Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Facing the modern: The portrait in Vienna 1900

Facing the modern, the National Gallery's current exhibition includes some beautiful paintings brought together from the walls of galleries across Europe and the US and from various private collections. However I have to say I found the curating a little strange and these stunning works were not set up to their best advantage. The text panels were grey and challenging to read in the low lighting. It also felt as if the exhibition jumped around too much, particularly the room which brought together the self portraits which included paintings of the artists included in the first room intermixed with the newer wave of artists. The paintings by Gustav Klimt whose style changed dramatically across his body of work are not chronological which is slightly confusing and disorientating.

That said the exhibition did give me a whole new perspective on Klimt's work. Previously my view of him had been coloured by the fact that I am not a huge fan of his painting The Kiss having only every seen poor reproductions online, in books, on tea towels or on postcards.

This exhibition included some of his early work alongside stunning examples of his famous later style. One particularly outstanding painting from a private collection is Portrait of a Lady in Black. This stunning painting of a fashionably dressed Viennese woman is meticulously painted the bracelet on her right wrist seems to jump off the canvas at you.

Be warned, this is not the most cheerful of exhibitions. Vienna during the early 1900's was famously a discontented and anxiety ridden place. As you walk through the exhibition reading the information on the paintings you will be struck by how many of the sitters committed suicide. This slightly morbid facet of Viennese life during this period is addressed in the creepy room which includes death masks of Klimt, Mahler and Schiele as well as the haunting portrait of Ria Munk on her deathbed.

 The room focuses upon how portraiture during this period often had a commemorative function.

We also see the paintings by Oskar Kokoschka of patients suffering from Tuberculosis. His twisted and tortured style seems to fit perfectly with representing the people in the late stage of this disease. Such as this painting of Count Verona painted in 1910. The deep furrow in the sitters brow and his emaciated face and knotted hands give a sense of the sitters pain and suffering both physically and mentally. 

The exhibition ends with the tragic and controversial portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, the image used on the shows promotional material.

It shows Amalie a Jewish resident of Vienna who died in a Nazi concentration camp during the second world war. The coincidental fact that this painting remained unfinished by Klimt gives the painting a haunting significance that melts the life of the work with that of the sitter and the turbulent historical moment. The painting is also intertwined with an issue hot in the press at the moment, Nazi-looted art. After the discovery of Gurlitt's huge hoard of 'degenerate' art brought together during the war the eyes of the world are focused upon art works confiscated and stolen during the war years. This particular painting is embroiled in a legal battle over whether the painting rightly belongs to the Austrian state or if it should be returned to the heirs of it's original owner the Jewish sugar baron Ferdinand Bloch-Bower.

If you can set aside the confusing order of the paintings there is a lot to be learnt from this extraordinary collection of art works. The exhibition runs until the 12th January so book now!

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