From 1867 to 1918 Vienna was the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  At the beginning of the period the city enjoyed witnessed ethnic and religious tolerance, sound economic growth and liberal and democratic reform.  The Viennese middle-classes were multi-cultural and multi-ethnic and included a large number of influential Jewish families.  By the end of the period these groups, in particular the Jewish contingent, were changing rapidly due to conservative, nationalist and anti-Semitic mass movements.

Facing the Modern The Portrait in Vienna 1900 is based on an idea by Christopher Riopelle, Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery. The exhibition is curated by guest curator Dr. Gemma Blackshaw, Associate Professor, History of Art and Visual Culture at Plymouth. Gemma Blackshaw is co-author of Madness and Modernity. The National Gallery is especially grateful to Credit Suisse. Without such support exhibitions like this would not be possible.

The Culture of Portraits

Portraits were the way wealthy Viennese families demonstrated their power and position in society. Artists met their demands producing paintings of artists and their friends, families and celebrities. Some artists favoured traditional methods and styles, but the new Avant-garde artists chose to challenge these methods and styles, creating innovative, and often startling, portraits of their sitters. Facing the Modern looks at both traditional approaches to portraiture as well as new approaches and innovations.

Through these portraits the exhibition offers a rare opportunity to understand the powerful social upheaval that was taking place in Vienna's middle-classes during one of the most important periods in history.

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Highlights of the Exhibition

Works by well-known artists such as Richard Gerstl, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka, Egon Schiele and Arnold Schönberg feature along side portraits by lesser-known artists such as Broncia Koller and Isidor Kaufmann. Many of the portraits are shown together with the artist's preparatory drawings. 

Edmund de Waal, curator, art critic, ceramicist and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes, has loaned his grandmother's family photograph album. The de Waals were a wealthy Jewish banking dynasty based in Vienna and Emmy von Ephrussi's album provides a valuable family history. The family's assets were ceased by the Nazis in 1938 and they were forced to leave.  

Facing the Modern explores six main themes:

  • The Old Viennese – the display recalls an exhibition held in 1905 at the Miethke, one of Vienna's most progressive art galleries. The show featured 146 portraits painted during the first half of the 19th century and was intended to soothe the fears of the New Viennese who found themselves living in difficult times. 
  • The Family and Child looks at family values as the home became a place of peace and refuge in the face of massive societal change. Many of the group portraits reveal the tensions within the family.
  • The Appeal of the Artist – artists frequently responded to these changes by depicting themselves as tormented being. Vienna was smaller than London, Berlin or Paris and competition for wealthy patrons was stiff. Artists such as Egon Schiele used self-portraits to experiment with new techniques and also to show their own technical skills as well as their social and professional standing.
  • The New Viennese asks what it meant to be middle-class in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. Portraits from this period give the answer. Some sitters close to be connected to the distant past while others preferred to be identified with the new, the modern, the avant-garde. They chose their artists according to their influences and style. The fees were important too! The exhibition includes the Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904) by Gustav Klimt. Klimt depicts the sitter in a gown he designed himself. Gallia's family were driven out of Vienna by anti-Semitism in the 1930s. This is the National Gallery's only portrait by this artist.

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Hermine Gallia, (1904)

National Gallery, London

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Hermine Gallia (1904)
Credit: National Gallery, London
  • Love and Loss looks the Viennese fascination with death and the middle-classes' increasingly pessimistic outlook. The display includes a number of deathbed portraits such as the Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-18) by Gustav Klimt. Also on show are the death masks of Ludwig van Beethoven (1827); Gustav Mahler (1911); Gustav Klimt (1918); and Egon Schiele (1918).

Gustav Klimt, Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-18)

Gustav Klimt,Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III (1917-18)
Credit: Gustav Klimt [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Finish and Failure –The Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved, after 51 years, on 31st October 1918. The changes this brought, such as the imposition of new borders across the old Empire, limited cultural exchange and economic growth. The already traumatised middle-classes faced another period of turmoil. The paintings in this gallery, unfinished, abandoned, almost unloved, are symbolic of the failure of both state and society.  

Facing the Modern The Portrait in Vienna - Exhibition Catalogue

To accompany this major exhibition National Gallery Company Limited has released a full-colour catalogue in both hard and soft-back editions. Edited by Dr Gemma Blackshaw, the 216-page publication includes a foreword by Edmund de Waal, plus contributions from leading historians Tag Gronberg, Julie Johnson, Doris Lehmann, Elana Shapira, Sabine Wieber and Mary Costello. These scholarly and insightful texts are accompanied by 140 colour illustrations. The book is available from the National Gallery and all good book stores.  

Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 (National Gallery London)
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Visit the Exhibition

Facing the Modern The Portrait in Vienna 1900 will be on show until 12th January 2014. Tickets and further information are available from The National Gallery.

More Portraits by Klimt

More Exhibitions to Enjoy in London

If you're looking for some interesting exhibitions on show in London you might enjoy:

James Abbot McNeill Whistler at Dulwich Picture Gallery or Australia at the Royal Academy of Arts.