The truth is by the end of century, German nationalism was on the rise in Vienna and in 1897 the anti-Semitic Karl Lueger was inaugurated as Mayor of Vienna. A month before Lueger was inaugurated the Jewish genre painter Isidor Kaufmann received a prestigious prize for his painting Sabbath, depicting a Shabbat service at a synagogue, which was exhibited in the annual exhibition at the Wiener Künstlerhouse. The conservative Viennese art scene liked Kaufmann’s subtle yet captivating handling of Jewish cultural difference despite the rise of Anti-Semitism. In an astonishing painting included in the National Gallery exhibition this can be very much appreciated. I am referring to Kaufmann’s Young Rabbi From N. (1910) and depicts a self assured Jew with a trimmed beard and a direct unwavering gaze. He clearly champions a proud reclamation of Jewish culture. The beautiful and exotic looking sitter conforms to the stereotype of the Jew as a ‘foreigner’. He wears traditional black silk caftan and a fur hat and sits in the studio in front of a fancy Torah curtain covering the Aron wished to engage in a culture debate in order to promote a new critical consciousness in Viennese society. Obviously, Jewish personalities used portraiture to challenge prejudice and to promote their authority as producers of Austrian culture. ‘Imagining the Jew’ became an essential part of the creation of Viennese modernism.
A completely different example is one of Gustav Klimt’s portraits, the 1908 Bloch Bauer’s one. It is dramatic, with its daring tight golden dress, golden robe, shining necklace and armbands. Bloch Bauer is seated majestically on a luxurious golden armchair, against an opulent golden background. Klimt corned her as a new Jewish queen, transferring the prejudice identifying Jews with the power of wealth into a timeless mythological sphere. Yet she also represents a new type of modern woman. Her entrapment by convention is represented through the disappearance of her body behind the overwhelming ornamental fabric associated with Wiener Werkstätte decorative patterns, yet Klimt acknowledges her spiritual independence by encircling her head and focusing on her facial expression. At the centre of the composition her naked hands clasp each other in a romantic gesture.
A completely different example that flirts with the stereotype of the ‘Wandering Jew’ is Kokoschka’s representation of the celebrated poet Peter Altenberg. His portrait does not describe a middle class interior but the interior of the sitter’s psyche. His eye protrude, his moustache hangs down sadly, and his neck appears creased and wrinkled. The murky background further reflects the poet’s inner turbulence. In September 1909, just before Kokoschka portrayed him, Altenberg had used the prejudice against Jews as hysterics in order to describe his creative license as ‘hysterical impressionability’. He created a provocative artistic persona that played on the perception of Jews as hysterics who had given up the claim to a respectable position in sociaty, who lacked respect for earlier European tradition and escaped into art. Altenberg’s bloody hands and neck speak of this conflict with his own ‘voices’ and his violence, transforming him into an ugly man. So three different strategies can be seen: sober ‘orientalist’ defiance, total assimilation and troubled isolation. This is what art does. It allows us to travel in time and people. Just a thought.