Towards abstraction

20th century portraits

The short life and career of Austrian Expressionist painter Richard Gerstl (1883-1908) was intimately connected to progressive musical circles in Vienna, in particular, to Arnold Schönberg and his wife Mathilde, who are depicted with their children in this 1907 group portrait. Gertstl applied the paint broadly in thick impasto, to suggest rather than portray in detail, the faces and bodies of the Schönbergs. Gerstl’s involvement with the Schönberg family ended tragically with his suicide, aged just 25.

Gerstl’s education and artistic training were somewhat difficult. Having been expelled from school in Vienna, Gerstl was privately educated by tutors. He then enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts, aged fifteen, studying under the notoriously opinionated Professor Christian Griepenkerl. Gerstl’s rejection of the Vienna Secession and his disdain for artistic pretension infuriated Professor Griepenkerl, who memorably proclaimed, "The way you paint, I piss in the snow!"

Expressionism continued to be an influential art movement throughout the first half of the 20th century, and Joseph Kutter (1894-1941) is probably the most important Luxembourgish artist of that period. In 1927 he was a founder member of the Luxembourg Secession.

The motif of clowns first appeared in Kutter’s work in 1935, after he had witnessed a variety performance in a Luxembourg theatre. His first clown figures have a cheerful character but, from 1936 to 1937, he painted a series of melancholy clowns, expressing his suffering and worry about the state of his health. If you’d like to learn more about Kutter, and see details of a current Kutter retrospective, visit the website of National Museum of History and Art in Luxembourg.

Oskar Schlemmer’s (1888-1943)’s Concentric Group, 1925, takes portraiture in a more abstract direction. It is concerned with organising forms in two and three dimensional space, rather than depicting individual likenesses.

A near-symmetrical cross-shaped figure arrangement is set against a contrapuntal background of two light and two dark rectangles like a giant chessboard. Above the head of the central figure a naked youth can be seen in a gap that opens the plane into an imaginary space. The gestures and gazes of the figures traverse the length, breadth and depth of the composition. After the work had been designated ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis and removed from the Nationalgalerie Berlin in 1937, Concentric Group entered private collections, before its acquisition by the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart in 1950. It remains one of Schlemmer's most enigmatic and important paintings.

The Romanian capital Bucharest was a vibrant centre for avant-garde art in the early 20th century. In his youth, Victor Brauner (1903-66) experimented with a variety of artistic styles and influences, before moving to Paris and aligning himself with the circle of André Breton and the Surrealists.

Brauner’s portrait of the poet Ilarie Voronca, with its angular surface of geometric shapes and strong contrasts in colour, reflects the influence of Cubism, developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque just over a decade earlier. In Brauner’s portrait, the features of Voronca are clearly visible, as in Picasso’s portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler in the Art Institute of Chicago.