The love & hate of portraits in Vienna 1900

I had the pleasure of visiting the National Gallery last Sunday to see the Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 exhibition. I was also very surprised to read devastating reviews of the exhibition on the Guardian and the Evening Standard websites and a slightly more favourable, yet still very critical, review on the Telegraph website. All three reviewers claim the exhibition is chaotic as it’s arranged thematically rather than chronologically which I personally found very clear. If I were to criticize something, it would be the dim light which, combined with the peculiar air in the Sainsbury Wing cellar, felt a little nauseating and often made it difficult to read the labels. Other than that, I found the show inspiring and engaged with it more than with many other exhibitions I have been to.

Between 1867 and 1918, Vienna was the imperial capital of The Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary, a multinational country, one of the largest in Europe. It was a vibrant city of theatre, music, opera, with plenty of opportunities for successful businesses and social climbing (apparently Baron was the most common title) for immigrants from across Europe. In 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria issued the decree “It is My will” ordering the demolition of the city walls and moats and built the Ringstraße, which, intended as a showcase for the grandeur of the Habsburg Empire, turned the city into a great modern metropolis.

Portraiture in Vienna at that time had various agendas: to declare the status by the middle class immigrants (often Jewish) called New Viennese; to (re)connect oneself to their aristocratic ancestors; to identify with the avant-garde movements, but also to declare love and commemorate the dead. The history of the Dual Monarchy is fascinating and dramatic. It began with liberal and democratic reforms, including a state law which made all citizens equal (for the first time in Austrian history) but ended with imposition of new borders across the former Empire as well as the rise of nationalist and anti-Semitic movements. Throughout the Austria-Hungary reign, despite the growing ethnic tolerance, political tensions were inevitable and artists seemed to translate those anxieties onto canvas, with boldness and exhibitionism inspired by Freud’s revolutionary theories.

The exhibition consists of six rooms, starting with the Old Viennese room which recreates the painting exhibition from the Miethke Gallery in 1905 which presented 146 portraits from the first half of the 19th century to the New Viennese. This is followed by rooms with work from “tormented” painters such as Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Broncia Koller-Pinell, Richard Gerstl, juxtaposed with more traditional painters like Hans Makart and Gyula Benczúr. In my opinion, this mixture of styles really captures the cultural and social flux and dynamism of the fin-de-siècle Vienna, when its habitants seemed torn between the past and the future. A lot of attention is given to the notion of self-portrait. Modernism brought the idea that painting is a vocation and self-expression as opposed to craftsmanship. In the age of Freud and Nietzsche, artists would often expose their troubled souls in tormented brushstrokes and harsh distortions, an example of which is Schiele’s self-portrait from 1912.

I did not expect Klimt’s glittery paintings, for I am more interested in discovering lesser-known painters such as the three female painters included in this exhibition that I had not heard about before: Elena Luksch-Makowsky, Broncia Koller-Pinell and Teresa Feodorowna Ries. Whilst researching for this blog post, I came across Andrea Kirsh’s review of the book The Memory Factory; The Forgotten Women Artists of Vienna 1900 by Julie M. Johnson, which gave me an answer to why I hadn’t heard these names: these women were entirely written out of historical accounts. And that’s despite the fact that they “participated in the mainstream modernist art movements in Vienna…They had successful careers, exhibiting across Europe; their work was acquired by the emperor, the state, and private collectors; they received public commissions, and exhibited in major exhibitions at the Kunstlerhaus and the Seccession, commercial galleries and alternative venues.”

There is no monograph on Elena Luksch-Makowsky’s work, who exhibited with the Secession and participated with the Wiener Werkstätte. Teresa Ries, who was asked by Klimt to exhibit with the Secessionists, invited by both Russia and Austria to the 1911 World’s Fair in Rome, and given a grand suite of rooms next to The Prince of Lichtenstein’s picture gallery, was completely ignored in the post-war Vienna. Tina Blau (not included in this exhibition) was a commercially successful painter, who was encouraged by the French Minister of Art, Antonin Proust, to submit a painting to the Paris Salon (which she did and won an honorable mention.) But in 1938 she had her work removed from public collection galleries and a street dedicated to her was re-named – she was Jewish.

This sad bit of history emphasizes the gloominess of the two last rooms of the exhibition, devoted to deathbed portraits, as well as unfinished paintings, abandoned by fleeing or dying artists (both Klimt and Schiele died in 1918, having contracted the Spanish flu pandemic; Schiele died three days after his wife, and there is a deeply moving sketch of her he did between their deaths.)

Klimt was commissioned to paint a portrait of Ria Munk who had committed a suicide due to an unhappy love affair. He had a few attempts for he wasn’t satisfied with the results. It is interesting that, despite the growing popularity of photography, paintings were still considered a better “trace of living body that can stimulate memory.”

But the critics view the exhibition differently. Laura Cumming from the Guardian refers to the Old Viennese painters as “heavy brown stodge”, while Brian Sewell from the Evening Standard calls Kokoschka a “lunatic caricaturist”. Richard Dormet from The Telegraph critizes both the expressive portraits by Kokoschka or Gerstl, as well as the older more classical ones by painters like Friedrich von Amerling: Gerstl’s paintings are “ugly”, and the portrait of the Markl Family (1907) by the popular society painter Alois Delug, is apparently “banal”. I cannot see how, according to Dormet, “Frau Markl and her children are almost suffocated by the amount of clothing they are wearing” – personally, as a painter I find the painting very successful in terms of both the composition, technique as well as depiction of character in all three faces. Of course, it isn’t “progressive” but does every painting have to be? It is an excellently executed group portrait and it is a shame there is no image of the painting online.

“There are paintings here of such mediocrity one can hardly believe they are on show in the National Gallery,” says Cumming. It is interesting that critics are so eager to criticize portraits, oblivious to the fact that they’re one of most difficult subjects to paint, but can rave about Rothko or other painters whose work is merely an arrangement of stripes of colours on canvas (I went to Tate Modern last week to revisit their permanent collection and left it feeling cold, for the only paintings that moved me were a few images by Dali and Francis Bacon’s Seated Figure from 1961). Only one critic bothered to mention very unusual portraits by Anton Romako, a painter who struggled to establish himself against Hans Makart. His detailed Pre-Raphaelite-inspired portraits of his nieces or Christoph and Isabella Reisser are realistic but like Kokoschka’s paintings, subverted with a hint of cynical caricature that makes one think of Neue Sachlichkeit artists from the 1920s such as Otto Dix or Christian Schad.

The ultimate goal with painting a portrait is what Francis Bacon described in relation to Velazquez: finding the perfect balance “between the ideal illustration (…) and the overwhelming emotion” to arouse in the spectator. In the times when people praise hyper-realistic copies of soulless photographs, and take hundreds of Instagram photos with identical filters, paintings by Romako, Schiele, Kokoschka are great examples of work that aimed for that “overwhelming emotion” and expression of individual character while preserving the representation. I don’t paint like Kokoschka but I deeply admire his bravery – to continue with the search for his own expression in depicting the reality, despite most vicious feedback from the Viennese critics.