The paintings of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka are the stars of this exhibition and their portraits chart the changing fortunes of Vienna’s educated, liberal middle class in one of the most diverse cities of the time. There is an overwhelmingly sad feeling to this exhibition and it is a reflection of the pessimistic and anxious mood of the times.
From 1867 to the end of the First World War in 1918, Vienna was the capital of Austria-Hungary, one of the largest countries in Europe. This period began with democratic reform, economic revival, and religious and ethnic tolerance but ended with the rise of nationalist and anti-Semitic movements. This dramatic change had a profound impact on Vienna’ middle classes, many of them immigrants with Jewish backgrounds.
Among the families members of this middle class – the New Viennese – there were many who had made fortunes from industry and trade and they commissioned portraits to make statements about their status and lives, past and present. Their portraits reflect their rise and fall, their claims on the past and fears for the future.The artists worked to the demands of, and competed for the attentions of, these middle class patrons.
Not all the pictures exhibited were commissions. Artists of the period wanted to experiment but unsurprisingly not all patrons wanted to be the object of an experiment. So artists often painted their own friends and families, or themselves, in order to be able to pursue ideas and take their work in new directions.
There was a great deal of anxiety among the New Viennese who were seeing public opinion and politics turning against them. This shift in attitudes made home a place of refuge and respite, but it was also a place of confinement and tension.
Several of the portraits commemorate loved ones who had died. The political turmoil and pessimism of the middle classes and an exceptionally high suicide rate among the Jewish youth all contributed to what has been described as the city’s morbid frame of mind.
I was particularly attracted to this exhibition because I wanted to see some of the works of Egon Schiele because I’ve admired the loose and expressive style of his drawing for a long time. As protégé of Gustav Klimt, Schiele was a major figurative painter of the era. His work is noted for its intensity, and the many exploratory self-portraits.
In his early years, Schiele was strongly influenced by both Klimt and Kokoschka but he soon evolved his own distinctive style.
In the autumn of 1918, the Spanish flu, which claimed more than 20,000,000 lives (shocking statistic) in Europe, reached Vienna. Schiele’s wife Edith, who was six months pregnant, succumbed to the disease on 28 October. Schiele died three days later. He was just 28 years old. During the three days between their deaths, Schiele drew a few sketches of Edith; these were his last works. Klimt died in February of the same year aged 56 having suffered a stroke and pneumonia due to the influenza epidemic. He left numerous unfinished paintings.