The Neue Galerie is currently inviting its visitors to recline on Sigmund Freud's couch - or so it seems. A Persian rug is draped over it, spilling heavily onto the floor, and behind it rests a portrait of the revolutionary gentleman himself. Peer down at the label adjacent to the couch, however, and you may be disappointed to discover that it is all a reconstruction (the rug comes courtesy of a downtown furniture outlet). But we should forgive this curatorial liberty: isn't the authentic Freudian experience - the duel with inner demons, the balancing of Ego and Id, the so-called talking cure - ultimately, all in the mind?
This is the conundrum that enlivens and frustrates in the Neue Galerie's latest show, "Vienna 1900." The exhibition brings forward works from the gallery's own fine collections and unites them with some impressive loans, to explore how the art of the period revealed the emergence of the modern individual, the modern woman and modern man. But what we come to realize from the show - and from a session on the couch - is that the good doctor's ideas didn't so easily translate into art. Theories of the subconscious weren't so simple to render using the tools available to the period's artists.
Take that portrait of Freud perched behind the couch. It's humdrum academic work by one Max Oppenheimer. It likely pleased the doctor, who was conservative in matters of taste, but it does little to suggest the revolution in modern thought that he had unleashed. The problem lies with the traditional portrait format that had been inherited by the generation of artists that flourished in Vienna at the turn of the century. An old-fashioned portrait places head on shoulders, and hence, and in ways we're inclined to miss, it glues mind to body. Look, it says, we're noble and rational, our head rules our heart. Yet it was Freud's purpose to demonstrate precisely the opposite. So it is that even the portraits by Egon Schiele - long considered the paragon of period torment - don't capture Freud's revolution, because ultimately they are still founded on the traditional head and shoulders portrait. Take Schiele's Portrait of the Painter Karl Zakovsek (1910): the figure seems unhappy, but not quite mad. Only his Man and Woman (1914) comes closer to horror, the man resembling a desiccated grey pupa as he lies next to his lover. One of the few portraits in the show that truly succeeds in unsettling is Richard Gerstl's Laughing Self-Portrait (1908), and it does so because Gerstl realized that merely appearing unhappy was never quite going to evoke the man-on-the-brink, so a subtler strategy was demanded.
Part of the problem facing Vienna's modernists was the need to bridge the city's private and public worlds. Painting is - or was, for most of its history - a public medium, the means through which the powerful communicated their power. How, then, to account for the revolution in private morality that was then sweeping through Vienna's bedrooms? That dilemma is set forth, entertainingly, in the second and third galleries of the exhibition. First we meet staid, old-fashioned portraits of virtuous ladies, such as Hanna Klinkosch (1875), by Hans Markart. Then, under more subdued lighting, we encounter some of the extraordinary pornographic drawings that Gustav Klimt produced. The exhibition's curators have given those drawings a fresh and arresting context by placing them alongside a few of the charmingly farcical "pornographic" films that were produced in Vienna, between 1906-10, by a shady production company called the Saturn Group. It is said that Saturn had gentlemen throughout Europe very hot under the collar - at least until Austrian authorities decided they were bringing shame on the nation and closed them down.
From here, the exhibition unfortunately begins to unravel in confusion. Alongside identity, style is the show's other key concern, and it explores this through displays of decorative art by designers and architects like Otto Wagner, Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos. It's true that you only have to look at one of the show's more sublimely floral portraits by Klimt - a picture such as Hope II (Vision) (1907-8) - to realize that our sense of self is somehow disturbed and enlivened by sheer decoration. Pattern doesn't merely embellish, it speaks to us. But how so, exactly? It's a torturous problem to explore in so short a space as the curators have to unfold their ideas, and ultimately the message gets lost. The saving grace is that in offering a hint of this connection between the modern self and modern design, the curators point to an undiscovered country, and as we should have learned from a session on the couch, the mind is precisely that - a place we can ever hope to chart.
Article written by Morgan Falconer