Issue Number: 120
The extraordinary flowering in portraiture prompted by the burgeoning middle classes in fin-de-siècle Vienna is revealed in a show at the National Gallery, says Jill Lloyd
Gustav Klimt, 'Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III', 1917-18. © Property of The Lewis Collection. Although major exhibitions of fin-de-siècle Viennese art have been shown in recent years across the globe from New York to Melbourne, the British public has rarely had an opportunity to enjoy an in-depth overview.
All the more welcome then is the focused selection of outstanding works by Viennese artists at the National Gallery in ‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900’. By concentrating on portraiture the exhibition introduces us to the fin-de-siècle city through the many individual personalities involved in its vibrant art world. The central relationship in this fascinating milieu was between artist and patron, a pairing represented in the show by Klimt’s haunting Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-18) and his delicately shimmering Hermine Gallia (whose family was driven from Vienna by anti-Semitism in the 1930s), alongside powerful self-portraits by Egon Schiele and Richard Gerstl.
While commissioned portraits remained a vital source of income for Viennese artists, their focus on individual identity had deeper historical implications in a city characterised by its multinational, multi-ethnic and multifaith population. Many of the so-called ‘new Viennese’ – whose fortunes and broad-minded, liberal tastes attracted them to modern art – had Jewish roots; having their portrait painted by a fashionable artist like Klimt was a means of securing social status and a sense of belonging. The foreword to the exhibition catalogue is written by Edmund de Waal, whose best-selling book The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010) affords us a glimpse of this brilliant and sadly lost world; he has also lent an album of photographs documenting the rise and tragic fall of the Jewish banking dynasty to which his family belonged.
Klimt’s portraits, which capture the fragile beauty of the middle classes, are now extremely highly valued and correspondingly difficult to borrow for major exhibitions. ‘Facing the Modern’ nevertheless contains fine examples of Klimt’s work from private collections, alongside masterpieces by Schiele and Kokoschka. Lesser-known artists of the period, including Broncia Koller, and precursors such as Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, provide a historical and artistic context for these Viennese stars.