But with the inevitable forward march of progress come new ways of hiding things, and new things to hide.

—Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan:

The Smartest Kid on Earth

The opening photograph of the exhibition book for Birth of the Modern shows the artists of the Vienna Secession movement in 1902. Some sprawl, some stand, and off to the left, Gustav Klimt reigns on a makeshift throne. Klimt is a central figure for this exhibit: His wildly varying approaches to depicting women simultaneously exemplify and complicate the narrative the Neue Galerie wants to tell.

The show thinks it’s telling a story of release from constraint, in which growing equality allows individual identities to flourish. Individual style, rather than societal custom, reigns in modern, turn-of-the-century Vienna. Perhaps the most striking contrast between old and new—and the contrast which most argues for modern self-understanding—is shown by the two examples of women’s fashion. Representing conformity and inequality, there is a wasp-waist corset which must be seen to be believed (photographs don’t do it justice). Representing women’s liberation and individuality, there is a flowing, bell-like dress, elegant yet forgiving to the figure.

As these dresses indicate, the show attempts to bring together many fields of creative effort to show that the birth of a modern identity crossed the boundaries of art and craft, even art and science. Modernism wasn’t just a painters’ movement: It had its own typefaces, its own home furnishings (one room of the exhibit is a sort of parlor divided between more functional and more stylized schools of interior design), its own costumes. Music from the period plays to complete the immersive experience. But the exhibition book also claims that the show will explore the replacement of aristocracy with bourgeoisie; civil equality for Jews, assimilation, and anti-Semitism; and the rise of the industrial proletariat.

This is not really true. No overt signs of said proletariat can be found in the show itself. In fact, explicit politics is notable for its absence, and political art and propaganda are among the few genres not included in the show’s broad embrace. This might actually be one of the show’s strengths. Americans are too much accustomed to viewing late 19th- and early 20th-century German and Austrian history as mere preludes to the Great War or Hitler. By scissoring war and politics out of the picture, the exhibit allows us to view the Vienna modernists with fewer preconceptions.

What the exhibit does suggest is that moderns, like other humans, do not want to be merely individuals. We long for recognition of our unique interior lives, yes; but we also crave stories, iconic figures. We need a symbolic alphabet for our lives. The show submits that, in modernist Vienna, this alphabet was provided primarily by the new field of psychology, by the logic of dreams.

So there are actually three kinds of portrait in Birth of the Modern—and Klimt works in all three genres. The first kind is the one which is most in line with the intended storyline: The (mostly) realist, somewhat stylized and edgy portrait which reveals its subject’s interior life. These portraits trace a genealogy which begins with works like Hans Makart’s “Hanna Klinkosch” (1875). Coy and charming, the traditionally painted Hanna is just starting to remove her gloves, a gesture which promises further revelation without compromising modesty. A bit further down the path from realism and convention, Klimt offers “The Black Feather Hat” (1910). The wearer of this giant, dominating storm cloud of a hat is looking slightly downward and away from the “camera,” like an Edward Hopper lady. She is pensive rather than regal, dissatisfied rather than proud. The painting, including her skin tone, has an unhealthy tinge which makes me think of absinthe, but the overall impression is realistic, neither dream nor nightmare.

Other portraits in this psychological, skewed-realism genre range from more realistic (Max Oppenheimer’s Sigmund Freud, with his penetrating and mistrustful gaze) to uglier and more distorted. Sometimes the stylization, reminiscent of the experimental photography and film of the time, lends an eerie beauty: The hands of Oskar Kokoschka’s “Rudolf Blümner” (1910) look almost like a solarized photo. His “Portrait of Mrs. Karpeles” shows a commanding, cosmopolitan woman, self-possessed and individuated, her wrists crossed at the waist as if to hold something inside.

Most of the portraits, however, are on the ugly and distorted end of the spectrum. While Egon Schiele’s Frankenstein monsters are extreme examples, it’s not as if you’d want to spend too much time alone with the blurry, dissolving figure in Kokoschka’s “Doctor Emma Veronika Sanders.” Schiele’s “Portrait of Dr. Erwin von Graff,” with his face and skeletal hands suffused with the brown and red hues of drying blood, would be at home in Eyes Without a Face.

Klimt’s iconic women could not be more different from these shattered-mirror portraits. These beauties, displayed in a room devoted to images of women and womanhood, are iconic in two senses.

First, they represent something beyond themselves. Like the dream-ballet of Jan Toorop’s “The Sphinx (The Souls Around the Sphinx),” they are freighted with obscure symbolism. “Hope II (Vision)” has her breasts bared as she lifts one hand with the fingers crooked like the set gestures in religious painting; women with their hands raised to their faces seem to drip from the hem of her gown. “Adele Bloch-Bauer I” shows the lady in a golden dress of hieroglyphic eyes.

Second, despite the many Orientalist touches, these paintings look like some Orthodox Christian icons, with gilt or jewel-like clothing framing flesh-toned faces, high stylization in a riot of color. There’s very little religion in Birth of the Modern, but there are these lingering hints, like the last breath of perfume that hangs in a room after the woman has left. And these iconic, beautiful women are the last images we see before we pass into a narrow, darkish room. Klimt is in this room, too. And this room is curated in a strange way—a way which is, perhaps, countercultural now. This is a disturbing room. Along one wall, Egon Schiele tortures himself again and again in his self-portraits. The emaciated bodies and racked limbs are horror-movie inescapable. And on the opposite wall? A line of Klimt sketches, warm and highly realistic with little or no stylization beyond the absence of scenery, depicting women splayed nude or masturbating.

If the narrative of the show is about the liberation of the self, the individual, this eros-and-thanatos room complicates any assessment of that liberation. In this room an individual consciousness warps and fractures: In one triple self-portrait, Schiele depicts himself as choirboy, sketchy ghost, and rouged, off-balance artist simultaneously assessing and shying away from the viewer. And on the opposite wall two humid selves are alone together—the artist and his model—never meeting one another’s eyes, the artist moving pen across paper and the model engrossed in the canvas of her flesh. Neither artist depicts scenery or a broader social or relational context. These selves are released, but solitary.

Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington.

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