Writer_Karen A. d’Arcangelo
- Having been given the opportunity to attend a private student viewing of the National Gallery’s most recent exhibition, Karen d’Arcangelo explores the world of the portrait.
On Monday the 11th, London’s National Gallery held a free, private student viewing of the enjoyable exhibition Facing the Modern: The portrait in Vienna 1900. The evening was an extremely pleasant experience. Students were offered drinks and the opportunity to mingle, whilst a charming quartet played delicately – entertaining visitors before the tour of the exhibition commenced.
The exhibition unfolds via a journey through the development of portraits in Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. Starting with the traditional portrayal of individuals, the exhibition moves on to abstract portrayals, where symbols and connotations supersede the importance of the portrayed person themselves.
The viewer can see the portrait losing its traditional purpose and becoming a means of communication for the modernist Viennese artists who are eager to represent the complicated position of the ‘New Viennese’ middle class. The paintings convey the impact of immigration, anti-Semitism and misogyny on newly formed migrant communities in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The first room reproduces an exhibition in Vienna 1905 of traditional 19th century portraits visited by young modernist avant-garde painters who observed that artistic style and then developed a new modern style. It is remarkable how viewers can vividly understand this process by re-living the painters’ experience.
Visitors are increasingly challenged to interpret the convulsed figures appearing in the portraits. Extremely effective is Oskar Kokoschka’s painting of a couple. By breaking the traditional portrayal standards, the artist represents the subjects staring in different directions and contrasts the strong background colours against the man’s red articulated hands. The tangible tension running between the two individuals suggests the difficulties of confinement and anti-Semitism that were quickly developing in Vienna.
Self-portraits stand out in the exhibition. The ‘self’ is used as an experimental material. Through the representation of their own bodies, the painters have the liberty to express their reaction to tensions within their society. But it is Teresa Rise’s majestic self-portrait represents her Jewish-self in an impressionable and authoritative pose confirming her standing as an artist and as a woman. Viewers are also reminded that modernist painters are confronted with Freud’s influential anti-modernist and misogynistic line of thoughts.
Egon Schiele’s disturbing Self portrait with raised bear shoulder catches attention with its distorted and Van Goghian representation of himself. Strong brush strokes mark his expression and exposed shoulder.
Klimt’s portraits appear numerously, contrasting viewers’ expectations of his renowned golden paintings as the artist appears in a very different light. At times his subjects are extraordinarily detailed, as in Portrait of a lady in black, whilst also abstract and unreachable, such as Portrait of Hermine Gallia. These paintings represent intricate insights of the New Viennese middle class society.
The exhibition concludes with Klimt’s incomplete Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, leaving visitors to reflect about this choice. The theme of incompleteness is emphasized at the end of the exhibition, highlighting the difficulties of modernist painters in conveying their idea of art in modern Vienna.
The National Gallery offered the opportunity for students to engage with a specific, academically themed exhibition, encouraging students to widen their approach to the arts.
9 October 2013 – 12 January 2014