In Viennese painting of the early 20th Century, you get a sense of horrors to come

Freud saw culture as a veneer through which destructive forces could break

Share

Can art sometimes sense what is coming? The National Gallery provides an interesting test with its exhibition, Facing the Modern – The Portrait in Vienna 1900. Do these pictures provide intimations of the cataclysm that would soon arrive, a genocidal civil war in Europe? For the whole thing began in Vienna, which was then the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Starting with the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, the conflict would continue with interludes right through the Second World War until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

On 28 June 1914 the heir to the throne of Austro-Hungary and his wife were assassinated in the provincial town of Sarajevo. That was the clap of thunder in the summer sky. The assassins were three 19-year-old Serb youths. Three weeks later the Austro-Hungarian government addressed an ultimatum to Serbia that Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, called “the most formidable document I have ever seen addressed by one state to another that was independent”. From then onwards war was inevitable. The crisis escalated so that on 4 August 1914, Britain declared war on Germany, Austro-Hungary’s chief ally.

But Vienna was an unlikely war-maker. The arts dominated the city. Hardly anywhere else in Europe was so passionately committed to culture. Mahler was the conductor of the Vienna Philharmonic and composed four symphonies between 1901 and 1906. In the same city, Schönberg was to music what Picasso was to painting. Freud, whose address, Berggasse 19, Vienna IX, was to become famous all over the world, was growing in influence.

There was also Ludwig Wittgenstein, the son of a steel magnate and patron of the arts, who was beginning to develop his challenge to traditional philosophical thinking. Viennese painters, too, were in the first league of European art – among them, Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Oscar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Egon Schiele (1890-1918), all well represented in the National Gallery show. As Stefan Zweig noted: “Here the battle raged: about the unconscious, about dreams, about new music, the new way of seeing, the new architecture, the new logic, the new morality.”

So Vienna wasn’t a belligerent place. The writer Robert Musil observed that “ruinous sums of money were spent on the army, but only just enough to secure its position as the second weakest among the great powers.” He also noted that “there was some show of luxury, but by no means in such over-refined ways as the French. People went in for sports, but not as fanatically as the English. The capital, too, was somewhat smaller than all the other biggest cities of the world, but considerably bigger than a mere city.”

In any case, Vienna was to be the victim rather than the victor. It lost its empire in 1918 and languished into being the capital of a rather small German speaking country. But not so minor that it could avoid being annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938.

Zweig, born in Vienna in 1881, who went through all the horrors and died in exile in Brazil in 1942, is the best guide to the period. In his autobiography he wrote of his “unique generation, carrying a heavier burden of fate than almost any other in the course of history”. He said that as an Austrian, a Jew, a writer, a humanist and a pacifist he had always stood “where those volcanic eruptions suffered by our native continent of Europe were at their most violent”. He added: “We have found that we have to agree with Freud, who saw our culture and civilisation as a thin veneer through which the destructive forces of the underworld could break through at any moment.”

Did Vienna’s artists working just before the outbreak of war, sense these destructive forces? Certainly Vienna was more likely to do so than London, Paris and Berlin. It was much more cosmopolitan, the capital of an empire straddled across the middle of Europe rather than one with possessions spread across Africa and Asia. It was a sort of central European union with a common currency.

It contained 11 official nationalities – Germans, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Ruthenians, Poles and Italians. They all demanded more independence, but hardly anyone wanted full separation. As economic growth accelerated in the second half of the 19th century, Vienna grew swiftly. Its middle classes comprised many families with Jewish immigrant backgrounds and connections. Anti-Semitism made its appearance with the election of Karl Lueger as Mayor in 1898.

On show at the National Gallery is Viennese society from the early part of the 19th century to the outbreak of war, plus a few remarkable items from 1918 and 1919. The sitters are, for the most part, well-to-do bourgeoisie and minor nobility. Cäcilie Freiin von Eskeles, painted in 1832 – what the catalogue calls a “salon lady”, married to a banker, a correspondent of Goethe – breathes self-assurance.

Self Portrait with Raised Bared Shoulder (1912) by Egon Schiele

Then there is the pretty Hannah Klinkosch, daughter of a Jewish manufacturer of silverware, posing seductively in 1875, who converted to Catholicism before she married an economist and then, after that was annulled, shot to the top of society by marrying the Prince of Liechtenstein. Of this group of pictures, however, the one that brought me the greatest pleasure is Klimt’s Portrait of a Lady in Black (1894). She stands with one hand resting on a chair, wearing a sophisticated black dress, erect, admittedly plain yet striking. She was born in modest circumstances and married a master baker. It doesn’t sound much, but Klimt gives her a straight-backed elegance.

While there is no sign of trouble ahead in these pictures, by the early years of the 20th century, Kokoschka and Schiele were doing work suffused with anguish. One contemporary observer described Kokoschka’s 1909 picture of the avant-garde poet, Peter Altenberg, as “half coffee- house Jesus, half cab driver of eternity”. Altenberg’s bloody hands, drooping moustache and staring eyes make him a desperate figure. He appears to be saying – rescue me!

Kokoschka’s portrait of the distinguished art historian, Hans Tietze and his wife, Erica, done in the same year, shows Hans talking but Erica not listening. Hans also has what looks like blood on his hands. This same theme of alienation is given its fullest expression two years later in Anton Kolig’s painting of the Schaukal Family. Father is reading, mother is lost in thought and the three children are each self-absorbed. There is no communication.

 

Schiele presents himself as a tortured soul – see his Self Portrait with Raised Bare Shoulder of 1912. He is expecting nothing good to happen. But he provides the most memorable picture in the show. This is his The Family (Self Portrait) painted in 1918 and thus after the storm has begun to rage. Nude and defenceless, the family – father, mother and baby – appears watchful, united for what might come their way. But it was not to be a happy ending. The parents succumbed to Spanish influenza a few months later. Schiele’s last artistic work was Portrait of Edith, dying. She expired on 28 October 1918; he passed away three days later. These two artists, Kokoschka and Schiele, had truly shown in their painting the scale of the disasters to come.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Recruitment Genius: Travel Customer Service and Experience Manager

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing travel comp...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A pack of seagulls squabble over discarded food left on the beach at St Ives on July 28, 2015  

Number of urban seagulls in Britain nearly quadruples: Hide food and avoid chicks to stay in gulls’ good books

Tom Bawden
 

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen