Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900, at National Gallery, London

I’ve had a soft spot for Egon Schiele and his scrawny naked self-portraits ever since ‘discovering’ him in Vienna a few years ago, so that was the main draw for my visit to the National Gallery’s new exhibition. And it didn’t disappoint, despite the fact there was very little nakedness on show, but because it introduced me to artists and paintings I would never have normally come across.

I didn’t particularly follow the narrative between rooms, but I loved how each painting had a concise and interesting description, neither too complicated or too patronising, telling you why the painting had been chosen. For instance, why Portrait of Maria by Josef Maria Auchentaller, an artist active in the Secession (art group founded by Gustav Klimt) is displayed in a bold gold frame and how it reflects miniatures of a former period.

The way portraiture was used in this period by those trying to shock or modernise comes out in interesting ways. Portraiture is founded on someone commissioning a painter to paint their picture, but what happens when what is painted isn’t the image you want staring back at you? Not simply a wart or dodgy haircut, but seeing yourself in a state of anxiety or pain isn’t exactly going to be popular, with this leading to the idea of ‘outsider’ artists who couldn’t get traditional patronage.

Anton Romako Isabella Reisser portrait Vienna National Gallery

Portrait of Isabella Reisser, Anton Romako

One painting that particularly stood out was Romako’s Portrait of Isabella Reisser, which is a fascinating painting. It appears very traditional, but instead of the soft focused face, with a demure closed lipped smile you would expect from a portrait painted in 1885, you get an interesting, real image of a woman, and as though there could actually be something going on inside this lady’s mind. She’s not made to look ugly, but neither is she made to look like an idealised version of a ‘beauty’.

There’s lots of different things going on in this exhibition and different stories come out as you go through. In one room you see Gerstl’s Nude self portrait with palette that he painted a few weeks before he committed suicide after an affair ended, and in the next room, around a corner, you find a portrait of this lady who left him to go back to her husband. Rejected portraits were also on show, with Klimt’s Posthumous portrait of Ria Monk, which was commissioned by her parents and painted on her deathbed, only to be rejected by her parents with two new paintings commissioned to be created from photographs. In deed, death and portraiture often seem linked.

National Gallery Portrait in Vienna, Schiele

The Family (Self Portrait), Egon Schiele

And what of Schiele? There are several paintings on show, including The Family (self portrait), a painting few families would hang above their mantelpiece, and a sketch of Schiele’s pregnant wife shortly before she died of Spanish flu – again, portraiture and death on display. This continues into the gift shop with the slightly strange sight of seeing this sketch adorning bags you can buy – great, if you like to carry around a reminder of a pregnant ill lady everywhere you go.

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna in 1900
National Gallery
Until 12 January 2014


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