Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900 – National Gallery

I popped in to the National Gallery after work on Friday night to check out the new exhibition, Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900. I found it an intriguing one.

From 1867, Vienna was the imperial capital of Austria-Hungary until the end of the First World War in 1918. Portraits depicted the growing, confident middle class, newly wealthy in times of economic renewal, and also the insecurities and anxiety inherent at times of growing nationalism and antisemitism.

In some ways I actually preferred the earlier paintings, more conservative in style but beautifully done and hugely detailed. However, I appreciated the innovation of the later works. Gustav Klimt’s work in particular surprised and impressed me – I am reasonably familiar with ‘The Kiss’ but I had no idea that he also painted extensively detailed portraits, almost photographic in quality. In his ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’ (c1894), the woman’s black dress is portrayed in all its shades and shadows.

Gustav Klimt, 'Portrait of a Lady in Black'
Gustav Klimt, ‘Portrait of a Lady in Black’

Oskar Kokoschka’s colourful works were less immediately appealing, but were certainly highly unique and reflected the burgeoning modern society.

Another element of the exhibition was the presence of death masks: masks of Klimt, Beethoven, Egon Schiele and Gustav Mahler were all present. I find death masks fascinating as they offer a real glimpse into the faces of these famous figures.

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