I’ve always thought that the National Gallery could have a better temporary exhibition space – but this time its underground location was less of a weakness and more of a metaphor. For if history tells the breakdown of a liberal and democratic age into one of intolerance and bloodshed, the paintings themselves may rather tell of a death-drive spurting out from underground.
Death is what one sees upon entering the exhibition’s first room: it is Beethoven’s death mask. A witness at the composer’s passing reported it was marked by a peal of thunder. Of course, it was apocalyptic – but still, that was 1827, long before the other works in the room were selected for the Miethke Gallery exhibition recreated in Room 1. But then again, that show was in 1905. Vienna 1900 eluded me in a wink.
Showcasing the Austrian Old Masters and their heroic models, the Miethke Gallery show established a genealogy for the new Viennese middle class. The New needed to set its footing in the Old. Accordingly, the moderns found in Ebyl and Amerling the precedents for their innovative painting – for the Kokoschka and Schiele and Gerstl in Room 2. Nevertheless, the contrast is startling, and it remains so throughout the show. For if traditional paintings are everywhere exhibited next to decidedly modern ones, this is only exhibition, not explanation: the viewer is not shown how the ones derived from the others.
The criteria for grouping paintings in different rooms are just as evanescent. After presenting the New Viennese self-constructed antiquity, the subdivisions become thematic rather than historical, concentrating on themes such as the positive perception of private life, the figure of the artist, love and loss. ‘The Appeal of the Artist’ was surely my favourite. Both Rudolf von Alt’s and Schoenberg’s self-portrait were discoveries by artists I did not know before.
Moreover, I appreciated the emphasis on the fabricated nature of Freud’s ‘tormented human subject,’ an aspect easy to ignore face to so many dramatic suicides. Other rooms however fail to deliver what they promise. Grouping together group scenes and portraits, young siblings and adults, the display ‘The family and The Child’ is too heterogeneous to delve deep into the hidden tensions of idyllic families.
But then, why should one delve? There is here enough experimentation on the painted surface. Both the Amerlings and the Schiele reveal their great mastery, made all the more evocative by the flexible and atmospheric lighting. This is definitely not an exhibition to learn about history, but it may be a good one to learn about looking. For as in Gerstl’s Portrait of Alexander Zemlinsky, the revelation may lay on the surface.
Costanza Beltrami is a BA3 student at the Courtauld.
Facing the Modern is on at the National Gallery until the 12th January.