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Postcards from Vienna

What Modernism looked like at the dawn of Modern Times.

May 9, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 32 • By EVE TUSHNET
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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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