The exhibition ‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900’ is astonishing because of the paintings included and slightly confusing, from the point of view of the way it was curated. It is the inclusion of Gustav Klimt’s ‘Auditorium in the Old Burgtheater’ (1888, Wien Museum) that while complementing the theme of the exhibition, deviates our attention from the subject matter.
In other words, the curator of the show (Gemma Blackshaw) uses Vienna’s emerging middle classes as the vehicle for the show’s narrative but, in my opinion, does not visually convey the paradoxical nature of that particular historical moment when the Austro Hungarian Empire was on the verge of its collapse and just after Metternich’s repressive State which forced the moneyed elite and middle classes to fold onto their own private spaces. These are the years immediately after the Biedermeier era when after the March revolutions of 1848, Austria’s liberal middle classes broke into the public sphere, rising up against Metternich and forcing him to resign.
It is in this context that Blackshaw seems to place the theatre (Burgtheater) as the arena where that coming out of the private space was happening. Having said that, the whole exhibition and catalogue seem to be dedicated to the way the middleclasses folded into themselves through a fetishisation of taste understood as a personal (psychological) skill. Is it the theatre the place where we can first see how taste (and money) replaced blood as the main source of social legitimacy? Does the show want to tell us that the world is a stage at that particular time? In other words, the whole theatre thing is left unclear but this does not take any value to the show in itself. Before talking about the specific portraits I muse say that the show seems to underplay the importance of psychoanalysis at this point and how it affected a genre so susceptible to it like portraiture. I would say that these are the weak points of the show but having made that clear, let’s put this issue aside let’s delve into this most amazing exhibition.
It was at the Galerie Miethke in Vienna’s old town centre that took place an exhibition that showcased that moment of change from Biedermeier portraiture to modernist depictions. One of the most popular Biedermeier paintings exhibited at the Miethke was Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller’s Portrait of a Young Man in Black of 1842. Posed dynamically, os if about to rise form his chair, the sitter stretches his hand out to the viewer appearing to engage them in animated conversation.This painting is clearly transitional. In 1898 Klimt painted the young Sonia Knips, a member of the minor aristocracy who had recently married an upper middle class iron magnate In her portrait, Knips sits on the edge of a snow white garden chair amid a tangle of orchids. It is night time and the surrounding darkness, shot through with ‘restlessly weaving open air lights’, envelops the pale pink tulle of her evening dress. Klimt’s brushwork is as restless as these lights: thin, agitated lines convey the rustle of her dress with its many folds, frills and fastenings. The impressionistic way of painting then changes, unexpectedly at the face. Knip’s delicate features -the flushed cheeks, the sheen on the top of her lip, the swell of her rounded chin- are depicted in exquisite, fine detail. She holds our attention and with the hand on the chair she is ready to react or to move. There is both tension and intimacy in this painting.
There is one painting which I would call my favourite and it is Carl Moll’s Self Portrait in His Study (1906). He is depicted surrounded by artworks by Van Gogh and Minne which were, obviously and stridently, modernist and contemporary. However, Moll represents himself as the post owing as a Biedermeir professional working from home. This same paradoxical mix of past and present also happens in Hugo Haberfeld’s Rudolf van Arthaber, who was a liberal agitator petitioning for concessions at court and from the government and who was forced to turn to the home for self definition. Portraiture captured this change in the circumstances. This interpretation can be applied to Waldmullers’s portrait of Militia Company Commander Schaumberg and his child (1846) in an interesting light. The portrait was one of a pair that included an image of the Commander’s wife. Unusually, their child was depicted alongside the Commander. In a remarkably dynamic pose for a painting of this sir, Schaumberg encircles his almost upright infant as it extends its arms to touch his cheek and grape his fingertips. Unsteady, yet balanced by its father’s responsive body, the child situates Schaumberg’s masculinity within the family home -an unexpected location, we might think, considering Schaumberg’s military status. In a way, this portraits in its uneasiness expressed the Commander’s uneasiness to be confined in the home. It looks sweet but it is a subversive image.
It was Max Oppenheimer and Anton Romako who connected the Biedermeir with the Freudian psychological future by idealising their portraits to the point of the ghostly or, at least, to the point of conveying an idea of a psychological likeness that appears as over imposed to the natural one. This can be seen in Oppenheimer’s Portrait of Heinrich Mann (1910). This psychologisation of the image is translated into the depiction of private interiors. The interior played an important role in the creation of the psychological portrait which was supposed to convey not only the aesthetic taste of those who inhabited it but also their psychic sensitivities. We can see how at this point taste and identity start collapsing into one power force of social authority. An example of this is Richard Gerstl’s Portrait of Lieutenant Alois Gerstl (1907).
I think that the beauty of these images lie in the pradoxical nature of a society that insists in using portraiture to make visible those things that are invisible. Freud is key to understand this. This is an Emperial society obsessed with status and blood but where no one seem to have it. Therefore, a gesture can be a sign of taste and thus of authority. God is definitely in the details in 1900 Vienna and portraiture was the way of capturing them and possibly turning them into a bloodline. As we know, the whole blood issue ended up in a completely different place when Austrian Hitler appeared. To be continued.