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Vienna 1900: A brush with the past

Ahead of a major new exhibition of portraits from turn-of-the-century Vienna, the award-winning writer Edmund de Waal reveals his own family's intimate links to the city

Wherever you go in Vienna in 1900 you see the Emperor. His image is on every coin and every stamp, on every certificate. His portrait stands in shop windows, above the desk where the maître d' greets you in the restaurant, in the foyer of the Opera, in the waiting room at the station. And sometimes he is there in his carriage on the Ringstrasse, with a few outriders from a Balkan regiment in glorious uniforms, "the best-dressed army in the world", according to the acidic Karl Kraus, off to open a building or a ball with his companion Mrs Schratt. This is a city clogged with decorations, insignia and titles, and the Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, King of Lombardy-Venetia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Illyria, Grand Duke of Tuscany, King of Jerusalem and Duke of Auschwitz, with his chestful of medals and ribbons, is the index. He spans a geography and an era.

Vienna is a city of microscopic attention to details. In this year Adolf Loos is agonising over the design of a salt cellar, Kraus anatomising the wording of an advert in Die Neue Freie Presse and Freud focusing on the slip of the tongue. Condensing and editing down the world into the essential is a common discussion. For the poet Altenberg it is a passion: "I would like to describe a person in one sentence – the experience of a person's soul on one page, a landscape with one word." How are you going to represent yourself when every choice of medium, of scale, of dress and posture, of background and foreground, of how you hold yourself in the world, is going to be noticed? Portrait is revelation and this city is unforgiving in its analysis, its obsessive decoding of what is being revealed and what withheld. Where are you placed in Klimt's portrait of the closing of the Burgtheater, or Theodor Zasche's portrait of the Corso, the ritualised stroll along the Ring to scrutinise who is who and who they know? Writers, artists, the Mayor, courtesans in full flow. Everyone knows who Freud's patients are, who the characters in Strauss and Hofmannsthal's Der Rosenkavalier are based upon. And every single day the feuilleton printed in the papers contains some baroque riff on Viennese characters – the seller of fruit in the market or a coffee house bore expounding on the political situation, some portrait of a passionate young man and his love affairs. If you live in Vienna in 1900 you see, read and hear the portrait.

If you haven't inherited a corridor of ancestral portraits, what do you do to show Viennese society who you are? The possession of all those ancestors indicates belonging, a trajectory that demonstrates that you know this city is yours. But what if you are newly rich, newly arrived, Jewish, a woman? One simple strategy adopted by my own newly rich, newly arrived Jewish family, the Ephrussi from Odessa – deeply anxious to be seen as Viennese as quickly as possible – was to commission portraits from the two principal portraitists to the establishment. They built a Palais by the right architect, furnished it in the French manner, gilded and painted the ceilings – and then bought the portraits. Hans Makart was the theatrical showman of Viennese art, the stager of the spectacular procession to celebrate the opening of the Ringstrasse, an artist who understood how to deploy the full panoply of Renaissance references to elevate arriviste Viennese to the heights of the Medicis.

And Heinrich von Angeli, it is said, was possessed of such charm that he could be found in the corridors of Windsor or the Schönbrunn. These ennobled artists were calling cards. I look at the picture of my great-great grandmother by Angeli and realise that his facility with a rope of pearls – like his ease with the Emperor's uniforms – was central to his success. He made the details work hard, knowing how much the fur stole, the tiara, the chivalric order of some Balkan kingdom would matter.

Though it is possible to regard Vienna as a series of polarised camps – Kraus's famous "testing-station for the end of the world" – this is too easy a way of understanding this complex city. Of course, there are the households where everything starts again, like that of the Gallias, with their portrait of Hermine by Klimt and their fierce white furniture to perch on by the fashionable Josef Hoffmann. But even in these households of self-conscious modernity, old family portraits might be hung nearby, radical drama playing out under the whiskers of the Gründerzeit Viennese. Tumult happens, the exhibitions at the Secession are denounced, reviews of poetry are visceral, and there are riots at the premières of music at the Musikverein, but proper meals are still on the table, served by maids at the correct time. Everything is a matter of life or death, but this is Vienna. For there is a theatricality about how you represent yourself in Vienna. When researching a book about my family in Vienna, I was fascinated to discover that alongside the grandeur of their image-making, there was a more complex story. There were photographs of dressing-up – the handsome young poet Hofmannsthal and my great-grandmother Emmy as a teenager dressed up as Renaissance Venetians at a wedding masque.

And a series of photographs of a weekend party around 1904 where all the girls, all Jewish cousins, had been photographed dressed up as characters from Old Master paintings. Emmy is Titian's Isabella d'Este, while other cousins are pretty Chardin and Pieter de Hooch servant girls.

This is young girls choosing how they want to be portrayed, playing as in a masquerade with their own self-image, refracting themselves into pictures on their own terms. And there is a series of 12 portraits of family and friends – more enigmatic but with a similar energy – contained in a very soft white suede folio with silk ribbon ties. The cover bears the dates 1878 and 1903 in Secessionist type, and each card is illuminated in pen and ink, edged with silver, each with its own carefully designed frame in a Secessionist pattern, each with a cryptic quatrain in German, Latin or English, part of a poem or a snatch of song. One drawing shows an uncle reading Die Neue Freie Presse, another a cousin on the skating rink, another of Emmy dancing at a ball. These are Viennese portraits that stage moments of life and character as a game of charades, a private staging for a family of jokes and anecdote rather than public role-playing.

This book explores the ways in which the creation of images in Vienna intertwines with patronage, politics and the creation of taste. Spending time with these pictures, of artists' friends or their families, of themselves, of young couples and of lovers and rivals on their deathbeds, I think of this fissile city in 1900. So many of these new portraits take away the props and backgrounds that so exactly indicated the societal position of the previous generation. There is a bareness to the way in which these Viennese people stand and sit against nothing that reminds me of how Loos described autopsy – "the evisceration of flesh to see what is beneath". And in this moment when there is a radical unwrapping of clothes, an unpinning of hair, a casting aside of jewellery and insignia to reveal the new and the modern and the honest man and woman of the present day, I see a delight in theatre that is thoroughly old-fashioned and one that the old Emperor would understand.

Facing the Modern: the Portrait in Vienna 1900, National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) 9 October to 12 January with an accompanying catalogue published by the National Gallery Company

Edmund de Waal's 'The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance' is published by Vintage

Poignant pictures of the painters who suffered for their art

Arnold Schoenberg, the innovative composer you either admire or loathe for his atonal music and 12-tone technique, was also an artist, one of Vienna's interesting artists, though a commercial failure. This National Gallery exhibition will be the first in Britain to take him seriously as a portrait painter, according to its curator Gemma Blackshaw. His deliberately naive paintings will feature in the show alongside the much better known ones of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele (though both of those are woefully under-represented in British collections).

Those going to the exhibition will see the distorted forms in Schiele's paintings, the bleak views of fertility, with one painting of a child gnawing at his mother, his emaciated self-portraits, often distorted, sometimes with no hands or feet, anguished and suffering. Visitors will also note the way that one of the key portraitist of the era, Hans Makart, was popular with women as he painted the rising middle-class females as aristocrats in regal red and aristocratic clothing, and visitors will note too the large number of women from the newly emancipated Jewish community who sat for Klimt.

With Klimt's portraits you sense the absolute presence, tension of the sitters, the sense of anxiety of being the object of the artist's gaze. Vienna in the late 19th century with its population explosion from its vast empire was the most multi-cultural city in Europe, a melting pot of Catholics, Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Most works are on canvas, though visitors will also see drawings and the haunting death masks of Gustav Klimt (1918); Ludwig van Beethoven (1827), Egon Schiele (1918) and Gustav Mahler (1911). The period covered by the exhibtiion, 1867-1918, began with liberal and democratic reform, urban and economic renewal, and religious and ethnic tolerance, but ended with the rise of nationalist and anti-Semitic mass movements. Such dramatic changes had a profound impact on the composition and confidence of Vienna's middle classes, many of them immigrants with Jewish roots or connections. Portraits were the means by which the new Viennese declared its status and sense of belonging; But, as Ms Blackshaw emphasises in her choice of paintings, portraits also increasingly expressed their anxiety and alienation.

However, the most poignant human stories in this exhibition are not of the sitters, they are of the artists. Schoenberg shared his studio with Richard Gerstl and had an affair with Schoenberg's wife, Mathilde. When she ended the affair he committed suicide, a few weeks after painting his 1908 Nude Self-Portrait with Palette. This painting, which will be in the exhibition, is progressive and experimental and conveys the artist's anguish. He is naked, paintbrush in hand. Swirls of paint depict the agitation and sexual energy. Schoenberg, incidentally, knew of the affair and was distraught.

Schiele depicted himself in his self-portraits as suffering in his art, and his life ended early. His wife, Edith, died in 1918 of the Spanish Flu epidemic. She was six months pregnant with their first child. Three days later, Schiele, who had also succumbed to the flu epidemic, died. One of the most intriguing and disturbing artists of his time, he was just 28.

David Lister