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Schiele’s ‘The Family (Self-Portrait)’ (1918)

The detail was all-important. In 1900s Vienna, while Sigmund Freud fretted over the slip of a tongue and Adolf Loos designed even the salt cellars for his modern interiors, Egon Schiele set out to expose the psyche and the soul through a sensationally explicit anatomising of the body, and Gustav Klimt imprisoned his female figures in voluptuous ornamental grounds studded with intricate erotic motifs – erect rectangles, spiralling eggs.

Karl Kraus called the hothouse Habsburg capital “an isolation cell in which one was allowed to scream”. Embodying that milieu is the poster image for the National Gallery’s new exhibition Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900: Schiele’s sharply sectioned “Self-portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder” – body skinned down to muscle, tendon, blood, flesh; hair a circle of stabbing sticks suggesting Christ’s crown of thorns. It is a small, morbid, sensual masterpiece, composed along a diagonal rising from the meat-like slab of shoulder to a sexy, open mouth, and on to an enlarged eye whose tormented glance seems to encompass, and deplore, the world around it.

Viennese modernism is a fabulous subject for an exhibition. Its star figure, Schiele, is the greatest 20th-century artist never to have had a UK museum show; not one of his works is in a British public collection. There are only four paintings by him here but any one of them is worth a visit, and all yoke desire and decay in brilliantly unnerving, raw surfaces.

“The Family”, a double nude portrait of Schiele and his wife Edith as sickly, downcast, remote from one another, with an unformed baby at Edith’s crotch, is a fine example of how his etiolated distortions and putrid colour convey dread and loneliness. And even the boy “Erich Lederer”, a 15-year-old who won the lottery and spent the money on commissioning a portrait from Vienna’s most scandalous artist, is depicted as anxious, angular, a young existentialist.

Klimt is a little better known in the UK than Schiele but Liverpool’s 2008 exhibition was disappointing, Tate possesses no works and the National Gallery has just one, “Hermine Gallia”. A full-length portrait of a young woman sumptuous in frothy white, this looks back to Whistler. The restless abstract background, however, shows Klimt on the verge of the richly allusive patterned manner that would see him dismissed for generations as merely decorative.

Klimt’s ‘Posthumous Portrait of Ria Monk III’ (1917-18)

Of five Klimt loan paintings here, a couple are minor early works, one is atypical – depicting 24-year-old “Ria Munk”, who shot herself after a failed love affair, dead on a bed of roses on a watery surface like Millais’ “Ophelia” – and just two, both unfinished, represent the artist’s mature opulent style.

Each has a tragic provenance. A full-length “Posthumous Portrait of Ria Munk III”, her smiling face – the body is mere sketch – seeming to float on a façade of bright flowers, was kept in the family until Munk’s elderly mother was transported to Lodz in 1941. “Amalie Zuckerkandl”, in a magnificently assertive pose, bare shoulders set off by black neck ribbon, against a turquoise/gold ground, was on the easel when Klimt died in 1918. Its sitter was later murdered at Theresienstadt, and it belonged to the Bloch-Bauer collection, whose “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” became the world’s most expensive picture when sold in 2006 to New York’s Neue Galerie.

This marked the apogee of Klimt’s revival from local Austrian symbolist – he rates not a mention, for example, in Gombrich’s The Story of Art – to a modernist who reflects our own blingy and over-sexualised culture, and pre-echoes, in his suggestions of late Habsburg degeneracy, current anxiety about western decline.

The National Gallery does not do bling, or sex, or decadence. Its reading of Vienna in 1900 is a travesty. With astonishingly scanty top loans, it does not even attempt to trace the narrative of the new psychological portraiture as it evolved from Klimt’s serpentine femmes fatales, condemned as “purveyors of perversity”, to the frank nude self-depictions and likenesses of lovers for which Schiele was arrested as a pornographer. This is Vienna’s contribution to art history: introspection, fantasy, Eros, distilled on canvas as never before.

Klimt’s ‘Posthumous Portrait of Ria Monk III’ (1917-18)

Dismissing what she calls “the Freudian script”, curator Gemma Blackshaw argues instead for “lines of continuity between Biedermeier, historicism and modernism”, allowing “a new approach, rescripting the story of the modern portrait as that of the city’s middle classes: the New Viennese”, particularly “women artists and Jewish artists”. They represent the aspirant immigrant melting pot – which did indeed enrich Vienna, making it in this respect a mirror to 21st-century London.

But in an exhibition badly selected and dismally hung, paintings chronicling this social history vastly outnumber art of any quality or significance. There are roomfuls of bourgeois Biedermeier bores, amateur work including Arnold Schönberg’s incompetent portraits, stiff academic pieces such as Isidor Kaufmann’s “Young Rabbi from N”, and feeble, sentimental depictions by women of children such as Broncia Koller’s “Silvia Koller with a Birdcage”.

A banal thematic organisation (“The Family and Child”, “The Appeal of the Artist”, “Love and Loss”) denies the viewer opportunity to understand formal innovation, artistic strategies or the personal development of individual artists. Jewels sometimes emerge from the dross, but you need patience to seek them.

The Kokoschkas are uneven, though they include the wonderfully gnarled, expressive “Count Verona”, depicted in a Swiss sanatorium in 1910, emblem of a Europe on the edge of the abyss. The most interesting revelation is Richard Gerstl, a master of self-scrutiny whose surgical gaze rivals Schiele’s. He painted “Nude Self-Portrait with Palette” (1908), a skeletal figure built up from furiously agitated strokes, just before committing suicide. From the same year a dark-toned portrait of his lover Mathilde Schönberg crosses Schiele’s psychological expressiveness with Klimt’s ornamental dazzle.

Gerstl, famous in Austria, is unfamiliar beyond his home country. His obscurity is symptomatic: for a century, Viennese modernism was underrated and eclipsed throughout Britain and America. In the past decade New York’s Neue Galerie, and starry auctions, have stirred American enthusiasm. London has waited too long for too little. This exhibition is a heartbreaking missed opportunity, and an intellectual disgrace to a museum which – following last year’s equally woeful photography show – needs seriously to raise its game when it addresses modern art.

‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900’, National Gallery, London, to January 12, nationalgallery.org.uk

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