We all think we know about art in Vienna in the decades immediately before the First World War. Politics: a rickety, arthritic empire waiting to be tipped by a great war into fragmentation and instability. Society: migration and moral uncertainty, inducing neurosis on a viral scale and driving its more affluent victims to recall their violent dreams and troubled childhoods on Uncle Sigmund’s couch. And art: a radical break with the suffocating academic traditions of the past, the Parisian modernist revolution co-opted to explore the dark reaches of the Germanic soul.
‘Facing the modern’ is a tutor-led, curator-as-king exhibition. It’s certainly a show with a thesis – one that swallows whole the stereotypes I’ve just outlined and adds a few more. Chronologically it starts not with 1900 but in 1867, when the Dual Monarchy began, to fit the theory that art styles faithfully reflected a shift from political liberalism and a toleration of minorities and immigrants to conservatism, antisemitism and nationalism. Unfortunately this means that we have to endure dozens of tedious portraits of middle class subjects by academic artists like Hans Makart, for whose talents the curators make excessive claims. (There are one or two exceptions to the middle class rule, including a startling high-domed portrait of Emperor Franz I, who looks seriously unhinged.) The result is that we don’t see enough of the really interesting Vienna artists of the early 20th century.
The other irritating aspect of the curation is its teleology. The artists, as well as ourselves, are apparently aware of the cataclysm to come in 1914-18 and beyond, and like financial speculators have already ‘discounted’ it in their work. A painting that stands as the culmination of the exhibition is Gustav Klimt’s unfinished portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, a society beauty who, we’re told, ended her life in Terezin. The fact that the picture’s unfinished – only the head and shoulders are fully painted, the voluptuous dress still awaits the application of Klimt’s oily gold and jewels – seems to be explained by the artist’s foreknowledge of his sitter’s awful fate, rather than his own illness and impending death. A whole room is given over to death and the artists – as if destruction of a society was inevitable, rather than because early death was as common in 1900-14 as it had been in all preceding history.
As Laura Cumming notes in her review, the curators seem to be interested in politics, sociology, anthropology – almost everything except art. What’s really fascinating, though, is exactly the art: the revolutionary art, not so much of Klimt as of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and other, lesser known artists who were just as radical.
Three examples. Schiele’s ‘Self portrait with raised bare shoulder’ (1912) could almost stand as the epitome of the new, bared portrait. Schiele crams his angular face into the upper right hand corner. His face, equipped with elongated eyebrow, huge eyes and red lips, yelps in surprise and pain. If the title didn’t tell us we’d never guess that the shape in the foreground is the artist’s shoulder: it’s a gristled mass of undifferentiated flesh not unlike Francis Bacon’s live human meat on canvas.
The focal point of a more restrained work by Schiele of around the same time, ‘Portrait of Erich Lederer’ (1912-13) is Erich’s skeletal hand, splayed across his hip: its enlarged size and contorted shape undermine the apparent calmness of the subject’s face.
Hands are even more prominent in Kokoschka’s ‘Portrait of Hans and Erica Tietze-Conrat’ (1909). Hans looks as if he’s just unmasked himself as a murderer. His hands appear to be steeped in the reddest of blood. He gazes at them as if stunned, while his wife, a Lady Macbeth with a dreamy look on her face, performs her own, paler hand-dance. Both are set against a swirling red background, scored with strange markings, which threatens to engulf them. No wonder Hans and Erica kept this painting from view: it is a truly violent, brutal work, and certainly not ‘OK’ (Kokoschka’s assertive monogram in the bottom right corner).
What a pity the curators make little attempt to explain the artistic processes that led to these astonishing works and others like them. But at least we should be grateful to them for introducing us to Viennese artists barely if at all known in this country, including women painters.
Broncia Koller’s ‘Nude portrait of Marietta’ (1907) is a spare portrait, completely lacking in angst or voyeurism and using a restrained range of colours, with the exception of the ‘golden square’ (a Klimtian survival) used to frame Marietta’s head. Another intriguing painting shows her daughter Silvia bending over a birdcage, which made me think immediately of the work of Shani Rhys James and her ‘cot paintings’.
And then there’s the work of Richard Gerstl. He killed himself in 1908 after Mathilde, the wife of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he was having an affair, decided to return to her husband. His work is uneven but always striking. It includes a huge and wildly frank nude self-portrait, and a large painting of the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, in an unrestrained impressionist-on-steroids style (on its reverse is a self-portrait, the face defaced before the painting was abandoned).
Schoenberg, incidentally, was a self-taught painter, eager to practice in the new style, and the show includes a self-portrait: not a particularly accomplished work, but notable for its lurid colouring and the absence of one ear (an odd tribute to Van Gogh?).
In many ways it’s a relief to turn to the exhibition on the Brazilian artist Mira Schendel – partly because her works (though not her life) operate at a lower artistic temperature, and partly because the curator, Tania Barson, has stepped aside to let the works and their (fascinating) development speak for themselves: there is commentary, but no ‘thesis’.
Mira Schendel (1919-88) (she was always known as ‘Mira’) had lived a full and turbulent life long before she turned to art as a career in Brazil in the 1950s. She was born into a Jewish family in Zurich but grew up in Milan. Her mother married the librarian of the Bibliotheca Nazionale Braidense in Milan: access to the latter may have helped her nurture an abiding interest in literature and philosophy. Under fascism she was forced to abandon her university philosophy course and found herself stripped of Italian nationality. As an ‘undocumented’ refugee she fled through Europe and eventually made her home in Brazil (she lived in São Paulo from 1953).
Her early paintings, from the 1950s, are like abstract versions of Giorgio Morandi’s bottles: they use the same restricted range of colour and hold their elements in the same subtle balance. Shapes are simple, geometric and elemental, often contrasting ‘being’ and ‘not-being’. But from the beginning the nature of the paint and the texture of the surface were clearly important to Mira (‘I would never make a completely smooth painting’) – one reason why the (very expensive) book that accompanies the exhibition looks so dull and conveys so little of the essence of her work. So far so unexceptional: but one of the features of Mira’s career was her continual search for new forms, new media and new ideas.
Soon the paintings welcome a new feature, later to become a trademark: words and letters, often in multilingual combinations. A single startling red rectangle is mounted by a three letter black word, ‘sim’ (in Portuguese, ‘yes’). A rough pink blob painted on white is labelled ‘que beleza’ (‘how cool!’). One of the two paintings called ‘The return of Achilles’ (1964) combines a quotation in English from John Henry Newman’s Apologia with shield, spear and table-like shape (tent?) to pinpoint the critical moment in the Iliad when Achilles returns to the field of battle to avenge the death of Patroclus – when ‘non-being’ (Patroclus had been wearing Achilles’ armour when he died) becomes being (‘I am back!’).
Mira finds a new voice, possibly influenced by Chinese calligraphy (she was as interested in eastern as well as western thought) in works made on handmade, and often very thin, paper. Sometimes the wet paper absorbs and blurs the simple black or red marks left on it. Often the back of the paper is as important as its front. A sheet with nothing but the word ‘ZEIT’ (‘time’) inscribed near its head, has the tail of the ‘T’ extended to the very bottom of the page.
Later this interest leads to the diaphanous works Schendel is best known for, transparency being an analogue for the nature of human consciousness and time. The outstanding work, with a room to itself, is ‘Still waves of probability’ (1969). Hundreds of densely spaced transparent fibres, arranged in the shape of a large virtual cuboid, descend vertically and ‘bounce’ gently off the floor like curls of hair, accompanied by an inscription from The Book of Kings (‘and, behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake’). Visitors you can see standing on the other of this graceful acrylic waterfall appear only as faint blurs. Mira said of this work, ‘the theme is predominantly the visibility of the invisible, that is, of things that are in action, but without our being able to see them, such as the laws of physics or spiritual processes’.
A slightly earlier series called ‘Graphic objects’ (1968) suspends letters in transparent acrylic laminates – plaques and disks – viewable from front and back (‘anti-texts’): ‘an attempt’, said Mira, ‘to bring about drawing through transparency – in other words, to avoid back and front. There was a … philosophical problem behind all that’. The letters float, clump, kick and sink – unreadable because rarely joined into sentences or even words. They operate like archaeological evidence of the rudiments of human thought passing through space and time, ready to be given meaning.
Schendel puzzled away at her Catholic inheritance. In a series of sixteen spray-painted drawings, with brief texts from the Psalms, called ‘Homage to God – Father of the West’ (1975) God seems a negative: He repeatedly strikes the picture aslant, violently, in the form of a crude black ‘match’. Ada, Mira’s daughter, said her mother had ‘a fight with religion’. Similarly in ‘Battens’ (1987), the final series she completed, long black wooden laths slash obliquely across the white rectangular surfaces, extending beyond their borders: apparently an echo of the political disorder in Brazil at the time (‘… it looked like we were living in some tropical Weimar’).
This is a wonderful show: the art is contemplative and sometimes forceful, but never shouty. It cooly avoids the demonstrative soul-baring of many of the Vienna painters.
For Mira Schendel there was no such thing as conceptual art, though she’d studied philosophical concepts, especially phenomenology, since her youth and included philosophers like Vilem Flusser and Max Bense among her friends. Her work is a wonderful example of the perfect union, and synchronicity, of concept and artistic expression. It contradicts the common contemporary assumption that it’s the idea, however third rate, that counts, while the execution is both subsequent and subordinate. Her works demand a lot from the spectator, but each object is carefully and, yes, beautifully made, intended to stimulate the eye as well as provoke the mind.