical world, its similarities to our own give its subtle satire a force akin to Burra’s, while the moral aspect suggested by the allegorical ‘history’ of the Island provided by the artist is an essential element of all satire. The characters embody various principles and propositions, not caricatures but philosophical types – in the same way that Aldous Huxley’s characters in his early satires represent different intellectual points of view. In this way Avery combines the surreal and the real of an easily recognisable contemporary reality that provokes a very British self-deprecatory humour. It is an approach deeply rooted in the painting of Burra or William Roberts, and the writing of Evelyn Waugh, Aldous Huxley or Anthony Powell in the 1920s.

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Meanwhile, Avery also inherits some of the theatrical zest of Cecil Beaton and Stephen Tennant. In the eccentric fashions and the figures’ placement within scenery that resembles stage set designs, a parallel reality is created that echoes back our fetishes and foibles, making them utterly ridiculous. Rex Whistler, a friend and contemporary of the Beaton/Tennant coterie and the same age as Burra, achieved a similar effect.   In his mural for the Tate Restaurant, ‘In Pursuit of Rare Meats’ (1926-7) and in his double portrait of the Dudley Ward sisters [1933, below], for example, he uses the classical landscape backdrop of a Claude Lorrain painting, then inserts comedic or incongruous characters, both contemporary (in the case of the sisters) and entirely fictional (the caricature of a black servant who seems to belong to a Firbankian world of fantasy and innuendo). Like Avery, whose own name appears on the door in ‘Avatars’ [2005, above right], Whistler is sometimes tempted to portray himself in his imaginary world – here in the guise of a satyr spouting water from a Watteau-esque fountain, leering with unashamed desire at the beautiful Penelope Dudley Ward.

Angela & Penelope Dudley Ward 1933

Whistler’s incongruous insertion of elements of modernity into the idealised landscapes of Claude is also echoed by Ged Quinn. Born in 1963, Quinn grew up during a period of intense technological progress that was in many ways as disorientating as the twenties must have seemed. Such inventions intrude on his peaceful landscapes with an absurdity that underpins the humour of satire.

ged_quinn_fallIn ‘The Fall’ [2006, left] the figure of Antonin Artaud falls from the sky like Icarus or Lucifer, hurtling towards the burnt out remains of Edison’s ‘Black Maria’, the first ever movie production studio, looking forlorn and vulnerable next to the majestic classical ruins that loom over it. Similarly, in ‘Dreams of Peace and Love Gradually Giving Way’ [2006, below right] a makeshift cinema has been constructed in another Claudian landscape, with a spacecraft from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ floating on a raft. 1080The flotsam of defunct technology? A mockery of human striving? As Whistler’s characters frolic and picnic extravagantly in a historical landscape that does not belong to them, so Quinn’s figures and structures find themselves stranded in romantic paintings, forlorn and ineffectual. In both cases, the contemporary insertions subvert the traditional British landscape tradition, and, out of context, are simultaneously rendered ludicrous.

The British sense of humour was tainted by disillusionment in the 1920s and, in combination with an intelligent and incisive analysis of contemporary society, created a new form of visual and written satire. In today’s art, the same attitude of cynicism and caustic wit, sophisticated yet anarchic, is clearly present. And not only in the artworks themselves but also in the elaborate hoaxes that send up the art world itself. In 1929, Brian Howard, together with John Banting and Bryan and Diana Guinness, organised an exhibition by a mysterious artist named Bruno Hat, duping the critics with their ironic synthetic cubist compositions in distinctive rope frames [below]; in 1998 the writer William Boyd, along with David Bowie, Gore Vidal, Karen Wright and John Richardson presented a hoax biography of an abstract expressionist artist named Nat Tate.

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One could also claim that the work of street artists like Banksy are contemporary satires. The works themselves highlight essentially serious issues such as racism, war or police violence in a witty and amusing manner; but what’s more, the fact that the originals are painted onto public structures simultaneously undermines the position of the art gallery as well as questioning the value or ownership of a work of art. Graffiti images of the Mona Lisa with a rocket launcher or the grieving Madonna figures in ‘Sale Ends Today’ [2006, below] are a perfect example of the British modernist legacy: an appreciation of our artistic heritage in incongruous juxtaposition with contemporary symbolism, and a dash of mischievous and often inflammatory wit. Very British – and still bang up to date.

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Manners and Madness: An Exhibition of Viennese Portraiture

AmerlingFranz 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.

Gustav_Klimt_-_Seated_Young_Girl_-_Google_Art_ProjectThe 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.egon schiele

‘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.Erich+Lederer

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.

Anton Romako (1832 - 1889), The Artist's Nieces, Elisabeth and Maja, 1873

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.

Gerstl_Richard-The_Fey-Sisters.normalThen 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 longerVienna-Portraits-X7854.pr_ 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 ofrichard-gerstl_mathilde-in-the-studio-1908 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.102px-Richard_Gerstl_Portrait_Zemlinsky_1908

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 in903 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.

klimt-portrait-hermine-gallia-NG6434-fmFinally 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.

Gustav+Klimt‘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  s856fe4dacbc3613f626a30158097325ftyle 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.

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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 innTzhB3t 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?

amalie-zuckerkandl-1918(The inclusion of a final image by Hans Makart I simply cannot explain.)