Monday, 25 November 2013

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900

National Gallery, London
9 October 2013 –  12 January 2014

Gerstl, "Nude Self Portrait with Palette" (1908).
Leopold Museum, Vienna. From here.

A disappointing exhibition, though Richard Gerstl should get his own retrospective.

The curators of this exhibition appear to be following an old idea about ‘the modern’ along the lines of this is an Age of Anxiety. There may be something to this thesis, though we might also point at ‘the modern’ being a rebellion against oppression, or an attempt to live aesthetically satisfying lives. For the anxiety thesis, the link with Vienna during 1867-1918 is almost entirely a link to Freud, perhaps Mahler.

The curators argue that anxiety in Vienna was linked to the emerging bourgeoisie, a ‘new Viennese’ that looked back to ‘old Viennese’ bourgeois in an attempt to find an identity. And of course, Vienna during this time overflowed with ‘minority’ cultures, most notably an extremely important Jewish community, themselves all understandably anxious.

These socioeconomic anxieties, the curators claim, can be seen in the portraits commissioned by the bourgeoisie. Well, I didn’t notice it.

In fact, anxiety is not expressed in any of these paintings, except perhaps one remarkable defaced self-portrait by Richard Gerstl that ought to have been the highlight of the show. Unfortunately it was presented upside down, as he had reused the other side for a full portrait.

His other self-portrait exhibited (above) conveys the opposite of anxiety. Here, surely is a new Siegfried or Adam, and the intentional reference to Dürer suggests deserved arrogance rather than fear and trembling.

Death seems to have fascinated the nineteenth century Viennese (the waltz having a death wish built-in). But while characteristic, I’m not sure the deathmasks on display here, apparently collectibles at the time, illustrate any greater anxiety than stuffed animals did for the contemporary British. Morbid curiosity, yes.

Vienna in 1900 was an extraordinary city, hosting an astonishing culture, and it helped define whatever the modern is. But there are many facets to this, and the economic, class-based side is just one.

Improbable historical theses aside, what of the art here? It is fascinating to witness proto-expressionist portraits next to the more conventional, naturalistic portraits of the earlier, mid-century generation. The latter make their impression in a quieter manner, somehow, but are not less impressive overall.

Perhaps the difference between the late Romantics and the early moderns, in this show, is this greater discretion, minimising the drama of a portrait. Tastefulness has its shortcomings, and the later artists rejected it, though I am not convinced Schoenberg’s daubings here, self-consciously primitive, refute the careful work of the older generation as he imagined they did.

None of the portraits here are bad, except perhaps Schoenberg’s selfies. His approach varied though and his portraits of others are more interesting. Most of them are interesting, especially so in comparing different styles. And it’s good to discover Gerstl.

But it should have been much better.

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