Viennese Portraiture @ National Gallery


Austria is not often the first location that springs to mind when the words ‘modern art’ are strung together. However, it should be. To be even more precise, our attention should be focused on Vienna, which not only produced Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele but a dozen other brilliant artists, whose portraits are now on display at the National Gallery.

Portraiture tells a lot about a culture. Those who commission them often specify how they want to be shown, from their dress, to their pose. Portraits are way of conscious self-representation. From the work on display we get a heavy insight into Vienna in the years leading up to the First World War. As the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna was one of the largest cities in the world, in the throws of multiculturalism, with a large influx of a jewish population, which can be seen among the portraits.

The exhibition has 22 works by Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele, among other artists. Many of the paintings come from the Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, which don’t often leave their native Austria. The exhibition spans from the 1830s to 1918.

Many paintings are devoted to family, with two compelling portraits of sisters, one of a pair of girls in white staring outwardly and the viewer, and another with two curly haired girls sitting next to each other closely, yet ignoring one another and not saying a word, a painting titled ‘The Artist’s Nieces, Elizabeth and Maja’, by Romako by 1873.

What I found most fascinating however, were not the paintings on display but the death masks of some of the artists as well as of composers Beethoven and Mahler. These are placed in the centre of a room devoted to death. The exhibition ends at the end of the first world war and many portraits of the deceased are on show, including a portrait of Klimt’s dead three-month old son. Another image shows a young woman surrounded by flowers, who had shot herself after a failed relationship. Some of the paintings in this room are unfinished, and what strikes me are how simplistic Klimt’s under-drawings are, such as in ‘Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl’, 1917-8, – he was clearly an incredibly talented painter.

This exhibition is a winter treat and must be visited before it ends!

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 is on display at National Gallery until January 12

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Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London-based writer with a special interest in contemporary Middle Eastern Art. She has a BA in Art History and an MA in Contemporary Art and Art Theory of Asia and Africa from the School of Oriental and African Studies. She runs the Gallery Girl blog and also writes for After Nyne, Ibraaz and Reorient.

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