This Sunday, fellow blogger Nadia and I went to the Neue Galerie in Manhattan to check out “Vienna 1900: Style and Identity,” an examination of how the city shaped and defined modernity in the turn of the 20th century. Vienna was a center of medical and psychiatric innovation — Freud was from there — and the paintings from this period reveal an obsession with the human body and with peeling away the physical layers in order to capture the psyche or soul of the individual.
Feminism made great strides during this time in Vienna as well. By the 1890s women were entering the workforce; by 1897 girls were going to university; and in 1900 women were beginning to work as doctors and earning faculty positions at hospitals and schools.
One room of the exhibition is devoted to woman’s liberation during this time, and you can see the evolution of their role in Viennese society through the clothes they wear in their portraits. The earliest painting is an 1875 portrait of Hanna Klinkosch by Hans Makart, the society painter of late 19th century Vienna. Klinkosch wears a pink ruffled, corseted, laced, floral confection — complete with a pearl choker and dainty flowers in her hair. Makart’s protege Gustav Klimt preferred a different type of woman: the intellectual, sexually liberated bohemian. His muses eschewed the corset and wore loose, draped, colorful dresses — indeed, his long-time companion of 20 years, Emilie Floge, was a reform dress designer. (Klimt himself wore long chemises and capes similar to Floge’s; the floral cape in his portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt above was from his own extensive collection from Asia.)
All ornamentation and artifice is stripped from the younger Oskar Kokoschka’s paintings — dubbed “extreme portraits” for their psychological probing — of working women. Their clothes are austere: prim blouses or dresses with pointed collars and pussy bows. Their expressions are somber.
But it is Egon Schiele’s portrait of his sister Gerti looks the most shockingly modern. Her body — angular, boyish — is so different from that of the S-shaped society women in Makart’s paintings, and even the sensual, Earth Mother bohemians of Klimt’s. She is wearing a short, burlap-colored dress, sleeveless, asymmetrical, with a coat casually draped over it.
*The images here are all featured in the exhibition “Vienna 1900: Style and Identity,” with the exception of the two Makarts (from the Salzburger and the Wein museums). “Lotte Franzos” image courtesy of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. “Portrait of Gerti Schiele” courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art.