Vienna’s age of anxiety
The National Gallery’s display of Viennese portraiture opens a window on a complex and turbulent period in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s capital city.
Review by Corinna Lotz
Through Facing the Modern’s focus on the human we get a sense of psychological intensity as well as the schizophrenic nature of Austria during its epoch of imperial decline. It was not only psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud who explored and interpreted the human psyche but also writers, poets and a new school of art historians.
Fin de siècle Vienna was a melting pot of nationalities. Fewer than half of its citizens were native-born. It had a remarkable cultural intelligentsia, due in great part to the assimilation of countless Jews who enjoyed near-equality alongside the Austro-Hungarian empire’s two million citizens.
But alongside the intellectual pioneering was the desire to look back to the past to enhance or escape the harsh realities of the present. The historicising tendencies of the established schools of art provoked a reaction from younger artists.
Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl set out to shock and awe. The artists of the Union of Austrian Artists or Secession, as it became known, reacted against smugness, following in the rebellious footsteps of their fellow artists in Berlin and Munich. Thus, a sharp and often unsettling contrast of conservative artistic style and avant-garde daring prevailed in Vienna.
Schiele, who was a protégé of the older and highly successful Klimt, was arrested in 1912 and spent 21 days in custody, accused of seducing a young girl. During his trial those charges were dropped but he was found guilty of exhibiting erotic drawings. Made in exactly that year, his elegant portrait of the teenage Erich Lederer – slim, fashionable, confident and beautifully composed with Schiele’s signature splayed fingers – has an irresistible youthful modernity.
For me, it was probably Oskar Kokoschka’s work which stole the show with his strange but amazing double portrait of art historians Hans Tietze and his wife, Erica. Erica had the distinction of being the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D in art history. The couple stand side by side, their long-fingered hands just touching. Hans’ right elbow is alight with red flames and his face strangely white with a hollow eye. His hands are like raw nerves, expressing a wealth of emotions.
Kokoschka was a friend of art historian and fellow Viennese Otto Pächt, who in turn was close to Robert Musil, author of the modernist novel, The Man Without Qualities. Pächt was part of the Vienna school of art history which saw the internal structure of an art work as the key to the artist’s intentions and worldview. Like so many others – artists and patrons – who figure in this exhibition, he was to become a victim of Nazi persecution and forced to leave Vienna.
Elana Shapira analyses Kokoschka’s relations with his patrons in her essay, “Imaging the Jew – a clash of civilisations” in the exhibition book. She writes that Kokoschka showed his empathy with his Jewish sitters, feeling that their lack of security made them “more open to the new and more sensitive, to the tensions and pressures that accompanied the decay”.
We are introduced to new personalities, including women artist Broncia Koller and the sculptor,Teresa Feodorowna Ries. Ries, who came to Vienna having been ejected from the St Petersburg academy for questioning authority, is represented by an over life-size Self-Portrait (1902) in which she stands bold and proud.
Women artists achieved a considerable status in Vienna by the time of the 1908 Art Show. But Austria’s reactionary side broke through in the same year, when there was a misogynist and anti-Jewish backlash.
The story ends badly as the Spanish flu of 1918 wiped out, amongst others, Klimt and Gustav Schiele and his wife. The subsequent fates of the sitters and most of the artists are heartbreaking and hang over it like a heavy shadow.
The show has come under fire from established reviewers, some of who feel deprived of established erotic masterpieces by Klimt and Schiele. Yes, that particular frisson is missing – and certainly could be the subject of a future London exhibition.
Half of these works have never been seen in Britain before. We can discover modernists like Richard Gerstl, admire Klimt’s superbly elegant Portrait of a Lady in Black and revisit the National’s very own Hermine Gallia by Klimt – set amongst her contemporaries.
Facing the Modern is not an easy show – more of an autopsy than a celebration, tracing how things went wrong. And while there is a hugely melancholy side, there is a great deal to enjoy, mourn and think about in this intriguing, challenging, scary and brave exhibition.
15 October 2013