The City Of “Joyful Apocalypse”

Andrew Butterfield strolls through the National Gallery’s exhibit Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900, reporting that the show “offers a strong sense of the melancholy, the introspection, and the desperation that were characteristic of Vienna in that era”:

The first items in the show are Beethoven’s death mask and a post mortem painting of his hands Egon_Schiele_050turning grey and blue, and among other pictures in the room is von Amerling’s painting of his wife on her death bed (1843). Even the one seemingly triumphant picture here, von Amerling’s large and resplendent portrait of Cäcilie Freiin von Eskeles (1832), although depicting her dressed in luxurious clothing and posed in front of a red velvet curtain like a Baroque princess, emphasizes the keen sorrow of her gaze. Despite her wealth and status, like nearly everyone else in the room, she is shown alone with her sad thoughts.

The theme of painful solitude was everywhere in the culture of the city at the time. Indeed, the catalog of the 1905 exhibition spoke of today’s “isolating times”; and just two years later in his book, Vienna, Herman Bahr, referring both to artists of the past such as Beethoven and Waldmüller, and of the present such as Mahler and Klimt, wrote, “Real people are always kept in a cage of immense loneliness [in Vienna].” …

The most powerful image of dematerialization in the entire show is Egon Schiele’s haunting picture of his wife Edith, expiring from the Spanish Flu. Drawn in loose lingering lines of charcoal, she is turning to wisps of smoke right in front of you. Only her sad and penetrating eyes remain fixed in the slowly spinning cloud of disappearance. Schiele himself died of the flu three days later, on October 31, 1918—Halloween—the same day that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved. Halloween is an apt terminus of the show, for in a sense the entire exhibition is a danse macabre that begins with the Funeral March of Beethoven’s Third Symphony and ends with Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. The somber music reaches its devastating climax in a gallery that includes not only Schiele’s image of his wife, but also Klimt’s drawing of his dead infant, and a posthumous portrait by Gyula Benczur of the beautiful but insane Empress Elisabeth, who was assassinated by an anarchist in 1898.

(Image: “Die Mutter” by Egon Schiele via Wikimedia Commons)