National Gallery, London
The National Gallery's frustratingingly chaotic survey of the portrait in Vienna is most alive when it's depicting death
Facing the Modern opens with a coup – Beethoven's death mask looming out of the gloom in all its brutal beauty. The forehead is fearsome, the mouth powerful and peremptory. Dust has settled into shadows beneath the enormous eyes. It is only an impression of death, only a competent plaster cast, yet it bristles with sheer force of personality.
How does character register in a face (if indeed it does)? What did artists make of Beethoven that his death mask cannot, for all its anatomical truth? Why is this object here at all, in a survey of The Portrait in Vienna 1900? Beethoven died in 1827. His death mask, however expressive, can hardly be described as a portrait. This is an ominous start.
Facing the Modern is a confused and ill-assembled show. It begins knee-deep in the past with Viennese hostesses in wasp-waisted bustles, Schubert evenings beneath the Ringstrasse chandeliers and the intimidating scowl of Emperor Franz I in 1832. The justification is the partial restaging of a 1905 exhibition of early 19th-century portraits that supposedly convinced the moneyed Viennese that the art of their own times – nervous, thin-skinned, agitated, avant-garde – had its roots firmly in the past (which is also the argument of the current show).
In fact the opposite seems everywhere apparent. These old images of rich patrons in pince-nez and ladies stout on Sachertorte, their expensive furs so oleaginously depicted by society portraitists such as Hans Makart, seem entirely remote from the eroticised art of Egon Schiele, still less the tortured self-portraits of Richard Gerstl, of which there are precious few.
Indeed one never quite escapes the sense that this heavy brown stodge is padding out the show from first to last (Makart is still there in the final gallery, coming on like an old master opposite some of Oskar Kokoschka's wildest works) like the stuffing in a Biedermeier sofa.
Still there is an incidental value to this constant swithering back and forth between the centuries, which is the jolt of coming upon a great work among the weak – Schiele's The Family, a trio of bare forked animals in a cavernous dark space: father, mother, child, as they might be at the end of the world – or a radically modern painting that defies all tradition.
Kokoschka's 1909 portrait of the art historians Hans Tietze and Erica Tietze-Conrat still comes as a shock today, with its hysterical tension and irradiated hues. His hands are blood red, outstretched like burning objects before him. She is numb, her eyes barely focused. How was it possible for someone to paint like this, at this time, in this city, and still be so popular with the middle classes?
In fact the Tietzes kept the painting from public view until 1939, when they fled from the Nazis. Kokoschka's patrons did not always love their portraits, which were so often made in the artist's own image, any more than the Viennese critics who denounced his paintings as plague sores.
But Kokoschka was never censored in Austria, unlike Schiele, who was briefly imprisoned, and he had no small success in a city he was so desperate to shock. Kokoschka would eventually paint the mayor.
Anyone expecting glittering Klimt and unexpurgated Schiele (and why not, given the time span of this show from 1832 to 1918 will be disappointed. This may be the Vienna of Sigmund Freud but there is no place for sex anywhere in the exhibition, and the very few Schiele portraits are both clothed and tame.
Nor is this the Klimt of gilded excess, weird, overloaded, morbid and occasionally tender, with all the whiplash nervousness of art nouveau. Instead this is the artist in his Singer Sargent phase, producing efficient society portraits such as the Lady in Black (so redolent of Sargent's far more daring Madame X in her tight black sheath dress) or Whistlerian women in white.
Still, there are two tremendous Klimts on show. One is a tiny image of a girl in a copious frilled dress, sharp a daguerreotype, so modern in its hyper-clarity and yet showing the world in sepia. Or is that the colour of fin-de-siècle Vienna? She sits in the brown fug of an overheated salon, a young life trapped and preserved in miniature.
Klimt died of a stroke before finishing the picture; his lopsided death mask is also in this show. Zuckerkandl did not escape the Nazis. She was murdered in a concentration camp in 1942.
The strongest section of this show by far is devoted to death and contains other astonishing masks of artists and composers, as if this morbid craft had reached its peak in the last days of imperial Vienna. But most poignant of all is Schiele's sketch of his young wife, six months pregnant, dying of Spanish flu in October 1918. The pencil carries the febrile trace of death inch by inch across her beautiful face; as the pulse slows, the features sink and the eyes lose their brilliant vitality. The terrible swiftness of this contagion is apparent from the few strands of loose hair caught on her moist brow: the rest is still just as she must have pinned it up so neatly only hours before. Schiele himself would be dead in three days.
That such works are in London at all is the triumph of this exhibition; so it is particularly sad to find the achievement undermined at every turn. The hanging lacks all sympathy: portraits lumped together in job lots by gender, clashing styles and sensibilities, chaotic chronology, a terrible proportion of duds. There are paintings here of such mediocrity one can hardly believe they are on show in the National Gallery.
The pictures in Facing the Modern are treated like slides to a lecture – instances of this, illustrations of that, examples, counter-examples, and never mind the quality; yet this lecture is much too dense to convey in wall texts. You will find it in the catalogue, buried deep beneath a dead mass of sociocultural theory about the staging of identities, the contesting of boundaries and the transfer of cultural capital, relieved only by Edmund de Waal's beautiful introductory essay.
But the ultimate value of a lecture that puts as much emphasis on the patrons as the artists is not obvious in any case, and this is the besetting problem with the exhibition itself. It is as interested (or only as interested) in Kokoschka's neurotic portraits because they were commissioned by Jewish intellectuals intent on allying themselves with modernism as it is in the schmaltzy old master pastiches commissioned by 19th-century bankers to raise them a notch in Viennese society.
This is one approach to portraiture, to be sure, but its limits are exposed in a show that has no discernible interest in portraits as works of art.