London has many delights to offer all year round, but London at Christmas has a special atmosphere. I’m not talking about the sledgehammer-like advertising campaigns to get people to buy, buy, buy, but rather about the decorations all over the city, mainly festive Christmas trees festooned with many-coloured lights, some of which twinkle while others sparkle, producing a cheerful effect. In the pub where we like to eat ‘the best fish and chips in London,’ as they modestly proclaim, the array of lights at the bar was so intense and hypnotic as they flashed on and off that I was afraid it might cause someone (not me) to have an epileptic fit. Still, to be on the safe side I sat with my back to the bar. But Oxford Street at night, with its myriad lit-up trees and other decorations is a sight to be seen—a true Festival of Lights, which of course reminds us of the pagan origin of all such festivals seeking to erase the dark of winter.
Apart from lights, great theatre and a myriad other attractions, London excels in its art exhibitions, both permanent and temporary. Thus it was that while there for a couple of days we discovered, quite by chance, that the National Gallery was holding a special exhibition, ‘Facing the Modern,’ consisting of portraits painted in fin-de-siècle Vienna. This was exactly what I wanted to see, having the previous week encountered the Vienna-based Centropa organization at the launch of its book containing interviews with Jews from Vienna whose lives had been affected by the Holocaust, ‘Vienna Stories’ (my article on the subject will appear in the AJR Journal later this year).
Many of the portraits in the exhibition depict prosperous Viennese worthies, merchants, businessmen, society ladies and others, but what strikes the viewer is the number of subjects, not to mention painters, who were Jewish. The names of Egon Schiele, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg are among the best-known, but there are many others, among them Richard Gerstl, Isidore Kaufman. Of course, as we all know, there were many Jewish artists, musicians, writers and intellectuals in Vienna at the turn of the century, most prominent among them Schnitzler, Freud, Mahler and Schoenberg. Visitors to the exhibition will be surprised to find that as well as being a radical musician, Schoenberg also painted quite well, and tried to turn his hand at portraiture.
The message that the exhibition seeks to convey is that the traditional imprimatur of social success provided by a painted portrait was adopted by the burgeoning middle class, many of whom were Jews who had succeeded financially after the law restricting the movement of the various national groups within the Hapsburg Empire had been revoked in 1849. This enabled them to move to the capital, where many of them prospered while others sought to fulfil their artistic ambitions. Many of the pictures on show are self portraits, particularly those by Schiele and Gerstl. The latter committed suicide while still a young man, after his affair with the wife of his best friend, Arnold Schoenberg, was discovered. Before killing himself Gerstl painted a portrait of himself in full frontal nudity, as if he were trying to challenge every possible convention simultaneously.
The Secessionist movement of Viennese artists, like that of the Impressionists in Paris, proclaimed to the world its members’ rejection of the conventional painting style that was accepted by the artistic establishment, and sought to establish a new, modern way of representing the world, and the human face and figure in particular. However, according to the brochure accompanying the exhibition, the blossoming of intellectual and artistic life in Vienna all came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War and the subsequent end of the Hapsburg monarchy.