Facing The Modern:
The Portrait in Vienna 1900
National Gallery, London
9 October 2013 – 12 January 2014
Reviewed by Christine Charlesworth
On 25 November I visited the National Gallery to see the Facing the Modern: Portrait in Vienna 1900 Exhibition as I had been told this was an exhibition not to be missed. In this exhibition the National Gallery brings together diverse works by artists such as Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Richard Gerstl, Arnold Schonberg and Oskar Kokoschka. The exhibition shows works in 6 galleries, with gallery 4 effectively split into two long sections.
In the first gallery called ‘The Old Viennese’ we see a variety of portraits mainly from the first half of the 19th century which were shown at the Miethke gallery in Vienna in 1905. All of these paintings are traditionally true to life, even the painting ’Young Girl Seated’ by Gustav Klimt is so full of detail that I had to look twice to be sure of the artist. In the centre of this gallery we see the death mask of Ludwig van Beethoven, who died in 1827. As this exhibition was called ‘Facing the Modern’ Vienna in 1900, I found it strange to include much of this work but assume it was to set the scene for the rest of the exhibition.
Gallery two ‘The Family and the Child’ has a more modern appeal and shows a work by Egon Schiele that I found most disturbing. It is of a man, woman and child with no feet, the child arranged very strangely round the leg of the mother and all three figures appearing to be in a world of their own. Entitled ‘The Family’ it is in fact a self-portrait of Schiele, but the figure of the mother is one of his models and the child was added at a later date. This painting was unfinished and it is thought that it was probably going to decorate a mausoleum. Another disturbing painting was the portrait of Hans and Erica Tietze, painted by Oskar Kokoschka in 1909 but hidden from view until the Tietze’s fled from the Nazis in 1939. Painted with bold, loose strokes and striking colour, the hand of Hans Tietze, extended in the foreground, appears to be dripping blood.
In gallery 3 ‘The Appeal of the Artist’ we see one of Schiele’s many self-portraits. Head and shoulders, he paints himself with one raised shoulder in an exaggerated position to his head and neck and with an almost shocked facial expression. His mix of flesh toned colours in the loose, broad brush stokes is very pleasing. In complete contrast is the detailed self-portrait in watercolour by Rudolf von Alt.
Gallery 4 ‘The New Viennese’ shows the large Klimt portrait of Hermine Gallia which he painted in 1904, but I found the gallery lighting to be very poor on this painting. However, it was interesting to be able to stand and see the portrait, A Lady in Black that he painted in 1894, hung on the end of the divide of the gallery. As these portraits were almost facing each other it was easy to stand and look at both portraits together. The Broncia Koller large nude portrait of Marietta, with its sculptural form and block of gold behind the head was a striking example of her work and in great contrast to the work of Richard Gerstl, whose portrait of the composer, Zemlimsy, directly opposite and the one of Zemlinsk’s sister, wife of the artist and composer, Schoenberg, looked unfinished in contrast. Zemlinsky’s sister had an affair with Gerstl during the painting of her portrait, but when she ended the affair Gerstle committed suicide, at the age of 25. On the reverse side of the dividing screen in gallery 4 we see through to the rear of Zemlinsky’s portrait, which had been painted on the reverse of a Gerstle self-portrait. This portrait is smiling, full of life, character and detail, but upside down.
Towards the end of the exhibition there is a glass topped display case in which can be viewed the death masks of Gustav Mahler, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. Although these are not portraits they give us a feeling of what these men looked like in life.
We must remember that these were very unsettled years in Vienna and this exhibition should be viewed with this in mind.
An excellent exhibition, definitely worth seeing. It continues until 12 January 2014.
Tickets cost from £5.50 to £22. For more information or to book tickets click here.